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    Anglo-Belgian Memorial, Victoria Embankment, London

    ​Anglo-Belgian Memorial, Victoria Embankment, London. © Wikipedia

    Pirotte family entry in the Bermondsey Workhouse register, 1915.

    ​Pirotte family entry in the Bermondsey Workhouse register, 1915.

​London Metropolitan Archives welcomes your questions!

The mysterious affair of the forgotten Belgian refugees

Recently we asked readers for their questions (via ask.lma) about the First World War in London. The most intriguing was a deceptively simple one - what records does LMA hold about Belgian refugees? Unlike the Huguenots of the 16th-18th centuries and the Kindertransport and other Jewish refugees before the Second World War, the Belgians who came to the UK fleeing the First World War seem to have disappeared from our national story. And yet, once you start to look, there are traces of their lives here at LMA. Charlie Turpie shares her discoveries.

War Refugees Committee

The First World War precipitated a large wave of refugees as soon as the war started. The numbers of homeless refugees from Belgium who came to the UK amounted to some 200,000-265,000 over the course of the War (there is a wide variety of estimates).

The War Refugees Committee was a voluntary body set up in August 1914 to deal with refugees fleeing from the threat of the German armies in Europe, many of them from Belgium. The Committee arranged for them to be met at ports and stations, found temporary hostels for them and tried also to find work for them.

In September 1914 the Committee came to an agreement with the Local Government Board whereby the LGB took over much of the work, and the Treasury much of the funding, while the Committee, with circa 2,500 local voluntary committees, continued to look after the allocation of refugees to places found for them and to meet trains and boats. The Committee appears in the Annual Charities Digest until 1918. At LMA we have the War Refugees’ Committee minutes of reception, housing and registration sub-committee, August-September 1914 (ACC/2695/001). This volume is only half full, but contains fascinating hints of tensions between the organisers as to whether class distinctions could be maintained.

Earl’s Court and Alexandra Palace

The Local Government Board organised the dispersal of the Belgians to reception camps, where they stayed until more permanent housing was found. The Metropolitan Asylum Board (MAB) minutes (available on open shelves at LMA bearing ref MAB/0062-0064) for 1914-1916 include many (indexed) references to war refugees (primarily Belgian). They do not include any names of individuals, but do give statistics for number of refugees passing through named London clearing stations/camps such as Earl’s Court and Alexandra Palace (the two largest). These statistics suggest that refugees did not generally stay in the London reception camps for very long. In September-October 1914, for example, 32,013 refugees were admitted to MAB run premises of which Alexandra Palace received 19,342. Of these, 6,698 remained at time of reporting (November 1914).

More work could usefully be done on these statistics of refugee numbers. MAB annual reports and committee minutes, also held at LMA might well also be interesting, but are unlikely to include any names. There is however one item in the MAB collection which is well worth reading if you have an interest in these refugees. This is the history of the Earl’s Court camp which opened on 15 October 1914 and operated for the whole of the war, ‘Four Years in a Refugee Camp, being an account of the British Government’s War Refugees Camp Earl’s Court’, MAB/1704. It is very readable and gives lots of colour and anecdotes to the dry bones of the official statistics (my favourite being that Belgian children at Earl’s Court believed that ‘A Long Way to Tipperary’ was the British National Anthem), as well as including photographs and sketches of the life of the camp and occupants. From this history, it is clear that most people did indeed leave the camp within a couple of weeks at most, but that there was a resident population.

Websites and sources held elsewhere

The National Archives holds a number of surviving papers. The relevant policy Cabinet papers can be found in CAB 37. The papers relating to the legal status of the Belgian refugees under the Aliens Restriction Order, Belgian refugee seamen and repatriation can be found in HO 45. The papers relating to arrangements made for the Belgian refugees by the War Refugees Committee can be found in MH 8 and RG 20. Of these, MH8 is probably the most interesting if you are looking for individual refugees. More information is given on the National Archives website

There is a useful online portal which represents the Online Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees, a research forum. The website carries blogs, articles and stories of the Belgian refugees in the UK, France and the Netherlands, which is maintained and updated regularly. One of the articles goes into the vexed question of numbers of refugees very thoroughly.

Brent Archives (155KB) investigated their holdings and wrote a very detailed and interesting account; other local London archives may well have similar sources which could be searched. Haringey Archives hold sources for Alexandra Palace as a refugee reception centre (and later in the War as an internment camp for enemy aliens).

An interesting recent blog by the Migration Museum mentions that ‘most Belgian children were sent straight by the Local Government Board to local schools, where they were welcomed as a visible means of supporting the war effort.’

