Just as we read about the Great War in history books, the British public one hundred years ago, at the start of WWI, could have only read about and imagined what was beyond the vast oceans surrounding our tiny country, having never travelled abroad, heard another language, or experienced another culture. The streets we trudge along every week with heavy shopping bags were once a safe haven for over one hundred Belgian refugees who were forced to make Ilkley their home a century ago.
After being invaded by Germany in 1914, the streets of Belgium were left bare as entire cities were ravaged, their occupants fleeing for safety. Britain housed 250 000 Belgian refugees throughout its cities and towns of the 1 500 000 that fled.
Ilkley housed over 100 of these refugees, arriving throughout the war. The refugees received much interest as locals gathered at the station witness their arrival, with crowds overflowing from Railway Rd to The Grove. They elicited much generosity as they received countless drinks, cigarettes, and sweets. When a carriage of 64 wounded Belgian soldiers arrived, waving Union Jacks as they did, particular interest was received from the young ladies of Ilkley. So much that Mrs Rabagliati of the Ladies’ Committee and Mr Dobson of the Refugees Committee had to issue a warning, encouraging the public to quench their interest.
Whilst all Ilkley locals were generous, offering shelter, food, and clothing, many stood out for their efforts, for example Miss Nussey from the Ladies’ Committee who received the Belgian ‘Medaille Elisabeth’, and Nurse Parker who before travelling to London for service at the front nursed a Belgian baby back to health after it was left for dead. Nurse Parker also touched the lives of the wounded Belgian soldiers who waved her off from the station.
Five years later, many Belgians had made Ilkley their home and stayed after the war. Two of these were M. Struyf, 88, and his wife, 92, who had worked as grain merchants in Belgium and were thought to be the eldest refugees in Britain. Meanwhile twenty families travelled back to Belgium, unsure of what destruction would meet them, some with new additions to the family, to whom Ilkley had been their first home. A farewell meal was hosted at Ilkley’s King’s Hall where speeches were given and 92 Belgians were fed heartily before their journey home on February 5th 1919. Mr Maurice Centner of the Danish Council of Verviers presented Ilkley with a marble tablet, thanking them for their hospitality, generosity, and friendship, to show their contribution to the war effort. He said: “Our idea is to show future generations of this town what their forefathers have done for the Belgians”.
This was also published in the Ilkley Gazette.