Finding Belgian Refugees through the digital archive

Wednesday 22 March saw the launch of the first in a series of workshops, run as part of a new project ‘Uncovering civilian war trauma among female Belgian refugees in Scotland during the First World War’. Delivering her lecture ‘Finding Belgian Refugees through the digital archive: developing and using First World War digital collections’, Professor Lorna Hughes, Chair of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow, provided a fascinating insight into the world of archival digitisation. Using examples from her own research into Belgian refugees in Wales during the First World War, Professor Hughes showed us how close engagement with an ever-growing collection of digital archives could ‘give voice to those on the margins of the past’, in this case the Llanfair Belgians.







To an audience of historians, researchers and archivists, Professor Hughes told the story of the Lienknechts and the Gubels, Belgian refugees who arrived in the village of Llanfair in 1915. Describing some of the techniques employed to unearth their story, for example searching digested newspaper collections to identify data clusters, Professor Hughes enhanced what we can learn about refugees from, at times, impersonal official documents with local, individual responses to the arrival of Belgians during the First World War. From letters detailing the creation of the Llanfair Belgian Refugees Committee to ‘Thank You’ cards from those refugees for the people of Llanfair’s ‘great kindness’, it became clear that, by going beyond official documents, the story of wartime refugees in Britain can be much-enhanced.

Following Professor Hughes’ lecture, and continuing the theme of digitisation of Belgian refugee archives, workshop participants were invited to look at a selection of collections held at the Mitchell Library relating to Belgian refugees in Glasgow. Dr Irene O’Brien, Glasgow City Archivist and Andrew Gilbert, Assistant Archivist, Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board Archives, produced a range of materials which joint project coordinator Dr Jacqueline Jenkinson had identified as illustrating linked records which may benefit from a digitisation project. These included the Glasgow Corporation Belgian Refugees’ Register 1914-15, Poor Law Registers and asylum admission registers 1914-18 to demonstrate the variety of sources that can be used when researching the story of Belgian refugees in Glasgow and the surrounding areas, and in particular when exploring indications of war trauma on the Belgians living in Scotland.

Illustrating the richness of the material, our attention was brought to the stories of Angeli Vrebos and John Witineur, seen in the accompanying photograph, two Belgian refugees admitted to Gartloch Asylum during the First World War. Described in the records as ‘foolish, troublesome and demented’ and ‘dull, stubborn and sensitive’ respectively, the hardship and trauma that dominated the stories of Vrebos and Witineur is etched on their faces and captured by the photographs taken upon their admittance to the asylum.

Overall, the afternoon was a fantastic introduction to the story of Belgian refugees in Scotland during the First World War and, we hope, successfully whetted the appetite of the attendees for future events, the next of which will take place on Wednesday 19 April, 2-4pm, at the University of Stirling, Division of History and Politics, Pathfoot Building, room C1/2. Joining us from the University of Kent, where she is currently Leverhulme Visiting Professor, Professor Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Pennsylvania State University, will speak on ‘The sudden experience of defencelessness: civilians facing invasion, Belgium, 1914’. A buffet lunch, served from 12.30, will precede this event. This event is free but, for catering purposes, we ask that you please register by sending an email to by 10 April 2017.

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