The UK was home to 250,000 Belgian refugees during World War One, the largest single influx in the country’s history. Germany had invaded Belgium in August 1914 en route for France. The Belgians fought back but had little chance. They were forced to flee, mainly for the UK. Great photos here.
Here in the UK in some purpose-built villages they had their own schools, newspapers, shops, hospitals, churches, prisons and police. These areas were considered Belgian territory and run by the Belgian government. They even used the Belgian currency.
Few communities in the UK were unaffected by their arrival.. Most were housed with families across the country and in all four nations. [All thanks to the BBC here]. After the war most returned home.
One such community of perhaps 6,000 was based in London’s Richmond and East Twickenham, where many were employed in the munitions factory built in what is now Cleveland Park alongside Richmond Bridge. A disused roller skating rink there was bought in 1914 by the French industrialist Charles Pelabon for use as a munitions factory. He built four or five more workshops over the extensive site.
It’s interesting that one of Monsieur Pelabon’s last munitions factories built on the site was the red-brick riverside building of 1915. In 1924 it became the world renowned Richmond Ice Rink. It closed in 1992 when it was demolished to make make way for luxury flats. [All thanks to Wikipedia here.]
The large number of Belgian refugees arriving during WW1 caused East Twickenham to be known as the Belgian Village on the Thames.
In 2017, the centenary of WW1, a memorial stone was laid to commemorate the Belgian presence in East Twickenham. The initiative was that of the East Twickenham Centennial Group [“ETCG”]. Congratulations!
The unveiling was accompanied by a site-specific dance performance – see video here.
Here’s the site on Google maps – but before the date of the Memorial. We await a photo.