10/19/2022 0 Comments
In a quiet corner of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church graveyard in Tideswell stands a simple headstone. On it is inscribed three names from a family who died a long way from home, a testament to the tragedy and chaos that war brings into everyday life, but also the human capacity for kindness and generosity to strangers in need amongst a community. This blog (a version of which was first published on the old Peak in the Past website in January 2018 which has since been reconstructed) will look at how one village responded to a major refugee crisis as a result of war. It will also shine a light on how some aspects of public health were carried out in rural areas before the founding of the National Health Service.
Pictured above: Headstone for three Belgian refugees who died in Tideswell in 1915 and were buried at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church
Great Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th August 1914 after Germany violated Belgium's neutrality by invading it to attack France. An immediate result of this was that vast numbers of Belgians were forced to flee their homes for safety, creating a major refugee crisis for Western Europe. One woman in Great Britain decided it was her duty to try and help these refugees. Within three weeks of war being declared, Lady Lugard created the War Refugees Committee, with the aim of establishing relief organisations across Great Britain to provide shelter for the huge numbers of Belgians fleeing for their safety. The work of the Committee was an immediate success. On the first day of the Committee, 1000 letters were received with offers of help, and by the second day 2000 similar letters were received. The Committee, mainly staffed by women, would work seventeen-hour days, seven days a week to help provide homes for Belgian refugees. Around 250,000 Belgians fled to Great Britain during the war and where housed around the country.
Derbyshire played its role in helping those Belgians in need. By 26th November 1914, there appeared to be 500 Belgian refugees being provided for within Derbyshire, and by mid February 1915, 2000 - 3000 had settled in Derbyshire. An example of how this process worked and the challenges faced can be found in Tideswell.
Pictured above: The family of Flemish Belgian refugees who arrived in Tideswell in 1915 (Derbyshire Record Office: D1494/PZ/3)
In January 1915 a family of fourteen Flemish Belgian refugees arrived in Tideswell, the majority of them children. They had spent six weeks travelling from the city of Nieuport, near to the Belgium coast in the Flemish province of West Flanders, and most likely arrived in Britain at Folkestone, Kent. Nieuport had been on the front line, witnessing the Battle of the Yser, which took place in October 1914 between the towns on Nieupoort and Diksmuide along a 22 mile long stretch of the Yser river and Yperlee canal in Belgium. The front line was held by a large Belgian force which halted the German advance in a costly defensive battle. The Allied victory at the Yser stopped the German advance into the last corner of unoccupied Belgium but still left the German army in control of 95 percent of Belgian territory.
In Tideswell a Refugee Committee was created and the whole community came together to support in it. Members included the Reverend Thomas Rogerson (vicar of Tideswell), Reverend R. Holmes (Congregational) and Reverend Sidney Brown (Wesleyan). The rent was paid by Reverend J. F. Warden, from November 1914 to March 25th 1915 for Blake House and this became the home for the Belgians in the village.
Pictured above: Blake House, Tideswell, the temporary home to the Belgian refugees in 1915
Like with the National Committee, the women of Tideswell did a lot of work in supporting the local committee. Women would go around the streets of Tideswell collecting financial contributions towards the committee’s work. So, for example, Mrs Bramwell and Mrs F. Dawson collected weekly subscriptions from 28 people living at Town Head; Mrs S. Flint collected from 15 people living on Church Street and Queen Street; Mrs F. Chapman and Miss Sellers collected from 23 people living on Queen Street and Gordon Road; Mrs Holmes and Mrs Ezra Walker collected from 30 people living on Sherwood Road; Mrs Ingham and Miss Howe collected from 26 people living on High Street, Market Square and Manchester Road; Miss M. Hunstone collected from 8 people living at Millers Dale, and Mrs Pierrepont collected from 10 people living in the Wheston District. In total 195 people made cash donations amounting to £197, 9 shillings and a half penny to the fund.
Pictured above: A list of some of the regular subscribers in Tideswell to the Belgian Refugees Committee, 1915 (Derbyshire Record Office: D1494/PZ/3)
It was not only money that was provided. 37 people donated furniture, oilcloth, casement curtains, coal, firewood, blankets, pots and house linen. Gifts in provisions included weekly groceries, soap, beef, coffee, tea, sausages, potatoes and turnips, bread, teacakes, milk, sugar, meat, butter, cabbages, carrots, voluntary work in Blake House and a subscription to the “Echo de Belge” Weekly to make the Belgians feel at home. £54, 11 shillings and 4½ pence was also given out as allowances to the refugees.
Pictured above: A list of those who made gifts of provisions to the Tideswell Belgian Refugees Committee, 1915 (Derbyshire Record Office: D1494/PZ/3)
However, after six weeks of travelling to get from Belgium to Great Britain, the Belgians were in a weak bodily condition and many were suffering from colds and generally were very miserable. It was not very long before six of them caught typhoid fever. There was no isolation hospital in the district at the time, so the Tideswell Committee had to make arrangements for the care of the sick Belgians (who were joined by a Tideswell child who had also contracted typhoid fever). A temporary isolation hospital was created by renting a house somewhere on Sherwood Road. This was equipped with furnishings and medical appliances, whilst ‘day’ and ‘night’ nurses were hired to attend on the patients (who also had to be provided with board and lodging). Heating, laundry, provisions and the attendance of Dr T.H. Parke were also paid for to help the patients.
