The Family Janssens de Varebeke

The Janssens de Varebeke family were among the Belgian Refugees who came to Rhyl, arriving on the fourth of September 1916. Their record card, held in the National Archives in Kew, lists their movements during their stay in the UK. The family members listed on the record card are Gabrielle and her sister Geneviève.

Gabrielle Marie Josepha was the third child of Bernard Janssens de Varebeke and Maria Thérèse Hye Hoys. She was born in Sint-Niklaas on November 19th, 1889, and died in Melle in November 1956 aged 66.

Geneviève Marie Theodora was the fourth child of Bernard and Marie. She was born in Sint-Niklaas on the 18th of January 1893 and died in Ghent aged 44 in December 1937.

They had one older sister, Magdeleine – it is not clear where Magdeleine was during the war years – and an older brother, Fernand. One article in the family archive has it that Fernand was a volunteer soldier. Both their parents had died before the onset of the war.

The longest the sisters stayed at any address was 233 days – this was at the Refugees’ House in Rhyl.

The town they stayed the longest in is Aberystwyth. They were there a total of 255 days at three different addresses.

They stayed 193 days in London in 3 different houses – one of them they moved to twice! To read about Belgian Refugees in Wimbledon, where Gabrielle & Geneviève stayed for a short while, visit


This is the record card held at Kew:





This map shows their movements from their home address to the UK and lists their various addresses:



The family is of Belgian nobility, having been given the right to bear the name Janssens de Varebeke by Royal Decree in 1912. They were prominent industrialists and politicians in Sint-Niklaas, being pro-Flemish.


The record card also has a pencil-written note which states that “Joseph, wife, 4 children and servant from this address to Belgium 24/3/1919”. The final address for the family in the UK is 164 Church Road, Upper Norwood, South East London. It would be fair to assume that this was the address indicated in the pencil note.
Joseph (Jozef) Janssens de Varebeke was Gabrielle & Geneviève’s uncle (brother to their father Bernard.) He was a highly regarded portrait and religious fresco painter who, stylistically, is considered part of the late gothic revival. One newspaper report that we found discusses a portrait by Joseph of the prominent Liberal politician Sir Charles Swann (MP for Manchester North from 1886 until 1918) being presented to the Manchester Reform Club, and another copy being presented to Sir Charles for his London home.


On this photograph, recently discovered and sent to us by our friend Louis in Belgium is Geneviève, and also her sister Magdeleine and brother Fernand. Also pictured is their uncle Joseph. It was taken on June 9th, 1919, in Ghent, on the occasion of their grandmother’s 80th birthday:



Genevieve MC

This is the mortuary card for Geneviève. It was sent to us by one of her descendants,  Louis de Coninck, who has been a great help as we have researched Gabrielle & Geneviève. 

The front of the card shows a drawing by Joseph:
Genevieve MC2

 And this is the mortuary card for Fernand:



What caused the exodus from Sint-Niklaas?


On October 7th, 1914, Albert I, King of the Belgians and Queen Elisabeth visited the city. They met with the Belgian Army billeted there, and also the City Council and Mayor, Mr. Van Naemen.

His Majesty spent a long time at the top of the Town Hall tower surveying the area towards Antwerp through binoculars. They stayed overnight at Castle Walburg and left very early the following morning.

This early departure of the Royal Family seemed to act as a signal to the population of Sint-Niklaas that they too should leave. It turned out to be a wise move, as the German occupation of the city occurred  just two days later.

The streets were empty, the houses closed and all public services were suspended. Close proximity to the border with neutral Netherlands meant that most of the citizens of Sint-Niklaas headed there.


This postcard shows the Refugees gathering at the Railway Station in Sint-Niklass at the start of the war:



This photo shows two of the houses the Janssens de Varebeke sisters stayed in whilst in Aberystwyth. This small terrace sits just behind the promenade, right next to the Cliff Railway Station. The first house is number 7 – they also stayed at  number 2. A plaque on the wall of number 7 states that it was also lived in (1921 – 1924) by Sir Henry Walford Davies, Master of the King’s Music, and of the music department of Aberystwyth University.  


