Following in the footsteps of our Refugees
It seems most likely that our family of Refugees entered the UK at Folkestone, as the British Government had decided early in August 1914 to use this route rather than the Dieppe – Newhaven option, primarily so that the refugee population would be concentrated in one particular area on arrival. Clearly they were not expecting the sheer volume of Refugees that would pass into the UK – indeed it was suggested that the country could see its way to accommodating only 3,000 Refugees – but Folkestone processed somewhere in the region of 26,000 on one particular day, and in total there were around 250,000 Refugees here in the UK.
We have embarked upon a journey retracing the steps of our refugee family, the De Roovers, to put together some photographs of “Then and Now”.
The Folkestone Historical Society (link) tells us:
“By the 26th of August a War Refugees Committee had been formed, and from that date every single person was required to be medically examined on arrival and a large team of doctors was on hand to perform the task. Soon Refugees were arriving by any means possible, including two who rowed across the channel. A team of interpreters was also on hand.”
This photograph shows some of the Refugees arriving in Folkestone. Many thanks to Alan Taylor of Folkestone Historical Society for allowing us to use it:
In contrast, take a look at this picture of Folkestone Inner Harbour that we snapped in February 2015:
Folkestone is a bustling and popular seaside holiday resort, a favourite with visitors from all over the UK, and a busy fishing town. It’s also a point of entry & exit for the Eurotunnel. We popped over for a day trip to Bruges whilst we were staying in Folkestone – outward on the “Pride of Kent” and back on the “Spirit of France”* via Dover & Calais.
Bruges was strategically important to the German forces during the war, as it was comparatively safe from naval bombardment or coastal raids. A network of canals connected Bruges with the coast at Ostend and Zeebrugge, through which small warships such as destroyers, light cruisers and submarines could travel and find a safe harbour from which to launch raids into the English Channel and along the coasts of southeast England. U-boats could also depart from Bruges at night, cutting a day off the journey to the Western Approaches, more easily avoiding the North Sea Mine Barrage and allowing U-boat captains to gain familiarity with the net and mine defences of the English Channel, through which they had to pass to reach the main battlegrounds of the Atlantic. “Pens” to house the U-Boats were built in the port.
On arrival in Folkestone, those Refugees without the necessary means to provide for themselves were taken to buildings such as the Edward Husband Memorial Hall where they were allowed to bathe, rest, collect clean clothes and prepare for their onward journeys.
In 2014, the Road of Remembrance in Folkestone was finished with the opening of the Archway by Prince Harry. Each one of the millions of fighting men who marched through the town and down to the waiting boats on the harbour on their way to the Western Front between 1914 and 1918 would have gone down “The Slope”, as it was then known.
There are several granite plaques attached to the walls around the arch. One of them is dedicated to the Refugees who came through the town:
“Belgian Refugees fleeing from invasion began to arrive in Folkestone from late August 1914.
Over 100,000 come ashore; many are terror-stricken and destitute. Medical assistance and interpreters are provided, and local people respond immediately to appeals for food, clothing and shelter”.
We visited the exhibition “Your Country Calls” in Folkestone Town Hall, which is fascinating, and this is where we saw the painting “Landing of the Belgian Refugees” by Fredo Franzoni (himself a refugee) which is on display there. Take a look: Landing of the Belgian Refugees
The book “Folkestone during the War, 1914 – 1919” published in 1920 and edited by J. C. Carlisle, states that Folkestone “Represented the Empire” in welcoming the Belgians to the UK, initially into fishermen’s homes where locals gave up their beds and shared their food. By 1919 the number of grants issued to help Belgian Refugees with their living expenses had topped 6,580; the total of meals issued to them was 115,000; and 22,180 had been provided with sleeping accommodation. The total number of Refugees sent onward from Folkestone at the expense of the British Government was 64,500, whilst 44,000 moved on at their own expense.
The book also has a mention of an old lady who we found to be of particular interest to us as we are researching the Refugees who came to Rhyl – it states:
“One white-haired old dame came in carpet slippers, not having been able to secure her boots, in the hurry and panic to escape the Hun.”
We found more evidence of one lady in her slippers in two other publications – we think these are reports from the same aid worker but both these describe the atrocious conditions the Refugees found themselves in having left their homes and made their way through the Netherlands seeking shelter and safety:
Describing conditions at Antwerp, The London Standard of November 25th 1914 reports:
To-day an American Salvation Army worker in a refugee camp told me she had received 1,200 letters in one day soliciting aid. “For God’s sake bring us food and clothes,” was the constant refrain. She adds that the stories of suffering and misery have no end, and that she was positively overwhelmed. Severe weather here the past few days has enormously intensified the burden, and the problem of winter quarters is becoming alarming. The Dutch Government is straining to the utmost its resources, but this cyclone of human suffering requires all the help that can possibly be given, not only to provide bare sustenance, but to guard against wholesale deaths through exposure and disease. Another report to the commission from Rotterdam says:- “I saw at least 1,000 women standing shivering in the snow in Antwerp waiting for food to be given them—all poorly clad. One wore bedroom slippers. In Malines we attempted to give money to the poor under the shadow of the cathedral. Old women and men clawed at our hands ravenously.”