School records

LMA holds a large number of school records which could be searched for evidence of Belgian children arriving and leaving. We do hold the log book of an infants’ school in Poland Street, Soho, which opened on 9 November 1914 specifically to house Belgian refugees. By the end of November, it had 140 pupils and it ran until 1919, when most of the pupils had been repatriated. There are names of staff, some of whom are Belgian, but no references to individual pupils (LCC/EO/DIV02/POL).

There are records amongst the London County Council’s Education Department which refer to helping children, with minutes and report of the committee for the provision of clothing to Belgian and Serbian refugees and arrangements for collections of clothing in schools (LCC/EO/WEL/05/001, 005 and LCC/CO/GEN/01/007 1916-1919).

Named refugees

So far, we haven’t discovered any names. But now we turn to a volume preserved within the records of the Bermondsey Board of Guardians (perhaps because their workhouse was the reception centre). This is the Bermondsey Workhouse, Tanner Street: admission and discharge register of war refugees: arranged alphabetically September 1914-December 1915 (BBG/573/008: this volume must be consulted on microfilm X104/282).

The names have recently been indexed by David Gaylard, one of our wonderful LMA volunteers, and the names have been added to the record on our online catalogue where they can be searched and browsed. On a quick browse, the Pirotte family jumped out: father Simon Joseph, born 1883 and working as a carpenter; his wife Marie Desiree born 1888 with no occupation given, but presumably a housewife as the final family member is Simonne Marie who was just two years and a month old when the Pirottes arrived in Bermondsey.

These index entries give us the date of birth and occupation of each person; the register gives their places of birth and their onward destination - where they went next. The register itself is closed until January 2016 and will then be available at LMA on microfilm and also on Ancestry, but the indexes can be consulted online now and give a real flavour of people escaping with their families and with very varied occupations.

There are some other records at LMA relating to the refugees. 54 Belgian refugees who “became mentally afflicted” were admitted to Colney Hatch Asylum where they were provided with interpreters and treated as private patients. The Colney Hatch case books at LMA (H12/CH) include Belgian refugees and German and Italian nationals admitted during the war and mainly repatriated after 1918.

Other records

The parish of Saint Martin Ruislip formed a War Emergency Committee 1914-1922 and these include records of their Belgian Guests sub-committee minutes 1914-1917 (DRO/019/K/02/004). Guests is an interesting word to use in this context and gives us a flavour of the reception that the Belgian refugees often received. Many people worked hard to raise funds for the refugees and we hold an example here: Catalogue of sale held in Staines to aid Belgian refugees, 1914 (ACC/0809/HSF/003).

Some intriguing buildings were used to house refugees. We hold a Building Act case file for the Aldwych Roller Skating Rink which was disused in 1914 and taken over by the War Refugees' Committee for use as one of the clearing centres (it was very close to the WRC headquarters) providing humanitarian and medical aid to Belgian refugees (GLC/AR/BR/07/0005). The Manchester Hotel on 138-145 Aldersgate Street in the City of London was used as a shelter for Belgian refugees (GLC/AR/BR/22/ES/076762).

We hold some photographs of the Anglo-Belgian Memorial, also known as the Belgian Gratitude Memorial or the Belgian Refugees Memorial which is a war memorial on Victoria Embankment in London, opposite Cleopatra's Needle. It was a gift from Belgium, as a mark of thanks. It is a Grade II* listed building. The photographs bear our reference SC/PHL/02/1043-104-106 (and are not on Collage). We also hold two London County Council files (1918-1920) about the memorial (LCC/CL/PK/02/101and LCC/PP/LG/009).

Plans for a Belgian war memorial in London were proposed by a group of Belgians in 1916, to be funded by public subscription. The memorial was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield. Its main feature is a central bronze sculpture by Belgian sculptor Victor Rousseau, who himself spent time as a refugee in London during the war. The sculpture was cast at the A. B. Burton foundry at Thames Ditton. It depicts a Belgian woman, accompanied by a boy and a girl carrying garlands of flowers. The bronze stands on a stone plinth which bears the inscription, 'To the British nation from the grateful people of Belgium, 1914-1918'.


I suspect that the reason why we do not remember the Belgian refugees is that at the end of the War, they moved back to Belgium - leaving only perhaps 11,000 in Britain. The Belgian Government and Royal Family were very involved in the work of looking after the refugees - their names crop up as guests and visitors to various camps and temporary shelters. With almost all back home by the end of 1919, memories faded of the Belgian guests and there were few physical reminders of their presence.

