Anyone in the habit of examining archive material will know how easy it is to become distracted. Looking through scans of the register for Greenford Park Cemetery, in a search for First World War Russian pilots, I came across some intriguing entries. “Was Comp”. Was compensated? “Ref Comp”. Refused compensation? Compensation for what? They were accompanied by names that sounded French or Dutch, alongside ages, most under a year old, the bare minimum of information scribbled in. Eventually, in 1916, someone with clearer handwriting and a greater sense of duty wrote the following:
Wednesday 27 Sep. 1916
10510 in 10491
De Bock Magdalena 7 mons
The War Refugee Camp Earls Court S.W.
Rev Father W.A Wright
J Golborn Fulham W.
Seven month old Magdalena De Bock was the child of Belgian refugees.
One hundred years to the day that the First World War ended, she reminds us why we have a war memorial with the names of local men on it. Their graves are hundreds of miles away in the countries where they fell, while the children of the Belgians some of them sought to avenge lie among their relatives and neighbours, in Greenford, Middlesex. On the 4th August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, in an effort to reach France, on which it had declared war the previous day. Britain declared war immediately on Germany. Stories of the appalling atrocities committed by the advancing German army reached the British public quickly. Mass executions, the murder of civilians, sometimes hundreds at a time, at others randomly and on impulse, rape, looting.
In Greenford, twenty year old carpenter and labourer James Hutt decided to enlist. In Zele, near the town of Dendermonde in Belgium, Gustave De Bock, a flax worker in his late forties, did what every other sensible man who was able to was doing at the time. He took his family as far away as he could. Married with five children aged between sixteen and two, he and his wife Maria, Louisa, Cesar, Elina, Irma and Maurice joined over one million other Belgians as they fled the fighting. They were probably already on the move when an attack on Dendermonde on the 4th September 1914 left the ancient and prosperous town in ruins.
As I think of this family’s desperate escape I am reminded of the news footage I have seen over the years of refugees, and in particular of those from the former Yugoslavia. At the time it was a shock to see such terrible things happening to people who looked a lot like us. They must have wondered, as they carried what they could into an uncertain future, what would happen to all the precious things they left behind them, the relatives who could not accompany them, their homes and cherished heirlooms.
Many Belgian refugees headed towards the Netherlands where they spent the war, others went to France, but around a quarter of a million of them, including the De Bock family, left for Britain. Using whatever means they could they crossed the Channel, arriving in their thousands. On the 14th October 1914 Folkestone received 16,000 refugees in one day. Across the United Kingdom clothes and toys were collected for distribution to those who arrived only with what they were wearing. Refugee reception centres were set up at Alexandra Palace and Earls Court in London, the latter eventually had 100,000 refugees pass through it. Many towns set up committees and arranged to take in Belgian families, making every effort to welcome them. The Belgian government built and managed villages in which communities of refugees had access to schools that taught in French and Flemish.
The De Bock family began to generate a paper trail, as every time refugees moved to a new address they were obliged to inform the police, and the documentation still exists, in an archive in Belgium, where Alison Sandford MacKenzie, who researches the stories of Belgian refugees in Royal Tunbridge Wells for her blog was able to find it for me. Their undated entry on the Central Refugee Register includes their address in Belgium, their names and ages, Gustave’s occupation and a series of addresses as they moved around. It’s difficult to make out some of the handwriting but one, possibly the first, could be Colnbrook, which suggests they may first have stayed near Slough in Berkshire.
The first firm reference to an address is in South Yorkshire, where another document tells us that Gustave and his family were living in July 1915, at Wharncliffe Silkstone, near Tankersley. At that stage he was described as an agricultural labourer. Chris Jones of The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery was able to tell me what the area was like at the time.
“Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery was only one of several collieries in and immediately around the parish of Tankersley, around 7 miles from Barnsley in South Yorkshire. The smallest settlement closest to the pit itself was Pilley. The main landholders included Earl Fitzwilliam, of Wentworth Woodhouse, and the Earl of Wharncliffe whose seat was at Wortley Hall.
