Blog: September 2018

Many thanks to Stuart Dove who has shared with us his mother’s family history in this month’s guest blog. Here is Stuart’s piece:

‘Irene Bishop, ‘The Little Refugee’

Following the invasion of Belgium by Germany on 4th August 1914 and the ferocious fighting that ensued, 250,000 refugees fled to this country, the largest influx ever to come to these shores. They escaped by any means they could. A party including my mother, Irene, aged 4 months, her mother, Charlotte Stewart, nuns and others made the hazardous journey on a coal boat. Through contact with one of the families involved my mother learnt about her early life.

On arrival in this country all refugees were accommodated in two large hostels in London before being dispersed throughout the country. My mother and grandmother lived at 88 Bath Street, Hereford before eventually settling in Malvern, along with 500 others. In need of work, my widowed grandmother, whose “husband” had been killed in the battle for Namur, abandoned her daughter in the Link Hostel (local workhouse) attached to Colston Buildings (the refugee hostel) and was never seen again. On learning of the plight of the young baby the Board of Guardians (Social Services of the day) placed her with a Mr and Mrs Bishop who already had a grown up family of six; George Bishop was 68 and his wife Ann 54. Not only did they provide a secure and loving home for my mother but they decided to “adopt” her. An elderly couple doing this was surprising enough, but as the five month old baby was coloured (terminology of the time) it would have been considered most unusual in those days.

For George and Ann Bishop life during and immediately after the Great War couldn’t have been easy. One son had been killed and another was wounded. Two sons decided to leave Malvern to seek employment, two others stayed and their only daughter married and emigrated to Canada. They treated my mother as if they were her natural parents. Perhaps because of mother’s ethnicity she may have been the focus of attention. She remembered Sir Edward Elgar, George Bernard Shaw and Amy Johnson, the pioneer of women’s aviation talking to her; she was affectionately known by some as “The Little Refugee”.

Following the death of Ann Bishop in 1928, my mother remembered saying “My life will never be the same again”. This year also coincided with her leaving school at the age of 14 to train at the domestic training school in Gloucester; later she obtained work in domestic service. When George Bishop died in 1934 she was one of the principal mourners at his funeral. It was at this time she made the conscious decision to change her name from Bishop to her original surname of Stewart preferring to spell it as Stuart. Five years later at the outbreak of World War Two she was still classified as an “Alien” and feared being interned on the Isle of Man; fortunately her former ”social worker” intervened and mum joined the Women’s Voluntary Service.

My mother died in 2010 aged 95 having lived a long, happy and eventful life and was unaware her real mother was born in Herefordshire!

In 2005 I began to research my mother’s family history and this has proved both complex and fascinating. Originally it was thought both my grandparents had been killed but a search of 30,000 Belgian refugee cards at The National Archives showed my grandmother had survived. A DNA test of my mother revealed her father probably came from the former Belgian Congo. In 2011 the archives in Brussels revealed my grandmother was born on 6th October 1890 at Whitney – on – Wye, Herefordshire; she claimed she was a widow and her husband had been killed in the Siege of Namur. To date Charlotte has proved to be an enigma and any attempt to trace her has so far proved unsuccessful.

Stuart Dove’

Photo taken in 1915 of Irene probably wearing a dress made by Ann Bishop (copyright Stuart Dove)