HoC - People and Parish - Belgian Refugees

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The Hostel for Belgian Refugees

Following the fall of Antwerp in August 1914 many Belgians fled the country. Between August 1914 and May 1915 it is estimate some 250,000 Belgians made their way to the UK. On October 11th 1914, the call went out from Chiswick Town Hall for help in supporting those in need. There was generalized sympathy towards ‘plucky little Belgium’ and the congregation of St Michael’s, Sutton Court,along with other local churches, duly rose to the challenge.

Wellesley House, 20 Wellesley Road was placed at the church’s disposal through the generosity of Dr and Mrs Greville of Kew. The Town Hall advised, at a meeting on October 26th, that the Hostel should accept only those of the ‘better class, or in other words ladies and gentlemen of our own position who have lost all their possessions except a few hundred francs and who are perhaps more deserving of our sympathy than those of the peasant class’ – sentiments alien to our ears but perhaps indicative of the social mores of the time.

Mrs Shelford, wife of the vicar, is recorded in the Parish Magazine as having ‘made a strong appeal for sympathy, andexpressed a hope that we would all do our best to make the house as comfortable and homelike as we should like it to be if we were in a similar position to our guests’. This worthy sentiment appears to have been taken
to heart as subsequent efforts demonstrate.

On the 25th November, Mr J A Bennett, Manager at Litchfield & Co Architectural and Decorative Experts, gave an illustrated lecture entitled ‘English Homes and Furniture of the 17th and 18th Century’. Tickets for this event were priced at 6d with all proceeds going to the Hostel. The event raised £1. 4s 6d. Interval refreshments were followed by songs from Misses Robertson, Howard and Piper while the vicar and choirboys ‘did Tipperary’ and tried to sing the Allies National Anthems. All in all it was reckoned a great success and described in the Parish Magazine as ‘a red letter evening’.

The particular efforts of sundry parishioners are mentioned by name; Mr Thresher spent two and a half days collecting donated items on carts loaned by Messers Fromow, Pickering & Gregory. Mr Marsh dealt with minor repairs to Wellesley House aided as required by the Church Wardens. Despite her best intentions to assist, Mrs Shelford is recorded as being unwell and therefore somewhat restricted in her ability to offer practical help. However, Mrs Ray is recorded as having stepped into the breach supported by Mrs Drage, Mrs Coombs, Mrs Howard and Mrs Mitchell. Mrs Mudge, daughter of Professor Gwinnell of 34 Barrowgate Rd, was appointed as Matron of the Hostel. Mrs Shelford was appointed as treasurer and an account opened at the Chiswick branch of the London County and Westminster Bank. On Tuesday 3rd of November the first refugee guests arrived consisting of a party of six ladies, five men, three boys and two servants.

Mrs Mudge’s appointment proved to be of short duration. In December 1914 it was decided that her services were not required as the role could be taken on by Madame Stevens, a woman described as a capable business women who was also mistress of the two Belgian servants. Each refugee had a weekly allowance of 7s 6d per person to cover the cost of servants, laundry and food. These funds were
administered by Madame Stevens.

The dilemmas and difficulties of the refugee are well exemplified by the circumstances of one M Itschert. Having found sanctuary at the vicarage, M Itschert decided to return to Antwerp via Rotterdam to attend to his business affairs. He urged his wife and son to return too
but Madame Itschert was reluctant since going would have meant leaving her parents at the Hostel. Eventually she made the difficult decision to return to mainland Europe with her son but once there wisely remained in neutral Holland. The Parish Magazine registered general disapproval of M Itschert’s stance ‘We feel that M Itschert is very much to blame in urging her to go but we have no control over our guests movements’.

On the 11th December the refugees organised an ‘At Home’ for members of the Hostel organising committee and other friends. By all accounts it seems to have been a jolly gathering. Dr and Mrs Greville provided a ‘lady violinist’ and ‘excellent amateur conjuror’. Miss Irene Howard and the vicar sang during the interval when coffee and cakes were dispensed by Madame Stevens. It is recorded that she ‘showed us what coffee ought to be’. Similarly, M Joseph Soeteway in ‘evidently carefully prepared excellent English’ voiced the gratitude of the group. The vicar responded with, it was noted, a ‘somewhat stumbling effort’ in French but resolved to come better prepared next time!

By December 1914 the Hostel had twenty guests and was full. Madame Stevens proved to be such a good manager that the church felt justified in ‘undertaking to pay nominal rent of a guinea on a furnished house in Cedars Road for a refugee family who had sufficient funds of their own to pay for their own board’. This initiative increased the overall weekly spend per person to 10s 6d.

On Christmas Eve members of the church sang carols at the Hostel and it was noted that several of the parishioners had by now got a French phrase or two with which to facilitate communication. The carols were well received and ‘enjoyed frequent applause’. Possibly on
the strength of this reception the choir again sang at the Hostel on January 16th 1915. This time the repertoire extended to ‘Full Fathom Five thy Father Lies’ while Mr Bennett sang ‘Songs of Araby’. It was noted that ‘the high temperature of the room lent astonishing verisimilitude’ to Mr Bennett’s offering. Despite learning a few words of French the general opinion of parishioners was that ‘we shall never learn French until the Belgians pass a self-denying ordinance not to speak English’.