Tankersley itself was described as a small mining village in 1914, at the time of the WSC pit disaster. The parish population was recorded as 2,423 in the 1911 Census, but that belies the working population of the pits who travelled short distances from neighbouring areas; Wharncliffe Silkstone pit itself employed around 1,400 men and boys, with around 1000 underground working several seams, collectively producing 10,000 tons per week. Other nearby industrial concerns included the Tankersley and Rockingham Collieries belonging to the very large coal, iron and chemical business of Newton Chambers & Co Ltd of Thorncliffe in the neighbouring parish of Ecclesfield. Hoyland Silkstone Colliery in Hoyland Nether was nearby, and several of Earl Fitzwilliam’s own collieries in and around Elsecar.”
That makes it seem as though it was a very grim industrial environment but as Chris explained “It would be wrong to think of the landscape as being black, for green fields were surrounding the steaming chimneys. There would be plenty for agricultural labourers to do. The estate land of the Earls Fitzwilliam and Wharncliffe were a mixture of enclosed fields and deer parks. Tankersley’s binding the earliest enclosed deer park. Agricultural land was rented out to tenant farmers. Surface ironstone mining in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries disrupted the larger swathes of parkland which later became farmers fields.”
The people of Yorkshire had welcomed Belgians, raising money and organising places to stay for a number of families. Entertainments such as concerts were organised for them. However, news of the treatment by the German army of their countrymen who had remained, of food shortages and starvation, and of their use as forced labour must have reached them. Their first language was Flemish and it must have been difficult to make themselves understood and, at times, cope with the stress of exile, despite the generosity and best efforts of their hosts. It may have been a challenge for Gustave, as the head of a family of seven that was about to gain another member, to earn enough to keep them all. Unfortunately they may also have become aware of growing calls for male refugees of suitable age to join the fight. It was hard for some to know the risks their own sons were facing at the front and at the same time see young men of the same age in the streets, especially after conscription was introduced. Gustave would have been at the end of the age range for military service and his oldest son Cesar was too young but they may still have been aware of some hostility. In July 1915 Gustave declared his intention to take his family to the refugee camp at Earls Court in London.
Thus it was that Magdalena De Bock was born in London, on the 16th February 1916. It is interesting to note that, while her father was described, at the time her birth was registered, as a “general labourer of Earls Court Camp” her place of birth is given as 28 Marloes Road. I thought that this might mean that she had been born at a private address or at the Kensington Infirmary which was once there but Veronika Chambers, of the website “Lost Hospitals of London” told me “No. 28 Marloes Road would have been used as a ‘place of birth’ address to avoid stigmatising a child being born in the workhouse. No. 28 was the offices for the Guardians of the Kensington workhouse, but undoubtedly the child would have been born in the workhouse. I suppose it was a kindness really. Many other workhouses used street addresses rather than a workhouse name for birth certificates.”
I suspect the camp itself would have been an unsuitable place for Maria to have had her baby and the workhouse facilities provided the next best option. I doubt whether many Londoners are aware that around 100,000 Belgian refugees had passed through the War Refugee Camp by the end of the war or that it was even there, so little evidence remains of their presence. Earls Court housed 4000 refugees at a time, sleeping in beds in the huge exhibition halls, with little privacy. A painting by Henry Rushbury showing a group of residents with their children is a rather romanticised depiction of it.