In spite of the medical care put in place, on the 24th/25th January 1915 one of the stricken Belgians Marie Rubben Maes died. She was 32 years old and had been born in the village of Adinkerke, Flanders, close to the French border, and about 10 miles west of Nieuport. She had two children, and her husband, Auguste Maes, was serving in the Belgian army fighting the Germans. She was buried on the 28th January at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Tideswell. Tragically, on the day of Marie’s funeral, a letter was received from her husband, who no one had been able to contact to inform him of his wife’s death because his whereabouts were unknown, in which he said he was in good health and trusted they were too. Marie’s principal mourners were Monsieur Rubbon, Madame Rubbon, Monsieur Von Belmont [Billemount?], and several people from Tideswell.
Pictured above: St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Tideswell, where the three Belgian refugees are buried
Then, the next day, 29th January, Marie’s mother, Mathilde Deboutte, 62 years old, also died. She had first been married to Karee Rubben and in her second marriage to Edovard Van Billemont. She was buried the next day in the same plot as her daughter. For both funerals, the Reverend Father Chistens, a Belgian priest living at Glossop, officiated. Two of Mathilde’s sons attended, as well as a number of other refugees and people from Tideswell.
On 27th February 1915, Florimond Van Billemount, 29 years old and husband of Julia Gldys, also died. He too was buried at St. Mary’s again by Reverend Father Chielens. The principal mourners were Madame Rubbon and Monsieur Maas. It was not stated in the newspapers at the time, but he may have also been one the sons of Mathilde Deboutte who had attended her funeral. Florimond was the last death recorded, and the accounts for the temporary isolation hospital were examined and found correct on the 28th April 1915, so the outbreak of fever must have passed by then.
The Tideswell Committee had to pay for all this extra expense, which they believed amounted to £10 per week plus medical fees. This had not been budgeted for, and unsurprisingly they were very concerned that if their funds ran out, they would not be able to provide care for the remaining Belgians. So they appeared before the Bakewell Rural District Council to request that they take over the responsibility of running the temporary isolation hospital. However, the Bakewell Rural District Council response was that ‘they did not feel disposed at the present time to take over it’, but instead offered to contribute £6 per week for eight weeks towards the maintenance of the Hospital and, if at the expiration of that period the disease had not abated, the matter would have been further considered.
When informed of this decision, the Reverend Rogerson wrote in reply that the Tideswell Committee were far from being satisfied with the offer made, and if nothing more adequate was provided, a lot of money would have to be found by the people of Tideswell. An anonymous letter from Tideswell in The Derbyshire Courier questioned why no provision was made for typhoid fever, even when a child from Tideswell caught it, but a case of scarlet fever was dealt with. “What the people are asking is” the letter writer stated, “if the Bakewell authorities are responsible for isolating scarlet fever cases, why did they not take full responsibility for the typhoid case? If they had the power in one instance why not in the other?”.
Pictured above: extract from 'The Derbyshire Courier' article, 3 April 1915 (p.2) relating to the dispute between the Tideswell Belgian Refugees Committee and Bakewell Rural District Council over the provision of care for the Belgians stricken with typhoid fever in Tideswell
When the General Purposes Committee [of Bakewell Rural District Council] read the Reverend Rogerson’s letter, they were much ‘surprised’ at the attitude assumed by the Tideswell Committee and regretted the ungracious manner in which the offer of financial assistance had been received by them, and desired to know whether the conditional acceptance of such assistance was now withdrawn. In response, the Reverend Rogerson wrote to the effect “they had no desire to appear ungracious towards the Council.” He was only concerned that when enteric fever broke out they were left by the local sanitary authority to deal with the matter in the best way they could. The Committee Clerk pointed out to the Tideswell Committee that the Council was under no statutory obligation to provide isolation hospital accommodation and that even in offering them financial assistance the Council ran no small risk of being surcharged with the amount of their contribution.
The Vicar wondered if it was the case that other local authorities around the country were providing isolation hospitals solely by a spirit of philanthropy? He pointed out that when one Tideswell resident living in the Chapel-en-le- Frith Union contracted typhoid fever in a serious form, she was placed in the Chinley Hospital. He felt it was Council’s duty to make proper provision when the infected poor could not help themselves, not just for the poor’s sake, but for the protection of the inhabitants generally.
However, in the end, Bakewell Rural District Council’s offer of £6 per week was accepted by the Tideswell Belgian Refugees Committee. Extra funds were also raised by £42 in donations and subscriptions, £61 4 shillings from the Local Government Board, £10 from the District War Refugees’ Committee for Belgians towards the costs of the funerals and 17 shillings 8 pence from the sale of hospital equipment.
The surviving accounts for the Tideswell Belgian Refugees Committee only date up to 29th September 1915 but it is not known if this is the date the Belgians left Tideswell to live somewhere else. The vast majority of the Belgians in the United Kingdom returned home once the war had ended. What happened to Marie’s two children and husband Auguste or Florimond Van Billemount wife Julia is also a mystery. With all the arguments over the financial costs of dealing with the typhoid fever outbreak, it is important not to forget that many people in Tideswell gave up their time, money and goods to help strangers who came in need into their community. It is also important to remember Marie Rubben Maes, Mathilde Deboutte and Florimond Van Billemount, who would never see their children or grandchildren grow up, or see their homes again, but instead would lie forever in a peaceful corner of Tideswell.