Wounded Soldiers in Tunbridge Wells, 1914-18: by Jennifer Watts

The Germans had demanded the right of passage through neutral Belgium to attack France. King Albert retorted ‘Belgium is a nation, not a road’. Belgians refused to stand aside as Germans marched through their country and resistance to their advance disrupted the German time-table for advancing into France. However Belgian resistance came at a cost and 200,000 Belgian refugees fled to the UK in 1914 and by 1917 that number had grown to around 250,000, amongst them many Belgian wounded soldiers. They arrived in England – most prominently at Folkestone – and after processing were dispatched on special trains to various towns and villages in Kent, one of those being Tunbridge Wells.

On 23rd October 1914 the Kent and Sussex Courier reported that in addition to the 23 wounded Belgian soldiers in the Tunbridge Wells General Hospital, ‘a number of other wounded men from this heroic little land are being tenderly cared for in various other Institutions’.

The Courier described the arrival of some patients. ‘On receipt of an intimation shortly before 11 o’clock on Friday night that a number of wounded Belgian soldiers were being sent in a special train to Tunbridge Wells, First Officer Hickmott at once got together eight men of the Tunbridge Wells detachment of the St John’s Ambulance Corps and proceeded to the [railway] station. The train was delayed, so the volunteers ‘had a tedious wait throughout the long cold night’.  Eventually the train containing the 20 Belgians arrived. Two young ladies acted as interpreters and the wounded were taken to various hospitals by car. Their destinations included the Homeopathic Hospital, West Hall, Chilston Road, and the Kent Nursing Institution (Jerningham House) in Mount Sion.

Some of the Belgians had serious bullet or shrapnel wounds. According to the Courier report, ‘one had a bullet pass through his shoulder making two jagged holes in his overcoat’ and another ‘had one of his fingers taken off by shrapnel’.  Others were worn out by prolonged fighting. One soldier at the Jerningham House hospital had pneumonia and was injured from falling into a trench. ‘The wounded men proudly show their torn clothing as trophies of battle honours’, the newspaper explained and they were reported to have claimed that they were being “treated like princes” and were ‘never more comfortable in their lives’. The Courier noted that ‘Belgian refugees who were staying at Wadhurst visited the … wounded men [who] greatly appreciated the opportunity of a few minutes chat with their compatriots’. If recovering soldiers went for a walk they were allegedly ‘lionised by admiring English women, several of whom have begged buttons from the soldiers’ tunics as souvenirs of the war’.

Many local hospitals received Belgian casualties including the Eye and Ear Hospital (which took men with eye injuries) the Homeopathic Hospital, and West Hall VAD Hospital.  There were also soldiers at the Victoria Hall, Southborough and Bidborough Court. The journal of West Hall shows that some 66 wounded soldiers had passed through the hospital by 19th November 1914, with 35 wounded soldiers in Bidborough Court, and another 35 at the General Hospital.

Bidborough Court 2017 (photograph © Anne Logan)

The Royal Victoria Hall, Southborough was turned into a hospital by the Southborough Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) for which Lady Salomons was the Honorary Commandant, while the Speldhurst VAD established the hospital at Bidborough Court. According to the Courier (6 November 1914), the patients received many visitors, including Belgian royalty and other notable ladies, who brought gifts of flowers and cigarettes. Well-wishers sent vehicles so that the wounded men could be taken for drives. It was reported that one of the Belgian soldiers, who spoke a little English, found out that his mother at Dover. Mother and son were reunited to ‘their mutual delight’. Although some patients were doing well, others were still suffering a good deal.  The Courier (30 October 1914) reported that the patients were thankful ‘for all that is being done for them.’  The rooms at Bidborough Court were ‘large and airy and have been splendidly equipped by the Detachment, with the help of many friends who have kindly loaned the furniture, beds and bedding’.  The property also had beautiful grounds for convalescents to take walks in.

At the General Hospital, where 60 wounded English and Belgian soldiers were being looked after, the management had to hire a barber to shave the men. This was an item of considerable expense and could not be met from the ordinary hospital fund, so the Courier reported that a request was made for special, small subscriptions towards the cost.

According to the First World War diaries of Lady Matthews, kept for the benefit of her children, in late 1914 hospitals were also being prepared in Rusthall, where some ladies had only just passed their St. John’s Ambulance examination.  By August 1915 the Rusthall hospital was full, and had orders to supply 30 more beds.   Lady Matthews described her visit to a private hospital where she saw ‘both Belgian and British soldiers in great comfort in a luxurious private house where the billiard room wing has been converted into wards’.

One of these wounded soldiers hospitalised in England was Sgt Georges Cantillon who was awarded the Order of the Chevaliers de Leopold II (equivalent of the British VC) for bravery. Although he was ‘wounded in the face and hand he nonetheless pursued the enemy, taking out the patrol leader’.  Sgt Cantillon later played an important part in social activities of the Belgian community in Tunbridge Wells and at the Club Albert – the Social Club, running the tombola.  Himself an artist, he donated a painting for the tombola on the Belgian King’s birthday in 1915. In mid-1917 he probably left England for France.

Cantillon’s page in the Scott Album (photograph © Alison MacKenzie)

By 1915 the wounded Belgian soldiers had mostly recovered and their places in the VAD hospitals were taken by British casualties. Some soldiers returned to the army while those who were not well enough to fight stayed on, and were employed, in Tunbridge Wells or went to work elsewhere, for example in munitions factories.


Kent and Sussex Courier 1914

HetArchief 1915

The Times 1914

International Encyclopaedia of First World War

Barbara Tuchman (1962) August 1914.


