The Repatriation of the De Roover Family
We know from documents found in the Belgian State Archives that our family of Refugees left for home in July 1915, just months after the death of their father Franc.
There is anecdotal evidence that Rosalie De Roover worked for a while in Manchester. The papers we have show her registered in Rhyl until she moved to London prior to catching the boat home.
We’ve done a little exploring to find out what Rhyl was like as our family left the town, and to see what London was like when they arrived there. We’ve found out about the hotel they stayed in and gained a clear idea about the mood of the times.
Rhyl in 1915
Rhyl in 1915 saw great unrest – in fact there was a riot in town that had been sparked off by an unwise comment from a man on the bridge. The riot involved townspeople and soldiers from nearby Kinmel Camp which resulted in a severe display of aggression towards a resident of the town who was German. Our Refugee family will have lived through this.
The following report was made to the Flintshire Constabulary at the time:
Deputy Chief Constable’s Office,
23rd May 1915.
I beg to report that at 7.45 p.m. on Friday the 21st instant, a man named Arthur Robert Brougham, Piano Tuner, lodging at Pier Cottage, Foryd, Rhyl, and employed by Mr. Wadsworth, Pianofort [sic] Warehouse, Queen Street, Rhyl, was brought to the Police Station by a Military Picquet, No. 19891 Sergeant James Fielding, 15th (Service) Battalion, Welsh Regiment, Rhyl, being in charge. No. 19115 Private Thomas Howard Evans, ‘B’ Coy. 15th (Service) Battalion, Welsh Regiment, stated that Ada Rayner, Toll Bridge House, Foryd, Rhyl, informed him that Arthur Robert Brougham said “It will not be long before Kinmel Park Camp will be blown up”.
The man Brougham was then proceeding in the direction of Rhyl. The Sergeant in charge of the Picquet followed him and questioned him respecting his nationality, and asked him for his name and address. He refused to answer, whereupon he was taken into custody by the Picquet as a suspected person. Brig. General R. H. Dunn, Commanding the 129th Infantry Brigade, Rhyl, was informed per telephone that the man Brougham had been brought to the Police Station by the Military Picquet He ordered him to be detained and examined by a Doctor.
Dr. A. Eyton Lloyd, J.P., Rhyl*, examined the prisoner. The Doctor certified that the prisoner was not insane, but peculiar. A large crowd followed the prisoner when he was brought to the Police Station. The crowd was composed chiefly of soldiers who remained opposite the Police Station until about 9.15 p.m., when they moved in the direction of Queen Street and raided a shop, No. 35 Queen Street, in the occupation of Robert Fassy (German), Alien Register Serial No. 37. The plate glass windows, which were double-fronted, were broken by the soldiers, who carried away all the articles which were exposed in the windows. The articles comprised chiefly of [sic] walking sticks, artificial wigs, hairbrushes, combs, tobacco pouches, cigarette cases, cigars, tobacco, etc., the amount of damage being estimated at about £ 45. Robert Fassy, together with his wife Edith, and two children age 2 years and 6 weeks respectively, were removed to the Police Station for their safety.’
The soldiers raided the Police Station and broke five large panes of glass in the windows, and damaged private property belonging to myself, also property belonging to Acting Sergeant Foulkes, comprising of window curtains, crockery, etc. The amount of damage is estimated at about £ 6.
Several attempts were made by the soldiers to break into the Police Station through the windows, but they were prevented by the Police and Special Constables. All the Police and Special Constables on duty, from myself downwards, whilst protecting the Police Station, were roughly handled and assaulted by the soldiers.
An armed guard in charge of officers arrived at the Police Station, but they were of no use, being powerless.
Brig. General Dunn was informed per telephone, and he arrived at the Police Station about 10.30 p.m. He spoke to the soldiers and ordered them to fall-in in Bodfor Street, after which they were marched to the Promenade and subsequently to their billets.
Robert Fassy and his wife and children proceeded to Victoria Avenue, Rhyl, the same night, to stay with relatives. They are leaving Rhyl for Birmingham tomorrow (Monday).
Arthur Robert Brougham was detained at the Police Station until 5 p.m. on Saturday, 22nd instant, when he was served with an order from the Competant [sic] Military Authority (General Phillips), Colwyn Bay, informing him that he was not to reside in the following Counties, viz: Carnarvonshire [sic], Denbighshire, Flintshire. He was released from custody and escorted to the Railway Station. He left Rhyl by the 5.30 p.m. train, and booked to London.
