We're all Stories in the End: The Belgian Refugee

Newly Arrived - Belgian Refugees at Clifton-upon-Dunsmore.
Rugby Advertiser, 3rd October 1914, courtesy of Warwickshire County Record Office.

The background

In April 2017 Heritage & Culture Warwickshire worked with The Play House and pupils from Westgate Primary to create tales inspired by objects on display at the Market Hall Museum.  Four classes from Westgate Primary came to the museum to work with Julie and Juliet. They used their imagination and created eight new fairy tales and legends, inspired by different objects in the museum.

The Belgian Refugee by Year 5

Year 5’s imagination was sparked by the photographs of Belgian refugees living in Rugby during and after World War 1. The photographs and other documents are cared for by the County Record Office, and copies of these can be seen at the Market Hall Museum. The children created a story about a young refugee and his journey to England. It was difficult to decide what to take with him and what to leave behind in his home.

The documents and photographs tell us the stories of Belgian’s who fled the advance of the German and Prussian armies during World War One.  A community of refugees were settled in Rugby.

A big news story

The people of Rugby were welcoming to the hundreds of refugees relocated in Rugby District, raising funds to support them. Read about how it was a big news story.

Victor Buelens and Emelie Alice deKeyser from Louvain  had planned their wedding for 22nd August 1914 in Belgium but they fled to England and their wedding was delayed. Read the article about when they were finally able to marry in Rugby. 

Many of the hundreds of Belgium refugees relocated to Rugby were housed in temporary huts built on land at the Willans works.  Read the article about the huts and their continued use.

Heritage & Culture Warwickshire would like to thank the children from Westgate Primary who created these stories. They are available to listen to at the Market Hall Museum, ask the staff or volunteers at the front door if you can borrow the Story Trail bag. All the objects are in the museum for you to see yourself.

The ‘We’re all Stories in the End’ project was made possible by funding from Arts Council England and with the support of the West Midlands Museum Development team.


The Belgian Refugee by Year 5

[Sounds of gunfire]

I was born in a small town in Belgium. I remember the day we were told to leave our homes. It was 1914. War had come to us. The Germans were coming and we needed to get out. I was told to pack a bag and get to the coast as soon as possible so that I could catch a boat to England if I was lucky. I found it hard to decide what to take.

REFUGEE: Clothes, food, valuables. Oh, I must take that picture of Nan.

My parents were too old to travel with me. So, I left all by myself. I hated saying goodbye.

REFUGEE: Bye Mum and Dad, I’ll miss you. We’ll see you when the war’s over.

MOTHER: Stay safe, and don’t get hurt, son.

[Footsteps] I joined lots of other people from nearby towns to walk all the way to the sea. It took days and days and we had to hide from the Germans sometimes. Once we reached the coast we saw so many people like us, but there were not many boats.

FIRST WOMAN: Will we get space on the boat?

SECOND WOMAN: I hope my family will get on the boat. I’m feeling so sad and desperate.

The journey by sea was rough and the waves were very big. We all felt sick but eventually we reached England. As we carried our bags ashore we heard voices. As the mist cleared we saw a woman giving a speech.

ENGLISH WOMAN: We welcome you with open arms. You can all stay as long you want.

She was speaking a language none of us understood.

BELGIAN REFUGEE: [in French]  Je ne comprends pas.

I travelled to the town of Rugby with some of the refugees. I was given a place to stay and a job. I went to work at Willan’s Works factory where they made steam engines. I was shown what to do and I worked hard, but the local people didn’t really talk to us much and us refugees stuck together. Because of the war we had to make more and more of the engines but there weren’t enough of us so it was very tough. One day there was a big argument about when one of the refugees was late.

WORKER: Where’ve you been? We’ve got so much work to do and it’s not fair if you are late.

FEMALE REFUGEE: Je ne comprends pas. It is not my fault. I can explain.

WORKER: What are you talking about?! Just get back to work.

One day, one of the engines being tested began to shudder and shake. It let out steam from all the wrong places.

WORKERS: [Confused voices] It’s going to blow! Watch out! Look out for the hot water!

There was a big explosion. The engine blew apart. [Frightened screams, explosion]

WORKERS: Quick, get help!

That day two people were killed and many English and Belgian workers were injured. A meeting was called to talk to the management of the factory. We told them we couldn’t work as fast as they wanted as it was not safe. After that, things were better and we talked more together. I’d learnt more English, too.

REFUGEE: We love to eat waffles, chocolate and chips.

WORKER: We don’t eat waffles here but we love chips.

REFUGEE: Here, try this.

WORKER: Chocolate? Oh, delicious!

I made friends. I met a lovely young woman and I never did go back to Belgium.

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