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Visit to the National Archives: by Carolyn Gray


On Thursday 20th April, as part of Royal Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees 1914 a group of us went to The National Archives . The day started with a selection of documents relating to World War One, brought to us in a private room by our guide Louise Bell . Then after lunch we were able to carry on, working through the database list, for the refugees who were in Tunbridge Wells.


These boxes (above) are full of the double sided cards (top photos) with information about location, names, and also payment details (not all refugees were as wealthy and self supporting as the Tunbridge Wells ones). The card I have featured isn’t a family from the Tunbridge Wells list, but for a time they were at Lullingstone Castle . While we were looking for information on the Tunbridge Wells families, it was hard to not be sidetracked by such things as a ‘Merry Go Round Operator’ or of all the families that spent their five years here, at Blackpool, or whose husbands were ‘in Congo’.


And is it an error that the Van Dam family were at a place “Previously Tunbridge Wells Bromyard”?

During the nine hours there, we didn’t get through all the boxes of cards… Hopefully we can go back, and find out more about Jose:

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Paul Vd Kerckhove and the bust of Mayor Whitbourn Emson: by Alison MacKenzie

“A souvenir of the Belgians’ friendship and visit to the town”

In 1915 the Belgian Community of Tunbridge Wells commissioned Belgian sculptor Paul Vd Kerckhove, himself a refugee, to make a bust of the town’s Mayor and Chairman of the Borough Belgian Refugees’ Committee, Cllr Charles Whitbourn Emson.  The sculptor undertook the work free of charge, and local artist, Alexander Kirk, made his studio on Cumberland Walk available to him.  According to the Courier newspaper of 23rd July 1915, while in Tunbridge Wells M. Vd Kerckhove took the opportunity to mould a number of busts of local people.

Paul Vd Kerckhove (1876-??), from Boitsfort near Brussels, was a well-known Belgian artist, from a family of well-known artists.  After consulting Census records in Brussels, I believe he was the son of sculptor J. Antoine Van De Kerckhove “dit NELSON” (c1849-?) but I have yet to prove it… A member of the Civic Guard in Brussels, he had been forced to flee in September 1914.  At some point his wife and their two daughters joined him, and they were all together in Tunbridge Wells from February 1915, first at Broadwater Court, then at 8 Monson Road, and finally at 40 Garden Road.

Once the Bust was finished, the family returned to London where Paul stayed while his wife and daughter went north to Blackpool.  He lived for a while with foundry owner Ercole Parlanti and is known to have exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1917 and 1918, one of his subjects being Parlanti’s daughter Olga.

Royal Academy Catalogue extract courtesy of Steve Parlanti

The bust of Mayor Emson was presented to the town of Tunbridge Wells on 22nd September 1915 with great pomp and ceremony at the Great Hall by President of the Club Albert, Professor Joseph Willems, and at the same time an illustrated album, no doubt similar to the one offered a year later to Amelia and Louisa Scott, was presented to the Mayor by M. Ernst Kumps.  There were speeches and then a concert at which leading Belgian artistes performed, not least M. Jean Delville, himself a refugee in London, who recited “several of his dramatic and patriotic poems” (Kent & Sussex Courier 25 September 1915). (1)

In his acceptance speech, Mayor Emson stated that the sculpture would be placed in the Town Hall as a perpetual memorial of the joint struggle of [our] nations” and would “ever remain as a souvenir of the Belgians’ friendship and visit to the town”. (2)

Paul Vd Kerckhove’s bronze bust of Mayor Whitbourn Emson (Photo Alison MacKenzie 2016)



(1) The Bust featured in the book Belgian Art in Exile which was published in January 1916 by La Ligue des Artistes belges, of which M. Delville was President,  to raise money for Belgian charities in England. The Daily Sketch wrote ‘Belgian Art in Exile is the title of a very attractive album of reproductions, mostly in colour, of paintings by exiled Belgian artists, with photographs of works by Belgian sculptors, which has been issued in aid of the Belgian Red Cross and other Belgian charitable institutions. The colour-plates… show the high quality and great versatility of modern Belgian art’.

(2) It stands in the lobby of the Council Chamber and is viewable once a year during Heritage Open Days in September.


Kent & Sussex Courier (British Newspaper Archive)

Census records, Brussels City Museum

Refugee Registration documents, National Archives, Brussels

Steve Parlanti

Rodney Hall, grandson of Paul Vd Kerckhove

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Administration and the refugees – a reflection: by Helen Phillimore

As a member of the CREATE Group I volunteered to research a part of the history of the Belgian Refugees who came over to the UK between 1914 – 1919, a number of whom were sent to Tunbridge Wells and housed in the town.  From a recent visit to Belgium and Northern France to visit the Battlefields and Cemeteries of the First World War I developed a better understand of why Britain felt duty-bound to come to the rescue of Belgium, and declared war on Germany.  Belgium had done all they could to hold the Germans back but were finally overrun, and thus hundreds of Belgians were forced to abandoned their country for Britain leaving the British, French and Commonwealth armies to fight the Germans and prevent them taking control of the coastal area.

The following report,  held at the National Archives at Kew, regarding the situation in Belgium, gives some idea of how desperate and difficult it became for the refugees and the desperate state Belgium was in.

For those administrating this influx of refugees, it was an enormous task.  They were sent instructions on how to register the individuals on arrival by the Central Register of Belgian Refugees at Somerset House in London.  However,  a lot of confusion arose when those refugees wanted to move from one area of the country to another either on a temporary basis or permanent.   It made me realise how much more difficult it must have been to administer all these refugees, when the war was going on, and mail deliveries were likely to be delayed, or mail lost, and telephone lines cut due to bombing, and transport services restricted.  Nowadays we have so many ways of communicating, and travelling which make life much easier.  Despite this we managed to control the refugees, and people all over Britain did their best to welcome, help, house and support them.

