Event Report: ‘Settlement, treatment and employment of French-speaking Belgian refugees in France, the Netherlands, England and Scotland’

The final event in an extremely thought-provoking series of collaborative workshops on First World War civilian war trauma funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh took place on 22 November. The event, held at the University of Edinburgh, was well attended by academics engaged in a range of research areas and stimulated much discussion about the story of Belgians displaced from their homeland during the First World War.

The lecture, delivered by Dr Christophe Declercq of University of Leuven/University College London, was entitled ‘Settlement, treatment and employment of French-speaking Belgian refugees in France, the Netherlands, England and Scotland’. The lecture began with an overview of the mass movement of displaced Belgians during the First World War, as Christophe described the reception they were afforded in each of the respective host nations. In France, home to the exiled Belgian government, Belgian refugees were, by and large, treated very well—a demonstration of anti-German sentiment. They were also viewed as a useful source of substitute manpower amid a severely depleted local workforce and many ended up working in factories, replacing men who had been sent to the front. In the Netherlands, keen to maintain its neutrality, Belgian refugees were afforded a less favourable reception and were interned in refugee camps scattered around the country, such as in Uden and Gouda.

Christophe then moved on to the main body of his lecture, the story of those Belgian refugees who settled in the United Kingdom. The constituent nations of the UK had, by August 1917, received close to 172,000 Belgian refugees—155,000 in England; 10,700 in Scotland; 4,500 in Wales; and 1,700 in Ireland. In Scotland, Glasgow tended to provide refugees with their first glimpse of Scotland. For Christophe, Glasgow was a ‘place of dispersal management’—refugees arrived in the city and either settled there or, less frequently, moved eastwards to Edinburgh or settled in smaller towns such as Motherwell and, moving north, Crieff. Previous blog posts ‘Belgian Refugee Culture in Glasgow’ and ‘Belgian Refugees in Scotland’s Northern Regions’ provide greater detail about these movements. In Scotland there was very little in the way of subsistence funding from the national government to support the more destitute Belgian refugees. Instead, groups such as the Glasgow Corporation’s Belgian Relief Committee lent support to Belgians in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, many Belgians were compelled to search for employment, a pursuit that meant large numbers settled in heavily populated, often working-class, areas like Glasgow. The records illustrate that male refugees found work as clerks, engineers and cabinet makers while many female refugees were employed as domestic servants. Yet the search for employment did not affect every member of Scotland’s Belgian refugee community—there were certainly elements of the Belgian population that were more economically well-off, a point which Christophe expanded on. In Edinburgh, home to far fewer Belgian refugees, the records of the Edinburgh Belgian Committee lay bare this class divide:

Many of them [the refugees] held responsible positions in Belgium, and most of the families had been in comfortable circumstances. In dealing with the refugees the committee have endeavoured to discriminate and have consequently graduated the standard of relief to suit the special circumstances of each case.

Here we see a process of positive discrimination—those that arrived in Edinburgh with lesser means had their application for relief advanced in what Christophe termed a process of ‘reverse social mobility’. Christophe ended his lecture with snippets of refugee stories, from a family settled in Dunblane to the Ceuppens of Glasgow, that he hoped, in time, to piece together in order to add to Scotland’s Belgian refugee narrative.

A lively discussion followed the lecture, including questions about intra and inter mobility around the home nations and the potential for linguistic inconsistencies due to language barriers between the Belgian refugees and those responsible for recording their arrival. Christophe’s lecture was a fantastic conclusion to what has been a fascinating series of events. We would like to thank all of the speakers and attendees for contributing to the series.