Belgian Refugees - Times Past

In partnership with the Glasgow Times, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Nerys Tunnicliffe writes about Belgian refugees.


On 19 October 1914 a train arrived at Glasgow Central carrying 900 Belgian refugees. They were part of the 250,000 refugees to arrive in Britain, escaping a brutal German invasion, and more would come to the city.


Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, with much violence and executions of civilians. Survivors were forced to flee on foot as the German army advanced and thousands of Belgian families crossed over the borders into France and Holland, eventually arriving into the ports of Folkstone and Dover, carrying only limited possessions. It was then an unprecedented crisis and the government decided to send groups to many different areas to relieve the pressure on London. In October 1914, Glasgow Corporation was chosen to organise the Scottish arm of assistance. 


At that time Glasgow was Britain’s ‘Second City’, with a population of over 1 million, booming industries, advanced transport and utilities systems. Despite the city’s significant poverty, ill-health and overcrowding issues, Glasgow Corporation’s investment in welfare care was ahead of its time. Glasgow city was viewed as the ideal choice to provide assistance to the refugees, with its experience in delivering social care services.


The Belgian Refugee Committee was formed, and it set about making arranging lodging, healthcare and work for the refugees. The plight of the refugees moved many Glaswegians and Scottish families to welcome refugees in their homes. Former Lord Provost Sir James Bell and several councillors hosted refugees at their homes, and M.P Sir John Stirling-Maxwell, owner of Pollok House, accommodated refugees on his estate. Many did expect the war to be over quickly, but that does not diminish the kindness shown towards the refugees.


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There were public appeals for funds to help the Belgians, and cash records in the City Archives show money received from many different groups, churches, guilds, trade unions and the Scottish Co-operative. There was an Old Firm football match to raise funds, and other events included lectures, concerts and plays.


The Belgian Relief Committee kept a register, now held at the City Archives, of around 8,000 refugees recording their names, origins, occupations, and Scottish addresses. Registration helped reunite families and distribute relief to those most in need. However, it was useful for the authorities to know the skills of the incomers in mind of the growing war effort. Some now forgotten occupations recorded were chocolatiers and chair-bottomers, pit pony boys and paper bag makers. Most were given work in Scottish munitions factories or covered the work of men away fighting in the war. 


Sadly not all the refugees recovered from their ordeal and the archives hold lists of some burials of those who died in Scotland. Initially a monument was planned in their memory at St Peter’s Cemetery Dalbeth, although this was never completed.


In total the city hosted 20,000 of the refugees who came to Scotland. When the war ended, the Belgians quickly returned to rebuild their country on ships like the SS Khyber in the image above (showing refugees with members of the Belgian Relief Committee in 1919) and today the committee records and register are one of the few traces of this now largely forgotten crisis. 


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