Belgian Refugee Hostel

1 Park Street

Reception centre for Belgian refugees established in September 1914 at a private house donated to Wellington Urban District Council by a local businessman. It formed the headquarters for a relief fund that ran throughout the conflict and beyond, only being wound-up in 1919 after the last families of refugees had returned to their homeland.


Belgian refugees began arriving in Britain within the first few weeks of the outbreak of war in 1914. At the beginning of September, the Wellington Journal ran an article requesting that local people willing to provide accommodation should contact the chairman of Shropshire County Council. By the end of the month, 61 people in the district had offered to provide accommodation and a special emergency committee was formed by Wellington Urban District Council to deal with the logistics of the situation  — a task that was entrusted to the local Ladies Bureaux (a social offshoot of the National Union of Teachers). The new group heard that 60, 000 refugees had already arrived in the country and more would soon be on the way (the figure would reach an estimated 250,000 eventually). Consequently, a relief fund was set-up and Mr GA Ireson, manager of the local branch of Lloyds Bank, was appointed Treasurer.

The former Belgian refugee hostel at 1 Park Street

A Hearty Welcome

The first group of 40 refugees arrived in Wellington on October 16th and were entertained at All Saints Parish Hall, where the Reverend J Sinclair-Moore provided a ‘hearty welcome’ before the new arrivals were escorted to homes around the district. A week later, an advert was placed in the Journal by the Ladies Bureaux Committee requesting donations and regular subscriptions, which readers were requested to send to the ‘Belgian Hostel’ at 1 Park Street. The property had been lent to the War Committee of the Urban District Council in September by local businessman Harry Shepherd, with the Wellington public providing additional contributions of ‘household necessities’ to an abode the Journal described as ‘generously furnished’. Sadly, Mr Shepherd, a supporter of many charitable organisations in the town, would not live to see his gift fully utilised and died in October 1917.

Belgian Refugees in Wellington in 1914

Despite arriving in the town relatively early in the conflict, it is clear many of the refugees had already been exposed to harrowing conditions during their flight from the frontline. At the end of November, the Journal published an article that laid bare some of their torment:

“The sufferings of the Belgians is more fully realised when one has the privilege of chatting with some of the refugees. The hardest case seems to be that of a family named Francis of Wespelain situate on the main road to Louvain. Out of this one family there are four children missing, and it is a cause of great distress to Francis and his wife that no news is as yet to hand concerning their whereabouts. When the Germans arrived at their small holding they confiscated the whole homestead, including the cattle. By this blow the family lost their all, and can only find consolation in the fact of their present personal safety in England with their two little boys, aged six and four.”

 The impact of the refugees’ arrival was not lost on local schoolgirl Audrey Smith, either, for whom their entrance provided an indelible, lifelong memory:

“I do not think I noticed much until the Great War, when I remember father holding me in his arms to see some Belgian refugees arriving late at night. This sight has remained with me to this day, making a deep impression”.

Useful Employment

Relief efforts for the refugees continued throughout the conflict. A fairly typical example occurred in March 1917, when a charity concert was held at the Grand Theatre in Tan Bank in aid of the local committee fund. Nationally, there is some evidence to suggest the initially friendly welcome offered to Belgian people turned increasingly to resentment as the conflict wore on, which could help explain the conciliatory tone struck by the local newspaper when describing the purpose of the event.  ‘Most of the Belgians residing in the district are now usefully employed’ reported the Wellington Journal, continuing ‘many of the men now have now joined their own army and women and girls are taking a very worthy part in the industrial work of the country’. The reason the event was being held, the paper observed, was because ‘still there are a few who need assistance to enable them to exist with reasonable comfort, and it is mainly for those that appeals occasionally have to be made to the public for help’.

Just before the end of the war, in July 1918, three members of the relief committee — Mrs JT Williams (Honorary Treasurer), Mrs JV Lander (Honorary Secretary) and Mrs ET Morgan (Chair) — were honoured by the King of Belgium for their assistance in helping refugees, when they each received the Medaille de la Reine Elisabeth (the Elisabeth Medal). That work continued until April 1919, when the Journal reported that the last six families had finally returned home; they were all ‘exceedingly grateful for the kindness extended to them’. The final meeting of the Belgian Refugee Committee took place at the Council Chambers in Walker Street on October 2nd when its remaining funds were donated to the Wellington Cottage Hospital (which received £20), the Child Welfare Centre (£10) and Home for Ailing Babies in Wrockwardine Road (£5).

The final meeting of the Belgian refugee committee took place at the Urban District Council Chambers in Walker Street in October 1919