Belgian refugee culture in Glasgow

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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.

Belgian Needlewomen in Scotland

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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.

Scottish Literature at Stirling

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A few pics of recent events and guest speakers from the Scottish literary scene.

Clockwise from top left: our Professor of Poetry, Kathleen Jamie, after teaching a Master’s seminar on Scottish poetry and landscape; poet and artist Harry Giles, speaking to undergraduates studying literature in Scots and non-standard Englishes; Janice Galloway and a long queue of fans after her guest lecture on the second-year ‘Writing and Identity’ module; small-group teaching on the MLitt in Modern Scottish Writing.