All Things Local March 2019: Shelter from the Storm

The terrible risks people are taking to cross the Channel are in the news, but accepting refugees from countries devastated by war is not new.

At the beginning of the First World War, over a million Belgians fled their country as the Germans invaded, around 250,000 of them coming to Britain. It is estimated that more than 750 came to Derbyshire. The government appealed for communities to house the refugees and in Ripley a local committee was set up, with the Wright family at its head, to raise funds. The Butterley Company provided a house in Loscoe, and Scouts and Guides were enlisted to collect donations.

In Ripley, two extended families, 18 people in all, were housed in what is now Barclays Bank on the High Street. Bank Buildings, as it was known, had a reception office on the ground floor with accommodation above. The stories of the two families were told in an article by one of the refugees, who happened to be a journalist, in the Ripley and Heanor News of October 1914. They are shown in the attached picture.

Emile Backhoven, his wife and daughter and two other families escaped from Antwerp on a barge, sailing to Rotterdam and then to Tilbury. The other group came from Ostend, hurriedly leaving most of their possessions behind as the Germans entered the town. One of them, Charles Calmeyn, had a son who was taken prisoner; another, Jeanne Colombie, was separated from her husband who remained in Ostend, as had the parents of Maurice and Yvonne Versyp.

Judging by M. Calmeyn’s article, they were all traumatised: he thanks the people of Ripley for their kindness, and says they live “in silence far from the German beast who smashed so terribly down our splendid Belgium.”

Other Belgians appear in some surprising roles: refugee Josef Henry, for example, appeared at the Ripley Empire Palace in January 1915. He was “an exceptionally fine Baritone Vocalist” who sung mostly in French.

Not everything went smoothly, however: in July 1915 two Belgians were taken to court in Ripley accused of failing to notify the authorities of a change of address under the Alien Restriction Order 1914. Charles Calmeyn acted as their interpreter, and pleaded that in Belgium they were allowed eight days’ grace; the Chair of the Panel replied that “there is no grace here”; they had to pay 21 shillings costs.

At the end of the war, the government, which had been very glad of the Belgians who had taken jobs vacated by men who enlisted, wanted the jobs back for the returning men, and encouraged the Belgians to return home: by 1919 90% of them had done so.

What became of Ripley’s guests? Most returned to Belgium, though Emile Backhoven, who had served in the British merchant navy, left for America in 1917.

And, as a happy footnote, before they left for home in 1918, Charles Calmeyn’s son, another Charles, married Yvonne Versyp in London.