29th June-5th July 1915: The Belgian Refugees Garden Party

Amongst the local history books at the Heritage Service is a small pamphlet entitled “Belgian Refugees Garden Party 1915”.  This is a copy of the official programme produced for a garden party held in the grounds of Edgecombe Hall in Southfields on June 30th 1915, which was opened at 3pm by HRH the Duchess of Vendôme.  On arrival, she was to be greeted by Sir Henry Kimber, Alexander Glegg and the members of the Reception Committee (who aren’t included in the list of Sub-Committees on the front page).  Flowers and a souvenir programme were to be presented by Miss Phyllis Houdret and Master Neville de B Priestley.  Tea was available, as were light refreshments “including Fruit Salads Ices, Strawberries and Cream, Lemonade, Ginger Beer, Coffee, Sandwiches &c”.  Responsible lady helpers were supervising children who were selling souvenirs of all the Allies and sweets.Belgian garden party programme

On the map of the site were both an Entertainment platform and an Entertainment Tent.  The platform started with the band of the Holborn Industrial Schools, playing a selection of Belgian pieces and British war songs, followed by a Pastoral Play, a Hat Trimming competition for Gentlemen and a Nail Driving competition for the Ladies, amongst other things, closing with the prize distribution.  Over in the Entertainment Tent, in what may have turned out to be the better location, were a series of musical performances, including pupils from Putney County Secondary School, the Jean (Belgian) Quartet and a concert featuring dance and recitations.  Another platform in the Edgecombe Hall grounds had dance, fencing and a concert and Maypole dance.Belgian garden party programme map

Rather unfortunately, no sooner had the Duchess arrived than there was a clap of thunder and torrential rain started – and continued for the rest of the afternoon.  According to the Wandsworth Borough News, this washed out some of the carefully prepared refreshments, but as much of the entertainments carried on as possible.  The girls from Putney County Secondary had to march over in the rain, but reportedly gave a fine performance – luckily in the tent.  Edgecombe Hall’s owners opened the house up as well as the grounds, and the Duchess took shelter there – having to decline a tour of the grounds on account of having a cold and not wishing to make it worse.  Various sports carried on regardless, with particular mention due to Winifred Crewe, who took part in all 4 girls races, coming 2nd in the 100 yards and the skipping race but claiming first prize in both the egg and spoon and potato races.

Wandsworth Borough News available on microfilm

Programme available in the Heritage Service

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4-10 May 1915: Belgian Refugees and the beginnings of the Wandsworth Battalion

St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of England on Battersea Rise produced a monthly magazine known as the “St Andrew’s Review”.  The May 1915 edition contains the first in a series of columns headed Belgian Notes, giving news on the Belgian Hostel at 83 Clapham Common West Side.

83 Clapham Common West Side had been a private school before the war, although a small one with eight boarding pupils recorded on the 1911 census.  It was run by a Harriet Bridgeman, but from 26 October 1914 the rate books record it as occupied by Belgian refugees.  A further note also specifies that the property was not to be charged rates, as per a letter from the Town Clerk.  There is a gap in the rate books between 1915 and 1922, by the later date the property was back in private hands and it is not clear who actually owned it when it was being used as a home for refugees.

The first mention of the hostel is in the December 1914 edition of the St Andrew’s Review.  An article written by one of the refugees, John Carnas, gives an account of being called up by the Belgian army, being injured and invalided out, then having to leave Antwerp as the Germans had started to bombard the city.  He initially went to Paris but was unable to find work, then went to Calais where the refugees were not allowed to spend longer than 24 hours, at which point they decided to cross the Channel and came to London, “where we had a reception fit for a king… Here we are now in our comfortable resting place at 83 West Side, Clapham Common, where the ladies and gentlemen of the Committee do everything possible to make us happy”.

The next update is in this month’s Review.  A recent concert had raised just over £30, but the cost of maintenance worked out at a little over 6/- a head (although for how long is not given), with 40 guests in the hostel at the time of writing and as many as 47 in the past.  Due to the “increased cost of commodities” an increase in income was also required, and the Committee were hoping that local residents might be able to start regular door to door collections in their own roads.

A group of refugees at the hostel

A group of refugees at the hostel

Taking place this week was also the regular meeting of Wandsworth Council, where it was reported that the Mayor had been asked by the War Office to oversee the raising of a local battalion for the regular forces (as opposed to the Territorials).  Offices for recruiting were to be set up at the Town Hall and 380 Streatham High Road.  This was what became the 13th (Wandsworth) Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment and we’ll be coming back to it in upcoming blogs.

