“We were very pleased that we spent those four terrible years in England”

The Van Hoof family, who had spent the war as refugees in Maidenhead, returned home.


41, Kapelstraat, Boom,
Prov. (Anvers), Belgie,

March 8th.

Dear Mrs. Lewis,-

I am very sorry I have not been able to write before, but we have been so busy that we have not found time to do anything but arrange things at home. We spent nearly a week travelling before we were home. Before going on the boat we had to stay two days in London, which we spent in sight seeing.

We went on the boat about one o’clock on Friday, 28th, and started to sail about 4 o’clock the same day. The weather was glorious all through the sea journey, so that we arrived in Antwerp on Sunday morning about 12 o’clock. Before we were off the boat nearly an hour had passed. One of my uncles was there to meet us, so that it was quite 5 o’clock before we got home. You can imagine our relatives’ joy at meeting us again. We spent the whole of that day in talking, talking, talking.

Our home was quite alright, but the furniture and many other things that were in it have been stolen or else much damaged. The blankets you gave us have come in very useful, for they are things of the past here. The people have suffered very much, and the clothing has been so dear that they used to have all spare blankets dyed (for garments). The food is now much cheaper, about the same as in England, except the meat and bread. That is nearly twice the price as that in England.

We were very pleased that we spent those four terrible years in England, and by the help of the Committee we suffered nothing to complain of. Thanking you for your goodness towards us, and hoping to receive an answer from you,

I remain, yours faithfully,


Think of that from a little Belgian girl, who did not know a word of English when she came to Maidenhead!

Maidenhead Congregational magazine, April 1919 (D/N33/12/1/5)

Our “Burghfield Belgians” are trying to return home

A refugee family who had found asylum in Berkshire were now hoping to return home.

Our “Burghfield Belgians”

It will be remembered that our honoured guests, the Laurent family of Louvain, after a year’s sojourn in the Old Schools, migrated on October 19th, 1915, to Reading, partly for Mme Laurent’s health and partly to get work. The step was successful in both respects. But still better prospects opening up in London they moved there after about 15 months, and have since supported themselves entirely. The enemy having been driven out of Belgium, they are now trying to return to their native country, for though their home at Louvain is destroyed, they have friends in Antwerp and mean to go there, at any rate for a time.

At the last meeting of our Committee it was resolved that any funds left after the payment of small bills should be retained by the Treasurer and handed to the family on repatriation.

The balance in question has grown by interest accretions, from £16 4s 4d to £18 9s 0d, which latter sum was paid by Mr Willink, the Hon. Treasurer, on 13th February, and he holds the receipt. The whole family begged him to thank the Committee and all Burghfield friends very warmly for their help in time of need.

They will probably set up a boot shop again – they had the biggest one in Louvain. The two sons have both served right up to the end of the war – Arthur in fact wishes to remain a soldier. We wish them all happiness and good fortune.

Burghfield parish magazine, March 1919 (D/EX725/4)

Germany’s destruction of history mean it is no longer a civilised country

An unexpected insight into Berkshire people’s outrage at the unprecedented destruction from German air raids comes in a pamphlet written in June 1915 on historic Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire. Its author was Peter Ditchfield, the vicar of Barkham, who was a distinguished antiquarian and local historian.

The destruction wrought by German shells has created a storm of protest throughout the civilised world, from which we must now exclude the domains of the Kaiser. We have mourned over the devastation wrought at Louvain, Rheims, Ypres, Arras, Antwerp, and scores of other places where as pilgrims we have wandered and worshipped in those beautiful shrines. And now the bombardment of our own shores, the murder of innocent and inoffensive old men, women and children, and the destruction of our own relics of antiquity, has revealed to our wondering eyes the hideous extent of modern barbarism.

It was no chance shot that damaged that venerable and picturesque pile upon the Yorkshire coast. Alone it stood upon the hill overlooking Whitby town, near the edge of the cliff and the right bank of the Esk river, and not far from the quaint old church of St Mary. The German gunners must have aimed directly, wantonly and wickedly at the remains of the beautiful and historic monastery, and have thus lived up to the reputation which they have earned for themselves on the Continent by their dastardly outrages….

