In recent years, the ongoing Civil War in Syria has forced many people in the country to flee their homes, seeking refuge from the horrors of war. Birmingham has welcomed several groups to the city, but they are far from the first refugees to arrive here. Almost one hundred years before their arrival, Britain welcomed thousands of Belgians who had fled the advancing German army. After arriving in ports along the south coast, the Belgians were sent to stay in towns and cities across the country, including a large number who settled in Birmingham.
On Tuesday 1st September 1914, the Birmingham Daily Post reported, a committee was set up to organise the resettlement of the 200 refugees (including 50 children) the city was prepared to accept. The committee was chaired, the paper recorded, by Mrs George Cadbury – perhaps better known today as Dame Elizabeth Cadbury, the philanthropist and activist for women’s rights. Dame Elizabeth took a keen interest in the plight of refugees, and in 1918 was awarded the Order of the Crown by Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians for her work.
Meanwhile, organisations across the city raised money for the Birmingham Fund for the refugees; by 4th September, over £65,000 had been donated by people in Birmingham and the surrounding areas. That’s an astonishing £5 million today! It wasn’t just money that was donated. The Birmingham Mail reported on 11th September that the Birmingham Bedstead Manufacturers’ Federation made a present of 50 beds to the home that was being set up for the new arrivals on Islington Row. In Aston, local tradesmen fitted out the Liberal Club at no cost, so that it too could be used to house the refugees.
The Belgians came to Birmingham by train from London. The Evening Dispatch of Saturday 5th September 1914 records that ‘the express arrived into New Street Station at 6:45 bringing about forty Belgian refugees, who, driven from their homes by the German soldiery, have come to seek sanctuary with warm-hearted local friends’. The group was mainly made up of women and children, clutching their toys, and, in the case of one young girl, ‘proudly wearing a miniature helmet’. They were met at New Street by various dignitaries, including the Cadburys and the Archbishop. But the Birmingham Post recorded that it was the reaction of ordinary citizens that did most to reassure the new arrivals that they would be accepted. Having read of the horrors the Belgians had escaped from, men and women ‘rushed up to the refugees and shook them enthusiastically by the hand’, welcoming them to the city.
The refugees were found homes across the city from ordinary people who were keen to help in any way they could, and many stayed for the duration of the war. One Handsworth woman, Mrs Shiner, wrote to the Birmingham Mail on 9th September, that her 19 year old son Eric had written to her from his army training camp on the Salisbury Plain. Eric said that he ‘had thought about the poor people of Belgium and what bit I could do for them, and I have come to the conclusion that I will offer my bed at home to some poor little Belgian boy, and if necessary contribute to the cost of his maintenance’. Mrs Shiner was pleased to report to the Mail that she had already done just that, and urged anyone else with a suddenly-free bed to take in someone in need. Although the actions of families such as the Shiners are largely forgotten now, it might be worth remembering their generosity in the face of the refugee crisis we are facing today.