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: