Tracing the Belgian Refugees

This week we hear from Dr. Philippa Read, Research Fellow in the School of Languages, Culture and Societies at the University of Leeds, on a new family history database from the Universities of Leeds and Leuven…

A hundred years ago, approximately 250,000 Belgian men, women and children came to Britain after the invasion and subsequent occupation of 95% of their homeland in the opening stages of the First World War. Over the course of the war they were housed in communities all over the country. They took on employment, went to school, grew their families, and some married British men and women. Most went back to Belgium after 1918, but some Belgian people settled after the conflict. Despite this being such a large number of people, the histories of the refugees is still largely hidden because archival materials are incomplete and information is scattered and difficult to trace.

Despite the lack of widespread knowledge of the refugees, researchers and ancestors all over the UK have been able to trace individual Belgians. The Friends of Beckett Street Cemetery in Leeds, for example, tell us the story of Joanna Cools:

“Sandwiched between 2 guinea graves in the unconsecrated part of Beckett Street Cemetery is a common grave containing 13 persons. This is plot 22048. Interred in the plot is young Joanna Cools who died in August 1917 of tuberculosis. She was seventeen years of age.

At the time of her death Joanna was a patient in the workhouse opposite, presumably because of her illness, but she lived at 1, Holderness Street in the Hyde Park/Woodhouse area of Leeds. Joanna was a Belgian refugee who arrived in Leeds some time in 1914 at the outbreak of World War One. She came, we believe, with her father Leonardus and her mother Anna Maria. However, living at the same address was Hermina Cools who died in 1916 aged 41. She is buried in St. George`s Fields Woodhouse in plot 6217 along with Blanch Cools who died in 1916 aged 4 months. What relation Hermina and Blanch were to Joanna is still a mystery. That they were related is almost certain.

More than 250,000 Belgian refugees came to the UK during World War One, having escaped the German invasion. There was initially no government funding and local relief committees relied heavily on donations. The Yorkshire Post ran a series of articles encouraging the donation of food, clothing and money. Because of the response furnished houses were put at the disposal of these committees and were a true reflection of Yorkshire kindliness and welcome. Over £10,000 was raised in Leeds in one week [£1m by today`s money]. Many refugees worked in factories contributing to the war effort and filling the gaps left as men signed up for recruitment. At the time of going to press our knowledge of Joanna and her family is still very vague, but we felt that she and the story of the Belgian refugees deserved to be mentioned.

Not only does this history remain little-known, but research like that of the Beckett Street cemetery group has never been made accessible via a centralised, digital resource. The Tracing the Belgian Refugees project is hoping to change this. We are launching an online, crowd-sourced database that anyone will be able to use to input data on a Belgian refugee or several refugees.  You will also be able to search the information that others have inputted to help with your own research.

The database will be free to use, and accessible via the project website: https://belgianrefugees.leeds.ac.uk. Digitising Belgian refugee records like this will give people greater access to them, will help to preserve any fragile documents or letters, and will provide us with new tools for historical investigation and analysis.

Communities, heritage organisations and academics in the UK and further afield have already worked hard to trace Belgians in exile across the country. Our project aims to pool this knowledge in an online resource that will help to raise awareness of this crucial moment in international history, to give a bigger picture of the refugee experience and to link research projects together.

Are you interested in the history of Belgian refugees in the UK during the First World War? Have you been involved in researching them in your local area? Do you have family stories, or want to share your findings with other researchers and find out more about how you can do this? If so we’d love to hear from you.

Visit our website, follow us on Twitter, or email: belgianrefugees@leeds.ac.uk.

Plot 22048 of Beckett Street Cemetery, Leeds, where Joanna Cools is buried. (Thanks to Lynda Kitching, Secretary of the Friends of Beckett Street Cemetery, for sharing this case study and image)
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