On 20 April 2017 I joined a group of volunteers to visit the National Archives at Kew.   Whilst there we were able to review a number of boxes containing registration information of Belgian refugees, and my task was to check boxes of registration cards to find any cards for refugees who came to Tunbridge Wells. I also studied letters and memos between the Central Register Office (CRO) and police forces and other departments who dealt with the refugees and their movements.  It became clear that the instructions from CRO were not necessarily interpreted correctly by some of the police forces.  For example apart from being issued with the initial Registration Certificate by the CRO, the refugees were also issued with an Identity Book by the police, both of which they were allowed to hold, but some police forces misinterpreted the instruction and confiscated the Registration Certificate when the refugee was issued with the Identity Book.  The Identity Book was supposed to contain details of the addresses and movements of the refugee, and had to be updated whenever he or she needed to leave one area, whether it was for a short visit, or a permanent move to another town.  They were not supposed to have passports, but only these documents/books. As can be seen in this letter some adjustments had to be made to simplify these Certificates and movement records.

You will see what happened to Mr Frank Gustav de Fever from receiving his Registration Certificate.

The confusion arose where Registration Certificates were also issued by the police, in addition to the Home Office Certificate.  The one issued by the police was supposed to be confiscated but not the one issued by the Home Office!  Refugees were not supposed to hold passports once they had these certificates and Identity Books.   Note the following letter regarding Mr Frank Gustav de Fever after he had received his RC and wanted to move from one area to another.

From my research it appears our Tunbridge Wells refugees underwent similar problems but they managed to settle down in the town in the houses, hostels and rooms offered to them. They were also assisted in finding jobs so they could support themselves, and their children went to schools in Tunbridge Wells and become members of the whole community, and developed their own social life as well.

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Schooling for the Belgian children: by Alison MacKenzie

In all, 75 Belgian refugee children passed through Tunbridge Wells (though the maximum at any one time was only 35), and arrangements were made with the Borough’s schools to give them free education as required.  Some were taught by the Belgian nuns staying at Clayton’s Farm, and most of the younger children attended St Augustine’s Catholic Primary School.


Photo of St Augustine’s Church showing the school building on the right (from John Cunningham)

However, King Charles and Murray House Church of England Schools certainly took in one boy and two girls, the Girls’ High School in Camden Park had one pupil who was being supported by the Old Girls of the school, and a number attended the County School for Girls (now TWGGS).  There were boys at Skinners’ School and at Tonbridge School, and girls at the Blessed Sacrament Convent School for Girls and little Boys on Prospect Road, as well as at Mark Cross Convent, and from February 1915 a number of Belgian refugee children attended the newly-opened Sacred Heart Convent School at Beechwood on Pembury Road – in fact the very first pupils to arrive were 7 and 8 year old Clementine and Christiane WILLEMS, 2 of the 6 children of Prof. Joseph WILLEMS from Liege.  We think that they could be the two little girls on the right in the front row of this photo :

Beechwood Sacred Heart first school photo (date unknown) – from the school

Consultation of primary school log books in the County Archives in Maidstone only turns up numbers of children – sadly no names – the most tantalising being ‘2 boys from Lubbeck’ (Lubbeek) who were at Down Lane Infants School, Culverden Down, from February 1915, and possibly left in 1916 or ’17 to go to St Augustine’s School. All we found for St Augustine’s School was the Punishment Book, and sadly that is ‘closed’ for another 50 years or so as it covers recent years.

A classroom at King Charles the Martyr Boys School (Tunbridge Well Museum)

One of the school children given free education through the Mayor’s Committee was Mariette CARMON. The Tunbridge Wells Advertiser of 18th May 1917 reported that Mariette had joined Murray House School in October 1914 and that in July 1916,  Kent Higher Education Committee “consented that she be educated at the County School in recognition of her good work”.

In July 1916, according to the Kent and Sussex Courier, Murray House School Annual Sports afternoon at the Nevill Ground included the presentation of ‘a charming scene’ from Hiawatha in which Mariette CARMON played Chibiabos, musician and close friend of Hiawatha, and an M. Carmon was awarded a swimming certificate and badge.

The admissions records at Tunbridge Wells Girls Grammar School (TWGGS – formerly the County School) gave us a bit more information about her: at the time of her admission to the County School she was 13 – her father was in Paris, and she was boarding with a Mrs Fry at 4 Ferrars Estate.  She returned to Belgium in July 1918.  Registration documents found in the Archives in Brussels tell us that she was 11 when she arrived in Tunbridge Wells where she lived first at 8 Cadogan Gardens.

It looks as though she was quite alone during her time here, though she did visit Guildford in the summer of 1918.  Her name does not appear in the 1916 album presented to the Misses Scott, even though she was in Tunbridge Wells at the time.  I wonder why?


Interestingly, only in early 1918 was a Belgian School started up in Tunbridge Wells, and that thanks to Mr Albert LE JEUNE, Honorary President of the Club Albert.  Head of the school was Professor Gaston WOLVERSPERGES, a refugee from Antwerp, who with his wife Irma had arrived in Tunbridge Wells from Leicester in August 1917.  His registration papers show frequent visits to the LE JEUNE family residence, Stanton House in Pembury, which suggests they were already friends – maybe Mr Le Jeune arranged for him to come to Tunbridge Wells especially to set up the school?

