Centre for Scottish Studies

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.