At the start of the
First World War German armies invaded Belgium, causing a massive movement of refugees, about a quarter of a million of them
being given refuge in Britain. From November 1914 to 1918 up to 67 refugees, mostly the families of postal workers,
were given shelter in Valentines Mansion, Ilford. At first they were welcomed enthusiastically, and for many people
this was an opportunity to patriotically support a country which came to be known as 'plucky little Belgium', even though
some were aware of the institutionalised violence which had characterised the Belgian colonial exploitation of the Congo.
Fundraising was carried
out diligently over 1914 and 1915; concerts, whist-drives, social evenings, collections and flag-days all brought in food,
clothing and money for the refugees. At one concert, in October 1914, in Stratford Town Hall, my grandfather, Fred Walker,
under his stage-name of Russell Stewart, sang four comic songs.
By late 1915 the funding had become institutionalised, and some were questioning
the costs of fuel and support, and whether the refugees were doing enough to support themselves. By 1916 discrepancies
over Belgian and British conscription, and the fear that Belgians were 'taking British jobs' were making people view the refugees
less favourably, though by this time too the British government was secretly recruiting Belgian industrial workers in Holland
to come and train British munitions workers. Thus in a sense Belgians were working to make the shells which were destroying
their own land. While using Belgian support the British government was careful to keep track of the Belgian refugees
so that they could be repatriated - 50,000 history cards are still kept at the National Archives, and have provided some of
the names of the Valentines Belgians.
By late 1917 most of the Belgians at Valentines had moved on, to find accommodation elsewhere, and the
house was being turned into a maternity hospital.
But following the German offensive in early 1918 more hospital space was required
for British soldiers and there were plans to turn Valentines Mansion into a convalescent home. Views were expressed
however, that this might be interpreted as 'throwing the Belgians out.'
In 1918 my grandfather was stationed in a trench 100
metres from the Belgian border. His diary for Weds 9th Oct reads 'Gassed'; for Sun 13th Oct 'Began to see a little';
for Mon 11th Nov 'Armistice signed with Germany'.
In 1920 the War Refugees Committee for Ilford petitioned the Council for permission
to erect a brass plate in the Mansion stating that Belgian refugees had been housed there.
The familiar stories of welcome, charity
fatigue, generosity, bureaucratic control, and self-congratulation underlie this largely forgotten story of refugee migration,
in an area whose identity is formed of migrating people. In workshops with clients of the Refugee and Migrant Forum
for East London, local research enthusiasts, and staff and volunteers at Valentines Mansion, we are working through the story
from different angles, and producing artwork which uses such elements as First World War postcards, soil from Belgian battlefields,
fragments of wallpaper and rescued laths from the walls of Valentines Mansion, Congolese postage stamps, a newspaper advertisement
offering free haircuts to Belgian refugees (not Saturdays), songs from the 1914 Stratford concert, and texts from Government
A key work is a video in which I sing the four songs my grandfather sang in the 1914 concert. The songs are
performed solo in a field near where he was wounded in 1918.