When we took over the studios at Valentines Mansion, Ilford, in the entrance hall there was a plaque, which congratulated local people on having given accommodation to refugees during the First World War - "Belgian refugees were entertained here as guests of the people of Ilford".I felt the story was worth exploring.I was at the same time going through the papers of my grandfather, who had served as a soldier on the Western Front, and I had recently visited the area in which he was stationed, and had completed two large and complex drawings of the soil in a field there.
During the Great War, Britain hosted 247,000 refugees from Belgium, the cost being met by public funds, with extra money raised locally by War Refugee Committees. In Ilford, the local postal workers also were involved, and many of the refugees housed at Valentines Mansion were postal workers and their families. Social functions, concerts and other activities were organised to raise money, and gifts of food, clothing and furniture provided for daily needs.
The story of the refugees in Ilford follows a pattern repeated elsewhere in the UK. Enthusiasm and excitement at their arrival, admiration for "plucky little Belgium" and outrage at stories of atrocities were strong in 1914; but by 1916 there were questions about the cost of the upkeep of the "guests" and the national press was complaining about Belgians "stealing British jobs" and refusing to enlist.
In 1918 it was decided that Valentines Mansion would be more appropriately employed as a convalescent home for wounded British soldiers, and the refugees were moved on, though a local councillor was aware that this might be interpreted as "driving the Belgians away". In 1919 almost all of the Belgian refugees living in Britain returned home (though for many all trace of their homes had been obliterated), and Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, congratulated Britain on its "great act of humanity".
In 1914 Belgian independence had been guaranteed by Britain, and the violation of this by the German High Command led to Britain's declaration of war. Thus at that time feelings in the UK towards Belgium were very strong, refugees were made welcome, and many were involved in fundraising.
My grandfather, Frederick William Walker, usually known as Fred, was born in Stratford, east London, in 1895. After leaving school he worked as a clerk, I don't know where. His passion was performing, as a humourist, mostly in what were then known as concert parties; public concerts, church hall concerts, smoking parties, occasionally masonic functions. A concert held at Stratford Town Hall on 21st October 1914 in support of the Prince of Wales Fund, for the families of newly enlisted soldiers, and later groups setting up accommodation for Belgian refugees, provided him with an opportunity to perform on a fairly large stage.
The concert programme shows that four songs were performed by Russell Stewart, which was the stage name he used at the time: he saw 'As Far As It Goes', with Read Marshall, then 'I Followed Her Here and I Followed Her There', solo, and in the second half, 'Tally Ho' with Gilbert Bland and Read Marshall, and later 'Are We All Here?' solo.
In November 1915 Fred Walker attested under the Derby scheme, which meant that he was able to work, but could at any moment be 'called to the colours'; his first regiment was the Middlesex Regiment. From a photograph showing him with a group of soldiers from a range of origins, it seems likely that he was wounded in 1916. He was reclassified on 22 July 1916 as C1, fit for home service only.
In early autumn 1918 he was redrafted into the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. According to his diary for 1918, he arrived in Calais on 10 September; despite noting that he was having eye trouble he received Lewis Gun training. The entry for 27 September states 'Battalion moved nearer the line'. On 1 October the entry reads 'LG instruction in the morning. Battalion moved into Line'; he was then evacuated, but 'went into Support at Hoop Lane' on 5 October. This was the soldiers' name for Houplines, south of Ypres, near the Franco-Belgian border.
The unit stayed in the support trenches, and on 9 October the entry reads 'Gassed', underlined. The dates after this, presumably written in later, show details of a number of field hospitals. On 13 October the entry reads 'Began to see a little'; for the next day 'Throat and Chest bad'; and then 'Started improving'. On 27 October it reads 'Marked for Evacuation'. On 20 November he went before a Medical Board and was marked B1 ('Fit for service abroad, in garrison or provisional units'), and on 23 November was marked 'To be sent back to old Battalion'. On 25 November he was 'On a Burial Party at Etaples Cemetery - 17 British, 1 American, 2 Germans'.
He was demobbed at Purfleet on 19 February 1919, but before that he spent some time, presumably in garrison, at Roubaix, near Armentieres. While there he sang in an Anglo-French Concert, at the YMCA, as part of the Acorns Concert Party (the acorn was the badge of the battalion he was serving in). There he sang presumably in the ensemble, and sang a 'Humorous Song' in each half, sadly unidentified.
In April 2010 I researched the songs from the 1914 concert and was able to get the score and lyrics for all four songs. I learned them and with the help of my good friend Peter Doyle, the military historian, set up a family visit to Houplines. We were able to locate the area more or less where the support lines would have been in October 1918, and in a field, filmed by my partner Anne Eggebert, I sang the four songs.
For the past five years I have been researching the language of the First World War, slang, the foreign influences on English, differences in the terms used by different people, and so on. I recently came across an article in the Auckland Star, dated 2 February 1918.
"Are We All Here?"
Miss Lena Ashwell, writing in the "Daily Express," of a concert in France says:- "We sang the chorus with the refrain "Are we all here? Yes. Then I guess, as we're all here it's all right." The song, as we all know, is punctuated with cries of 'Yes,' and no one called out 'Yes' more loudly - and inevitably in the wrong place - than the French liaison officer. At the end of the concert he came to thank me with tears in his eyes for the short hour's happiness which he had enjoyed, and ended by saying: 'Are we all here? Yes, and we shall stay here - yes - until it is fought to a good, straight finish - yes, yes, yes.' And before I had time to reply he was gone out into the night."
Link to Youtube video excerpt
Gone Away explores these stories, using historical materials from the time, along with fragments collected in Belgium, and laths from the walls of Valentines Mansion rescued during the refurbishment. The works incorporate Home Office records, local newspaper articles, national newspaper headlines, contemporary postcards and postage stamps, soil from Belgium and Valentines, fragments of First World War barbed wire, and the names and faces of the refugees and those who supported them.
Amongst the items used which are particular to the period are so-called 'silk postcards'. These embroideries were sewn in sheets by French and Belgian workers, made up into cards, and sold to soldiers for a shilling or more. A shilling was a day's pay for a soldier.
There are also visual and verbal references to Belgian lace, the barbed wire which filled 'no-man's-land', language as a barrier, postal communications, bureaucracy, and what home means. In the songs in Hoop Lane there are references to ideas which are familiar still (or repeatedly) - the cost of National Insurance, railway strikes, stalking, binge drinking.
Many of the refugees who returned in 1919 and 1920 found their homes changed beyond recognition. Ironically many Belgians were employed in munitions factories, making the shells which can still be found in Belgian fields. Four years of fighting in some cases destroyed even the pattern of the roads; one family was able to locate their home only by recognising fragments of their dinner service. Houplines and Le Bizet, seen in the video, were largely destroyed, and rebuilt after the war.
The artworks in Gone Away are based on research carried out by myself and a group of volunteer researchers, and were made in workshops by RAMFEL members, staff and volunteers of Valentines Mansion, and volunteer researchers, working with me. All of the works were worked on by more than one person.