News about the First World War Belgian refugees across the border in East Twickenham has now hit the headlines, but the story of the refugees in St Margarets is still to be told. If East Twickenham was the hub of the Belgian community, then St Margarets and adjacent parts of Central Twickenham were its perimeter.
If you don’t yet know the background, East Twickenham became the centre of a community of 6000 First World War Belgians after a huge Munitions Works was set up by Monsieur Charles Pelabon. This started in a disused roller-skating rink in Cambridge Road and then expanded to cover the whole of the area which is now the Richmond Bridge Estates development. Another of Pelabon’s buildings later became the famous Richmond Ice Rink, which was demolished to make way for these luxury flats.
Rows of Belgian shops in Richmond Road, East Twickenham – From “Bloody Belgians!” by Simon Fowler & Keith Gregson, Ancestors No 33, May 2005, p.46
The Pelabon Works employed nearly 2000 men and women, almost all of whom were Belgian. They found homes in the streets nearby, some in East Twickenham itself and some a little further away. Rows of Belgian shops opened along the main road of East Twickenham, and the feeling in the streets became almost more Belgian than English. For this reason, East Twickenham and its near surroundings became known among the Belgians as le village belge sur la Tamise (the Belgian village on the Thames). More details can be found on the East Twickenham Village Website easttwickenham.org/ww1-belgian-refugees-project
Monsieur Pelabon was altogether dynamic, and he was producing munitions on the site as early as January 1915. However neither the factory not the Belgian community reached their peak instantly. At first only the original building was in use; the workforce would have been relatively small and could have been more easily contained in East Twickenham. Over time, though, Pelabon increased his production with at least four more newly-built workshops, and his need for a workforce grew in tandem. At this point he probably joined all the other munitions factories across the country in recruiting from the thousands of Belgians living in refugee camps in Holland.
Belgian refugees had started settling in St Margarets from the start of the war in August 1914, if not slightly before. These early families had no obvious means of support, and even their hard-stretched working-class neighbours found their level of poverty shocking. However, after the Pelabon Works expansion, probably from late 1915 into early 1916, they were no doubt able to find work. From this point, the flow of Belgians into St Margarets seems to have become a flood. Both French-speaking and Flemish-speaking Belgians came to the area, though as time progressed the proportion of Flemish-speakers probably increased. Over just a few months all empty properties became occupied, and rents rose to a point where the locals had difficulty finding new places to live. A long-resident family today remembers some of the St Margarets streets inhabited entirely by Belgians, notably Sidney Road, Amyand Park Road, and the far end St Margarets Road (at that time, of course, the A316 had not been built, and North St Margarets was not cut off from the rest of the neighbourhood)¬¬.
A reminiscence diary written years later by Minnie Cowley, who lived in Moor Mead Road, speaks of a Belgian family moving in next door to her when she was about six years old (about 1916). With such very different families living close together, it is not surprising there were some tensions. Maybe here, as elsewhere, they were sometimes spoken of as Bloody Belgians ! On the other hand we know there were also friendly dealings between English and Belgian neighbours, and relations across the whole Twickenham area were relatively good.
Another local diarist speaks of empty shops being taken over by Belgian shopkeepers, but we don’t know whether these were also in St Margarets as well as in East Twickenham. The East Twickenham shops were within reasonable walking distance, especially for Belgians employed at the Works, and the concentrated trade outside the factory may well have been more attractive for the Belgian shopkeepers.
The Orleans Council School buildings (centre of photograph) which housed the 1WW “Belgian Department”, taken in 1931. The original Orleans building was the one-storey Infants School in Hartington Road, built in 1912; this continued as Orleans Infants School Through the twentieth century and is now the front building of the enlarged Orleans Primary School. The two-storey building next to it, reached from Napoleon Road, was built in early 1915 for the secondary section of the school. The railway line on the other side of Amyand Park Road can be seen at the top of the picture.
St Margarets however had the privilege of providing the school, not just for the Belgian children of St Margarets but for those of the whole of Twickenham and possibly some from Richmond as well. At first Belgian children had enrolled in small numbers in various schools across Twickenham, but Monsieur Pelabon then paid a levy to Twickenham District Council and almost all the children were moved into a special Belgian Department at Orleans School. Here they were taught in their own language by Belgian teachers. This was not the present-day Orleans Park School in Central Twickenham, but the old Orleans Council School, an Edwardian building in Napolean Road, which took children between the ages of 5 and 14. This became Orleans Secondary Modern after the Second World War until it moved in 1973 to form the nucleus of Orleans Park School. The building was demolished in 1976. (An “old” building which still stands on the site is much smaller than the original school building, and was built much later.) Orleans Infants School continued to exist on its adjacent site, and the entire combined site is now home to Orleans Primary School.
Regardless whether they were French-speaking or Flemish-speaking, all the Belgians were Catholic. However they did not go to the Catholic Church of St Margarets, as this did not open until 1938. When they had spiritual needs, the St Margarets and Twickenham Belgians would go to the Church of St James the other side of Twickenham, in Fulwell. If you wonder how they got there at such a distance, the answer is that they probably walked.
Unfortunately it is now very hard to trace Individual Belgians or to learn their names and addresses. If you yourself are descended from one of the Belgian Refugee families, or know of someone who is, please contact the researchers on firstname.lastname@example.org .
East Twickenham Village are planning to commemorate the Belgian Community in 1915 with a drama-documentary telling the full story. They also hope to set up a memorial in the riverside gardens beside the Pelabon site.
Helen Baker and Val Coltman – 15 March 2014