Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Dr. R. A. Rempel
Almost one quarter of a million Belgians fled to England after the German invasion of Belgium in 1914. The largest contingent of refugees ever to come to England, their absorption into the host society was bound to be a complex process.
The growth of anti-alien sentiment in Britain in the twentieth century has often been remarked, yet the Belgians were assimilated smoothly into the English community. They benefited at first from overwhelming public sympathy, and trade unionist fears that they would provide a pool of cheap labour dissipated as the war economy created conditions of full employment. There was some anti-Belgian sentiment, but it never became organised or vociferous. The growth of anti-alienism during the Great War must be traced to hysteria about enemy aliens, spies and Bolsheviks. However, the needs of the Belgian government, British relief agencies and various branches of the British government led to a sophisticated system of regulations governing the refugees' movements. The Belgians were important in the development of the primitive system of aliens control established in 1905.
Refugee relief was primarily the work of private charity. The government faced too many other tasks, the Poor Law was unpopular, and relief work provided an outlet for patriotic enthusiasm. Directed by one central body, the War Refugees Committee, several thousand local committees carried out the vast work of finding shelter, food, clothing and employment for the refugees and providing for many other needs. However, enthusiasm waned and the WRC's funds were never large. Accordingly, the government and the Committee were pushed into reluctant partnership, the WRC surrendering some of its independence in return for financial assistance. The government was slow to extend its control openly, fearing that voluntary effort would collapse. Until August 1916 the fiction was maintained that the WRC was autonomous, and even then the government made only a half-hearted attempt at direct control.
The vigour of the relief movement demonstrates the strength of the philanthropic community in the early twentieth century. Philanthropy was the preserve of the upper and middle classes, a badge of rank, an assertion of social superiority, a form of self-imposed taxation. The WRC drew on the Charity Organisation Society's case work practices, maintained a healthy contempt for government officials, and prided itself on saving the nation vast amounts of money.
However, the growing political importance of the working classes before and during the war, rising taxation and the war's economic effects on the upper classes affected the philanthropic public's morale. Wartime charity also suffered from chronic problems of overlapping effort, extravagance, inefficiency and fraud, and Belgian relief organisations led the way in demanding stricter control of war charities. Their efforts resulted in the War Charities Act of 1916. Gradually, many relief workers came to accept the need for direct government control as the only way of fairly distributing the burdens of relief. As a result of many pressures, the WRC, which had begun as a purely voluntary agency, ended as something like a government department: the philanthropists had become social workers. The story of the refugee relief movement suggests how the philanthropic community became part of the new system of social welfare in the twentieth century.
This study is based on the Ministry of Health files in the Public Record Office, the Women's Work and War Refugees Collection in the Imperial War Museum, and the Herbert Gladstone Papers in the British Museum.
Cahalan, Peter James, "The Treatment of Belgian Refugees in England During the Great War" (1977). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 717.