On Saturday, the 22nd instant, the Magistrates at Rhyl held a Special Meeting at 4 p.m. at the Town Hall, Rhyl. Brig. General Dunn was present. Owing to a large number of the soldiers who took part in the raid on the previous night being drunk at the time, I suggested to the Magistrates on the recommendation of the Chief Constable that the licensed houses at Rhyl be closed at 6 p.m. each day, and the whole of Sundays, commencing on the 22nd instant. Brig. General Dunn approved of the recommendation. The Magistrates made an order for the closing of all licensed houses at Rhyl from 6 p.m. each day, and all day Sundays, commencing from 22nd instant. The license holders were informed, and the houses were closed at 6 p.m. Shortly after the licensed houses were closed, a large number of soldiers assembled in front of the Police Station and threatened to use violence if the licensed houses were not opened. There were no Military Picquets or Military Police near at the time. Brig. General Dunn was informed and he arrived about 7 p.m. and spoke to the soldiers, after which he proceeded to confer with the Magistrates’ Clerk (F. J. Gamlin, Esq.) and S. Perks, Esq., J.P.
Brig. General Dunn arrived at the Police Station at 8 p.m. and announced that on the authority of the Magistrates and himself, the licensed houses would be opened at once until 9 o’clock.
Everything has gone on smoothly since.
I am, Sir,
J. Ivor Davies, Esq., Your obedient Servant,
Chief Constable, RICHARD DAVIES. Supt & D.C.C. MOLD.
and the incident was reported widely in the press. This is from the Flintshire Observer and News, Thursday, May 27 1915
RHYL ANTI-GERMAN SCENES.
Exciting scenes were witnessed in Rhyl on Friday night last. A piano-tuner who is said to belong to London, had been talking rather foolishly of his objection to military service, and when on Rhyl bridge was overheard to say that if he were compelled to become a soldier he would fight with the Germans. He also made some remark about the Kinmel Park camp to the effect that very soon it would be blown up. This was reported to a military patrol on the bridge, who arrested the man, and, accompanied by a special constable, took him to the police station. A crowd of soldiers collected in front of the police station, opposite the Town Hall. There were cries of “Fetch him out,” and threats to handle the man roughly, it being assumed that he was under arrest as a German spy.
The men tired of standing about the constabulary station, and there was a rush into Queen Street, where a barber named Fassey carries on business. Fassey is a German subject, and has undergone military training in Germany, and presumably the South Wales soldiers were aware of the fact. He was interned for a short period in the German camp at Queensferry last autumn, but was liberated on bail, several Rhyl residents being sureties. The enormous throng pressed into Queen Street, and soon the crash of breaking glass was heard. In a moment the plate-glass windows of the hairdresser’s shop were shattered and the contents of the window showcases had disappeared. The attempt to get into the house failed, and Fassey’s two little children were carried away through the crowd by Sergeant Jones, the deputy chief constable’s secretary, and Mr. Ashbury, one of the special constables. One of the children was only six weeks old. Fassey and his wife were conducted to the police station for protection by the police, and the crowd followed. The lower windows of the station were smashed by stones.
More about the riot can be found on Rhyl History Club’s website, here.
It must have been frightening for all the residents of the town, but perhaps more so for our refugees who had been witness to terrible hostilities in their home town of Aarschot just months before.
The Mills’ University Hotel
The family decided to make their way home to Belgium. This involved a train journey to London, and arrangements to stay in an hotel in the city whilst awaiting their boat. The hotel was “Mills’ University Hotel” on Gower Street, which is now part of the Bloomsbury Campus of University College London (UCL).
We found this postcard (in Aberystwyth!) of the Hotel, c. 1920:
and from a dealer in Hungary (!) we have acquired a copy of the hotel’s brochure. We have made this online version – click here.
The proprietor of the hotel, Mrs. F. Mills, was well used to taking in guests from all over Europe. Her brochure states that “Continental Languages” were spoken, and the hotel was affiliated to “Le Touring Club de France”, “Le Touring Club de Belgique”†, “Touring Club Suisse”, “The Swedish Touring Club”, “Le Touring Club de Hollande” and other groups.