I have found no record of this school in the local Kent press or records, or the existing listings of Belgian school in the UK during the First World War. It was an article in L’Independence belge of 7th August 1918 which alerted me to its existence.  It seems that that year the celebrations for Belgian National Day on 21st July had included the school prize-giving and recitations in French and Flemish of poetry and prose by the children.  The purpose of the school, the article explained, was to complement the instruction the children were already receiving in English schools.  Pupil numbers were growing, and the mothers and fathers were very grateful to Professor WOLVERSPERGES for the devotion with which he carried out his difficult task.

Refugee Registration Form – undated but probably 1914/1915 given Prof WOLVERSPERGES’s age

The registration documents I consulted show that Gaston WOLVERSPERGES was born in Schaerbeek, Brussels, on 8th June 1875 and that his home address was 11 rue du Lys, Berchem, Antwerp.  A teacher of Geography and History, he spoke both French and Flemish.  Once in the Tunbridge Wells area, he and his wife lived first at 16 Meadow Road in Southborough, and later, from February 1918, at 9 Cambridge Street.

He was also employed as a teacher at ‘Lingfield School’- presumably Lingfield Primary School as the Convent School (now Lingfield College) was only founded in 1940.

Extract from the reverse of Mr WOLVERSPERGES’s registration document in the Belgian National Archives showing one of his visits to Stanton House



Kent Library and Archive Centre, Maidstone C/E/S/371E/17/2 – Down Lane Infants School Log Book 1899 -1942

National Archives, Brussels

Tunbridge Wells Advertiser (on microfilm in Tunbridge Wells Library )

TWGGS Archives (with thanks to Astrid  and Hilary Streeter)

Belgian Press in Exile www.hetarchief.be

‘The Leopard’ , Skinners School magazine, for the years 1914-1919



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The medical treatment of refugees in Tunbridge Wells, 1914-18: by Carolyn Gray


Additional material by Alison Sandford MacKenzie

On 25th September 1914, the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells, Charles Whitbourn Emson called a meeting of interested parties to discuss his proposal to open a Municipal Fund and set up a Borough Committee to help the refugees arriving in the town.

He wrote to the Belgian War Relief Committee in Folkestone:

Dear Sir –

I am pleased to inform you that arrangements have been made in this Borough to accommodate 30 Belgian Refugees, not of the peasant type, but of the middle class and tradespeople …

I shall be glad if you can arrange for these refugees to arrive in Tunbridge Wells on Friday afternoon, and if you will kindly let me know prior to their arrival the names, relationships, and any other particulars relating to those sent, and the time of arrival.

You will no doubt arrange before they are sent that they are medically examined and have a clean bill of health.

It seems that medical fitness was of concern to the authorities dealing with the arrivals from Belgium, not just those refugees who had been wounded in fighting. At an early volunteer meeting for this project, we looked at refugee centre registration forms which inquired of the refugees, ‘If vaccinated, when?’

In 1910 the only vaccine was for smallpox. Although in 1914, Belgian bacteriologist Octave Gengou had just developed the first Pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine, the next vaccines came slowly – Diphtheria in 1926, Tetanus (1938), DTP combined vaccine (1948), and Measles (1968). Smallpox vaccine had been developed during the 18th century. Lady Mary Wortley Montague (incidentally a visitor to Tunbridge Wells along with her husband Sir Edward Wortley Montague) inoculated her son in 1718 on a trip to the Ottoman Empire. The process involved using live smallpox virus in the pus taken from a smallpox blister in a mild case of the disease and introducing it into scratched skin of a previously uninfected person to promote immunity to the disease. The safer technique developed by Edward Jenner in 1796, of vaccination from cowpox, gained favour. Should anyone wonder why these people were so keen to develop this protection, a few facts: an estimated 400,000 Europeans were killed by the disease annually during the closing years of the 18th century, and it was responsible for a third of all blindness Moreover 20-60 percent of those infected, and over 80 percent of infected children, died of the disease.

Finding out that the British government introduced compulsory smallpox vaccination by an Act of Parliament in 1853, and parents fined if they didn’t have their babies vaccinated, lead me to wonder about Victorian, or rather pre-1914, health care. The 19th century saw many improvements to medicine and health. However, patients were expected to pay for their own treatment. Some free hospitals were available, and friendly societies offered health insurance schemes.

Previously, in the 1840s, the government had offered free and voluntary vaccinations targeted at the poor. This effort failed when people, wary of the effects of the vaccination, refused it. Thus, the Compulsory Vaccination Act was passed and with it was born a strong anti-vaccination movement. Several changes in the law lead to it becoming no longer compulsory in 1907.

Regarding general health, we know that the Belgians were looked after when they arrived in Tunbridge Wells. Some were treated at the general hospital (shown below). In July 1916, the local Belgian ‘Colony’ celebrated their National Day by honouring not only the ladies of the Mayor’s Refugee Committee but also three local doctors – Wilson, Smith and Guthrie – who had ministered to the refugees free of charge.


General hospital, early 20th Century, by James Richard (courtesy of Tunbridge Wells Museum)

Dr Claude Wilson was born in 1860 in Liverpool, to Quaker parents and did his medical training in Edinburgh.  He married Annette Guthrie, the sister of Dr Guthrie, around 1887 and the couple lived at 9 Church Road, next door to the Guthries. Wilson was a general practitioner (GP) but he also undertook duties at the general hospital, which was a charitable body. He was particularly interested in cardiology.

