It’s not knitting: Cambridge women supporting Belgian refugees 1914-18

The Window on the War project at Great St. Mary’s, Cambridge, co-ordinated by History Needs You, focuses on the role of Cambridge women during the First World War. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, it will feature a photographic exhibition, to take place at the Michaelhouse Café, Cambridge, from 12-24 November 2018, and then at the Cambridge Central Library. I’m assisting as co-curator of the exhibition and we are seeking images to display.

Are there Cambridge women in your family who lived through WW1?

Do you have letters, documents or photographs you’d be willing to share?

If so, do please check out the Window on the War website or email info@historyneedsyou.com

My research so far, thanks to a number of leads including Ann Kennedy Smith’s excellent blog, has drawn me to the plight of Belgian refugees and the extraordinary altruistic response, initially of women and of the wider community.

It’s not knitting

In writing about the topic of philanthropy during the First World War, I’m sensitive to the danger of perpetuating the ‘sock knitting’ image of women’s voluntary action. Yes, many did knit, but that was not all they did. Press reports at the time, and indeed, several subsequent accounts are, at the very least, condescending in tone when it comes to the role of women.

As an undergraduate in 1980-83, I studied aspects of nineteenth and early twentieth century altruism and, from a personal perspective, came to venerate women social reformers and activists. Octavia Hill (1838-1912), for example. I may not have agreed with her distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, but Hill did inspire me to pursue an early career in social housing. Which reminds me of another more recent activist I greatly admired (and had the good fortune to meet); the homelessness campaigner Sheila McKechnie (1948-2004).

It is on housing where the initial response to the plight of Belgian refugees provides an interesting case study of private charity involving women during the First World War. Described by Dr Peter Grant as immediate, spontaneous and ‘bottom-up’, Britain’s response to this crisis in 1914 was characterised by a humanity that was (and still is) shared by members of all social classes. (Except, perhaps, Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who wrote privately in 1914 that it was no time for charity and that the Belgians ‘ought to stay there and eat up continental food and occupy German policy attention’.)

In 1914, the London Society for Women’s Suffrage (a branch of Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) carried out the registering of Belgian refugees and facilitated the provision of 150 French and Flemish interpreters.

In 2018, we have of course been commemorating the centenary of women’s suffrage whereby 8.5m British women gained the right to vote. Whilst the non-violent Suffragists and the more militant Suffragettes still had much to campaign for (full suffrage was not gained until 1928), both put aside their crusades in 1914, in order to concentrate on supporting the war effort.

I’m thrilled that in 2018, Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) finally gained the recognition she deserved in Cambridge (and London), although I do wonder if, for Fawcett, the Cambridge City Blue Plaque unveiling would have been somewhat marred with the accompanying re-enactment of Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech, whose militancy was anathema to her.

 

Millicent Fawcett, Suffragist

The overall co-ordination of Britain’s response to the Belgian refugee crisis in 1914 was then taken up by the newly formed War Refugees Committee (WRC), who’s founding members included Lady Lugard and the Hon. Mrs Alfred Lyttleton. Communities across the country stepped up to the plate, as evidenced by the 1,000 letters to the WRC offering accommodation for the refugees, and offers of hospitality for 100,000 people. (The WRC itself quickly became overwhelmed and the Local Government Board took over the legal responsibility for the settlement of the refugees.)

Cambridge responds

Assistance flowed from town and gown. On 1st September 1914, Baroness Eliza von Hügel wrote to the Cambridge Daily News,

‘HOMES FOR BELGIAN REFUGEES

TO THE EDITOR

Sir,– Your readers must already be aware of the terrible misery at present existing in Belgium, and that great efforts are being made all over England to afford shelter as well as sympathy to the women and children of all classes who have been rendered homeless by the outrages of the last few weeks. Many of them are now in London in most desolate plight… I have already secured some premises from various friends in the town, but it would greatly facilitate the work if others, where hearts are moved towards Belgium, would kindly let me know, with the least possible delay, if they are able to help in any way in this urgent work of charity.’

This was the beginning of Cambridge’s Hügel Homes for Belgian Refugees, which ran from 1914 to 1918.

Families cannot be separated

In October 1914, Cambridge received wounded Belgian soldiers and 100 Belgian refugees. All the refugees were expected to be housed temporarily at the Corn Exchange before they were found homes. It was mid-September when von Hügel learned that the refugees would be coming in large families and again writing to the Press, she declared that, ‘practically all the refugees continue to arrive in families which cannot be separated.’

As you may imagine, the phrase ‘cannot be separated’ leapt off the page. One cannot help comparing the treatment of the 1914 Belgian refugees with that of families in ‘modern day’ America, traumatised by the implementation of Trump’s zero tolerance policy towards immigrants. Trump is not the first US President to have families separated at the Border Patrol Processing Centres but his policy of detaining and prosecuting adults is reportedly resulting in many more family separations. The sight of families being broken up and of children being held in chain-link fence enclosures is deeply disturbing, no matter when the photographs were taken.

What would the Baroness have made of this? In her 1919 report on the scheme, Hügel Homes For Belgian Refugees (co-authored with her husband), she observed that it would have been ‘both difficult and unkind’ to break up the large family groups.

In 1914, von Hügel’s friends and the residents of Cambridge rallied round to keep the families together and to provide them with homes, provisions, medical care and education. Mrs Poole undertook to prepare the houses for occupation by the families. Her band of volunteers laboured, ‘early and late as char-women, house-maids, upholsterers and decorators’ and in a very few days put house after house into commission.

It has been suggested that the Cambridge Belgian Relief Committee went to great lengths to be sent only socially acceptable refugees, though Baroness von Hügel did emphasise in her second letter to the Press that the first families will, if possible, be selected from the poorer category (on registration, the refugees were divided into two classes, ‘officielle’ meaning skilled and ‘ouvrière’ meaning non-skilled, possibly echoing remnants of nineteenth century Charity Organisation Society moralism).