We know that Mrs. Mills kept her hotel for quite a few years, as we’ve seen a postcard from 1908 which details “Mills’ Boarding House, 126, 128 & 130 Gower Street, London”, and we’ve found an article in the London Daily Mail that mentions her in 1903:
Saturday, August 22nd, 1903
DEATH FROM SEA-SICKNESS
Mr. Schroder held an inquest at St. Pancras yesterday on the body of Jean François Demole, a Swiss salesman.
Paul Jennott said that the deceased came to England from Geneva and crossed from Dieppe to Newhaven on Sunday. He met him at London Bridge Station, when he was very ill and stated the voyage had been very rough.
Mrs. Mills, boarding-house keeper, of 130, Gower-street, said deceased came there on Sunday evening and complained of feeling very ill. Next morning, as there was no reply to the knocks at his door, she went in and found him dead.
Dr. Campbell, of 60, Bloomsbury-street, said on making an autopsy of the body he found that death was due to syncope and exhaustion following sea-sickness.
The jury returned a verdict accordingly.
And Mrs. Mills was still there in 1925 when her establishment was mentioned in The Police Gazette Supplement of Wednesday, May 20th when the police were looking for a missing Polish man:
“Lesko, Jesdor or Fedor, M., 45, Polish, landed in the United Kingdom, on 14/4/25, and disappeared from Mills Hotel, Gower Street, on 16/4/25, and no trace of him can be found.”
London in 1915
The war was taking its toll on the London that welcomed our Refugee family in July 1915. Among the seldom-told stories of the First World War are those of espionage and counter-espionage – and the fact that more people were executed in the Tower of London in the twentieth century than in Tudor times.
As our Refugees arrived in London, two German Spies were being interrogated and were eventually executed by firing squad in the Tower. “The Mercury”, an Australian newspaper, printed this report quite a while after the event, on February 7th, 1920:
SPIES IN THE WAR
BRITAIN’S COUNTER ESPIONAGE
HOW GERMAN SPIES WERE BEATEN
FATE OF TWO DUTCHMEN
LONDON. February 4.
The “Morning Post” publishes to-day an interesting record of Germany’s spy system and Great Britain’s counter espionage organisation, which was so efficient by the summer of 1915 that seven spies were taken in one fortnight, thus paralysing the German scheme to re-establish a spy system and service in Great Britain. A feather in the cap of the British organisation was the capture of the Dutchmen Janssen and Roos. Suspicions were aroused by reason of numerous telegrams from naval ports to The Hague, apparently ordering cigars. This was regarded as remarkable, as sailors are not in the habit of smoking cigars, so the senders were arrested. Janssen and Roos were examined and claimed to be travellers on behalf of Dierksh and Co., of The Hague.
When examined, Janssen and Roos gave contradictory explanations, and the prosecution showed that Dierksh and Co.’s address was the same as that of the German Secret Service in Holland. Next day Roos endeavoured to commit suicide by cutting his manacled wrists with the broken glass of his door. The cigar code was found, and it referred to naval secrets, “cabanas” meaning “light cruisers” and “coronas” meaning “battleships.” Janssen and Roos were convicted, and shot in the miniature rifle range of the Tower. The faced firing parties bravely.
Neutrals in Holland and elsewhere thus learnt that espionage missions in England were most difficult, and thenceforward Germany only sent casual spies, who pretended to be commercial travellers, and tried to get away before their movements aroused suspicion.
More about Janssen and Roos here.
The papers we have for the family are stamped “Left this Country for Abroad, July 1915” (link) . At this point, neither the UK nor Belgian Governments were paying for the repatriation of the Belgian Citizens – they would have had to fund this themselves, although as early as 1914 the Belgian Repatriation Fund had been created by the English wife of a member of the Belgian Government, and in 1917 the British government set up a repatriation committee to expedite their return. The topic was discussed in Parliament on the 18th of November 1918:
Mr. J. W. PRATT (Lord of the Treasury): His Majesty’s Government will undertake the repatriation of the Belgian refugees. My Right Hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board has appointed a Commissioner for Repatriation, and he is in communication with the Belgian Legation and with the War Office, the Ministry of Shipping, and other Government Departments, with a view to taking the necessary steps as early as practicable. Those steps must, of course, be taken in concert with the Belgian Government.