Thomas Clement Guthrie (also a GP) was from Edinburgh. His wife, Nora was the sister of Susan Power (a local poor law guardian and member of the borough refugees’ committee). This was not the only family connection between the doctors and the committee: the Wilsons’ daughter Mary married the brother of Aimee Elizabeth Moinet, another committee member. Dr Guthrie was a honorary surgeon at the Tunbridge Wells general hospital in 1918, as the document below shows.

Outpatient letter (private collection)

The third doctor honoured was another GP, Dr Peter Colin Campbell Smith who lived at 4 Upper Grosvenor Road in 1914. His wife Dorothee Caroline Marie Antoinette Francoise de Sales was born in Norway and they married in Gibraltar in 1899 and their first son was born some 9 months later in Morocco.  In 1901 the family were in Darlington and by 1911 had moved to Tunbridge Wells. It was reported in February 1915 that Dr Campbell Smith had contracted ‘severe blood-poisoning in his attendance on Belgian refugees’ but fortunately he recovered.

No doubt other medical  and non-medical staff looked after the patients, but they unfortunately remain nameless.





John Cunningham (ed) The Shock of War (Tunbridge Wells Civic Society, 2014)

Sarah Wise, The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum (Vintage, 2009).


Kelly’s Directory, 1914.




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Belgian Lace: by Caroline Auckland

I know for certain that the main piece of lace visible in the above photograph is from Belgium, the rest I have inherited or acquired. A drawer full of aging white fabric and needlepoint has survived mainly because it is now of no use except as a decorative item. But the Belgian Refugees in Tunbridge Wells project has resulted in an increase of interest in the drawer I rarely opened.

Many of the refugees arrived at Tunbridge Wells Railway Station at the bottom of Mount Pleasant and opposite The Great Hall.

Figure 1, Kent & Sussex Courier 23 October 1914, p.3

The text reads accompanying the above photo reads:

 A pleasing incident of the arrival of Belgian refuges at the S.E.Ry, Station on Friday is shown in the photograph viz,. Little Belgian children being carried by Territorials to the Autocars lent by the Autocar Company under the superintendence of Mr Marshall and Mr White.

This image by the photographer Lankester, is juxtaposed with many images of soldiers from varying regiments also arriving at the town’s railway station. Entitled Territorials from the North, Lankester’s images firmly connect the railway station with the idea of modernity, the transport system both providing travel but also empirical strength with being a route of safety from war and protectionism with its movement of friendly armed forces. The text alongside the images reports that the refugees or ‘visitors’ a reference by which they are also known, ‘are of the trading class’ and are destined for homes in Dudley Road, Upper Grosvenor Road, (30 & 47), Southborough, St James Road and Grosvenor Lodge.

Wickham’s, the drapers and milliners, was on Mount Pleasant, Tunbridge Wells (just up from the Great Hall and the railway station), stocking lace in its Fancy Department. Calling itself The Fashion Rendezvous it boasted a collection of ‘real Bruges lace with all its charming association of patterns.’

     Figure 2, Kent & Sussex Courier 25 June 1915, p.8.

It appears the Belgians brought lace with them when they fled their country. Was this their most valuable possession? We might often think of what we would save when fleeing our home from fire and many of us would reply photographs or jewellery. But it would seem the Belgians chose lace. Was it for sentimentality or was it as a bargaining power?

A popular image of the period is this photograph below, available to buy as an ephemeral token of the times: a symbol of a Belgian refugee- The lace maker.

Figure 3, Carte Postale A. H. Paris, exact date unknown, private collection.

There is evidence of Belgian lace sales – nationally and in Tunbridge Wells and of its manufacture by exiles. That other spa town, Bath reported a ‘Very nice selection of every kind of Belgian Lace , made by refugees in England, to be seen at the Belgian Lace Shop […] Opposite the Grand Pump Room’.

Nearer home, the Hastings and St Leonards Observer advertised ‘A Great Sale of Lace from the house of Vandervelde- Foiret’ with 5 per cent of the proceeds going to the Local Belgian Relief Fund.

But, I am pleased to report, the good people of Tunbridge Wells via Dust & Company of the Pantiles and Nevill Street, with their own Pump Room nearby, presented the Belgian Relief Fund with a generous 10% of their takings. Mayor Emson received £26 from ‘Messers Dust & Co., being a percentage of the result of a sale of Belgian lace held in their establishment by Madame Vandervelde […] Madame is most grateful to the ladies who so kindly purchased her goods.’ An on-line convertor estimates £26 in 1914 to be equivalent to a staggering modern day total of £2754.84. My goodness, Tunbridge Wells ladies must have been smothered with lace!

       Figure 4, Kent & Sussex Courier, 20 November, 1914.p.5

This advertisement needs to be included in its entirety as it took up an entire column of a page of the local broadsheet. Proclaiming loud and clear that the procurement of lace from the Belgian Refugees was a valid and worthwhile war effort, trade and acquisition being the right response and Tunbridge Wells was proud of its women for this activity.

So after reading about the sale of Belgian Lace I then had a thoroughly lovely read through the wedding reports when lace is mentioned as both part of brides ensemble and the wedding present list, with lace handkerchiefs being a popular gift. The social etiquette surrounding weddings is very evident in this period with all these details being printed as well as the guest list.

The only wedding I could find which mentions Belgian lace directly is that of Rev. O.H. Edwards and Miss Lockett at Edenbridge, and there is a rather touching reference to ‘wounded Belgian soldiers at Eden Hall V.A.D. Hospital ‘ who had presented her with her marital bouquet.