Pamphlet on Whitby Abbey by Peter H Ditchfield, June 1915 (R/D134/7/32)

“The Huns do not spare a thing”

The voice of ordinary working class soldiers is often hard to find, but here is a letter from a Stratfield Mortimer man to the vicar of his church at home:

A Letter from the Front
We are glad to print the following extracts from a letter to Canon Lovett Cameron from Private C. E. White, 73rd Co. A.S.C. M.T-

I am all right, and like it out here very much. I am very glad now that I joined the Army, as it must be awful for a man walking the roads of England knowing that this is a life and death struggle and doing nothing for their country, or I may put it for their own homes. They ought to see a few towns of Belgium, then they might realise the nature of this terrible war. The Huns do not spare a thing. There is a most lovely church not far from here; as I expect, you know the churches here are splendid; this church which I have seen myself they have reduced to ruins, and have torn up the graveyard by their shell fire. It is most wicked…

We get plenty of good food, also plenty of clothing… You ought to see some of the roads here, awful to drive over, holes in places 2 ft. deep, and with all this rain very slippery. We have about 180 lorries and over 700 men in this Company. We got through the retreat from Antwerp all right, and up to now have only lost 2 men killed and 3 injured, that was at Ypres, the Germans shelled us there.

Stratfield Mortimer parish magazine, April 1915 (D/P120/28A/14)

“I was a stranger”: meet the Belgian refugees welcomed to Maidenhead

In October and November we heard about Maidenhead Congregational Church’s involvement with supporting Belgian refugees in the town. We can now update the story, and introduce the families the church supported:


The response to our appeal for weekly contributions towards the support of a Belgian Refugees’ Home of our own was prompt and generous. The committee appointed by the Church took 14, Fairford Road (the rent of which was guaranteed by the Adult School) and determined to invite a family of about eight persons to occupy it. On inquiry at Folkestone, three families, related by marriage, comprising ten persons in all, were allotted to us, and since Mr. and Mrs. Dykes of Hill Farm, Taplow, had generously offered to receive two refugees into their home while the need lasted, we accepted the allotment, placing eight in Fairfield Road, and two of the men at Taplow. But the two wives pleaded that they might not be separated from their husbands, and the committee felt that the request was reasonable, and must be met. So we have now ten in our home, three married couples and four little girls.

They all lived at Boom, a small town of about 18,000 inhabitants some 12 miles from Antwerp. M. Asselberghs was traveller for a milling firm; M. Van Hoof was the proprietor of a boot and shoe shop; and M. Van der Plannken was a boatbuilder on the banks of the river Rupel. They fled from their home on the approach of the Germans on September 29th and found a temporary refuge in Antwerp. On the day before the bombardment of that city, they were compelled to fly once more, together with tens of thousands of other homeless people, and went on foot to Ostend. After waiting two or three days, they were compelled to throw themselves upon the hospitality of the English people. They have received information that M. Van der Plannken’s house was demolished by shell fire immediately after they fled, and M. Van Hoof’s shop was looted by the soldiery. M Asselberghs and his sister Mme. Van Hoof are acquainted with the French language, the other speak nothing but Flemish. They all profess the Roman Catholic religion. The children attend the Roman Catholic school in Maidenhead, where a Belgian teacher (also a refugee) has been engaged to teach the many refugee children who are now resident in this neighbourhood. In doing what we can help our guests during their stay with us we shall feel that we are not only fulfilling the spirit of our Lord’s words when he said “I was a stranger and ye took me in,” but we are repaying to Belgium a small part of an obligation which seems greater the more we think of it.

Maidenhead Congregational Church magazine, December 1914 (D/N33/12/1/4)

The boys speak Flemish

Two Belgian refugee children started school in a Berkshire village. Like some of today’s young refugees, they struggled with the language.

Aldworth School, December 14th–18th 1914

Two of the Belgian Refugees were admitted into the school on Monday, Jack and Pierre de Decker, sons of Mr Louis de Decker, Diamond Polisher of Antwerp. The boys speak Flemish.

Pupils at Wescott Road School in Wokingham, meanwhile, helped with food for the Belgian refugees in their area:

December 14th 1914
The scholars have bought a good supply of vegetables for the Belgian refugees at Red Lodge, London Road.

Wokingham Wescott Road School Log Book (C/EL87, p. 147)

Aldworth School log book (C/EL54/2, p. 261)

“In death, they were not divided”

The people of Ascot mourned the death of some of their sons who had lost their lives at the Front – including two brothers, a soldier and a sailor, killed on the same day. They also had a military hospital in the village, and contact with well-wishers in Japan (which was an ally of the British).

Roll of Honour
Oscar William Tottie R.I.P.
Eric Harold Tottie R.I.P.
Alfred Harry Tidbury R.I.P.
Bernhard Pratt-Barlow R.I.P.

A REQUIEM EUCHARIST for our Sailors and Soldiers is celebrated on Saturdays, in All Saints Church, at 8 a.m.


We have to add the following names to our List in the October Magazine.

NAVY – William Walter Paxford, Stephen John Waite, Egbert Arthur Tidbury.

