Often in war, many people lose their homes and must flee for their lives, with little more than the clothes they are wearing. During the autumn of 1914, Belgian refugees began arriving in Belper having lost almost everything they owned as they escaped from the German invaders. Before they reached Derbyshire, Miss Emily Smith of Rose Villa, Belper, had already collected and sent on 350 items of clothing to give the refugees as they arrived in Britain.
The Gables on Green Lane, already converted into a medical centre in August, was altered again in September, into accommodation for refugees when it became clear that there was a pressing need to find living quarters for the Belgian arrivals.
The first ten arrived on Thursday 22 October, and were motored to the Gables by Mrs Strutt on their arrival. Three Belgian families in all were staying at the Gables by the end of October.
The old Belper Grammar School on Chapel Street, which had been empty since it closed in 1913, was rented by Herbert Strutt to house 29 more refugees, with furniture given by Holden and Son’s Cabinet Works, based in the Unity Mill on Derwent Street. A weekly public subscription would be sought to help pay for the expenses incurred.
Mrs Strutt, through the Belper News, thanked all those people who helped set up the Gables and Old Grammar School, and provided comforts as well as essentials for the refugees. The only shortage they had by the end of October was in French literature, although more cigarettes and tobacco would be welcomed, the newspaper report said.
Mrs Strutt was an accomplished French Scholar, which had helped ensure refugees and locals understood each other. Tradesmen in the town were being encouraged to show the Belgian flag in their windows, to indicate support and offer comfort to the new arrivals. An abundance of vegetables produced at the Union Workhouse enabled the Guardians to donate their spare stock to the refugees.
At St Peter’s Church, the Rev Cooper, told people not to ‘spoil’ the Belgian visitors with free drinks, and not to encourage them to visit public houses, as they were unaccustomed to the stronger alcoholic drinks served in England.
A fortnight later, his curate, the Rev Harry Newton, gave a sermon welcoming the refugees as they would bring new knowledge and opportunities for growth to local industry. He reminded them of the flight of the Huguenots, refugees who fled France in the 16th century, bringing improvements to the textile industry in England.
By November, the Belgians were seeking out employment and had succeeded in finding it. Some of the younger women were taken on as domestic servants to help provide them with an income. One was a Clay Cross miner, and had moved to that district; others were employed at the Belper mills, whilst three were working for Holden’s furniture works on Derwent Street (Unity Mill), two as cabinet-makers and one as a wood carver. One of the cabinet makers had previously produced a cabinet for the Belgian Princess Royal, and the wood carver had won awards in his own country for the quality of his carvings.
A concert with Christmas Tree distribution was held on December 30 to raise funds for the Belgian Relief Fund. The town’s Belgian visitors were invited to attend and sing their national anthem as part of the evening’s entertainments.
By January 1915, there were 28 Belgian refugees in the town. An evening of entertainment was organised in the Public Hall (now the Ritz Cinema) to raise funds to support the refugees, and the Green Hall hospital. A painted backdrop of Belper River Gardens was created. After a speech by Herbert Strutt, there were two musical programmes given, and refreshments provided by ladies from the town. In all, £22 11s 2d was raised.
On Friday evenings, the Belgian refugees would come to the Palace Cinema for the latest offering, and for these performances, after the National Anthem, the Belgian National Anthem would be played. There was a request in the Belper News in August, for other filmgoers to stay standing for this anthem, rather than sitting down again, out of respect for their Belgian visitors. Gradually, they became part of the community.
Many of the Belgian refugees who had arrived in Belper at the start of the war were heading home early in 1919. The De Knocks of Albert Street and Madame De Heu of Mill Street left on the same day in February. By May, most had gone and the furniture they had borrowed was returned so their houses could be re-let by the Strutt Estate.