#whitefeather diaries

Belgians in Birmingham

Wednesday 13 August 2014

While Hilda Clark, Edith Pye and their colleagues went to support refugees in France, other Quakers were helping them out in Britain. Thousands of Belgian refugees arrived in Britain in autumn 1914 and a number were invited to sleep in Quaker meeting houses or accommodated by Quaker households.

In Birmingham, the committee organised to oversee accommodation for Belgian refugees was chaired by Laurence Cadbury's mother. In October 1914, Birmingham Quakers reported on developments in The Friend, the independent Quaker magazine.

The report hints at tension between Birmingham Quakers and those administering the refugee support from London. Modern Quakers might be surprised that a separate scheme was deemed necessary for Belgians of “the wealthy classes”.

By the end of last week the city of Birmingham had received nearly 2,000 Belgian refugees and distributed them to various homes and shelters in the city and neighbourhood. To grapple with the need a strong committee, on which Friends are well represented, was formed, with Mrs George Cadbury as chairman. In an interim report which has just been issued a suggestive account is given of the methods of procedure.

A house in Islington Row was kindly lent for headquarters on September 3rd, and was quickly furnished by the kindness of friends as a receiving house and office. The first party of fifty were received on September 4th, before it was quite ready. Uffculme and the Roman Catholic Convent, Thirlmere, were kindly lent as the first homes.

The difficulties have been enormously increased by the uncertain methods of the London Committee, brought about by the overwhelming amount of work that has fallen upon them.

When the Birmingham Committee receives definite information that a party has left London, members repair to the station, welcome the arrivals and conduct them by tram and by omnibus to the various receiving houses. Here they are registered, receive food, have baths and beds. The morning after an arrival, the Allocation Committee meets, interview each family, endeavours to find out their especial need, investigates relationships with other refugees and finds a home. The Clothing Committee finds suitable garments. The hosts are communicated with, and in the afternoon, rows of motors take them by road to their destinations, or to the railway station.

When London, on account of the enormous crowds pouring into England, after the fall of Antwerp, implored the Committee to take hundreds, as they had previously taken tens, it was necessary to find a larger receiving house. There is no Alexandra Palace in Birmingham, and it seemed impossible to comply with the request till the trustees of the Friends' Hall, Moseley Road, spontaneously placed their splendid premises at the disposal of the Committee, and removed their own organisations to other halls or schoolrooms. This idea was first mooted on October 13th and two days later the place was ready to sleep, feed and house 400; and there was an instant response when a call for blankets, sheets and towels was sent out; beds were bought by the Committee at cost price. The entertainment of, and thoughtful care for, the thousand people who have been housed at this Hall during the last two weeks will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.

For the care of the families of professional, official and the wealthy classes which are now beginning to reach Birmingham a separate committee is being formed. In the meantime several families have been received and are being most kindly entertained; one, a doctor's family of eight persons, were some of the first to arrive. Several commodious houses have been lent. The gratitude of our guests is deep and from time to time is expressed in glowing words.

From The Friend, 30 October 1914. Used by kind permission of The Friend Publications Ltd.

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