ARMY – Sydney George Sumner, Charles John Walls, Ernest Monk, James Johnston, George Lappage, Ernest Oram, Harry Bonnard, Matthew O’Connor, Thomas John Minns, William Brown, Paul Meakin, John Henry Baker, Robert Waight Sensier.

LIEUTENANT ERIC TOTTIE, Northumberland Fusiliers, was wounded at the Front on Sunday, September 20th, and expired in the base Hospital on the 22nd, being the same day on which his brother Lieutenant Oscar Tottie lost his life on H.M.S. Aboukir. “In death they were not divided.” We can only repeat what we ventured to say last month in regard to the elder brother. We pray that GOD will comfort the father and mother of two noble lads. R.I.P.

A Memorial Service for the two young officers was held at All Saints Church on Tuesday, October 6th. It was largely attended.

“THE SUGGESTION” in last month’s Magazine has met with a most generous response, and a family of Belgian Refugees is happily installed at Easton Villa, Kennel Ride – resting after their sad flight on foot from Antwerp a short time ago. We know they will soon have many friends, for we feel sure that all who go to see them will want to go again. Anyone wishing to pay his or her subscription direct to Mrs. Elliot and “Sandridge” will find a box on her front door on Sundays, from 10.45 a.m. to 12 noon, and from 2.45 p.m. to 4 p.m. Envelopes to contain the subscriptions (on which the Donors names must be written) will be given on application to Mrs. Elliot – who is the Hon. Treasurer for all monies subscribed for the purpose.

THE ASCOT MILITARY HOSPITAL is, at the time that we write, full to overflowing with wounded and sick Soldiers. They seem happy in their quarters; and in many cases, what with Ascot air and good treatment, their convalescence has been rapid. Already several patients have sufficiently recovered to be dismissed.

Soldiers and Belgians fill the schools

Lower Sandhurst School was facing difficulties and disruption due to the war.  On 4 November the head teacher received two rather annoying letters, one explaining why the fuel used for heating the building was unsatisfactory, the other potentially threatening the possible loss of the school building altogether:

November 4th 1914

Received letter of explanation from the Coke Contractors, Messrs. Drake & Mount, in which they stated that the unbroken coke delivered was owing to the railway traffic being disorganised by movement of troops…

Received letter of the Correspondent enclosing a communication from the Assistant Quarter-Master-General of the Aldershot Command in which it is stated that it may be found necessary to billet troops in the school.

Further west, Stanford Dingley welcomed its share of the Belgian refugees. The head teacher of the Church of England School reported on 4 November 1914:

Three Belgian children admitted today – one from Ostend, two from Antwerp.

Lower Sandhurst School Log Book (C/EL66/1, p. 301); Stanford Dingley National School log book (D/P117/28/2, p. 285)

“We have hold of them now”

Florence Vansittart Neale’s diary mixes anxiety for family friends, war news and rumours. It was true, however, that Lord Kitchener was not a fan of Winston Churchill, who was at this point First Lord of the Admiralty.

2 November 1914

Heard from Dot. Charlie in firing line. Joined Bombay Brigade. Feel very anxious. Fierce battle still raging….

Found Sir George & M & Mme de Bistrade (Belgians) here.

Heard Lord K. told someone about our position. “We have hold of them now.”

Germans sunk the “Hermes” in Channel.

They say story of Russians is about 2000 from America came through here & joined French troops.

Winston from Antwerp telegraphed Kitchener he had made this man Colonel, that a Major etc etc. Kitchener, riled, wired back “Just made Mrs Snooks rear admiral”!!

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

A masterly account of the war

The people of Cookham Dean were well informed about the war.  The parish magazine reports on a lecture given by a representative of the Conservative organisation, the Primrose League:

A most admirable lecture, illustrated by lantern views, was given in the Drill Hall, on Monday evening, October 26th, in aid of the Belgian Relief Fund, by Mr. H. Lankester – Provincial Agent of the Grand Council of the Primrose League. Mr Lankester gave a masterly account of the reasons why we were at war, and of the general progress of it up to the occupation of Antwerp…

It is hoped that about £9 will be handed over to the Fund for the Relief of the Belgians. The room was crowded, all classes being well represented. This certainly suggests that many more might come to the Intercession Service on Friday nights, which after all is of far greater importance than a lecture. To set apart half an hour on one week night at a serious time like this for united prayer for those who are giving their lives for us, and for the great cause in which we and our Allies are engaged is surely not too much to ask; and after the numbers that were present on Monday night at the lecture there can be no real reason why the Intercession Service should not be far better attended than it is. If we believe in the power of united prayer, let us be consistent and show by our presence and the earnestness of our intercessions that we do believe in it.

