Belgian Refugees in Gwent

BELGIAN REFUGEES

As the local press began to fill with stories of German atrocities in Belgium, Belgian refugees began to arrive in the county.  The first arrived in Newport on 8th October 1914.  Initially, 49 of them were given emergency  accommodation in Newport, prior to dispersal around Monmouthshire. Several families even found themselves living in pilots boats in Newport docks.  By December 1914 there were over 200 Belgian refugees in the county plus 95 convalescing Belgian soldiers.  Over 40 local committees were established to assist them.

Valleys communities in particular seemed to regard it as a matter of great civic pride to have an allocation of  Belgian refugees and competed with each other in their attempts to make them welcome.  At a large public meeting in Crumlin in November 1914, disappointment was expressed at the fact that the town had not been selected to receive any Belgians, even though there had been many offers of accommodation.

Considerable effort went into providing accommodation and other necessities for the refugees.   Glyndor Baptist Chapel Aberbeeg agreed to accommodate 20 Belgian Belgian refugees in the Sunday school classroom.  In Abertillery, the local Belgian Refugee Committee had procured a house which would accommodate 14 refugees.  Individuals and local shops donated furniture and other household equipment while the Co-operative Society  promised to give the first fortnight’s food free of charge. The first batch of refugees were welcomed with great ceremony, including the playing of the Belgian national anthem by the Salvation Army band.   At Blaina Central Girls School each pupil brought a lump of coal and a potato for the Belgian refugees.

Newport’s Jewish Community rallied to support Jews from Belgium.  Nearly every Jewish family in the area was reported to have contributed to the Newport and District Jewish Refugees Committee, allowing it to run its own home,  The Hollies at Caerau, for eight months.

By the end of 1915,  Newport Refugee Committee had dealt with 793 refugees.  Two had died and 254 had left the area, either to join the Belgian army or to live elsewhere in Britain.  546 remained living in the Newport area.  A further 242 were living elsewhere in the county, having been dealt with by other committees (Risca 70, Chepstow 46, Pontypool 44, Abertillery 38,  Cwmbran 38, Abersychan 35, Abergavenny 32,  Tredegar 31, Panteg 30).  The Newport committee reported that the Belgians’ behaviour had been very good, with only 22 being classified as “bad cases” and another 20 as “difficult”.   In Newport alone, over £8000 had been collected in cash, with thousands of pounds worth of food and clothes being donated.

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