Figure 5, Kent & Sussex Courier, 5 February, 1915, p.7

So next time you see a pile of lace jumbled in a charity shop or artfully draped over a pine towel rail in a shabby-chic shop; take a moment and consider what lace represents and how it was used as a commodity in war. Somewhere out there in vintage shops, wardrobes and suitcases in lofts or in display cabinets in regional museums examples of portable Victorian and Edwardian Belgian lace survives because of the resourceful women of Belgium: made by women, sold and bought by women and worn by women. Belgian lace sales were not particular to Tunbridge Wells but symptomatic of events all over England. Up and down the land the lace was displayed and retailed to adorn wedding dresses amongst other uses, their fine edges and trims embellishing moments of happiness within the days of trench warfare and mass loss of life.  All part of the war effort, it is truly the fabric of war, displacement and exchange.


Kent and Sussex Courier, 4 & 11 December 1914

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 27 May 1916

Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 19 December 1914.

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How were the Belgian refugees funded?: by Ken MacKenzie

With the outbreak of the war on 4 August 1914, and the speed of the initial German advance in Belgium, it became quickly clear that there would be a problem of fleeing refugees; on military grounds it was thought desirable to remove refugees away from the ports and coasts of Belgium.

The War Refugees Committee (WRC) was set up on 14 August as a voluntary body. With the help and encouragement of government agencies the embryo of the organisation was created in London, and from September, with an additional centre in Folkestone. The Local Government Board (LGB) had a central role in providing the framework and finance for dealing with the refugees from Belgium nationally, and in September the LGB stepped in to support the WRC. There was already in existence a recent blueprint for the reception and housing of refugees. The crisis over Home Rule in Ireland had reached the point in 1913 where preparations for civil war in Ulster foresaw the removal to safety in England of thousands of Protestant women and children: arrangements for their registration, transport and safe housing had been put in place by the Ulster Committee. This Committee placed at the disposal of the WRC all its preparations, down to a stock of forms for registration of the incoming refugees.

The initial national response to the refugee crisis was essentially voluntary. On 24 August the first country-wide public appeal by the WRC resulted in offers and donations from individuals and institutions that put at the disposal of the WRC within 14 days the wherewithal to provide hospitality for 100,000 refugees.

Under guidance from the WRC in London the approach adopted by local authorities around the country was the same, that is to fund the reception and housing of refugees through voluntary donations. In Tunbridge Wells Mayor Charles Emson set up a Belgian Refugees Committee in the Borough Council in mid-October, having been to London in September to consult the WRC and LGB for advice. Emson convened the first meeting of the Belgian Refugees Committee on 15 October, after issuing an appeal on 14 October for donations to a municipal fund (from the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser, 16 October 1914).

Money was needed to enable the Belgian Refugees Committee to take advantage of offers of accommodation which had already been received. Local newspapers also published the names of those who had made donations, or subscriptions.

The official report of the Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees Committee at the end of the war recorded that between October 1914 and March 1919 the Committee had provided accommodation – in hostels, rented furnished houses and premises provided rent free – for 131 refugees over the course of the period at an approximate cost of £80 per week (approximately equivalent to £5000 at today’s prices).

Until December 1915 the work of the Committee had been funded to the tune of £6,476 (£686,195 today), without, as the report put it, “asking the London Committee to give any financial assistance”. In other words this was all money collected from public subscriptions in Tunbridge Wells. The Borough Council also contributed to the welfare of the refugees in less tangible means, by for instance, not demanding rates (the equivalent to today’s Council Tax) where houses were occupied by Belgian refugees, or waiving claim to any proportion of school fees in respect of Belgian refugee children. In effect refugee children were given free schooling in the Borough.

Over time however private donations and hospitality began to gradually fall off, and in January 1915 the Local Government Board had sent a memo to local councils noting this falling off, and stating that the care of refugees was a national obligation, and that the War Refugees Committee would pay local authorities 10/- a week (£53 equivalent today) to accommodate refugees. It was not until December 1915 that Tunbridge Wells needed to call on central government funds.

The Borough Belgian Refugees Committee’s 1919 report goes on to record that from December 1915 to August 1917, the Central War Refugees Committee contributed half of the cost of maintenance of the refugees, and from August 1917 the whole cost of their maintenance. The Financial Statement of Account of the WRC with LGB for the year to 31 March 1916 shows that Tunbridge Wells received £30 for the first 3 months of 1916 (£2833 equivalent today).

The following year saw Tunbridge Wells receive £1,042. The report gives the total amount contributed by the WRC to Tunbridge Wells’s refugee expenses as £6,564 (£524,421 now).

By 1917 of course some refugees had returned home to Belgium and many had found employment to support themselves. The average expenditure of the local committee during the whole period of the war is given as £50 per week. In addition at the end of the war grants were also needed in a few cases to assist in the repatriation of Belgian families back home.


  • Borough of Royal Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees Committee report, October 1915 (sic) to March 1919
  • War Refugees Committee, article by W.E.Dowding, Imperial War Museum, BEL 14/4
  • Memorandum on the Reception of Belgian Refugees January 1915, War Refugees Committee, Imperial War Museum BEL 1/2/7
  • Tunbridge Wells Advertiser, 16 October 1914
  • Financial Statement of Account of the War Refugees Committee with Local Government Board, to March 31st, 1916
  • ThisisMoney price and inflation calculator. As there was serious inflation during the war years 1914-1918 the current equivalent of contemporary values differs for each year eg £80 in 1915 was worth the equivalent of £,476 now, £80 in 1916 = £7,554 now, £80 in 1917 = £6,391 and £80 in 1918 = £5,096 now.


