During the First World War many civilian refugees from war-torn Europe and other regions affected by the conflict, sought sanctuary in Britain. During the early stages of the war, the main arrivals were from Belgium which had been occupied by German forces in 1914. In 1917 refugees started to arrive from Russia. They were not only fleeing the hardship caused by the country's lengthy involvement in the war but also the turmoil resulting from the Bolshevik revolution against the Tsarist regime.  Other communities displaced by the war included Poles, Serbs and Armenians, who were being killed or forcibly deported from their homeland by Turkish forces.

There was a mixed reaction to the new arrivals. Many people felt it was their moral duty to support the refugees, especially those from countries like Belgium which was a British ally. However in some areas there was hostility, especially when refugees arrived without money, or any visible means of support. Some people were also uneasy with the notion of refugees settling permanently, rather than returning to their homeland once the war ended.

The majority of refugees who settled in Merton were Belgian nationals. Many of them sought sanctuary in Wimbledon where their king’s sister, the Duchess of Vendôme, had a home on Parkside. Belgian refugees are also reported to have found accommodation and employment in parts of Mitcham, often with the help of local churches and charitable organisations.

During the latter part of the war, Russian refugees were housed at the Mitcham Military Hospital ( formerly the Holborn Industrial School, near Bond Road. ) Wealthier Russians are also known to have settled in Wimbledon Village. Many more travelled to the UK as their country descended civil war following the revolution in October 1917.

To find out more about the response to wartime refugees, click on the links shown below:

Belgian Refugees in Wimbledon.

Linked to the vast Holborn Union workhouse, this Victorian building once housed 1000 pauper children.

The following entry was found in the record of Parliamentary debate, Hansard, just after the First World War:


HC Deb 14 July 1920 vol 131 c2382


54. Colonel BURDON


asked the Prime Minister whether his attention has been called to a letter, written by the Reverend F. North, which appeared in the Press, referring to the condition of the British refugees recently repatriated from Russia under the auspices of the Foreign Office; whether steps have been taken to find permanent subsistence and employment for them; whether the Mitcham guardians have consented to allow the Holborn Institute to be kept open for the refugees and, if so, whether the inmates have been informed of this; and what is being done in the case of the British-born widows of Russians and their children who were given facilities to return to England, but who have not been promised any relief after the closing of the Holborn Institute?




The answer to the first and third parts of the hon. and gallant Member's question is in the affirmative. As regards the second part, the United Russian Societies' Association has kindly taken charge of these refugees, and has received a grant for this purpose from the National Relief Fund, and I understand that the British-born widows referred to in the last part of the question are treated in exactly the same manner as the other refugees.