Britain entered World War One on 4 August 1914 following the German invasion of Belgium. Almost immediately, two Wimbledon residents launched a support initiative to help Belgian refugees that was to inspire similar actions throughout the country.
One was no ordinary resident but Princess Henriette, Duchesse of Vendome, sister of Belgium’s King Albert, whose English home had been at Belmont, Parkside, for many years. As president of the Belgian Relief Fund of the Red Cross Society, she fully understood the difficulties that the charity’s Aldwych headquarters was facing as refugees poured across the English Channel to escape the atrocities being committed by German troops at home.
She found an eager ally in the journalist Richardson Evans, founder of what is now the Wimbledon Society and then living at The Keir on Westside Common. Together they quickly founded the Wimbledon and Merton Refugee Fund – she as president, he as chairman - and on 17 October, 1914, an open air ceremony took place on Wimbledon Common entitled The Salutation of the Belgian Flag where the Duchess presided, alongside her husband the Duke and the princesses.
It was an emotional event representing the gratitude of the refugees and local respect for the little neutral country whose unprovoked invasion by Germany had brought Britain to war.
The crowd that gathered there was estimated by the Surrey Comet newspaper at around 100,000. Another paper, the Wimbledon Newsletter, said the scene was “probably unparalleled in the whole history of Wimbledon.
The only event comparable to it in the crowds of people it attracted was the relief of Mafeking.” That high point of the Boer War when a British garrison had been rescued after months under attack, was still fresh in the public memory as it had happened only 14 years earlier.
The huge crowd this time heard speeches by Wimbledon’s MP and others and an ode for the event was written especially by Alfred Graves, father of the poet Robert, who lived in Lauriston Road. It was set to music. The sale of rosettes and flags raised a respectable £547, nearly half in coppers.
Between then and the end of the year no fewer than 766 Belgians were entertained as guests at private houses in Wimbledon. The following summer Richardson Evans hosted a garden festival at his home to mark Belgian Independence 85 years earlier. It lasted three days.
The Wimbledon and Merton Refugee Fund inspired similar local groups elsewhere in the country. Messrs Wright Brothers made a large house available on Wimbledon Hill for use as an office and club for the refugees with a reading room and needle-work and dress-making activities for women. This was later moved to Francis Grove.
Members of the exiled Belgian community were heavily involved in organising facilities for their compatriots. Leading figures included Monsieur E Standaert who had been Deputy for Bruges and was now involved with the charity’s Aldwych committee.
A total of 473 refugees soon received direct financial help from the Wimbledon committee or were maintained in hostels at two large houses in Raynes Park. Many others were given clothing, medical care or other help. As time passed, most grants from the Aldwych committee to refugees in the Wimbledon area were paid through the local committee with another 85 people benefiting. Many others received the private hospitality of local residents.
In June 1915 the local committee established a special workroom where a bootmaker from Brussels, Monsieur Crepy, was able to serve the refugee community, supported by two discharged Belgian soldiers, two apprentices and an elderly partially sighted cobbler.
In his spare time he also repaired boots free of charge for the wives and children of British soldiers on war pensions. In January 1916 a medical practitioner from Antwerp, Dr de Bruyn, was engaged by the committee to care for refugees locally and his salary was paid by a special fund contributed to by 32 doctors and dentists in Wimbledon and Merton.
Children of the Belgian refugees received free education at Wimbledon schools. A special troop of Belgian Scouts was established. Local ladies organised English classes, sewing parties and social afternoons.
Eventually as the war progressed many Belgians were employed in munitions work, offices or joined the military, reducing the financial pressure on the Wimbledon committee. But when the war was over, further support was given to those who needed backing for repatriation home. The committee had paid out nearly £23,000, over half of from voluntary donations. Over £4300 had been raised by house-to-house collections alone. This would be equivalent to millions of pounds today.
This article is the second in a five-part series as The Wimbledon Society and the Wimbledon Guardian mark the centenary of the First World War, published each Friday throughout July and the beginning of August.
Next week: The "Terriers" of Wimbledon fought for the British Empire
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.