Early in the First World War, Doncaster welcomed 50 Belgian refugees. The Mayor formed a committee to oversee the welcome offered by the town. Mr W. S. Arnold, a local building contractor, provided a house to accommodate refugees at 4 Avenue Road. Councillor E. Dowson provided one at 97 Catherine Street.
The Doncaster Chronicle of 6 November 1914, described the arrival of the refugees at the railway station reporting they looked ‘sad, weary and forlorn’. The paper printed a list of fifty names, with their town of origin and a welcome in Flemish. Newspaper stories frequently contrasted the strength and greatness of British civilisation with both the weakness of Belgium and the barbarism of Germany.
The local gentry presented support for the Belgian refugees as a patriotic duty. The Halls at Burghwallis, Thrybergh and Hickleton all opened their doors. Firbeck Hall received fifty refugees ‘of the peasant class’. However, access to some rooms in the Hall remained forbidden for the refugees and they were expected to see to the cooking, cleaning and maintenance themselves.
During the course of the war over 100 refugees passed through the town, with the final group of around 36 leaving Doncaster in March 1919. Among them were children born in the town who had never known Belgium! The vast majority of refugees returned to Belgium at the end of the war, and this has contributed to their story being largely forgotten.
Researched and written by Paul Fitzpatrick, Doncaster Conversation Club
Support for Refugees
In the centre of Doncaster, a Belgian Refugee Committee was set up in October 1914 to support the refugees coming to the town. It was overseen by Samuel Balmforth, the Mayor during 1915 and 1916, and supported by William and Louisa Clark. The committee assisted with housing and maintenance and eventually with helping refugees return to Belgium at the end of the war.
Love without borders
In late 1918, Francis Martinus Diver, a Belgian refugee, married Florence Waite from Balby at Balby with Hexthorpe Church. Francis’ address is listed as 97 Catherine Street, one of the houses given to Belgian refugees. Both Francis and Florence were members of the National Union of Railwaymen at the Great Northern Railway, so it’s likely they met through their work at the Plant. The couple had a son, Frank Cornul Diver, late in 1919 but nothing else is known of their movements.
Around the borough
Belgian Refugees in Thorne
£700 was collected to support refugees and a total of 22 Belgians were provided for in four houses. The employees of Thorne Colliery found a house and maintenance for a group of 3 men and 2 women from ‘the artisan class’ (skilled workers) at a cost of well over £100.
Refugees in Hatfield
In April 1915 a meeting was held to arrange support for a Belgian refugee family. A group of 2 women and 3 men conducted a house to house collection of money. They raised enough money to apply for a refugee family to be housed in Hatfield. Francois Joseph De Koninck, aged 81, his wife and daughter were found rooms in Mr. Hanson’s house. The Relief Fund paid for their accommodation and also supplied the family with a reasonable sum each week for maintenance.
In October 1915 the Hatfield Parish Magazine published the accounts of the Belgian Relief Fund.
“Subscriptions: £57 7s 6d
Payments to Belgian family: £40 18s 11 1/2d
A gift of £4 from Mrs Davies and friends to be used exclusively for buying clothes.”
Mexborough people and businesses raised funds to support Belgian refugees. In 1914, a Charity Concert starring the Orpheus Glee Singers was held for this purpose. Barrons and Waddington workers donated a weekly sum of £3 and £3 12s 11d respectively. Local schools also made weekly donations. In December 1914, three Belgian families arrived in Mexborough and were eventually housed in the pavilion at the Mexborough Cricket and Athletic Club. As elsewhere in the borough, by 1917, support for refugees in Mexborough was waning. The Athletic Club believed that four of the refugees were now earning good wages and questioned their right to stay on at the Pavilion free of charge.
Refugees Then and Now
Doncaster 1914–18 worked with 20 refugees and asylum seekers living in Doncaster today to explore the welcome refugees received in Doncaster 100 years ago. They compared their experiences today with those of Belgian refugees arriving a century ago. Artworks and film were made with and by refugees and asylum seekers as part of this project.
Refugees in Doncaster Today and the Doncaster Conversation Club
Today there are around 300 people who live in Doncaster and are seeking asylum from war and persecution. The majority come from countries such as Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. They are not allowed to work while their case is assessed.
The Doncaster Conversation Club exists in order to stand alongside refugees and asylum seekers in this difficult situation. It meets every week to provide welcome and hospitality, and to overcome loneliness and isolation. Volunteers provide food, clothes and English classes; they organise outings and explain British culture; and they signpost people to more specific forms of assistance.
Paul Fitzpatrick, Doncaster Conversation Club