First World War: Belgian refugees and the part Chelsea played

During the First World War, the ending of which 100 years ago is being marked this weekend, hundreds of thousands of Belgians found refuge in Britain, and Chelsea Football Club played a significant role in looking after some of them. We tell that story here, with the involvement of our most famous Belgian, Eden Hazard, and a family descended from those refugees who remain Chelsea fans to this day…

In Flanders’ fields the poppies grow.
Between the crosses row on row.
That mark our place; and in the sky.
The larks, still bravely singing, fly.
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Thanks to Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s famous World War One poem ‘In Flanders’ Fields’, the name of this Belgian region became one of the touchstone references to the 1914-18 war, the Armistice for which is commemorated 100 years on, this Sunday, 11 November 2018. But it was not just larks who struggled on despite the death and destruction.

Less well known, beyond the killing fields, the songbirds and the blasted hedgerows, is the suffering of those in German-occupied Belgium’s villages and towns: the generations of men, women and children who were driven from their ancestral homeland in winter 1914, or who stayed behind to dodge shells and starve.

The British Empire entered the fray because of Germany’s invasion of politically neutral Belgium on 4 August 1914. Lines were drawn after the Battle of Marne and 95 per cent of the country remained occupied by the Kaiser’s forces, including La Louviere, birthplace of Eden Hazard, in the province of Hainaut. The other five per cent formed battlegrounds for four years. Indeed Hazard was born close to Mons, where the British Army fought its first battle.

News soon broke that the repressive regime massacred civilians, confiscated food and property, enslaved labourers and oversaw a disastrous economic collapse, reports made all the more terrifying by dramatic Allied propaganda. It was dubbed ‘the rape of Belgium’, and waves of sympathy swept across the UK, leading to the setting up of a Belgian Relief Fund.

While the free Belgian army helped stall Germany’s advance, thousands of civilians were killed between August and November 1914, and many left to rebuild their lives elsewhere. Newspapers depicted chaotic scenes at ports and train stations as desperate evacuees grabbed what they could and fled the devastation. ‘When the whole of civilisation was at stake,’ commented the Illustrated London News, ‘[Belgians] were the first to hurl themselves fearlessly into the breach, and by doing so lost everything save their soul.’

Not since the Huguenots 300 years earlier had such a huge influx of poor and needy arrived from across the Channel, to be welcomed at ports with buttered buns and mugs of tea. At least 250,000 Belgians found refuge in Britain, 70,000 of those in the capital. Many spent the duration of the conflict in west London, and Chelsea Football Club played a significant role in looking after them.

In October 1914 when the Relief Fund in Chelsea was set up, Lord Cadogan, who was the president of Chelsea Football Club, started the fundraising with a cheque for £250 (around £20,000 today), and took a place on the Fund’s board. As in neighbouring Fulham, the Fund paid for the conversion of large premises into rudimentary dormitories, acquired housing and schools, and met the refugees’ basic needs, from everyday foodstuffs to tools and furniture. In Chelsea, medieval Crosby Hall on Cheyne Walk was made available and in Fulham, Earl’s Court became their temporary home.

Employment was sought for the men and women (with a percentage deducted from salaries and put in a ‘repatriation fund’), and schools and nurseries set up for the children. There were concerts in aid of ‘Plucky Belgium’ and the likes of famous US author Henry James championed the cause of ‘the exiled, the broken, and the bewildered.’

The same month, Chelsea FC began bucket collections on match days. Cash was used to buy food, and rent and furnish an unoccupied terraced house for seven homeless refugee families at 632 Fulham Road, on the corner of Lilyville Road, about five minutes’ walk from Stamford Bridge.

‘Appeals to provide for the wants and comforts of the occupants met with a ready and generous response,’ noted the West London Observer on 30 October 1914. ‘Multitudinous articles of furniture arrived in van loads and by Wednesday the ten-roomed house was excellently equipped for the reception of the refugees, whose gratitude for their well-wishers in the hour of trial knows no bounds.’ (Sunday’s visitors, Everton, made similar collections at Goodison Park.)

A week earlier, Chelsea Football Club had extended the hand of friendship more directly, handing free tickets to refugees to watch a game against Oldham at the Bridge on 24 October 1914.

The guests were ‘Chelsea partisans to a man and woman,’ according to the next matchday programme, ‘applauding the Chelsea goals and ignoring those of the visitors’ in a 2-2 draw.

Among the refugees who spent much of the Great War in Fulham was Jacques Jouby, his wife Anna and their two young children, who crossed the Channel with little more than the clothes on their backs on 8 January 1915. They were put up at three local addresses including on North End Road in April 1919 before returning to their devastated homeland.

Jacques, a silk dyer from the suburbs of Brussels, spoke little English and his family story is typical of refugees then and now. Unable to find food after the invasion, they had struggled on to reach Holland, where they rented a cottage till their savings were exhausted. On arrival in the UK they were held in a transit camp at Alexandra Palace for two weeks. Migrants were dispatched to any community that answered the call for help, and Jacques was sent to work at a clothes dying factory in rural Yorkshire, his wife and children in tow.

