Nearly six thousand Belgians lived across Twickenham and Richmond during the First World War between 1914-1918, mostly in St Margarets or central and East Twickenham. Sociologist turned local historian Helen Baker shares a few local stories:
‘Justin Wallon’ overlooked the fields from 33 Moormead Road, St Margarets. Really Belgian poet Paul Gérardy, he had savagely satirised Kaiser William and fled German wrath. He commuted from St Margarets Station to an exile newspaper in London, meanwhile writing up his fellow Belgians in the vivid book which gave our Belgian community its name: ‘The Belgian Village on the Thames’.
Refugees lived in almost all the St Margarets streets. Beaconsfield, Napoleon and Hartington Roads were almost entirely Belgian, like The Barons, which housed the first influx of workers for the huge new Belgian munitions factory in East Twickenham.
Constructed in weeks by dynamic engineer-entrepreneur Charles Pelabon, the factory created the ‘Belgian Village’, perhaps the largest Belgian community in Britain. The better-off lived in the centre; working classes further afield, their men and some of their women engaged on the factory floor. Everyone converged on East Twickenham, which sprouted Belgian shops: grocers, delicatessens, dress-makers, milliners, watch-makers, cobblers, bookshops, tea-houses, and the horsemeat butchers that so shocked the English.
Ex-Army Charles Van Eeckhout, now unfit for the Front, started at Pelabon in 1916. He met Maria Johanna, daughter of fellow-worker Lambertus Maes; and their daughter Maria was born in 1918 at their home, 32 Haggard Road, Twickenham.
Meanwhile Nellie Hammerton of 14 The Riverside joined a select band of Englishwomen at the factory. Her father William (well-known Waterman) had been killed at Ypres in 1915; in a family of 11 children, money was scarce. Nellie met handsome Edouard Labeye at the Works and was perhaps consoled by their courtship. ‘Teddie’ lived in Kew, but when he returned in 1920, he married her from 4 Lebanon Park Mansions, Twickenham.
Belgians knew the pains of exile, but life in Twickenham was not all misery. Family life flourished. Babies grew up to enjoy a Belgian education. Almost all Twickenham’s young Belgians went to the special Belgian Department in Orleans School, Napoleon Road, St Margarets. Middle-class families might prefer the private schools, like the Marie José School at 1 Vicarage Road, opposite Twickenham Green (middle school for girls; kindergarten for boys too); this later became the first St Catherine’s girls’ school. Older Belgian boys completed their education in Richmond.
Adults had their solaces and entertainments. A Belgian priest at St James Catholic Church, 61 Popes Grove, Strawberry Hill, ministered to spiritual needs. There were restaurants in East Twickenham and Richmond – but working men preferred the Twickenham pubs, often the King’s Head. Evening disorder was common, especially at weekends. The Pelabon Works offered clubs to employees: an orchestra, a choir, drama and sports clubs. Twickenham Belgians formed nationwide groups for home-town emigrés or charity work. The Flemish Drama Group performed in Queens Hall, King Street, then part of Twickenham Town Hall.
Gustav Hambrouck, family man of 19 Norman Avenue (and Pelabon Book-keeper) met young Antwerp soprano Prudence Spanoghe at a concert he organised in 1917. Quite enamoured, he lived with her in luxury in The Avenue, St Margarets, embezzling from his employer to fund his two households. Finally unmasked in 1919, he was sentenced to five years’ hard labour. But the war was now over, and by May 1919 all the Belgians had disappeared ‘like the snow’.
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Helen Baker grew up and still lives just a hundred yards from the site of the Belgian-owned Pelabon Munitions Works. She has spent the last eight years researching the First World War Belgian community which grew up around it, and led the campaign for a memorial in Warren Gardens, outside the site of the factory.