Belgian refugee culture in Glasgow

For many years, individuals and groups of refugees have shaped and enriched British cultural and political life, their arrival having had a profound impact on the development of modern Britain. Arriving on Scotland’s shores during the First World War, Belgian refugees brought with them their own specific cultural background; from art and music, to needlework and weaving, the Belgians brought with them traditions and customs. In Glasgow, a particular feature of Belgian cuisine left its mark.

Falkirk Herald (20 October 1917, p.6).

A letter to the Editor of the Dundee Courier (2 January 1915, p.6) addressed this culinary matter.

Sir, there are many thousands of Belgian refugees in our midst, and it has been announced that others will be arriving in the near future. Many of these are destitute, and as the present widespread distress will tend to increase progressively so long as the war continues, the provision of cheap and suitable food is sure to become an important and an urgent problem. It is well-known that in Holland, Belgium, and France horseflesh is used as a staple article of food. We are extremely anxious to develop a scheme by means of which our Belgian guests could be provided with the form of food which they appreciate.

An article printed in the Aberdeen Press and Journal (11 August 1915, p.3.) some months later suggests that these needs were soon met. ‘Since horse butcher’s shops made their appearance in Glasgow seven or eight months ago’, wrote a correspondent, ‘a considerable increase has taken place in the volume of trade in horse meat, an article of diet which was unknown in the city until it was first introduced by the Belgian refugees’. While the existence of butchers who traded in horse-flesh provided the Belgian population with food to which they were well accustomed, they were also a noteworthy addition to Glasgow’s retail scene. ‘One day’, wrote a correspondent for the Stonehaven Journal (19 August 1915, p.4), ‘as we were walking along a street in Glasgow, we popped into a restaurant at meal hour’. Enquiring what was on offer, they were met with the reply, ‘Well, we have very nice horse steaks and sausages’. ‘Let us say nothing further about the lunch or the subsequent proceedings’, continued the article, ‘the point is that in housing and feting the Belgians we have begun to adopt some of their national habits. Already there are butcher’s shops in Glasgow selling horse meat’.

Indeed, records found in the Belgian Refugees Register demonstrate that, during the period 1914-1920, many Belgians trained in the art of butchery arrived in Glasgow. Among them were Andreas Nicate, Joseph Edward Uyterhoeven, Joseph Ludovic Gooskens, and Peter van der Anwera, who all arrived from Mechelen, a city in the province of Antwerp, while Alphons Van Emden, Adolf De Smet, and Remi Broos originated in Hoboken, Dendermonde, and Aarschot respectively. Pictured below are the London Road premises of J. Wouters, a Mechelen-born refugee.

Individuals such as Wouters helped develop the Glasgow-based trade in horse meat:
The horse butchers’ shops in Glasgow, to which attention has been given in the press, are being run by Belgian refugees for the benefit of their compatriots. There are three shops, all situated in the poorer quarters of the city. They sell steaks at 5d and 6d per lb., sausages at 5d per lb., and pickled and smoked meats ready for consumption at 7d per lb. The shops obtain their supplies from dealers in worn-out horses, which formerly were shipped to the Netherlands and to Germany via Leith. While the Glasgow shops cater for Belgians, a Stirling firm, which was associated with the Continental trade in decrepit horses, announce that they will open in that town on Saturday a ‘high-class shop for the sale of horse-meat Aberdeen Press and Journal (11 August 1915, p.3.).
As the months wore on, the trade extended beyond the refugee population as a number of Glasgow citizens began to operate as horse butchers and buy horse meat. One trader, operating in the Anderston area of the city in 1916 revealed that ‘probably 90 per cent of his present customers are British housewives’ (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 29 January 1916, p.8). We see then that, in more ways than one, traditions strongly associated with the Belgians made their way into Scottish homes and onto Scottish tables.

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