Magdalena’s brief life, the whole of which was spent as a displaced person at the Earls Court camp, coincided with some of the best known battles of the First World War. The Battle of Verdun began a week after her birth. The Battle of Jutland took place during her life. Tanks came into use for the first time at the Somme. Romania and Italy entered the war. Ireland witnessed the Easter Rising. I doubt if the De Bocks cared much about what was happening across the Channel because, on the 22nd September 1916, their youngest child died. Even today, in such an environment it might have been difficult to avoid gastroenteritis which often proves fatal for babies. They were not alone in their loss, I came across burial records for at least fifteen children under a year old as well as adults who died at the War Refugee Camp and have their graves at Greenford Park Cemetery. There is no way of knowing whether or how often they were visited but their families were not able to to buy plots or pay for memorials, so their loved ones were in graves shared with strangers and after a while it may have been difficult to remember where they were. Today their location is within sight of a section of the cemetery devoted to children. Brightly coloured balloons drift over them, there are teddy bears, flowers and statues to show every passing visitor how precious they are. I have no doubt that, had they been able to, those Belgian families would have lavished as much attention on the graves of their infants as parents do now.
The fact that Gustave, Maria and their surviving children spent so long at the camp suggests that they were not in a position yet to afford their own accommodation or that there was none to be had. According to Christophe Declercq of the Online Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees, “In the spring of 1915, pressure on local housing provision in Fulham even triggered a true anti-Belgian riot by local people.”
Despite this, the records show that in March 1917 they had found a new home at 39 Heckfield Place, off Fulham Road, close to its junction with North End Road. They moved again to 42 Heckfield Place in July which suggested to me that it was a tenement as I knew from past research that families would sometimes move from one flat to another over a number of years as their family grew or shrank and their needs changed. This was confirmed by an archivist for the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham who has seen photographs of the building. She thought that, as some had been taken by the local health authority and included images of its demolition there may have been concerns about its quality. Even so this may be the place that Albert was born to Gustave and Maria in the late summer of 1917. It seems to have been an area with plenty of opportunities for employment and Gustave found work as a butter hand.
I learned this from one of the final entries in the De Bock family records. On the 23rd November 1917 Gustave and the others embarked at Southampton, on the way to Le Havre in France, “to take up employment under the Belgian Government”. By now the issue of the failure of Belgian men to be part of the war effort had been resolved as a consequence of the shortage of munitions. There was such a need for them that refugees, both men and women, were taken on by existing British companies as well as by Belgian ones in the UK. An example was the Pelabon Works. Christophe Declercq told me “Very likely employment was at a munition factory, run by the Belgian government. Like in the UK, the Belgian government operated or co-ran several munition factories. Or if a Belgian-owned factory was involved in the respective war effort, the Belgian government would oversee employment to some extent.”
My last piece of information about the De Bock family, before they disappear into the past, is a final change of address notification. On the 8th October 1918 they returned to Heckfield Place, this time to no. 19, just over a month before the Armistice. I don’t know why they returned, or even if they stayed or joined the ninety per cent of refugees who went home to Belgium as soon as they could. They left more than memories behind them if they did.
If Magdalena had been born in the peace and comfort of her family’s home in Zele rather than a refugee camp would she had survived? Her mother had borne five other healthy children before they were forced to leave. At Greenford Park Cemetery she has an irregular honour guard of soldiers, sailors and airmen of two world wars with their CWGC headstones. I believe hers is as much a war grave as that of any combatant or civilian who came under fire, yet there is nothing to tell us that she and the others are there. Only the registrations of her birth and death, and an entry in a cemetery register indicate that she even existed. Insignificant to most, but as precious to her family as a soldier left in foreign ground.
This post is dedicated to the unknown clerk who made the clear and detailed entry about Magdalena in the cemetery register in 1916.
I could not have written this post without the generous help of people who are passionate about their local and national history.
I am particularly grateful to Alison Sandford MacKenzie who took the time to provide me with some of the De Bock family’s records whilst doing research for her own blog BelgiansRTW
Chris Jones, The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery
Veronika Chambers, Lost Hospitals of London
Christophe Declercq, Online Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees
A review of a book about the attack on Dendermonde can be found on Willy Van Damme’s Weblog
The BBC’s page on Belgian refugees in the First World War.
An excellent article by Bill Lawrence of Mexborough and District Heritage Society.
Christophe Declercq’s informative, illustrated article on Belgian refugees in the UK.
Text © Albertina McNeill 2018 with the exception of quotations. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.