Belgian Refugees in Wimbledon
The Duchess of Vendome was the sister of the Belgian King and lived for many years at Belmont, a large house on Parkside near Wimbledon Common. During the first months of the war, she became increasingly concerned for the welfare of Belgian refugees who had fled to Britain following the German invasion of their homeland. The initial reception of refugees was organised by the Red Cross and the Duchess was President of the London-based Belgian Relief Fund, which provided additional support. However as the number of refugees grew, so did the pressures on the Central Organising Committee. At the suggestion of former journalist and Wimbledon resident, Mr. Richardson Evans, a local relief committee was therefore established.
The Wimbledon and Merton Refugee Fund was inaugurated at an open air ceremony on 17 October 1914. The Duchess became its president and Richardson Evans was its chairman. Public awareness of Belgian suffering was still fairly low, so the Fund organised a special launch ceremony under the title The Salutation of the Belgian Flag. This was held on Wimbledon Common and presided over by the Duchess and her family. A crowd of around 100,000 people listened to speeches by local dignitaries. An ode for the event was also written by Alfred Graves, father of the poet Robert, who lived in Lauriston Road.
Evans became a tireless campaigner on behalf of the refugees. From his home at The Keir, near Westside, Wimbledon Common, he organised a range of fundraising events, public appeals and charitable work. He was greatly supported by his daughter, Gladys, who became secretary of the local Belgian Refugees Committee and a member of the Anglo-Belgian Union. She was responsible for ensuring that the necessary resources were available to the refugee community. The local press also featured appeals for financial donations, offers of hospitality, gifts of clothing and other necessities.
Local retailers, the Wright brothers, loaned a property on Wimbledon Hill for use as an office and club for the refugees. This was designed to make their new surroundings less daunting. Here the Belgians could meet up and engage in activities such as sewing and dressmaking. The Club later transferred to Francis Grove, Wimbledon, however as the refugees became more integrated into Wimbledon society, the club became unnecessary.
Between October and December 1914, 766 Belgians were entertained as guests in private homes. Every effort was made to ensure that the refugees were still able to celebrate their national festivals despite living in exile. Concerts and social gatherings were held to mark special occasions, including the Festival of Belgian Independence, celebrated during the summer of 1915.
Free education was provided at local schools and the College of the Sacred Heart on Edge Hill. A Belgian Scout group was formed and Scout troops across Wimbledon and Merton assisted Belgian families by using their trek carts to transport furniture. Many refugees contributed to the war effort through military service and munitions work. Office work was also obtained for those not suited to manual labour.
The Belgian refugee community ranged from ordinary working people, to men of high standing, including Monsieur Standaert, Deputy of Bruges. 473 refugees received financial help or were maintained in local hostels, given clothing, medical aid and advice. During the latter part of the war, a further 85 received direct help, whilst others were assisted privately through the hospitality of Wimbledon residents.
In January 1916, Dr. de Bruyn, a doctor from Antwerp, was employed to provide medical care for the refugee community. His salary for 1916 and 1917 was paid through donations from the people of Wimbledon, including many local doctors.
At the end of the war, the local Relief Fund provided financial support and practical assistance to enable many refugees to return to Belgium. On 22 February 1919, sixty-six refugees were able to leave for Antwerp. Another forty-five left in April and smaller groups travelled back during the following months.
Not all the refugees returned to their homeland; some opted to stay in their adopted country. A number are buried at Gap Road Cemetery, Wimbledon, in graves purchased by the local Relief Committee.
A memorial inscription at the cemetery reads::
Close to this spot rest in friendly English soil, eight Belgian citizens who were driven from their homes by the German invasion in 1914 and were welcomed as guests of the people of Wimbledon and Merton and one child who was born in exile.