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The Belgian Refugees’ links with St Augustine’s Catholic Church: by Terry Farrage and Kenneth MacKenzie

Belgium was and still is a predominantly Catholic country. Although there were a few Protestants among the refugees who came to Tunbridge Wells the overwhelming majority, Flemings and Walloons, were strongly of the Catholic faith.

Inevitably they sought out the Roman Catholic church in the town, St Augustine’s, which was situated until 1967 on the corner of Grosvenor Road and Hanover Street in the centre of the town (where Tesco now stands). Built in the Palladian style in 1838, the church stood opposite Tunbridge Wells’s General Hospital where wounded British and Belgian soldiers were cared for. Many of these also attended services in St Augustine’s.


Photo of St Augustine’s with the school next door 

The parish priest was Canon James Keatinge (at St Augustine’s from 1906 to 1923), who took a leading part in welcoming the Belgian refugees and worked with those organising the reception of the refugees to find accommodation and provide hospitality. The refugees made St Augustine’s their spiritual home, and had the services in particular of two Belgian refugee priests. These were Abbe Louis Lemmens from SS Peter & Paul Church in Malines (Mechelen) and Abbe Josef Peeters from Lint near Antwerp.

Canon James Keatinge

 Abbe Lemmens was resident in Tunbridge Wells for 10 months. An advertisement in the Courier in October 1914 requested a small house of 4 rooms, 5 minutes from the church, and with a rent of not more than £1 a week. Whether a suitable house was found is not known, but in February Lemmens moved to 12, Beltring Road. In August 1915 he left Tunbridge Wells to return to Malines, and expressed his thanks in a letter for everything done by the Mayor and his Committee for the refugees, and in particular for the way in which their religious needs had been respected. The letter was published, in French, in the Courier.


Letter from Abbe Lemmens published in the Courier

Rough translation :

Before leaving your hospitable town of Tunbridge Wells, I must thank you most sincerely for all your kindness to aour dear compatriots.  For more than 10 months I have witnessed with my own eyes the well-being you have secured for them, and above all, as Catholic priest, I have greatly appreciated how our religious needs have been respected.  The Mayor of Tunbridge Wells and his worthy Committee truly merit all our praise and all our thanks.  I express them here, in the hope of repeating them before my departure.”

Abbe Peeters commuted up from St Leonards throughout the war and returned to his church in Lint at the end of the war.

Masses were also held in private houses – as this image from The Graphic newspaper of 21 November 1914, found by volunteer Jan Wright in the British Newspaper Archive, shows.

The caption reads: “Solace for Belgian Refugees in Britain, celebrating mass in an English private house” and describes how the hall of a house “near Tunbridge [sic] where Belgian refugees, both military and civilian, are being tended under the Red Cross”  had been converted into a chapel.  This could perhaps be Quarry Hill House VAD hospital, or maybe the VAD hospital at Bidborough Court?

In May 1915 the Bishop of Malines, Dr Wachter, representative of Belgium’s Cardinal Mercier, visited Tunbridge Wells, an event covered at great length in the local press. In addition to taking part in Masses at St Augustine’s and preaching in English, French and Flemish, the Bishop met his fellow countrymen at St Augustine’s School and was received by the Mayor at a reception in the Pump Room to which all who had contributed to the Mayor’s Belgian Relief Fund were invited. Dr Wachter expressed his gratitude that although there were only a small number of Catholics in the town, the Belgians had been welcomed as “dearly beloved brethren”.

There appear to be no figures for the number of Belgians who attended St Augustine’s. The local Catholic congregation was small and must have been considerably swollen by the Belgians and their families. Certainly the number of masses celebrated during the week at the church had to be increased to cater for the temporary increase in the Catholic population of Tunbridge Wells.

At the start of the war there was already one Catholic convent in the town, the Blessed Sacrament. Canon Keatinge was keen to expand the number of nuns in the town, and had already tried to encourage the Society of the Sacred Heart to open another convent at Beechwood House in 1911 but the idea was turned down. However the arrival of a group of 11 nuns of the Order fleeing from Belgium at the beginning of the war saw the proposal revived. Beechwood Sacred Heart Convent and School was established in February 1915 by these nuns, in the house on Pembury Road, with 9 pupils, some of them Belgian refugee children. Beechwood Sacred Heart School still exists today but ceased to be a convent school as such in 1963.

Beechwood Sacred Heart Convent and School

During the war there were several deaths of refugees in Tunbridge Wells. Hippolyte Meeus was the popular and long-standing mayor of Wynegem, a small town south-west of Antwerp, which was on the route of the German advance into Antwerp. Wary of the Germans who had treated prominent citizens and priests of small towns and villages badly, M. Meeus left his home with his wife and extended family for safety in Tunbridge Wells. Both in their 60s and relatively well-off, M and Mme Meeus lived at 4, Nevill Park, and played a prominent part in the life of the Belgian refugee community in Tunbridge Wells – as can be seen in this post on the Club Albert.  Sadly they both died in Tunbridge Wells just weeks apart in 1915, Isabelle in June and Hippolyte in October. Lavish funerals were held at St Augustine’s, and detailed reports of the funerals appeared in the Courier, which described the streets lined with onlookers as a cortege of carriages made the journey from the church to the cemetery. The Requiem Masses were splendid and the church was draped in black. The occasions clearly made an impact on the town. Unlike other member of the Belgian community who sadly passed away during their time in Tunbridge Wells, M and Mme Meeus were not buried in the town’s cemetery, but laid temporarily to rest in the Cemetery Mortuary Chapel until they could be repatriated and buried in the family grave in Wynegem.