And, you might be wondering, why the 'mysterious affair?' Well, in her autobiography, Agatha Christie writes of her dilemma over which character she should choose for the detective stories she was planning. "Then I remembered our Belgian refugees. We had quite a colony of Belgian refugees living in the parish of Tor," she writes. "Why not make my detective a Belgian? I thought. There were all types of refugees. How about a refugee police officer? A retired police officer. Not too young a one. What a mistake I made there. The result is that my fictional detective must really be well over a hundred now. Anyway, I settled on a Belgian detective."

The real-life Poirot may well have passed through London - there is no proof. But there is proof in the LMA archives of many thousands of real Belgians who sought sanctuary in Britain and found it in London.

First World War at home

On 31 May 1915 the first German bomb fell in Alkham Road in Stoke Newington. Nobody was seriously injured though there was bomb damage. The raid continued  over Hackney and Stratford, killing seven and injuring 35. Aerial bombardment was an entirely new sensation for Londoners, though there had been suspected and real bombs and bomb plots (from Guy Fawkes to anarchists and Irish revolutionaries) over the centuries.  

London County Council archives include daily returns of air raid fire calls and inquests on air raid victims. Food and coal rationing, air raid precautions, recruitment and staffing were increasing pre-occupations for public authorities throughout the war.

Photographs and art work of damage, raids, grounded Zeppelins can also be found. We also hold personal correspondence, diaries and personal impressions from Londoners. Within the capital, as women covered more work for men on active service, there are photographs of women workers on active service in industry.


There is a great deal of information at LMA about hospitals, their patients and staff. In our last newsletter we invited questions about these records. The most interesting enquiry we received was about a grandmother who was at the Nightingale School of Nursing in the 1900s. Charlie Turpie looks at what we found out.

Florence Nightingale is of course famous for her courageous and determined efforts to save soldiers’ lives by improving nursing during the Crimean War. Many consider her greatest achievement was to transform nursing into a respectable profession for women, thus ensuring a supply of scientifically trained and dedicated nurses. In 1860, Florence Nightingale established the first professional training school for nurses, the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas' Hospital from public subscription (the Nightingale Fund). The reputation of the Nightingale (as the school became known) soon spread and Nightingale nurses were requested to start new nurse training schools all over the world.

LMA holds many records of the Nightingale Training School (H01/ST/NTS), as well as voluminous correspondence and papers of Florence Nightingale (the Nightingale Collection, H01/ST/NC). These archives sit amongst the records of St Thomas’ Hospital and offers lots of possible sources if you are interested in someone who trained as a nurse there.

If you are looking for a nurse in our records, the best place to start is our Information Leaflet No. 36 History of nursing: major sources at London Metropolitan Archives (85KB). Following advice in the Information Leaflet, I looked in the indexes to the Nightingale probationers’ record books (HO1/ST/NTS/C/05) to find the relevant record book volume (covering nurses who were admitted in 1900-1903) and probationer’s entry number.

These probationers’ record books which run from 1860 to 1966 (HO1/ST/NTS/C/04) are a fantastic resource. They give the Ward Sisters’ candid opinions on the would-be nurses. Sometimes they are positive as in the illustrated entry (for Winifred Alice Giles) who was “much liked by the patients” and had “nice gentle manners and has a good influence with her fellow nurses”. I noted that in some other nurses’ entries, being liked by the patients was considered a black mark as it suggested someone who had time to chat. Other probationary nurses in the same volume are judged less successful – one for example was deemed “excessively dull and has a bad memory and is consequently unreliable”.

The entries for each nurse cover her time at the School which generally lasts for four years and most of the women who stay the course do seem to improve (or at least the Ward Sisters assess them less harshly as time goes on). The “excessively dull” young woman of the previous paragraph made some progress in her time, but finally was judged “not sufficiently methodical to make a really capable staff nurse. She left at the end of her engagement [i.e. her time at the Nightingale] to do district nursing for which I think she would be eminently suitable”. I was irresistibly reminded of Jenny Lee in “Call the Midwife” turning down the starched uniform of the London Hospital for life as a district nurse because she felt she would have more freedom to look after her patients as she chose.

The entries for each nurse sometimes contain very brief remarks as to her later career, marriage or death. These appear with some regularity to 1920s and very occasionally beyond. Winifred Alice Giles’ page bears a note “1909 Married. Mrs Porter”. Most of the annotations are to do with the hospitals or nursing establishments at which the women worked, but I was interested to see that one nurse became a Town Councillor in Tunbridge Wells and then, in 1937, “Made 1st woman alderman”.

