The Belgian refugees who came to Letchworth during the First World War

A extract taken from "Letchworth Recollections" Co-ordinated by Heather Elliott and John Sanderson. Published by Egon Publishers Ltd

By Viv Birch

The Belgian national flag.

An early garden city resident recalls,

“Then of course the First World War came along and many things changed. There were lots of Belgian refugees came to live in the town. We had some living with us at various times. Lot’s of people in Letchworth of course took in Belgian refugees and eventually the Westbury estate was built specially to house them – it used to be called Little Antwerp in those days. Quite a number of them worked at the Kryn and Lahy factory.(This Metal works was located on Icknield Way, later moving to Dunhams Lane.) The Belgian man who lived with us was called Verreyt and he used to work there. Sometimes he would be there for forty hours straight off working on the blast furnaces. In his own trade he was an architect at Malines in Belgium

I knew an old Belgian lady called “Granny” and she used to come to the butchers shop when we were in there. She said “English people are the laziest people going – absolutely -lazy none of them carry their own shopping home – they all have to have it sent !.” The Belgians had a horse flesh shop half way down The Wynd and Franklin’s Pet Shop at that time was the Belgian Grocer’s Shop.

My little brother used to play with some of the little  Belgian boys who often used to smoke on the common.  My mother used to say to my brother “now you are not to smoke if you go and play on the common” He said, “No” and then one day he came back crying and he said “I’ve been smoking and I feel sick “- he never smoked again !”

A second recollection 

“My mothers people escaped from Belgium when the war broke out because the Germans were coming into Antwerp. We came to England on Christmas day in 1914 landing by boat in Harwich. They put us into what I thought was a college in Streatham, a girls college, but I found out later that it was a workhouse.

We moved to Letchworth in 1915 as Dad was in poor health having trouble with his stomach and the doctor advised to move out of London for the fresh air of the countryside.

My youngest sister already lived in Letchworth her family choosing the town because Kryn and Lahy was there and because other French and Belgian people also lived there. When we joined her our house was in Burnell Rise.

When we came out of the railway station I thought “oh what a place to come to. I’m being buried alive here.” There was nothing on that side but fields. On the Broadway just a mens outfitters and a little tea shop.

The attractions of Letchworth were many for my family being both
Quakers, vegetarian and forward thinking on many fronts. Charlie who was a qualified architect and surveyor obtained a position in the office of Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin”.

Standalone Farm was also occupied by Belgian Refugees during  the 1914-18 war.

This page was added on 20/01/2012.

Comments about this page

  • Hi very interested in finding out more about the Belgium refugees in letchworth as just found out that my great uncle was a Belgium refugee and worked at the munitions factory where my great grandmother worked, her name was Hilda bradshaw and his name was camiel nachtegal, and we know he was my grandmothers brothers father, as she didn’t know who her father was, was quite possible that he might have been her father too.

    By Sonia williams (06/08/2018)
  • My Belgian mother was extremely proud to have been born in Letchworth Garden City, a fact that of course also gave her British nationality. My grandparents fled from the seaside resort of Ostend during the Great War and my mum was born there in 1919.  In her nineties my grandmother still had cards with the lyrics of songs like ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ – songs she sang after a hard day’s work in the munition factory in Letchworth. I still have a photo of my granddad with fellow Belgians at a workshop in the city taken in 1917.  My grandfather was to return to Britain during the Second World war when as a merchant seaman he sailed on convoys to Russia to help our Soviet allies and rid the continent of Europe of the Nazis. The story of the Belgian half of the family contrasts with that of the English half. At the same time my English grandfather was fighting at Passchendaele!

    By colin clapson (02/12/2014)
  • I am very interested in the Belgian Community in Letchworth as my Grandfather and Grandmother were evacuated from Antwerp and met and married in Letchworth. On return to Antwerp they had 3 children, one of which was my mother who met and married my father while he was stationed in Antwerp with Royal Engineers. They came back to England in 1946. I am doing our Family Tree and am particularly interested in the ammunition works where both my Grandfather and Grandmother worked.

    By Mrs. Carol Smith (13/05/2013)

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