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Belgians

Transcripts of baptisms, marriages and burials of the Belgian community, 10 May 1916 - 19 January 1919

Reference number C.BI3/23

Temporary Housing Scheme plan, c.1916

Reference number 1603/12

During the First World War, thousands of Belgians fled from the persecution and devastation of WW1, seeking refuge in France, the Netherlands and the UK.  Nationally, the relief effort was co-ordinated by the War Refugees Committee. By June 1915, the population of Belgian refugees in Britain rose to 265,000.

The North East town of Birtley, situated between Gateshead and Chester le Street, held one of the largest populations of Belgian refugees during wartime. A National Projectile factory was opened in the summer of 1916, providing work for Belgian workers, though under strict military conditions. The Belgian and English communities worked and lived separately, prioritising efficiency by avoiding the assimilation of culture and language.

To cope with the demand of the continual influx of people into the area, a self-contained village was built and named Elizabethville , after the Queen of Belgium.

Belgian family in Elizabethsville, c.1915

 A family residing in Elizabethville, c.1916

Uniquely, Belgian law applied in the village which was protected by Belgian gendarmes around the outskirts. Inside village amenities included a school, family units, hostels for single men, a market, a butcher, a restaurant, a hairdresser, a photographer, public laundries and a church.

By 1917, the Elizabethville community peaked to 6,000.

Interior of church in the Elizabethville estate, housing the refugee Belgian community

  The interior of the Elizabethville church.



On 21st December 1916, a large community dispute arose from mounting frustration and tension related to housing conditions, employment issues and the strict military discipline imposed. This particularly affected men in the munitions factories. As a result, rules were relaxed under the difficult conditions.
 
After the war, the majority of Belgian refugees were deported back to their homes in quick succession.  Only 30 Belgians remained in Birtley and over the years that followed Elizabethville gradually succumbed to new urban developments.

Read this ...

Simon Fowler and Keith Gregson, Bloody Belgians! Ancestors magazine, pages 43-49, May 2005

Joseph Schleisnger and Douglas McMurtie (edited by John Bygate) The Birtley Belgians: A History of Elizabethsville (North East Education about Europe, 1990)

 

Available from Tyne and Wear Archives Service (Reference only)