The Case of John Witmeur

One day in September 1915, a year after the outbreak of the First World War, a young boy called John Witmeur left his temporary home in Baltic Street, Bridgeton to fetch some groceries. He didn’t return. John was 13, and a refugee. This is his story.


John and his family were among some 8,000 refugees who arrived in Glasgow after escaping German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. Wishing desperately to return, John decided to buy a rail ticket down to London and – we can only assume – to make his way back to the continent. John didn’t get further than the ticket inspector at Central Station.

The next morning he awoke in a ward of Duke Street hospital. He’d been rescued from the river Clyde by the Glasgow Humane Society, after attempting to take his own life. “Insane” was scrawled in red on an application for poor relief made on his behalf, and the despairing 13 year old was transferred to Gartloch Asylum. Two months later, in late November 1915, John was reunited with his mother.

There are very few records that allow us to trace the everyday experiences of Belgian refugees in Scotland during the First World War. We searched our database of Poor Relief applications however and found several applicants from Belgium, including John, who caught our eye. We then checked the records of Gartloch Asylum – held at the Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Archives – pertaining to the period in which John was interned, and found his case study accompanied by a photograph.

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