Home   Kent   News   Article

Folkestone welcomed thousands of Belgian refugees crossing the Channel in makeshift boats and ships in 1914


More news, no ads

LEARN MORE

As the number of people crossing the Channel in 2020 continues to rise, September has set a record for those making the dangerous journey.

More than 1,500 people have used inflatable craft to reach the Kent coast this month, as the Home Office continues to work with the French authorities to try and stop the crossings from happening.

Belgian refugees in Folkestone Harbour, August 1914. Pic: Alan Taylor, Folkestone & District Local History Society
Belgian refugees in Folkestone Harbour, August 1914. Pic: Alan Taylor, Folkestone & District Local History Society

But although this figure is touted as the highest recorded, more than a century ago the number of people seeking refuge eclipsed our highest recorded figure in one fell swoop.

During a single day in mid August 1914, around 16,000 Belgian refugees landed in Folkestone Harbour, instantly doubling the number of people in the coastal town.

As with the vast majority of people crossing today - who are fleeing war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria - the thousands of men, women and children desperately reaching out for the safety of England were all running from the shadow of war.

Belgium had become an impossible place to live following the German invasion, and the country's inhabitants were desperately looking for help from other territories.

Darran Cowd, curator of Folkestone Museum, said: "Although the Belgian refugees were making their way over to the UK because it was probably the nearest country they felt was safe, the idea that the UK is a protector had been engrained in the Belgian psyche for about 75 years previously."

The refugees outside the fishermen's Bethel. Pic: Alan Taylor, Folkestone & District Local History Society
The refugees outside the fishermen's Bethel. Pic: Alan Taylor, Folkestone & District Local History Society

The Treaty of London was passed in 1839, an agreement between powers of Europe (including Britain), the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Belgium.which guaranteed the independence and neutrality of Belgium.

The agreement meant that in the event of attack or invasion, British forces would be obliged to protect the country.

As the catastrophe of the First World War erupted in July 1914, Germany demanded passage through Belgium on its march to France, which Belgium refused.

The full strength of the German military fell on the country, prompting millions to flee in search of sanctuary for themselves and their families.

Scholars have found it difficult to land on an exact figure of the refugees arriving in Kent, with news reports of the time existing as the leading source of information.

Belgian refugees in the inner harbour. Pic: Alan Taylor, Folkestone & District Local History Society
Belgian refugees in the inner harbour. Pic: Alan Taylor, Folkestone & District Local History Society

Immigration records of the era were not as accurate they are now, but it is thought that a total of around 80,000 Belgian refugees landed on the shores of Kent in the few days surrounding the mass arrival in Folkestone.

It is thought between a third and a half of those ended up landing in Folkestone Harbour.

Despite the contention over a precise number, what is clear from historical sources is the way in which the town embraced the refugees.

Mr Cowd said: "Folkestone became famous as a very welcoming place for the Belgian refuges coming through.

"There are tales of meals being produced, they were getting medical check ups and somewhere to stay.

"Folkestone became famous as a very welcoming place for the Belgian refuges..."

"There were stories in the papers that Folkestone people were providing for up to 6,000 meals a day for the refugees coming through the port."

The town's mayor at the time, Stephen Penfold, was knighted in 1915 as a result of his action in protecting and keeping safe those who had just made the treacherous voyage across the Channel.

Although there are only a handful of photographs, on a visit to Folkestone Museum you can find yourself face to face with an ornate artwork re-imagining that fateful day in 1914.

The piece was painted by Fredo Franzoni, an Italian artist who himself came to the town as a refugee in one of the boats from Belgium.

Franzoni gifted the painting to the town in 1916.

The Franzoni painting depicts an imagining of the crossings
The Franzoni painting depicts an imagining of the crossings

Mr Cowd said: "It's a wonderful painting but he's not painted it from a specific occasion. It's more like a reconstruction."

Once the war ended it is estimated around 90% of the Belgians left Britain.

But some stayed, and their mark can still be found in the coastal town.

A walk around Folkestone today will reveal some of the evidence of the Belgians who took up residence in the town during the war.

Both Middleburg Square and Ingles Road are thought to trace directly back to the Belgians who remained following the end of the First World War.

A re-enactment of the painting was organised by Folkestone Fringe last year. Pic: Paul Amos
A re-enactment of the painting was organised by Folkestone Fringe last year. Pic: Paul Amos

Some of the Belgians married people from Kent, and as such some can trace their ancestors back to 1914's crossing.

Although 16,000 sounds like an seismic number, it was just a portion of those seeking asylum in England.

It is estimated around 250,000 Belgian refugees fled the country in 1914 and travelled to English ports to find sanctuary away from the destruction ravaging their home country.

For some, the historical moment serves as a reminder of the support which should be extended to people seeking asylum who are arriving in Kent today.

Bridget Chapman, of Kent Refugee Action Network, said: "I am a Folkestone resident and I'm extremely proud of the town's history of welcoming new arrivals like the Belgian refugees.

"It shows us that when people pull together we can always find a way to show kindness and compassion.

"If we were able to welcome 16,000 people in just one day in 1914 then we can certainly welcome much smaller numbers now."

Read more: All the latest news from Folkestone

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More