Registration document of Abbe Louis Lemmens


Registration document of Abbe Peeters showing a temporary move from Hastings to Ilfracombe



John Cunningham, 75 Years of St Augustine’s Parish, Tunbridge Wells 1838-2013

Alison Sandford MacKenzie, ‘Belgian Refugees in Tunbridge Wells’, in J. Cunningham (ed) The Shock of War, Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society, 2014.

Kent & Sussex  Courier

Refugee Registration documents in the National Archives in Brussels, Belgium

Original research by Terry Farrage, member of the congregation of St Augustine’s



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Belgians in Southborough: by Fiona Brown

In 1914 Southborough was quite a small village, separated by three miles of open country from the more elegant Tunbridge Wells but very much connected to High Brooms with its Brick Works and Railway station.  I am fascinated by the significant proportion of the 300 or so refugees from Belgium who found themselves living in the same bit of Southborough  in which I have made my home.  Number 9 Argyle Rd was, at that time, a girls’ boarding school run by Ellen Watson.  Ellen devoted her lifetime to the education of girls from 1881 to 1922.  Further up Pennington Road, Ellen’s neighbour Robertina Crothers was living a very different life.

Robertina Crothers was appointed with 23 others to serve on Mayor Emson’s committee for Belgian Refugees on 15th October 1914.  Robertina owned a very large house in what has now become Colonel’s Way (later known as Crothers VAD hospital) but was living in another impressive  house, which she also owned, near the London Road end of Pennington.  She was one of the first people to offer accommodation to the Belgians.  A Courier article of 18th September 1914 reported that 72 Pennington Rd had been “placed at the disposal of the Committee”.

72 Pennington Road/Crothers hospital

The photo above shows a large property, set in extensive grounds, providing accommodation for two  large Belgian families: the Denyns – six children between the ages of 10 and 19, their parents and an aunt (Mrs. Denyn’s sister); also the Van Noyens, a mother and father plus five youngsters between 13 and 20.

The Denyn children are listed in the “Scott  Album” by name as Madeleine, Juliette, Adolphe, Jeanne, Laura, and Emma, with their parents Joseph, the famous carilloneur of Malines Cathedral, and Helene. The two older children were sent away to school in London while the four younger ones attended the Mark Cross Convent – which later became the home of the Legat Ballet School (where I attended rehearsals for a production of “The Crucible” in 1990 and found it an interesting but somewhat creepy building with winding corridors and small , dark rooms!) and then an Islamic boarding school.

In Feb 1915, the Denyns were listed in a document regarding the employment of Belgian males” held in Maidstone Archives as the only Belgians living in Southborough.

Sometime after that they moved to 3 East Cliff Road where they remained until early 1918. The youngest daughter Emma died aged  12 on 28 September 1916 at 3 East Cliff Road – cause of death “Status Epilepticus”.  Her mother, Helene Denyn died a year later on 23rd Sepember 1917 from pneumonia, also at number 3 Eastcliff Rd. Both are buried at Hawkenbury Cemetary.

The other family housed in Southborough courtesy of Robertina Crothers were the Van Noyen family: banker Armand, his wife, and 5 of their 6 children, a daughter and 4 sons.

In the 1911 census, apart from the 13 pupils registered as living at Argyle House School with 71 year old head of the school, Ellen Watson,  was a 27 year old Belgian woman teacher – Elvire Meternach; nothing more is known about Elvire though it can be supposed that she taught the girls some French during her stay, this of course was four years previous to the arrival of the other two families.

The Kent and Sussex Courier of 30/06/1916 has a glowing account of “a Garden Play” entitled ‘The Bride of the Emperor’ being performed by Argyle House pupils up at the Crothers Hospital for the wounded soldiers being cared for up there . The audience numbered over 200 and the girls spoke up “with good dramatic force and clear enunciation.”

I like to imagine the friendship that must have flourished between the dedicated Head Teacher – Ellen Watson, obviously so devoted to her girls and to running Argyle House – and her affluent neighbour Robertina Crothers, living at the other end of Pennington Road but spending a great deal of time travelling in Europe with her great friend Miss Lushington.

I like to picture the two neighbours planning welcoming and fund raising events together, both for the Belgian refugee families, suddenly in their midst until they moved up the London Road to what is now St John’s — and later on for the benefit of the wounded and recovering soldiers.

One last, somewhat sad little event among the many recorded, was of a young Belgian lad living at 72 Pennington Road – perhaps 13 year-old Hector Van Noyen? –  being knocked off his bike at the junction of Speldhurst and London road and taken in by Mrs Blackburn Maze, with bruises and a badly smashed up bike. So that road junction was hazardous back in October 1914. (reported in Courier of 30th October 1914)



More about the Van Noyen family from Alison MacKenzie:

Youngest son Hector was at Skinners 1914- December 1917 according to The Leopard, the Skinner’s School magazine, of the time.  The other 3 sons were students in London and the oldest had joined the Belgian Army,

Armand Van Noyen was on the Committee of the Club Albert in December 1914, but not in July 1916 when the album was presented to the Misses Scott, and the fact that he was not on the list of Belgian men available for work in February 1915 suggests they had left the area by then.

However we do have registration documents for daughter Yvonne which show that she moved from Pennington Road to 52 Warwick Park in summer 1915, and then in early 1916 moved on to work as a nurse at the Eye and Ear Hospital, 22 Mount Sion; from where she went to Cheshire in the autumn of 1916.  The family had left the area by January 1917 according to Armand Van Noyen’s registration document.



Report of the Tunbridge Wells Refugees’ Committee 1919

Kent and Sussex Courier


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