Nostalgia by Peter Hawkes

In his current research, local historian Neil Rees explains that although Chesham now has residents who were born in many different parts of the world, few people realise that during the Great War, the town received an influx of refugees from Belgium known as ‘Chesham’s Guests’.

From August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, known as the Rape of Belgium. German troops shelled towns and cities.

Where German armies advanced, panicking Belgian civilians fled before them.

One and a half million Belgians, being about a fifth of the Belgian population fled mainly to France, the Netherlands and across the English Channel.

The neutrality of Belgium was supposed to have been guaranteed in the 1839 Treaty of London, and this was the main reason that led to the British declaration of war on Germany on 4th August 1914.

The atrocities reported in the press led to a lot of anti-German feeling and was a major reason for the initial enthusiasm for the war. On 9th September 1914 the British government announced that it would offer Belgian victims of war the hospitality of the British Nation.

There were many refugee camps in London and the largest were at Earl’s Court and Alexandra Palace which each housed about 3,000 refugees at any one time. Refugees were all registered, and then dispersed to towns around Britain.

Eventually there were about 250,000 Belgians in Britain.

On 20th September 1914 a Bucks County Relief Committee was formed in Aylesbury, and Belgians came to live in towns and villages around Bucks. The first refugees came to Chesham in October 1914, and a Chesham Town Belgian Refugees Committee was formed in November 1914. By December 1914 it was reported that there were about 50 refugees in Chesham.

Most of those refugees who came to the town had escaped the bombardment of Antwerp and then came by boat from Flushing to Tilbury, or from Ostend to Folkestone, arriving with very few possessions.

The people and churches of Chesham rallied round to collect money and clothes for the refugees. A Hospitality Committee was formed and people made empty houses available, or took in Belgian lodgers.

In Chesham most of the refugees were housed in or near Church Street.

Wounded soldiers were convalesced at Germains House on Fullers Hill, Chesham. The Belgian refugees spoke Flemish or French or both, but slowly learnt English. It was reported that three Jewish Belgians lived with Mr and Mrs S Davis in Broad Street and they managed to speak to their guests in Esperanto.

Most of the Belgians were Roman Catholic and attended St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Eskdale Avenue, where Father Henry (Eric) Coleman was their priest.

The local Catholic population approximately doubled owing to the influx of Belgian refugees in Chesham, Chesham Bois and Amersham. So a new Catholic church building was built in Chesham Bois and Our Lady’s Church opened at Easter 1915.

The Belgian colony celebrated their National Day on the Sunday nearest 21st July each year at the Catholic Church, where they had their own organist Eugene van Landermeersch. Amongst the refugees were some Catholic priests.

Father Rev Abbe Dieltiens oversaw the Catholic Belgian refugees in South Bucks, supported by the Belgian Commission in London.

The refugees in Chesham formed a small Belgian community. They were organised by Jean Pierre Arnold, a retired general of the Belgian Army. Along with his wife and daughter, he lodged at The Forelands, on the corner of Red Lion Street and Punch Bowl Lane, near Hinton (now Trinity) Baptist Church. A Belgian flag used to fly in the garden.

He died on 3rd April 1915 aged 61 and a grand funeral was held for him. Behind the hearse marched a squad of the 125th Company, Royal Engineers who were then stationed in Chesham.

This was followed by members of the local Belgian community who walked from The Forelands to the cemetery. The military escort lined up on each side of the pathway and formed a ‘guard’ for the cortege to pass through. His stone still stands by the mortuary chapel

Slowly the refugees settled locally and took up jobs. In November 1914 a basket-making industry began in Chesham employing many Belgians.

After the war the majority of the Belgians returned home, but some 5,000 remained in Britain. There is a memorial to them on the Victoria Embankment of the River Thames, opposite The Needle. It was a gift from Belgium and was unveiled in 1920.

You can read more in the book Chesham at War 1914-1918 by Lesley Perry available via If you are descended from a Belgian refugee in Bucks we would love to hear from you as part of this research. Please contact Neil Rees at