Refuge Richmond

Refuge Richmond

As the Kaiser’s grip tightened on Europe, one group found sanctuary beside the Thames. Local historian Helen Baker recalls Richmond’s Belgian years

A century ago, as World War I began and Belgium fell, a stream of refugees fled the approaching German army. In terror and in haste, Belgians poured across the sea to seek safety on British soil. Some 6,000 of them ended up here, in Twickenham, Richmond and surrounds.
East Twickenham was the heart of it. From 1914-19, rows of Belgian shops lined Richmond Road; newsvendors sold L’Indepéndence Belge at the foot of Richmond Bridge; Walloon and Flemish echoed through the streets. La citê belge sur la Tamise, was how the area became known – the Belgian town on the Thames.
What drew the refugees was a munitions factory, set up beside the river in East Twickenham by the dynamic engineer-entrepreneur, Monsieur Charles Pelabon. A Frenchman, Pelabon had been running an engineering works in Belgium before the invasion, and left Antwerp with his core staff as it was falling to the enemy on October 7th. Within three weeks they were producing munitions from a vacant boatworks at Teddington Lock, formerly used by the then-dissolved company Hesse and Savory, an engineer from which had helped to create Aston Martin. The workshop quickly became too small, but production continued for most of 2015.
By then, however, Pelabon had found his new premises in East Twickenham, from which he had been operating since January. By midsummer he was at full speed, employing nearly 2,000 workers – men and women, almost all of them Belgian – in two 12-hour shifts.
The Belgian population included all classes and a rich variety of characters – from the unmannerly count whom Virginia Woolf met at her lodgings on Richmond Green to habitués of the magistrates’ courts and ladies of easy virtue, who waited for the men leaving the factory. Many Belgians were well-educated. Writers and musicians earned their living on the factory floor, and the Pelabon Works enjoyed the most vibrant cultural life of any Belgian area outside London. Barely a week passed without a performance by a drama group, orchestra or choir. There were gym displays and football matches too, and even a thriving Belgian Boy Scouts troop.
Rippling out from East Twickenham, the community spread right across the area. Self-sufficient Belgians settled in Cambridge Park and the affluent parts of Richmond, as well as the Kilmorey Estate in St Margarets. Pelabon himself lived in a grand house in Fife Road, East Sheen, overlooking the common and Richmond Park. Middling people chose suburban East Twickenham and the back of Richmond Hill; ordinary workers lived in St Margarets, Twickenham and outer Richmond in the small workmen’s houses regarded as bijou residences today.
The generally large families wanted Belgian education. In Twickenham, most Belgian children went to the special Belgian Department at the old Orleans School in St Margarets, to be taught by Belgian teachers. Monsieur Pelabon shared the cost of their education and also founded two private schools in Richmond: École Albert Elizabeth (primary/kindergarten) at 8 Warrington Road, near the bus station, and École Leopold Charles (a boys’ secondary) in Onslow Hall on Richmond Green (now home to Barclays Corporate Banking). Graduates from here went on to Belgian universities at the end of the war.
Not all the Belgians were civilians. A ‘soldier’s house’ at 36 Montague Road, Richmond, financed by Pelabon and noted for its fine catering, provided for those on leave or recovering from war wounds. A corps of soldiers based near the factory in Cambridge Road oversaw quality control, while rehabilitated wounded soldiers worked on the factory floor. Four were killed in accidents and are remembered annually in Twickenham Cemetery, where they are buried.
Pelabon Works became a huge concern, with six separate workshops covering the whole of what is now Richmond Bridge Estate and much of Cambridge Gardens too. One of Pelabon’s last buildings was the striking red brick structure which later became Richmond Ice Rink, while his offices were over in Heron House, the 18th century survivor – minus herons – in Terry’s Riverside Development. Seated at his desk, Charles could survey his factory across the river.
Within months of war ending though, almost all the Richmond Belgians went home. Pelabon, in pursuit of a living, switched to general engineering. He finally sold up in 1924, returning to fame and fortune in France; and by 1939, when war clouds settled once more over Europe, la citê belge had faded into the mists of East Twickenham time.

Are you the descendant of a Belgian refugee, or do you know anyone who is? If so, contact Helen Baker or Valerie Coltman:

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