Stories from Cobham Remembers
Cobham Remembers - Belgian Refugees in Cobham
Official records estimate that 250,000 refugees came to the UK from Belgium during WW1, the largest single influx in the country's history (BBC News magazine September 2014) and most were taken in to private homes.
The exodus started in August and the Cobham Parish Magazine (October 1914) reported that the secretary of the Cobham War Relief Fund Committee had just received from the Local Government Board a notice saying that further help in providing for Belgian Refugees would be welcomed by the Government. “They feel sure that there are many persons in this country who would wish to show their sympathy for the sufferings which Belgium has endured, as well as their admiration for the valour and courage of her army, and who would be willing to give temporary accommodation to some of these refugees”. Readers who were willing to help were asked to contact the Honorary Secretary L G Evans, Doonside, Cobham clearly stating “(1) the number of adults or children, or both, for whom they are ready to provide, and (2) the period of time during which the offered hospitality may be counted upon”.
Sir Henry and Lady Samuelson provided a home at Hatchford to some eighteen Belgian refugees, most of whom were women and children with some married men who came with their wives after acting as civic guards but who were disarmed by order of the Government. It was made clear to avoid criticism that they were running away from the fight that two men who came had since gone back, one to fight in Belgium and one in France.
The Vicar wrote “It is a great pleasure to us all to have representatives of this splendidly heroic little nation here in our midst and we cannot show in a better way the gratitude we owe to Belgium for what they have done for us and for indeed the whole of Europe than by joining in this warm welcome that is being given to these representatives of the nation in our midst. Some, in their ignorance, might imagine that all able-bodied Belgians could go back and join their army, but this is not easy to arrange in a small country that is harried by the enemy from end to end, and nearly the whole country overrun with soldiers, burning, pillaging and shooting, all men and women being driven out or shot down”.
In November 1914 it was noted that Sir Henry and Lady Samuelson had, in addition to providing a home for refugees, converted the two best bedrooms and the billiard room in their house at Hatchford into a convalescent home for wounded Belgian Soldiers.
By February 1915 Colonel Trollope, a member of the committee of the Cobham War Relief Fund, was able to report “It will probably be a matter of great interest to have some record of what is being done in our midst for those of that unhappy country Belgium who have come to us as welcome guests taking refuge from the frightful and merciless persecution so many of their fellow countrymen and women have experienced at the ruthless hands of the German soldiers. The largest community is probably that located at “Fairfield” [Green Lane], which excellent house was placed at the disposal of a small committee of ladies by the family of our late neighbour, Mr H Sanderson Poole. As soon as the scheme was mooted and made known a most generous response was made both to the request for a loan of the necessary furniture and also for funds sufficient to sustain a party of 20 persons for 6 months. Everything so far has worked smoothly and the committee were very fortunate in securing the gratuitous services of a lady, Miss Prout, who resides at Fairfield and superintends the housekeeping and general arrangements.”
The party at Fairfield comprised:
Madame Van den Eynde (age 70)
Monsieur and Madame Bogaert, son-in-law and daughter.
Monsieur and Madame Van Boxel, son-in-law and daughter
Rene and Maria Van Boxel, their children.
Monsieur and Madame Leclercq (ages 69 and 67)
Monsieur and Madame Leclercq, junior
Mlle Germains (sic) Leclercq, their daughter
Madame Brigode (nee Leclercq) husband in Brussels
Helene and Horace Brigode, their children
Monsieur J Schmidt, who has a little employment in London
Madame Schmidt; Joseph, Charles and Fernand Schmidt, their children.
“All these people came to Fairfield through HRH the Duchess of Vendome's Hostel at Wimbledon, and they arrived in this country with little more than the clothes they had on. All are learning English and the children of suitable age attend the National Schools. The men of the party are seeking suitable employment and hope soon to be successful.”
According to a Rates List of 1915 flats were made available for use of refugees over what is now part of Farrants and on the other side of the Cobham High Street above what is now Savilles.
National support for the refugees was initially widespread, but resentment grew until, when the war was over and the returning soldiers needed jobs, the government offered free one-way tickets back to Belgium. Also Belgium had to be rebuilt and within the year after the war the majority of refugees had returned home.