Every so often, when reading the press from yesteryear, you come across one of those stories that should be present in the history books but isn’t. This summer, as I was reading through the Cardiff Times for 1914 to gain a sense of just how Wales reacted to the outbreak of the Great War, I came across a brief article comprising eleven lines of newsprint. The headline – Porthcawl and Belgian Refugees – said something completely new for the history and legacy of the 250,000 Belgian refugees who came to Britain during the Great War had rarely been told. Those who came to Wales, the staff at the National Library told me, were artists and other well-to-do people and there was a catalogue of their art floating about somewhere. I then found the government report published in 1920 and it records that 4,500 Belgians were given shelter in Wales. Even if every Belgian could paint and draw, it was most unlikely they were all artists and so off I went searching for more information.
On Wednesday 2 September 1914, a group of Belgians arrived in Swansea to take up residence with Sir Alfred Mond, the town’s Liberal MP. These were the first group of refugees to arrive in Wales bringing with them tales of the war and expressions of gratitude to the British nation for standing up to Germany. A week later, the first contingent arrived in Cardiff to ‘scenes of a kind never before witnessed in the city’. A large crowd gathered along St Mary’s Street and Westgate Street to greet the arrivals from the Great Western Railway Station (today’s Central Station). On the platform were dignitaries representing the council, the police and the city’s refugee committee. From there, the party progressed to the Grand Hotel where they were provided with a meal and told that they would be given shelter at the Catholic Young Men’s Society building in Richmond Crescent. By the end of the day over 60 refugees had arrived in the city and 100 more followed the day after prompting the question of where to house them all.
Offers came from across Wales and, by the end of December, small communities of refugees could be found in every county. Heavily concentrated in the industrial counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, refugees were also present in places such as Aberystwyth, Barmouth, Lampeter, Llandrindod Wells, Machynlleth, Milford Haven and Rhyl. They arrived almost without exception into crowds of cheering, empathetic people and found themselves splashed across the newspapers under gushing headlines. ‘We doubt whether, in the history of Rhyl, such a huge demonstration depicting sincerity and enthusiasm has been witnessed … to excel that which took place on Tuesday afternoon on the occasion of the arrival of the Belgian refugees’, wrote the Rhyl Journal. The Cambrian News spoke of the ‘hearty welcome’ received at Aberystwyth whilst the Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph recalled the ‘pathetic spectacle’ of seeing ‘a dozen ladies and children, very respectfully dressed, proceed along the docks to the Customs House’.
Refugees were sheltered in houses provided by the well-to-do and maintained by voluntary subscription. In Pontypridd, they were put up in Jacobsdal, a large house in Graigwen given by Councillor Arthur Seaton, or in a residence on Merthyr Road. For those living in Jacobsdal, as with several other refugee hostels, life was not entirely straightforward. Members of the committee often insisted on appointing matrons who did the shopping, for example. Any young men who happened to be in a refugee party were frowned upon with mutterings in the community to the effect that they should be serving on the front. And, of course, there was the culture shock of moving to a country where different languages were spoken and the way of life was quite different. Finding someone to speak French was often straightforward but few people living in Wales at the time spoke Dutch and this made communication difficult. Recognising this, and no doubt seeking to gain a new constituency of readers, certain newspapers began publishing a regular column in Dutch. The Western Mail first did so on 10 October and they were followed by the Porthcawl News on 22 October which also published a ‘how to converse in Flemish’ column for its traditional audience.
There were also changes in other aspects of daily life. Belgian children were given places at local schools; adults could and did enrol on specially organised English language classes in the evenings; the Belgian consulate opened a small library where newspapers and books in French and Dutch could be read; and the War Refugees Information Bureau, an organisation set up in Cardiff, published a bilingual guide to medical facilities, museums, libraries and public parks. Together, these instances of reaching out to a community with whom communication was often difficult illustrate the genuine enthusiasm and sympathy felt for the refugees and the willingness of Welsh society to adapt to their needs despite the prevailing conditions of war. With many still certain that Britain had gone to war to protect the rights of ‘gallant little Belgium’, or as David Lloyd George put it the rights of the ‘little five-foot-five nations’, such acts helped to strengthen (and in many ways create) the bonds between the two countries on a popular level.
The Belgian refugees of the Great War were the largest group of displaced people to arrive in Britain in the twentieth century; far greater than the 4,000 Basque Children who are still popularly and fondly remembered in Wales. The difference is quite striking. Yet, they both offer examples of internationalism linking, organically, communities in Wales with those elsewhere in the world. Spain and the Spanish Civil War encouraged active expression of what we might properly call proletarian internationalism, the kind that emerged in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It has been commented on many times and the case is put extremely well in Hywel Francis’ Miners Against Fascism. Responses to the Belgian refugees, however, remind us of a much older form of philanthropy and a different kind of internationalism. This was based on the liberal principles of Victorian Wales and was very much a middle-class sentiment. It deserves to be rediscovered and understood.