And the Harrisburg (Philadelphia, US) Telegraph of January 9th 1915 reports:
In Antwerp I saw over one thousand poorly clad women, one in bedroom slippers, standing shivering in the snow and slush, waiting for food to be doled out to them, and this under the shadow of a big hotel where well fed well-clad soldiers drank and made merry.
In Malines. under the shadow of the cathedral, its walls caved in, its old stained-glass windows now but ragged remnants of a beauty that can never be replaced, I saw men, women and children gazing disconsolately at the ruins of the houses that once were theirs; poor people who begged something to eat of us as we passed. On the road to Brussels we overtook thousands of refugees tramping dejectedly along, weary and forlorn, returning to villages and towns where there is not now food enough to sustain those who are already there.
And then there is this report in a North Wales newspaper:
Barmouth & County Advertiser, Thursday, October 15th 1914:
“… an old lady made the journey to Rhyl wearing bedroom slippers.”
Whilst we’re sure that many other people found themselves unprepared to flee their homes it seems peculiar that four separate publications would see the need to mention that one old lady out of “at least 1,000 women standing shivering in the snow” was just in her slippers… is the lady mentioned in the Folkestone book our old lady?
The Refugees, once checked by the medics and suitably rested, were sent on to London so that they could be allocated places to stay throughout the UK.
Centres were set up to welcome the Refugees at Earl’s Court and Alexandra Palace:
(The demolition of Earl’s Court started in December 2014 – this area is earmarked for “Comprehensive Regeneration”.)
Alexandra Palace is now one of London’s most famous and versatile entertainment venues, and it was from here that the BBC made their first public television transmissions in 1936, but by May 1915 the palace was no longer used as interim accommodation for the Refugees, but as an internment camp for German and Austrian “aliens”.
From London, our Refugees would have travelled through the beautiful Euston Station – looking nothing like the Euston we know today!
(The station building and arch at Euston were demolished 1961/2 with the new building opening in 1968. It was further extended in the 1970s, and due to extensive but mainly superficial damage caused by an IRA bomb in 1973 was refitted in part again.)
In 1914, the journey from London to Rhyl would involve travelling through Chester just as it does today. At Chester, Richmond House (later Hoole Bank) was a large Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital† and alongside wounded British Servicemen they also looked after Belgian Servicemen. The Belgians recuperating there visited Holywell and Pantasaph (More about that here.)
The journey from London to Chester in 1914 would have taken around 5½ hours, with an additional hour to travel from Chester to Rhyl. Contrast that to the direct Virgin Trains service today taking only 2 hours 41 minutes. Mind you – on some London & North Western Railway services in the 1900s there was a staff typist on board the train who would type up your documents for you while you relaxed – a bit different to today when I had to type up all the notes I’d made myself on the way home!
Rhyl had a beautiful Victorian Railway Station which had opened on May 1st 1848 to welcome the Refugees, and we already know that thousands of our townspeople were lining the streets, eager to meet them. The Railway Station at Rhyl is currently undergoing a £2,500,000 refurbishment which will make it easier to navigate and more accessible and is due to reopen very soon.
On arrival, our Refugees were met by a charabanc provided by the Rhyl & Potteries Motor Company‡, who had their offices at what is now the Corner Café on West Parade. This picture of the office is reproduced here with the kind permission of Mr. Peter Trehearn – and is taken from the point on the promenade where our office now stands:
Number 2 East Parade was donated to house the Refugees. Sadly, it is no longer there. The house was given over by Colonel Thomas Alured Wynne-Edwards of Nant Glyn, Denbigh. Wynne-Edwards formed the 16th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at Llandudno in November 1914, which served in France & Belgium between 1915 and 1918. They were the first unit to enter the village of Obrechies in Northern France after the Germans retreated. Wynne-Edwards was a land agent, agricultural engineer and Lesser Squire of Nant Glyn. In 1911 he is listed as living with his wife Isabel Gertrude at Plas Nant Glyn. He died here in November 1925.
Franc De Roover died in the house at 2 East Parade in February 1915. We know from documents found by Jos Michiels in the Belgian State Archives that Franc’s family made plans to leave for Belgium in July 1915 – we will explore that more later this year. See more here.
At least one member of the Refugee family who stayed in Prestatyn (The Geens Family) settled in the UK, and we have found out a little about them which we will examine further as the year goes on. More about that here.
* P & O’s “The Spirit of France” Click here
† Rhyl’s Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital was on Bedford Street – to see a photograph and read what the wonderful Rhyl History Club have written about it, please click here.
And for even more information, please take a look at Rhyl History Club’s post here.
One of the nurses at Rhyl’s Red Cross Hospital, Sister Florence Hamer-Lewis, was “Brought to the Notice of the Secretary of State for War” for “Valuable Nursing Services rendered in connection with the War”. Florence died on the 23rd of March 1917. Her father was a clergyman and school inspector from Plas Elwy, St. Asaph. In 1915, all five of Florence’s brothers volunteered for active service. George, the eldest, was awarded an OBE in the King’s Birthday Honours List on the 6th of March 1919, when he was Temporary Captain. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre for his service.
For more information about the Red Cross Auxiliary Hospitals click here
‡ The Rhyl & Potteries Motor Company, founded in 1911, was the first company to offer motor-charabanc tours in the area. By 1913 they had 19 different excursions, covering half and full days and travelling throughout North Wales. Prices worked out to be around 1d per mile, and tickets were sold at various outlets in the town.