When Belgium was invaded in August 1914, thousands of refugees fled. Many came to Britain, supported by charities and the government. In Richmond the Cercle Français became the core of the Refugee Support Committee. Local businessmen and their wives formed groups in the sister boroughs of Teddington and Barnes, and set up hostels for refugees.
Charles Pelabon, a French engineer, had been working in Belgium at the start of the war. He arrived in Britain on 7 October 1914 with a number of his key workers. They were soon producing munitions for the war effort. By January 1915, Pelabon had set up in a disused roller-skating rink in Cambridge Road, East Twickenham. The Pelabon Works spread across the large area between Cambridge Road and the river, now Richmond Bridge Estates and Cambridge Gardens. Monsieur Pelabon needed more workers, and found them in the refugee camps in Holland. Soon he employed nearly 2000 workers, mostly Belgian men and women.
Pelabon’s factory gave jobs to Belgians and attracted more and more of them. The community grew to 6000. East Twickenham High Street was now as much Belgian as English, with rows of Belgian shops. It was called “The Belgian Village on The Thames”.
The youngest Belgian children went to a primary school on Warrington Road, Richmond, while older boys went to Onslow Hall, Little Green. In Twickenham the children attended Orleans Elementary School on Napoleon Road, where they were taught by female teachers from Belgium.
The story of the Belgian refugees and the Pelabon Works is due to feature in a BBC London radio broadcast scheduled for late February 2015. For more information and to download previous WWI story podcasts, visit the BBC site.
A local project has also been started, aiming to erect a memorial to the Belgian refugees of WW1. For more about the project and to support it, visit the website.