Arrangements were not formal until December 1918, when the following letter was published in newspapers:
The first ships carrying the refugees are leaving England this week. Speaking on behalf of the Belgian Official Committee and of the Belgian Repatriation Committee, I desire to address to the British nation a message of farewell and of gratitude.
We shall never forget that when our country was overrun by the enemy the British Government offered us, on behalf of the nation, a refuge where we could live and escape the tyranny of the Germans. We shall never forget the wave of friendship which passed through England, the sudden formation of nearly two thousand committees, the kind hospitality offered to our people by these committees as well as by private families. I think that history offers few instances of such an act of international solidarity, and it will ever remain a matter of admiration and interest in the study of social psychology.
Under the protection of your laws we have been able to maintain in England the special characteristics of our race; we have had our munitions factories, our schools, our churches, and our newspapers, and it is true to say that Great Britain has given hospitality not to some individuals but to the Belgian soul, which was able to breath freely when the Belgian territory was under the heel of the enemy.
The Belgian has, as everyone, his weaknesses, but he has one characteristic, he never forgives an enemy, he never forgets a friend. It is for this reason that every refugee contributed to the memorial which will be erected in London, a memorial which will be the expression of the eternal gratitude of the Belgian nation, and a lasting symbol of the friendship between two free people.
As in the past we were bound together by the mutual obligation of the “scrap of paper,” ‡ so in the future we shall be bound by the link of love and mutual respect.
Secretary to the Belgian Official Committee, Chairman of the Repatriation Committee, Hon. Secretary to the Belgian Memorial Committee.
6, Burlington Gardens, London, W.1.
December 17, 1918.
The President of the Local Government Board issued this memorandum on December 19th, 1918:
“REPATRIATION OF BELGIAN REFUGEES”
At an early stage of the War the Local Government Board undertook on behalf of the Government the supervision and care of the Belgian Refugees who fled to this country: they have now, in conjunction with the Belgian Government, organised measures for the repatriation of the Refugees.
The number to be dealt with is approximately 140,000, of whom 60,000 reside in the Metropolitan area, and the balance chiefly in industrial centres in England and Scotland. Most of the refugees belong to the peasant and industrial classes, and the majority are now out of work.
The “unemployment donation” is not available for foreign workmen, and the Local Government Board have, through their Local Refugee Committees, made all necessary arrangements for giving relief to Belgian workpeople who need it.
The Ministry of Labour have made representations to my Department as to the great importance of repatriating to Belgian workers, in view of possible labour troubles with our own people. Similar representations have also been received from labour organisations in this country.
The Board have been in communication with the Belgian Government, and have informed them that they propose to make preparations for returning the refugees to Belgium at a rate of about 10,000 a week during the months of January and February next and possibly later, and the official representative of the Minister of the Interior in this country has agreed that immediate steps may be taken to repatriate the Belgians belonging to Antwerp.
As 45 per cent of the refugees came from the Province of Antwerp, the repatriation of these people alone would occupy six weeks at the rate proposed.
Up to the present time he Ministry of Shipping have only been able to make provision for the return of the refugees by utilising, on their return trip, some of the vessels now allocated for bringing the repatriated prisoners of war from Holland, and five vessels have been or will be available up to December 22nd.
I feel, however, that the process of repatriation must proceed with greater rapidity and regularity than is possible under present arrangements, and I have accordingly made urgent representations to the Ministry of Shipping requesting the provision of a regular shipping service to Belgium, for refugee purposes, as from the beginning of January next. The Ministry have not, however, so far, been able to give any definite assurance that this will be done.
While fully realising the many calls on shipping at the present time, and appreciating the assistance already given by the Ministry of Shipping, I feel it is necessary to bring the question of obtaining an early and regular service of ships to Belgium before the notice of the War Cabinet, in order that a direction may be given to the Ministry to give priority to the repatriation work of the Local Government Board as far as practicable.
Apart from the desire of the refugees to return to Belgium, after four years of exile, it is of great and urgent importance to remove these large bodies of unemployed foreign workmen and their families from the great industrial centres where their presence in districts already overcrowded is likely to cause grave friction and trouble with the British workers, and to destroy the good feeling and harmonious relations built up since their reception as refugees in the Autumn of 1914.
