Belgian refugees at MGC Kindergarten

Published: Thursday 23 June 2016
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Belgian Refugee children alongside their British classmates at MGC Kindergarten, c1914-1915. [Temp ref: MGC/PH/Miss Payne’s]

Every now and then I come across things in the archives that I just really like and want to share. The photo to the right, I found recently while looking for something completely different, is one of those items.

It’s a photo of children at the kindergarten which was attached to Maria Grey College, and was taken c1914 – 1915. Maria Grey College went on to become Brunel’s Twickenham campus, but back in 1914 it was situated in Brondesbury, London (the building later became Brondesbury and Kilburn High School).

What particularly struck me about this photo is that written on the back are the words “taken by Doris Adams 1914 – 1915. Belgian refugees in front”.  I then went back through the folder of photos and was able to identify two more photos containing the same Belgian refugee children, in which they are playing in the playground and being read to, alongside their English classmates.

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But what were these Belgian children doing in a kindergarten in London?

At the outbreak of WW1, hundreds of thousands of Belgian civilians fled the advancing German army. Archives relating to this exodus are patchy, but estimations of the numbers of Belgian refugees who arrived in Britain vary from between 225,000 and 265,000. On 14 October 1914 Folkestone saw the arrival of 16,000 Belgian refugees in a single day.

The War Refugees Committee coordinated a network of voluntary relief work. Within two weeks of publishing an appeal for accommodation, it had received 100,000 offers. More than 2,500 local committees, supported by local authorities, were set up across the country. Hundreds of charity initiatives and events were organised. The refugees were spread to localities across Britain and were given jobs and housed by local people. Few communities in the UK were unaffected by their arrival.

Portrayed in the press as courageous and plucky, their situation was used to encourage anti-German sentiment and public support for the war. As the refugees were white and Catholic they did not stand out in the almost mono-cultural British society of the early 20th C and helping the Belgian refugees was part of doing one’s bit in the war effort from the home front.

Within 12 months of the end of WW1 more than 90% of the Belgians had returned home. The Belgium government needed people to return to rebuild their country. The few Belgians that did stay integrated into British life. Many married Britons they had met while in the country.

It was the largest influx of refugees in British history, yet today there is very little evidence to show they were here at all.

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Page last updated: Friday 24 June 2016