A Spofforth historian has returned a plaque dedicated to the people of Harrogate by the Belgian refugees stationed in the town during the First World War after it was found in a skip. Reporter JAMES METCALF finds out more about this homecoming.
Like many towns in the UK, Harrogate did its part during the First World War.
This included playing host to Belgian refugees displaced by the conflict in their country and who desperately needed a place to stay.
Unknown to many until now, however, the people of Harrogate were presented with a plaque by the refugees who were grateful for the Yorkshire hospitality they received.
Spofforth local historian Margaret Power told the Wetherby News the story of how she came upon the missing plaque.
“A friend of mine was giving a talk in Bradford and asked if I would come along,” she said.
“As he was giving the talk to this group one of the ladies there asked what he made of a photograph and they showed it to me and it was of the plaque.
“Somebody had found it in a skip and taken it up there. The museum wouldn’t take it and this lady was stuck with it, so I said give it to me and that is how it ended up in my garage for six months.”
It is as yet unknown where the plaque was originally located or even when it went missing.
However, it has now been received once again on behalf of the people of the town by the Mayor of Harrogate Jim Clark during the commemoration events in Spofforth and is housed at the council offices on Crescent Gardens before an official home can be found.
The mayor said: “I think it is very important because it is part of an important time in the history of Harrogate and the fact that we took in Belgian refugees.
“I was surprised that it was found in a skip and I think it is dreadful that someone would put something like that in a skip. It is something that we want to see as part of Harrogate’s part in the war.
“That is why I wanted to accept it on behalf of the town, and I am really grateful to Margaret for finding it and presenting it back to the people of Harrogate and I was very pleased to accept it on behalf of Harrogate.”
Ms Power is equally convinced of the importance of the find as it contributed an added layer to Harrogate’s First World War story.
As a librarian at Harrogate library for 42 years and a Great War enthusiast, she is well-placed to judge the plaque’s significance and its place in the town’s historic narrative, which is notable for the many personal stories it contains.
Some of these were already familiar to Ms Power, yet she discovered others during the exhibition in Spofforth.
She said: “One of the 18-year-olds is buried in Spofforth churchyard and one of his relatives asked why I hadn’t put his father in and I had no idea his father had served. He joined the North Canadian Expeditionary Force and eventually got back here but in the meantime his son died.
“I got a real sense of how it would affect people during the exhibition, though I suppose I am pretty hardened to it after all these years. People said they couldn’t read anymore because it was too sad.
“Another of our boys was killed in his sleep. He got shot by one of the guys in the next bed who was cleaning his rifle and didn’t realise there was anything still in it.”
Fitting into this dramatic history, it is hoped the plaque from the Belgian refugees will add to the story and provide another focus for the many people remembering the war in this centenary year.
Ms Power said: “The refugees were important and they were looked after and especially at this centenary it is another aspect of it, a home front aspect.
“Everybody is quite familiar with the Belgians wandering along the roads with their stuff I should think, but not what they did then.
“It is frightening to be so displaced but they were the lucky ones who got on a boat and got over here. At least they were safe for a while.
“It is terribly important that we remember things like this. It is heritage. How can you do something in Harrogate without either mentioning the war or the refugees?
“At least it has come back to Harrogate. That is all I was bothered about, and at least it has been taken notice of, much as I would have loved it in my garage, and I would have looked after it.”
The hunt is now on the find the original location of the plaque ahead of Remembrance Sunday, as the mayor is eager to restore it to its former glory.
He said: “If we are not able to find where it was originally and restore it we will find an appropriate place to put it so people can remember.
“I didn’t even know we took Belgian refugees though I know a lot of places did, and I think there may be some people still in town.
“It is about how grateful they were for the help they received in Harrogate and it was appropriate as mayor for me to receive it because there is mention of the three mayors who served during the war.
“I am interested in finding out if there are still descendants of those refugees who may have stayed after the war was over and to find out if anyone has any knowledge of those who may have gone back, to develop links with Harrogate.”
The story of the Belgian refugees in Britain
In the early years of the First World War, following Germany’s invasion of Belgium in August 1914, hundreds of thousands of Belgian nationals were displaced.
Also arriving in France and the Netherlands, it is estimated that around 160,000 refugees fled to the UK in the first wave, where they made their home in towns across the country.
More than 2,500 committees were established to provide charitable relief, though complaints began to surface when there was no sign the refugees could return home.
Over the course of the war more than 250,000 Belgians stayed in the country - the largest arrival of refugees en masse in Britain and which accounted for three quarters of overseas residents in Britain during the war.
While here, many worked as soldiers in the British war industry, though they never enlisted.
Most of the refugees returned to Belgium by 1920 once repatriation had started in 1918.