27 October – 2 November 1914: Workers and Refugees

Battersea Borough Council met on 28th October. The question of managing Council staff serving in the Forces was raised, as the Committee of Management of the Employees Sick and Accident Society asked that their members should not be required to pay their weekly contributions whilst serving with the Forces. National Insurance was still a new idea in 1914 and there was no Welfare State, so being unable to work was a big risk for many people, the Society aimed to provide for employees who were off due to illness or accident. Seven of their members were serving by now, and the Council agreed to pay contributions for them.

The Council also faced a request from the snappily titled National Amalgamated Society of Operative House and Ship Painters and Decorators (Battersea Branch) that they spread the work available over a double staff. Work was obviously starting to run short during the war, and Battersea decided that the best way to deal with this was to reduce the number of hours worked by their painters from 48 to 30 per week and then employ more men to cover all the hours. The decision to promote Roadman F Bench to Cleansing Inspector was also signed off, as the previous inspector, E Hawke, had re-joined the 23rd County of London Territorial Regiment.

There had been an outbreak of scarlet fever in the borough, and Councillor Watts wished to know what the Council were doing to help. Health Committee Chair reported that the Asylums Board – who were responsible for Fever Hospitals as well as psychiatric care – lacked accommodation and that some of that was due to Belgian refugees, who were being accommodated in Asylum Board buildings. On the same page the South Western Star of 30 October reported other arrangements being made for Belgian refugees. The Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church on Beauchamp Road had undertaken to support two refugee families as long as the war lasted, renting a property near Lavender Hill for six months to house the families. The paper reports that the Church was prepared to retain the house for longer if required. Other properties in the area had been given over to house refugees, a meeting in Clapham was also reported where it was announced that “Hollinghurst”, Clapham Common North Side and 9 Cedars Road had been given up for 30 wounded Belgian soldiers and 24 refugees respectively. Carlyle College, Clapham Common North Side was to be formally opened as a home for refugees on October 31st. Estimates of the number of Belgian refugees in Britain during the war vary between 225,000 and 265,000, and it is clear that a number of them found their way to Wandsworth and Battersea.

Battersea Borough Council minutes, 1914 – ref: MBB/1/15

South Western Star available on microfilm

1-7 September 1914: Belgian Refugees in Balham

On 4th September, the South Western Star reported on the receiving depot for Belgian refugees at St Luke’s, Ramsden Road. On the Monday of that week twenty-seven refugees had arrived, nine more came on Tuesday and a further seven on Wednesday. Tents were set up in the church grounds to provide shelter for women and children during the day, and the newspaper reports that many curious locals had come to have a look at the refugees and to offer sweets and fruit to the children. The reporter from the Star was unable to get a great deal of information, as the local Red Cross had been instructed not to discuss the situation. Some of the refugees were from Louvain “the flourishing city which German barbarism has reduced to ruins” and those who had escaped were “thankful to be with the good English”. Nuns from the local convent were allowed in to take some of the women and children out for the afternoon, and the article finishes by commenting on how they were probably instructed to keep them from talking to strangers.

Elsewhere in the paper life in the area seemed to be carrying on much as before the war. The magistrate’s courts were busy with the usual mix of drunkenness, petty crime and assault, with one major difference being that some of those sentenced were not fined or imprisoned but instructed to join the army. One man who should have appeared on a charge of being drunk and disorderly was unable to attend court as he had enlisted, and it was claimed that “after his enlistment he had a drop too much” – the charge was withdrawn. Another man was arrested for brandishing a revolver whilst drunk to “celebrate the victories at the war”.

The Star also reports on the more conventional methods the borough used to mark the outbreak of war by describing a recruiting meeting at Wandsworth Town Hall. As well as a number of men enlisting, the meeting also passed a resolution to say “that those present pledge themselves to enlist, or, if unable to enlist, to do all in their power to help recruiting”. Elsewhere it was reported that a number of pupils from Wandsworth Technical Institute had safely returned from a trip to Switzerland where they had been when war broke out. They were not alone in the borough in finding themselves stuck in Europe, the Board of Guardians recorded the safe return of their Chair, Canon Curtis, to England at their meeting on 3rd September, and two of the teachers in Holy Trinity School, Upper Tooting had a delayed start to the term as they had problems returning from Switzerland. The newspaper does not record quite why so many people from Wandsworth were in Switzerland!

The South Western Star and other local papers are available on microfilm at Wandsworth Heritage Service.