Belgian Needlewomen in Scotland


Within rich histories of migration and resettlement, the stories of female refugees are often unheard. Many early historical studies into the movement of people fails to question not only why women moved, but where they went, and, importantly, how they integrated. Yet research clearly shows that refugee and migrant women had their own networks and utilised them as a means of settling in a new country. Scotland’s Belgian refugees were no different. One example of the existence of specifically female refugee networks in Scotland during the First World War can be found among the pages of the local and national press.

In May 1916, the Daily Record (26 May 1916, p.4) reported on the opening of a ‘Charming Exhibition’. Installed to ‘augment the Glasgow Corporation Belgian Refugee Fund, and thus extend the scope of operations’, a sale of lingerie, embroidery and lace which showcased the work of female Belgian refugees, was opened on 15 May. Held at 281 Woodlands Road, a building in Glasgow’s West End which had once been the German Protestant Church, the two-day exhibition was ‘creditable alike in artistry’. Declaring the sale open, Mrs. Dunlop, wife of Sir Thomas Dunlop, Glasgow’s Lord Provost, said she had visited a number of Belgian homes in Glasgow and ‘had been very much struck by the fortitude displayed by the Belgians in their midst’. Following her opening speech Mrs. Dunlop was presented with a ‘fine specimen of Chantilly lace’ before a ‘charming little fellow, Master Emile Petaille’, aged 3, ‘stepped forward, and proffered a splendid bouquet’. Concluding her opening speech, she remarked that the exhibition gave attendees ‘an opportunity of seeing what clever needlewomen the Belgian ladies were’, the ‘exquisite variety of their work reflecting the highest credit on the deftness and skill of the makers’.

Yet this was not the first time that the publication had drawn the attention of the Scots to the art of Belgian lace-making. Indeed, an article published in the months following the outbreak of war in 1914, highlighted the skill. While the writer informs readers that the ‘bravery and fortitude of Belgian troops before overwhelming odds has left the world in admiration’, it was the women of Belgium who ‘had been famous for years to the feminine mind for achievements much more pacific but quite as wonderful’ (Daily Record and Mail, 7 October 1914, p.7). Records, namely the Mitchell Library’s Belgian Refugees database,  demonstrate that a number of these needlewomen arrived in Glasgow during the First World War. Listed on the database are, among others, Maria Van Herwegen, Liege; Yvonne Morseau, Ghent; Eliza Hoywegan, Antwerp; and Malvina Vanderberghe, Breedene. As these women settled in Glasgow or the surrounding area it is possible that some of them were involved in the 1916 exhibition, for all of the sale items were made by Belgian refugees in the Corporation Belgian workrooms’. The workrooms were supervised by the Glasgow Belgian refugees’ ladies committee. After the war, four of the leading lights of the committee, all married to Glasgow magistrates, received MBEs in recognition of the charitable support they had offered Belgian refugees in supporting initiatives such as the lace making workrooms. The accompanying image, taken from the Baillie, the in-house publication of Glasgow Corporation, shows the four women.

Demand for the intricate items of embroidery was great. Readers of the Daily Record were advised that while the unprecedented demand at a former sale had meant that ‘the articles bought had to be retained to allow orders booked to be fulfilled’, on this occasion ‘purchasers will be able to take the goods with them’. It was not only Glasgow’s local population that was afforded the opportunity to purchase these Belgian-made goods. In the same year, Aberdeen’s Trinity Hall hosted a similar sale, the proceeds of which would ‘partly go towards the maintaining of the Belgian ladies’ locally while any surplus would be ‘sent to the Aberdeen Home for Belgian Refugees in Glasgow’ (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 30 November 1916, p.3). The following year, a notice was published in the Dundee Courier (11 May 1917, p.1) advertising a ‘Sale of Belgian Lace Embroideries and Other Goods’.

The goods, made by a ‘party of twenty female Belgian refugees in Glasgow’, who ‘worked under the direction of a Madame Neumer’, were sold under the auspices of the Dundee Women’s War Relief Committee. The benefits of sales such as these were twofold. For the refugees, the process of gathering together to make the items provided a comfortable space where they could meet with fellow Belgians and, perhaps, recall collective memories of home. On a more practical level, the proceeds raised through the sale of the goods helped to support refugees and, to an extent, relieve local authorities of such a heavy financial burden. More than this however, it perhaps offered the Scots a small glimpse into the lives of the newly-arriving refugees, bridged the gap between refugee and host country, and allowed Belgium’s female refugees to, in their own way, make their mark on Scotland.