What more of Belgian Refugees in Aberystwyth? The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard of October 9th, 1914, reports on the arrival of the Refugees into Aberystwyth:



A contingent of Belgian refugees reached Aberystwyth on Saturday evening by the express train from Euston and received a hearty welcome by the inhabitants. The Station precincts were crowded and the visitors were cheered on making their appearance. The majority of them were women and children, some of the children being orphans. It is stated that the adults are distinguished professional teachers, musicians, and painters of a high station in life. They were evidently pleased by the reception. Particular interest was taken in the children who were kissed and fondled by the onlookers as they were taken from the train to the conveyances. The Boy Scouts under the direction of Scoutmaster Phillips assisted in re-moving the luggage to the Queen’s Hotel. In the evening a large crowd of students and townspeople assembled in front of the hotel and the visitors joined in singing the national anthems. On Sunday evening the Rheidol Choir gave a concert at the Queen’s for the entertainment of the Belgians and the singing, particularly of the Belgian National Anthem, was greatly appreciated. Dr. Fleure who accompanied the visitors from London, issued a statement on Monday that the party was not the party for which arrangements had been made. The other party may come later on. As far as possible, those who have offered board and apartments are being considered in allocating the present party, but in view of special circumstances some changes may be necessary in detail. The visitors convey their thanks for the kindness shown to them. There was disappointment that the arrangements made for the reception of the visitors had to be abandoned. Several hostesses were in waiting at the Railway Station to receive the parties allocated to them. It is understood that the maintenance of a large number of the refugees has been undertaken by a generous benefactor well known in Wales. The arrangements in connection with the hospitality offered were decided at a meeting of hostesses held on Friday evening at the Presbyterian schoolroom. The prices were arranged as follows: For every man and boy over fourteen years of age, 14s. per week; for every woman and girl over fourteen years of age, 12s. every boy and girl. 10s. infants, 5s. each. A draw was made for the allocation of the guests. Among those who have interested themselves in the movement are Miss Fewings, Mr. Thomas Jones (secretary of the Welsh Insurance Commissioners). Dr. Fleure, Mr. AV. J. Evans (Llandinam). the Chief Constable, Professor and Mrs. Barbier, Mr. Ernest Jones and Mr. Emile Evans, Brvnteg. When the Belgian editors visited Aberystwyth early in the season and were entertained at the Queen’s Hotel it was not expected that so many of their countrymen would follow so soon under as the result of one of the most terrible devastations of a country in the history of the world.


The Davies Sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret, later of Gregynog, took great interest in the Refugees in Aberystwyth, in particular those artists and musicians who arrived. This article: on the BBC website discusses their philanthropic activities.



The Janssens de Varebeke family is still a very prominent family in Sint-Niklaas today. We’ve recently been in contact with family members there as we try to piece together the story of the two sisters who came here 100 years ago. We will update this page as more information comes to us.


We found evidence of more family members throughout the UK, and have added them to the map above. One interesting article in the newspaper “De Stem Uit België” from July 1915 discusses the baptism of Elizabeth Janssens de Varebeke, in Manchester:

Elizabeth, the daughter of Ludovic Janssens de Varebeke, was baptised using water from the Yser that her uncle Joseph Nobels had brought over in his army canteen. Her Godfather was another uncle, Corporal Nobels, and her Godmother was Miss Casartelli, the sister of the Bishop of Salford. The choir of Carmelites sang “Te Deum” and the baptism was attended by the Belgian Refugee Committee, Mr. Murphy, the Vice-Consul and Lady Maloney. It took place at the Church of the English Martyrs, Alexandra Road.



We also found a memorial to Flying Officer William Paul Janssens de Varebeke, 87706, 235 Squadron., Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, who died in the Second World War in 1942 aged 26

He was the son of Louis Janssens de Varebeke and of Loretta Janssens de Varebeke (nee Kingsley), of Thorpe Bay, Essex and is remembered with honour on Runnymede Memorial.


William 2




Our search for more information about Gabrielle & Geneviève continues, but we should thank some people for their assistance in compiling what we have so far:

Louis de Coninck – he is a member of the Janssens de Varebeke family whose mother Elisabeth (Betty) was born into the family whilst they were Refugees in Walton on Thames on March 26th 1916.
He sent us a lot of genealogical information which kick-started our research.

Leo De Clercq – Leo comes from Sint-Niklaas, and he put us in touch with another family member who we have been writing to…

That person is Gabrielle & Geneviève’s nephew, Jean Jannsens de Varebeke, who is over 80 years old. He is the Vice-President of the “Koninklijke Postzegelvereniging Van Het Land Van Waas” (The Royal Philatelic Society of the Waasland.) Jean told us that his father was living in Arizona at the time of the war, but came home to serve as a volunteer in the Belgian Army. Jean says his sister is the specialist in “family questions” and so he has her on the case to find out more about Gabrielle & Geneviève. Jean’s interest in the First World War led to him curating a section of an exhibition in 2014, which was a selection of postcards sent by soldiers from all parts of Europe during the war entitled “The Soldier as a Human Being in Each Country”.

Jean’s beautifully hand-written letters have been a joy to receive, and we thank him wholeheartedly for his invaluable contribution to our project.

We still have an unanswered question:

In the October 30th edition of “De Stem Uit België” is the notice that a Dr. Janssens is looking for his daughters Isabelle & Rosalie whilst staying at 2 East Parade. We still can’t find them… Can you help?