The vicar’s letter in the Parish Magazine for April 1915 offers a financial update on the Hostel finances. The Cedars Road house being no longer available an unfurnished house in Barrowgate Rd wasbeing rentedfor 15s per week. Furniture was loaned by various people for the Barrowgate Rd house and the housekeeping allowance for those at Wellesley House - which now had 22 guests was 7s 10d per person per week.

As is so often the case, projects which start with such enthusiasm, as time passes, do encounter difficulties. The Hostel was no exception. For whatever reason – possibly the continuation of hostilities beyond what was expected or the demands and shortages experienced by parishioners themselves - by June 1915 the hostel was experiencing financial difficulties. While need remained as great, there were fewer subscribers and income was down. It was noted in the Parish Magazine that ‘..income scarcely covers weekly expenditure on housekeeping and leaves no margin for extras’.

The financial predicament had been compounded by a number of additional demands on funds. Money had been spent on fares for two ladies to join their husbands and parents in Louvain while a third lady had been accepted as a Red Cross nurse which had necessitated the purchase of a uniform. In addition there were two invalids among the refugee guests and providing for their needs required additional expenditure.

The financial crisis was somewhat alleviated in the short term by an appeal which raised 9s 6d per week extra andby the Town Hall agreeing to pay for the rent of the Barrowgate Road house. One of the invalids who was found to be suffering from Consumption was now an in - patient at the Brompton Hospital and the aforementioned Mr Soeteway had married and set up home elsewhere. His place in the hostel had been taken by ‘a lady and her boy’ but they were funded by the Central Belgian Committee, which had been set up to support refugees, and therefore did not make demands on Hostel funds. There remained only one man of military age at the Hostel but he had been rejected for military service on account of ill health. Funds received a further boost of £6.19s in July following a fund raising
entertainment held in the Parish hall featuring ‘The Oddities’ - described as ‘five young ladies’. It is unclear exactly what the Oddities act consisted of.

However, the financial situation deteriorated further as more people withdrew their financial support and in consequence new refugees were only admitted to the Hostel if they were fully funded by the Central Belgian Committee. Matters came to a head when the bank account was overdrawn. The vicar applied to the Central Belgian
Committee for support and they agreed to pay 5s per head per week but this still left the parish to find £5 per week to cover the cost of food, gas and clothing.

In October 1915 there was a meeting of subscribers to the Hostel to assess the situation and consider possible future action. Madame Stevens had been offered sole use of a House in Grove Park by a friend so she, her husband and two servants vacated the hostel. Since none of the remaining residents was willing to take on Madame Steven’s supervisory role it was agreed that in future eachresident would be allocated 8s per person per week and would make their own arrangements for meals and cooking etc.

It was recognised that it would be difficult for the remaining five families occupying the hostel to share one kitchen. In the event, the situation was somewhat alleviated by the departure of Madame Parmentier and her son to join M Parmentier in Putney. Similarly M Van Meerbeck left the hostel having obtained a teaching post in Bedford. Thus only three families remained together with one single woman who planned to return to Belgium. The gas company obligingly agreed to install small cookers in two of the bedrooms thereby reducing the risk of culinary tension and Dr Greville generously agreed to allow the use of the house for a further six months.

There was much discussion in respect of the possible closure of the Hostel. Only ten persons remained in the Hostel, financed by 5s per head per week from the Belgian Refugee Fund based at the Aldwych supplemented by funds from subscribers amounting to some £3. 10s per week. The departure of servants created the need to employ a charwoman for two and a half days each week.

Some idea of the on-going costs can be appreciated by the following extract from accounts detailing expenditure between 25th March 1915 and 29th September 1915.

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At a meeting in March 1916, Dr Greville indicated his willingness to extend the Wellesley Rd Hostel lease for a further six months beyond April. He also agreed to charge half the fair rent of £70pa. During this period there remained ten guests. Six of that total were invalids and one was a school boy. All the three remaining guests were able to earn sufficient money to cover the cost of clothes and provide little extras for the group. During this period the Vicar was away on active service as an army chaplain and Mrs Shelford was living away from the vicarage. Mrs Oakes of 13 Grosvenor Road volunteered to keep an eyeon the Hostel during these absences. By June 1916 there was little change to report other than that one elderly guest had been removed to hospital and one of the young men was about to join the Belgian army. The ever-accommodating Dr Greville agreed to extend the lease on Wellesley House for a further six months.

In October 1917, Revd Shelford and Mrs Shelford, with advice from Mr C S Coombs (honorary treasurer), took the decision to finally close the Hostel. The number of subscribers at this point had dwindled from 106 to 19. The few remaining guests were to be accommodated at other hostels under the control of the Central Belgian Committee at Aldwych. One family wished to stay on in Chiswick and a request was made to loan them furniture. However by December, following discussions with a Mr Collins at the Town Hall it was agreed that some guests would remain at the Hostel funded via the Town Hall Belgian Fund. The church was asked to continue lending furniture and a request was made for Mrs Oakes to continue, in Mrs Shelford’s absence, to oversee the functioning of the Hostel.

The lot of the refugee is never an easy one and to be uprooted by war from one’s home without visible means of support and become dependent on the charity of others must be traumatic. The parishioners of St Michael’s Sutton Court demonstrated considerable generosity in the way they managed, despite their own worries and anxieties, to extend a welcome and offer support to a number of those
Belgians displaced by the fall of their country to invading forces. What happened next to these exiles is not known but how interesting it would be to discover what happened to Madame Stevens and her family, to the young lady who became a Red Cross nurse or the young man who joined the Belgian army, to name but three.