Benevolence towards Belgian Refugees

In July 1916, John Howard Whitehouse, a Liberal and MP for the constituency of Mid Lanark, raised a question ‘within the area of kindness, philanthropy, and mercy’ about Belgian refugees in the House of Commons. Interested in the number of refugees now residing in the country, Whitehouse was informed by William Hayes Fisher, Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board, that they ‘computed them at 200,000’. All told, the First World War uprooted millions of European civilians. The resulting crisis had profound consequences, not only for the individuals directly affected but also for officials and relief workers who attempted to relieve their suffering and for communities that hosted refugees. Indeed, Fisher’s response addressed these individuals, as he used Whitehouse’s query as an opportunity to express ‘on behalf of us all, our immense gratitude to the committees which, from the very beginning of this War have taken these unfortunate Belgian refugees by the hand, and with a very kind hand’. While Fisher hoped that, following the end of hostilities, ‘they will be repatriated’ he nevertheless desired that, while in Britain, the local population would ‘exercise towards them the same hospitality as we are showing them at the present time’.

Examples of this hospitality were evident across the country as a number of local initiatives were instigated in order to support the large numbers of Belgian refugees arriving on Britain’s shores. The below image, taken from The Scotsman (2 January 1915, p.8), reveals some of these initiatives.

Glasgow Corporation’s Belgian refugee committee became the organising committee for the whole of Scotland overseeing the fund raising and hospitality provided by over 200 local authorities and local Belgian refugee committees across Scotland. The Glasgow Corporation committee fund raised around the country drawing on the support of local committees and sometimes bailing them out of they grew short of funds. They raised money from local authorities in areas across Scotland including the east coast where no refugees could be settled under wartime aliens’ restriction legislation due to invasion fears.

Glasgow Evening Times pokes fun at the work of James Stewart of the Glasgow Corporation Belgian Refugees Committee in finding accommodation for Belgian refugees, 2 July 1915

In the summer of 1915, the Aberdeen Evening Express (7 May 1915, p.5) published an article informing readers that steps were being taken in Aberdeen ‘in support of the Glasgow Fund for Belgian Refugees in Scotland’. The following year, this time in the country’s capital, readers of The Scotsman (4 March 1916, p.12) were informed of the opening of a two-day bazaar held in the Lauriston Halls ‘in aid of Cardinal Mercier’s fund for the relief of the Belgians’. In honour of the occasion the hall had been ‘tastefully decorated’ and stalls were ‘mostly named after towns prominent in the war—Liege, Namur, Antwerp, Louvain, and Ypres’. In addition, there was a King Albert stall ‘laden with flowers and fruit’. The event, though important in its remit, was entertaining in nature. Part of the hall was screened off as a tearoom; guests were invited to have their fortunes told; and there were games of ‘various kinds to amuse’. Moreover, several artists from Edinburgh theatres, including ‘members of the Carl Rosa Opera Company’ provided their services.

Committees also made direct appeals to the public for financial aid to help them to provide the necessary food and shelter, ‘and thereby in some measure lessen the sufferings of the refugees during their temporary sojourn in Scotland’. The Glasgow Corporation Belgian Refugee Committee made an appeal in early 1916 and, upon doing so, received royal recognition from King Albert who sent the following letter to the Committee:

The King has heard of the generous care and attention given in Scotland to Belgians, and also of the devotion with which your Committee has led and guided so charitable a cause for our compatriots. This proof of sympathy for Belgium has been greatly appreciated by his Majesty, who is happy to be able to address to all members of the Glasgow Committee his felicitations and his thanks. (Western Daily Press, 15 May 1916, p.3).

Responses to the appeal were plentiful and, by June 1916, the funds raised by the Committee amounted to £105,710 (Daily Record, 5 June 1916, p.4).  By the end of the war the Glasgow Committee had raised £190,000 (£11.8 m today) and the rest of Scotland had raised £170,000 (£10.5 m today). Instances of benevolence such as these demonstrate that, whether in Scotland’s cities or smaller towns, the local population was willing to help those who had fallen on hard times.

2017 PhD Studentship


Fully Funded PhD Studentship

(A Match Funded Studentship provided by the University of Stirling and Glasgow City Archives)


The University of Stirling is offering a match-funded PhD Studentship supervised by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities alongside Glasgow City Archives (under the auspices of Glasgow Life) to commence in Academic Session 2017/18. This fully funded PhD studentship provides full RCUK costs of fees and student stipend for 3 years of PhD study.