Cookham Dean parish magazine, November 1914 (D/P43B/28A/11)

A hearty welcome for fleeing Belgians

Burghfield was among the Berkshire villages to welcome Belgian families seeking refuge from the horrors of war, by making not only houses available, but also helping out with food and fuel for their guests.

It is not too much to say that the little country of Belgium has during the last months won the admiration and gained the sympathy of the whole civilised world. She has won our admiration because of the heroic stand which she made against the vast and aggressive military power of Germany and because she refused to become a party to breaking those solemn treaties by which the nations of Europe were bound. Belgium might have saved herself much disaster and suffering if she had at once yielded to the request of the German Emperor to allow his armies to begin their march of conquest across her territory, but she was too noble to break the treaty by which she was bound in order to “save her own skin”, and chose rather to fight and suffer in the cause of righteousness and justice. How greatly she has suffered we all know, for the German motto in warfare is that the conquered should be left “nothing but their eyes to weep with”. We all know that thousands of peaceful Belgians have lost nearly everything they possessed and have been driven from their homes in the towns and villages and have sought the hospitality of the friendly English shores. They have received a hearty and ready welcome, because Belgium has not only won our admiration by her heroism but has gained our sympathy because of her inevitable suffering.

Many of the refugees have found a temporary home in our own neighbourhood – in Reading, and at Mortimer, Aldermaston, and Sulhamstead – and now we can add Burghfield, for a party of four refugees have arrived at “Barnhay”, on the Common, who are brave and cheerful notwithstanding their misfortunes. The Trustees of the “Old Schools” have also granted the use of that building for a similar purpose, and on October 24th Monsieur and Madame Laurent and their two daughters arrived there. They came from Louvain, the beautiful Belgian town where the Germans wrought such fearful havoc. Monsieur Laurent was in business there and his was one of the houses which was burnt to the ground. On hearing of the proposed arrangement, many of our parishioners most kindly and promptly sent a variety of articles required for domestic uses, while Mr and Mrs E F Pilkington sent a ton of coal in order to endure a warm welcome for our guests. We understand that Mr and Mrs Willink are looking after the welfare of both parties for the present, and we are asked to say that any gifts in kind, e.g. fruits and vegetables, groceries, jam, etc, etc, will be most gladly received either at Barnhay or at the Old Schools.

In Bisham, meanwhile, Florence Vansittart Neale met a Belgian refugee family.

24 October 1914
E & I to tea [with] Himes to see their Belgians. Large party of 7. Baby born Antwerp Oct 1st, had to leave when a week old.

The Belgians at Marlow told me the Germans dug a hole, made a woman put her two children in & bayoneted them! Saw baby 3 weeks come from Antwerp. Mother had to move a week after the birth (little Albert).

Burghfield parish magazine, November 1914 (D/EX725/3); Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Antwerp has fallen

Florence Vansittart Neale has more news.

10 October 1914

To tea with James. Met Americans. Colonel J working at W[ar] O[ffice] amusing attache’s! Not to join French or Joffre…

Antwerp has fallen. Continuously shelled since Wednesday. Belgian army marched out, so hope will join forces soon. Allies pressing Germans.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

News rather more hopeful

Florence Vansittart Neale was a little more positive about the war news today.

8 October 1914
News rather more hopeful. Antwerp bombardment begun. All English sent away. German cavalry getting very north. Hope Charlie left Hazebruck.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Blood stained souvenirs

William Hallam sees a gory souvenir from the Front:

7 October 1914
I was shown to day a German officer’s small book sent home from a soldier at the front. It had a bullet hole through the upper part and the edges all stained with blood.

Florence Vansittart Neale was depressed by the war news:

7 October 1914
Heavy fighting going on. Nothing definite. Antwerp to be bombarded. Feel low about it all. So long to hear of a victory!

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/22); Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

A pretty show ward at Bisham Abbey

Florence Vansittart Neale continued getting Bisham Abbey ready for use as a hospital with the help of local volunteers being trained, while landowner husband Henry was involved with the appointment of Special Constables.

22 August 1914

Nurse Barlton & all arranged middle room as hospital – a show ward, so pretty. N room being whitewashed. Couts came & brought Nurse Gordon on approval.

Henry to Reading about Special Constables. Mr Young went too. Have meeting here on Tuesday.

Cookham contingent came down. Made beds, washed patients, took temperatures & pulses. I did another screen. Sewed Red X tapes….

Read papers.

Brussels given up to Germans. B[ritish] Army relocating to Antwerp. French vic[torious] in Alsace.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)