He was used to a big city and local newspapers regularly reported his determination to return to London, frustration at the ‘repatriation’ deductions from this salary, and concern for the whereabouts of his wife’s elderly parents. Eventually his in-laws were located – in Cornwall – and the family reunited in Fulham, where a baby boy, Eddie Jouby, was born in December 1916.

Sadly, not everyone welcomed the newcomers, especially as British casualties in Belgium mounted. In May 1916, one eyewitness reported, ‘the English people and kids collected in hundreds in Lillie Road where a lot of Belgians have opened shops, and last night was beyond description.’ Mimicking anti-German rioting at the outbreak of war, there were ‘windows and shops smashed everywhere’ by boys as young as 12, armed with bags of stones.

Such animosity was brief and the majority of the local community accepted and welcomed the refugees, as well as appreciating the contribution of the Belgian army in their homeland. The refugees had become self-reliant financially by late 1916 and brought Brussels’ vibrant cafe society to west London, such as the establishment run by Victorine Minter in Lillie Road. Her cafe, serving beer and pastries, with rooms at the back for dancing at night, was a social centre for English as well as ex-pat locals.

Meanwhile, Chelsea continued to assist the refugees by staging a match between Belgian and British Army XIs at Stamford Bridge in November 1917 for the benefit of the British Gifts for Belgian Soldiers Fund. This became a regular event, attended by members of the royal family, and continued into the 1930s.

After the war, like all the Belgians, the Joubys were forced to repatriate. The refugees ‘melted like snow, leaving so little trace’ that their story has been long forgotten. Eddie Jouby returned permanently to make his life in Bromley. His daughter Suzanne married David Hart – a lifelong Chelsea fan, and we tracked them down and shared our new research with their daughter, Julie Hart – Eddie’s granddaughter (pictured top with Eden Hazard).

Julie explained she has been researching her family history for 25 years but had previously been unaware the Joubys arrived as refugees.

‘This new aspect is so much more real as you are reading newspaper accounts,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t have imagined at all that Chelsea Football Club would have a part to play in the story, especially since the family history that brought me to Chelsea was around my own father.’

Last week Julie was able to share family histories with our most famous Belgian, Eden Hazard. Eden explained that his family stayed put, where the hardships suffered under occupation might include starvation or worse.

We asked Hazard if it surprises him to hear that the football club he now represents played a significant part in aiding those refugees from his homeland all those years ago.

‘Yes and no because Belgium is not so far from England,’ he said. ‘I was a bit surprised because I didn’t know the story. I know there were a lot of French people who came to England but a lot of the Belgians, when they moved away, went to places such as Holland and France. But it’s always good to know about the history of your country so it was very interesting.

‘It was great to meet Julie because she told me what happened with her family and spoke to me about researching my heritage. I don’t think I have any family members who were living in England at that time. Obviously I remember my grandparents, for sure, but even the generations before all used to live in Belgium. It was a nice conversation though for a Belgian person like myself.

‘You can learn everything about the First World War when you are in school in Belgium,’ he added. ‘I moved away from Belgium at an early age to go to France, but also in France it’s a big part of the history of their country. The First World War is something you need to know about.’

Julie found it quite emotional to discover what the refugees have gone through. ‘I knew my relatives came here and that maybe it was something to do with the war, but I did not know why. They gave up everything to come here and to become stateless must be a horrible feeling.

‘It was interesting to see some of those xenophobic comments we were seeing in 1914-1918. Horribly, one hundred years on we are seeing the same comments. They did not choose to get up and leave and abandon everything and have nothing: they were driven to it.

‘It is not a decision you take lightly and obviously Eden’s family decided they were going to stay and sit it out, and that is the decision you make: you sit it out or you go somewhere new.’

These age-old themes from a conflict which ended 100 years ago this weekend remain poignantly relevant to the support work Chelsea FC carry out even now. Just like that Oldham match in October 1914, football has the capacity to unite, provide a few moments joy and escape from the difficulties of real life.

Only last month, through our global charity partner, Plan International, the Chelsea Foundation visited a camp in Jordan where 35,000 war-displaced Syrians are undergoing life-changing, stressful situations the Belgians of 1914 would recognise all too well.

 >>Click to read 'Football spreads smiles for Syrian refugees'

After the Armistice brought a cease-fire at 11am on 11 November 1918, the relieved refugees signalled their gratitude for the help of local people with a march of schoolchildren along the Fulham Road holding messages of thanks.

‘The Allied victories in Belgium have meant the repatriation of thousands of Belgian refugees and scenes of joyous acclamation,’ the Illustrated London News reported. Along with the sacrifices we commemorate each Remembrance Day, let us not forget to care for the other casualties of war.

- by Rick Glanvill, club historian

- photos courtesy of Alex Churchill and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham archives