The Trumpington Local History Group has published an account of their own local charitable support for a family of Belgian refugees, as reported in the Cambridge Press at the time. In November 1914, a house at 27 Shelford Road was taken and furnished for occupation by a Monsieur Latour and family. ‘Practically all’ the Trumpington residents assisted in some way or other. A French class, hosted by Miss Pemberton at Trumpington Hall, gave Monsieur Latour employment as the instructor. And in March 1915, Mrs J. Collins organised a fundraising concert for the Trumpington Belgian Relief Fund, attended by the Latour family.

Belgian women working at the Belgian munitions factory in London

Over 60,000 Belgians worked in Britain during the First World War. The Belgian women in Cambridge worked as dressmakers, lace makers and as French and Flemish teachers. Some of the unmarried women took posts as resident or daily governesses, nursery governesses, companions or mothers’ helps, as noted in a 1915 Cambridge Town Committee Report.

Abundant with donations of all kinds

Money was raised across Cambridge for the Belgian refugees through weekly and monthly subscriptions (individuals and organisations), events such as an amateur concert in New Chesterton (Mrs White, raising £23 7 0), a children’s French entertainment, a whist drive (Mrs N C Richardson & Mrs W J Collier, raising £14 10 3), school children’s penny collections, the sale of Trinity College Hospital post-cards, a Rose Day, and a church collection box.

In 1919, a full list of subscribers and donors was published in the Press. It is not surprising to see donations from Cambridge firms such as Messrs Heffer & Sons, Sayle & Co, Kings & Harper, Boots, Matthew & Son, Sindall and Eaden Lilley; also, the workmen of the University Press. Individual donors included Miss Darwin, Mrs Fawcett, Lady Jebb, Mrs Eaden Lilley, Mrs Poole and the von Hügels.

A total of £2,534 19s 2d was received and disbursed (the equivalent in today’s value of around £278,000 in 1914, reduced by wartime inflation to around £167,000 in 1918). The monies were spent on various items such as carting and labour, travelling expenses of refugees, children’s education fees and dinners, repairs, house removal expenses, college fees for a boy and holidays.

Cambridge residents and businesses also contributed in-kind with donations of food and clothing, milk, confectionary, coal, toys, and even the loan of motors and bicycles. Doctors, surgeons and dentists undertook to look after the health of the refugees free of charge, and an optician volunteered to supply spectacles. Trade discount was prominent and the Hügel Homes report notes the special assistance provided by Mrs Tanner’s Clothing Depot. Schooling was undertaken by St. Mary’s Convent, assisted by two qualified Flemish school teachers, both resident in the Homes. Over forty children attended classes.

Dwindling support and repatriation

This level of support, however, could not be sustained, in Cambridge and elsewhere. As Grant observes, the issue of the refugees faded later in the war as other causes came to prominence. The von Hügels acknowledged in their 1919 report that the steady flow of support became intermittent and then ceased altogether. At Midsummer 1918, the work of the Hügel Homes for Refugees Committee was brought to a close by the transfer of one family then remaining in their charge, together with the balance of their fund, to the Cambridge Borough Belgian Refugee Committee.

In 1918, many local committees were disbanded across Britain and those that remained became frustrated with the lack of clear information on the national operation to repatriate the refugees. The situation may well have been aggravated by the Local Government Board’s abolition of the WRC on 31st December 1918, touching upon the complex issue of the changing relationship between voluntary action and state aid in Britain. As acknowledged by the Migration Museum Project, the Local Government Board’s role in this crisis was the first time that Government itself had taken policy responsibility for the settlement of refugees.

Within twelve months of the war ending, 90 per cent of the Belgian refugees (around 250,000) had returned home from Britain. There is little to show of their four-year presence.

Legacy

Various explanations of why the Belgians received such a warm welcome in 1914 have been given. Lloyd George described the country’s response to the crisis as a ‘great act of humanity’. More recently, Professor Gary Sheffield is quoted as saying that contact with the refugees acted as a good reminder of why the war was a war worth fighting. And Christophe Declercq of the Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees, is reported as observing they were ‘treated rather like pets’. At least they were not held in cages.

What I’ve tried to do in this post is simply describe something of the Cambridge scenario and in particular, the role of Cambridge women. There are many interesting accounts of how communities across the country supported the Belgian refugees during the First World War, and of the many ways in which the refugees themselves contributed to the war effort whilst in Britain. Again, as pointed out by the Migration Museum Project, by 1916 there were 2,500 local committees of volunteers and there has not been such broad public engagement with migrant reception since then.

The von Hügels ended their 1919 report as follows,

‘Already those days when Belgians thronged the town and Flemish and French were heard spoken in every street, seem remote and dreamlike. Cambridge has regained its normal life, and a few graves of those who died among us in exile remain the only material trace of their reality. With them rest four “petits soldats” who fought the good fight in 1914 and, brought from the Front to England, died of wounds in the First Eastern Hospital. They were buried with military honours, and were followed to their graves, in the Newmarket Road Cemetery, by never to be forgotten, long, straggling processions of maimed, sick, or blinded Belgian and British comrades. R.I.P.’

Was anyone in your family involved with assisting Belgian refugees in Cambridge during the First World War?

If so, I’d love to hear from you – julie@gottahavebooks.co.uk

3 thoughts on “It’s not knitting: Cambridge women supporting Belgian refugees 1914-18

    1. Your kind comments are most appreciated, thank you Ann. It would be wonderful to include an image of Eliza von Hügel in the exhibition, though I understand any portrait is unfortunately proving to be rather elusive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.