A. C. GEDDES
Local Government Board,
Whitehall, SW 1
19th December, 1918
By December 28th 1918, the following article was appearing in newspapers:
THE REPATRIATION OF BELGIAN REFUGEES
The Local Government Board is undertaking the entire business of repatriating the Belgian populations in the United Kingdom, and the work the War Refugees Committee has consequently terminated. The committee will be formally dissolved soon as the third and final report and statement accounts up to December can be issued. All communications relating to the repatriation of Belgians in this country should be made to the Repatriation Department, Local Government Board, Whitehall.
The New Zealand Herald, published on June 12th 1919, described the speed and efficiency of the repatriation:
EXODUS FROM BRITAIN
TYPICAL SCENE AT DOCKS
Since the beginning of the year the repatriation of Belgian refugees has been going on, almost unnoticed, with such regularity that out of 300,000 who originally sought shelter among us only about 17,000 remain, says a London paper of April 16. There was a typical scene at Tilbury yesterday, when some 1,300 left after an exile in many instances of four and a half years. They came from agricultural Devon and Cornwall, on the one hand, and from London’s industrial area on the other.
The Guildford Castle§ into which they defiled, has already, under Captain Lang, transported 10,500 refugees. The returning throng consisted mostly of women and children, who were re-joining the men of their families who had been on military service, and the wives and mothers, now well clothed and nourished, were taking home with them far more than they brought in money savings and other possessions, for though their luggage was nominally limited to 300lb, many nearly doubled this allowance. They also took sturdy children, who had acquired the rosy colour that our climate, with all its faults, produces in the young, and many had babies born in this country, and therefore presenting in the future a problem of double nationality. Our departing guests were enthusiastic in their gratitude for British hospitality, but it was rare to find anyone, only such as had lost their relatives, who regretted their return. It has been the policy of the Local Government Board, which for some time now has had charge of the repatriation arrangements, to keep back the people of the devastated areas pending arrangements for their reception.
Yesterday’s arrangements showed similar thoughtfulness to those for other voyages, not only from Tilbury, but also from Leith, Hull, Liverpool, and Dublin, by which the exiles have been conveyed to their country at the rate of 10,000 in all, a week. A fleet of lorries brought their luggage from the arrival stations to St. Pancras, special accommodation was provided on the ship for the sick and aged, and the Guildford Castle was timed to reach Antwerp tomorrow morning, so that there would be a full allowance of daylight for the distribution of the travellers to their various destinations in Belgium.
In December 1918 the “Reconstruction Committee” left London for Bruges. The intention was to send railway workers and their families home first, in order that the transport infrastructure could be rebuilt. The Belgian Authorities were providing hotel accommodation at Antwerp and Ostend and free train travel to help the Refugees reach their home towns.
Home office figures (from the document “Report of the Work undertaken by the British Government in the Reception and Care of the Belgian Refugees” – we have a copy in the Tourist Information Centre if you’d like to see it) state that the cost of repatriation to the British Government was £242,975 / 19s /2d which would be somewhere in the region of £15,000,000 or €20,000,000 in today’s money.
What state was Belgium in at the end of the war? To see what our Refugees were returning to, we searched many archives to see what information was available to best describe the conditions for those going home.
This document “Some Suggestions to Reconstruction Work in Belgium” describes it well.
The document is held in the Royal Library of Belgium and can be read online here.
* Dr. Albert Eyton Lloyd was the father of Second Lieutenant John Wathen Eyton Lloyd, one of the “Heroes of Colet House” who we wrote about last year here.
John died whilst serving in the First World War aged just 22, and is buried in Chocques Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.
† We found a copy of the newsletter from Le Touring club de Belgique in 1916 which shows an illustration of the invasion of Leuven on the front cover:
‡ One article of the 1839 Treaty of London bound Britain to guard the neutrality of Belgium in the event of a German invasion.
The German Government, intending to use Belgium as a “corridor” to reach France (specifically Paris) all the faster in the opening weeks of the First World War, asked the British government in August 1914 to effectively ignore the “scrap of paper” committing Britain to the defence of Belgium. Britain refused, Germany invaded Belgium anyway: and Prime Minister Asquith took Britain into the Great War on 4th August 1914.
§ The Guildford Castle, under the command of Captain Thomas Lang, was unsuccessfully attacked by German U-Boats in the Bristol Channel in March 1918. It was operating as a hospital ship, and at the time of attack was flying Red Cross Flags and displaying hospital ship lights.