28/02/08

Folkstone took Flemish refugees to its heart in 1914

AUGUST 1914 saw an armada of fishing boats and steamers fleeing the Channel ports of Belgium in advance of the invading German army.When the Kaiser's troops crossed the border, King Albert's army was soon overrun but stalled them long enough so that many thousands of civilians and troopers were able to escape from Zeebrugge and Antwerp on a motley flotilla of ships and boats. Many more arrived in the following days. By August 20, it was reckoned that 64,000 Belgians had come through Folkestone. Trains waited at the dockside and carried many away to be dispersed around the county, while more than 15,000 stayed in the town itself.If that number turned up to stay today it would be hard enough, but Folkestone was much smaller then, so the impact can only be imagined. However, while there would no doubt have been some tension, they were our allies and we were at war. So the town took heart and did what Britain always does in a crisis: it formed a committee. The Folkestone War Refugee Committee was set up to assist the refugees and help them find food and shelter. The church played a large part in this, with the main leaders of the various denominations involved, and so earning a place in the painting The Landing of the Belgian Refugees, which hangs in Folkestone Library.Local historian Eamonn Rooney came across some memorabilia from the time, including an armband with the Belgian and French flags, and a badge to highlight that they were there to help.Mr Rooney said: "There were plenty of charity appeals to help the Belgians, so while there was probably Government help, there can't have been that much."They were given the old Harvey Grammar in Foord Road to accommodate them."People rallied round right across the whole town. It was solidarity - we were their allies and those people had to flee their country. There was much more of that feeling in those days than now."NewspaperIn fact, such were the huge numbers of refugees that by September the Franco-Belge de Folkestone newspaper was produced, helping with advice on where to find food and shelter, and carrying the names of new arrivals.Historian Alan Taylor has many photographs in his collection showing the refugees' arrival, many of whom had endured crossing the Channel in open fishing boats and barges. They were starving and cold after their crossing, despite it being the summer, and soup kitchens were opened to feed them on arrival.As with many pictures from the era, they bear the imprint of Halksworth Wheeler.Mr Taylor said: "More than 15,000 of them stayed in Folkestone so as you can imagine that stretched local amenities. The new arrivals' details were taken at the harbour but some of them slipped through the net as they came over on tugs and fishing boats into the inner harbour. "When the Belgian refugees arrived many of them absolutely refused to leave the boats and some of them only had the clothes they stood up in. Local people took them in and let them have a wash or gave them clothes and food."By September 1914 there were 20,000 Belgian soldiers in training at Shorncliffe and in October 2,000 more arrived from Ostende. Hotels were commandeered and local cars were brought down to the harbour as they didn't have enough ambulances for the wounded."Bobby's (the department store), which was then in Rendezvous Street, had bought a group of boarding houses where Debenhams is today to demolish and build a new shop. When the war came the building work was put on hold and they gave the houses over to the Belgians for the period. It eventually moved in 1931."The exodus is still remembered in Belgium, although there can be very few, if any, survivors so long after the event. Mr Taylor was interviewed last year by a Belgian documentary film crew researching the subject for a family history programme. One wing of a family had ended up in Glasgow and had stayed after the war.Mr Taylor added: "When it was over most of them went back, although some of them stayed on. Having said that, I don't know of any who stayed on in Folkestone."• Do you have family members who are related to Belgian refugees? Write to us as Express Memories, 93-95 Sandgate Road, Folkestone CT20 2BQ or email cdenham@thekmgroup.co.ukONE former Folkestone family have good reason to remember the arrival of the Belgian refugees, due to a remarkable twist of fate which came to light decades after the event. Dr Joe Rumble, now retired and living at Barham, near Canterbury, lived in Folkestone and was a dentist in Dover before qualifying as an oral surgeon.His mother, Martha Saelens, was nursemaid to the Mayor of Bruge's family, and escaped on what was probably the last boat out of Ostende in 1914. It was not until Dr Rumble's sister Frances married George Baynton in the 1960s that the coincidence came to light - as a 16-year-old merchant seaman, George was on the same boat that steamed out of the harbour as the German cavalry clattered across the cobbles.It was a mailboat, the Stad Antwerpen, and George had vivid recollections of that day, written down long before his death in 1998."The boat was moored by a single rope, and there was a bit of a panic because we knew that the Germans were entering the town."She was packed with people, some of them pressed up against the rails."Suddenly we saw a line of German cavalry pouring over the canal bridge. We knew from their black mounts it was the feared Uhlan Horse and we also knew there was not a second to lose."Captain Byass shouted through the megaphone 'let go aft,' but the quartermaster yelled back that he couldn't, because the eye was over the bollard and everyone on the quayside had fled."Young George then heard his first profanity as the captain bellowed: "Just cut the flippin' thing" or words to that effect. It took two swipes from an axe (the marks of which remained on the deck for years) to sever the rope and the boat slewed away from the quayside, triple turbine at full speed.Martha died tragically young in 1939, from a haemorrhage that today could have been easily treated.Born in Zonnebeke, near Ypres, she had been orphaned at the age of eight and was brought up in a convent, before finding work with the Mayor of Bruges, who was, with his children, almost certainly on that same boat which arrived in Folkestone to a patriotic and enthusiastic welcome. She met and married Dr Rumble's father Ernest, a bank manager and artist, in Folkestone in 1918.