The Studentship: 

This PhD project will explore Scottish responses to Belgian First World War refugees. Around 20,000 refugees settled in Scotland (among 250,000 across Britain) – but why was support for them administered by a committee of Glasgow Corporation without resort to government funds, and funded instead by Scottish people, trades unions and churches? The researcher will investigate the motivations of the Glasgow committee and contextualise its work within the UK’s history of refugee welfare provision. Collaborating with Glasgow Archives and Museums, they will draw lessons for present-day public and policy debates at a time when Scotland is once more welcoming refugees.

This PhD project will therefore explore a series of questions and challenges in order to understand Scotland’s distinctive response to Belgian First World War refugees, in the context of Britain’s supposed tradition of welcoming refugees and to bring this history into dialogue with public and policy debates in the present, through a collaboration with Glasgow Life.

These questions include: 

  • What were the motivations behind the large-scale humanitarian and charitable efforts of Glasgow Corporation’s Belgian Refugees Committee during the First World War?
  • What was the relationship between Glasgow Corporation and central government, and how did they interact to provide for Scotland’s c. 20,000 refugees?
  • To what extent was the Belgian refugee presence problematised in wider Scottish discourse?
  • What comparisons can be drawn with the varied reactions to present-day refugees in Scotland?

While the student will have freedom to shape the exact parameters of the project, the student’s doctoral work will include a sustained programme of archival research using materials held in the City Archives and relating to the administration of relief for Belgian refugees in Scotland. The researcher will seek to explain why Scottish hospitality for Belgian refugees was administered by a committee of Glasgow Corporation and funded by the people, trades unions and churches in Scotland. Contextualising the committee’s work within wider Scottish and UK government arrangements to support Belgian war refugees, they will consider a commitment to municipal welfare, and civic pride in identifying Glasgow as the ‘second city of Empire’, as factors informing the policies and actions of Glasgow Corporation. The student will also undertake a programme of activities to bring this history into dialogue with the present, including the preparation of an exhibition for wider public engagement, and work with policymakers.

The PhD student will be jointly supervised Dr Jacqueline Jenkinson, Senior Lecturer in History and Politics at the University of Stirling and Dr Irene O’Brien, City Archivist, Glasgow City Archives, Mitchell Library.

At Stirling, the student will join a lively community of PhD students in History and in the wider Faculty of Arts and participate in the research and writing skills training provided by the University. At Glasgow City Archives, she or he will have the opportunity to work closely with City Archivist Dr Irene O’Brien and her team of archivists in Glasgow City Archives throughout the research period.  In addition, Glasgow Life will provide training, facilities provision in the archives and, via Glasgow Museums, will provide both training in museum display plus cover the costs of mounting a professional exhibition ‘Refugees – then and now’ to be staged by the PhD student under the auspices of Glasgow Museums and fully resourced by Glasgow Life at the end of their PhD period.

Who can apply: Applicants should have a good undergraduate qualification and a relevant Master’s degree in History or a related field of expertise. Experience of the following areas of study is particularly welcome: social history, political history, archive studies, digital humanities, politics, Scottish studies. You will have some experience of relevant research methods (but note that research training is a key part of the studentship). Applicants without a Master’s qualification should include with their application a 1-page statement outlining the specifically relevant skills, experience and knowledge they have gained beyond undergraduate degree level, that could be considered equivalent to Master’s study.

 The application: Applicants should submit:

  • a summary curriculum vitae (max 2 pages)
  • an example of recent academic writing (e.g., MSc/MLitt chapter or undergraduate dissertation)
  • a short statement (1 page) outlining your qualification for the studentship, and initial thoughts on how you’d approach the project
  • the names and contact details of two academic referees

Submit your application via email to Applications will close 21 August at noonPlease ensure your referees are able to provide (on request, via email) an academic reference by 28 August, 5pm.

Interviews will be held during September at the University of Stirling.

Potential applicants are strongly encouraged to contact Dr Jacqueline Jenkinson ( and Dr Irene O’Brien (Irene.O’ for ‘further particulars’ of the project, or with informal queries.