I also looked in the Pupil Nurses files (HO1/ST/NTS/C/08). These only partially survive – the Training School appears to have destroyed files as a deliberate records management system. No file survives for Wilfred Alice Giles. The files which do survive give some useful information – they give date and place of birth, height, weight, name and occupation of father, school/s attended, present occupation of candidate and letters from referees. These letters are pretty formulaic, all speaking of the candidate’s great suitability – I wonder if the sisters in charge of these pupil nurses agreed!

There are many more sources at which I could have looked, including photographs and letters. The collection also contains records and reminiscences of Nightingale nurses in later life – they evidently had a great camaraderie, perhaps forged by their companionship while they struggled to learn the ropes and please the Ward Sisters! If you know you have a 'Nightingale Nurse' you want to investigate – please do read our leaflet or get in touch via to find out more. 

Workhouses and poor law

We had an interesting question from an enquirer who had previously visited LMA and found his ancestors in our Whitechapel workhouse registers:

'Do you have, or know about, any information/photos relating to the Whitechapel workhouse? From the workhouse he was discharged to the Plashett School. Is there any information/photos about the Plashett School?'

Our answer (slightly reworked for this article):
LMA holds a catalogued image of the Whitechapel workhouse (shown on this page). This is a wood engraving from the Illustrated London News showing a crowd gathering outside the exterior of the building, 19th Century (SC/PZ/ST/03/KS).

We also mentioned that LMA also holds the former Guildhall Library Photograph Collection. These collections have not been catalogued in detail so enquirers need to visit and search these boxes “on spec”:

Photograph Collection. Sheets for Charles Street (Sheets B. S3/CHA Box: SC/GL/PHO/B/S3/BRA-S3/DUN).

Photograph Collection. Sheets for South Grove (Sheets B. S3/SOU Box: SC/GL/PHO/B/S3/MIL-S3/SPI).

Photograph Collection. Sheets which might include Plashet School (Sheets B.II/PLA. Box: SC/GL/PHO/B/II/ONG-II/WES).

We do not usually search these for free, but decided to on this occasion and found no photographs of the workhouse or school. The pitfalls of archival research, unlike the experience of celebrities on Who Do You Think You Are?, will be very familiar to many of our readers!

It is always worth consulting the Workhouse History website, which covers life in the workhouse and architecture, particularly pages on Whitechapel and Plashet School.

We also hold various publications about workhouses in our reference library (reference 20.61 for 'workhouses') which are worth consulting if you want to understand the workhouse and poor relief system.

LMA holds records of Plashet School, almost entirely Admission and Discharge registers of pupils from 1852-1925 and we sent a list of these to the enquirer. You can find them amongst the (very large) list of family history sources for Tower Hamlets on our London Generations page.

Another enquirer had an ancestor who died 1894 aged 81 in Bethnal Green and whose occupation was given as poor law clerk. 'How can I find out where, as he was a coal porter/dealer on all census from 1841-1881?'

We began: Parishes in England and Wales were united (from 1834 onwards) into Poor Law Unions, each Union being administered by a local Board of Guardians who ran workhouses, infirmaries and other institutions.

An individual working as a poor law clerk at this period would have worked for one of the Boards of Guardians. The Workhouses History website, as above, has a helpful map of the areas of London Poor Law unions/Boards of Guardians.

If he was living in the Bethnal Green area, it would seem most likely that he was working for the Bethnal Green Board of Guardians. Almost all this Board's activity is recorded in the voluminous Board minutes (BEBG/001-092) that cover the period March 1836 to March 1930. These usually include the appointment of staff, but as they are minimally indexed they could take some time to search through.

However, records of the Boards of Guardians often include discrete staff records, as in the case of Bethnal Green. There is a register of officers appointed 1875-1916 (BEBG/344/001). This is indexed by the name of the staff member, so we quickly checked to see if he appeared in these records. Unfortunately, we did not find him in the index to these records.

There are various possibilities here:

  1. The death certificate is incorrect and he was not a poor law clerk
  2. He was working for another Board of Guardians, most likely Mile End Old Town (which later became Stepney Union) or Shoreditch Board of Guardians, but shortage of staff time meant that we were unable to search these records as part of our free enquiry service
  3. His appointment appears in the Board of Guardians’ minutes (BEBG/001-192). The National Archives holds a large series of Workhouse Staff Registers (1837 – 1921) in MH9. It may be worthwhile contacting them to ask if a clerk would have been included in these centralised records.

Please do bear in mind that some Board of Guardian records are not on Ancestry: to get the full picture you need to email or visit LMA!