In this article Kieran Taylor reflects upon his research into Glasgow’s response to Belgian refugees within Scotland during the Great War. The article considers the role played by local government and faith groups in assisting refugees, offering a key historical perspective on some of the themes we are exploring through our Refugee Hosts research project. These include improving our understanding of the diverse motivations of local hosting communities – including established refugee communities, and local faith communities – in responding to the needs of refugees from Syria. If you are interested in reading more on these topics, visit our faith and displacement series, our localisation series, as well as the suggested readings at the bottom of this piece.

Belgian Refugees in Glasgow: Local Faith Communities, Hosting and the Great War 

By Kieran Taylor, University of Stirling & Glasgow Life

The common narrative of the Great War within Britain often focuses on the brutalising experience warfare had upon those who volunteered or who were conscripted into the armed forces. Similarly, the collective memory of the Homefront during the First World War is remembered as a time of rare political unity in the 20th century. However, whilst these narratives dominate contemporary understandings of the Great War within Britain, there are other lesser known stories of voluntary action, faith and humanitarianism which are worthy of consideration. My research examines one such narrative: the Scottish response to the arrival of over 250,000 Belgian Refugees within Britain between 1914-1918.

Belgian refugees began to arrive in Britain in large numbers during the Autumn of 1914 onwards and were quickly dispersed to urban centres around the country. Humanitarian assistance towards refugees was regarded as critical to the War effort and the minister for local government Herbert Samuels instructed Britons to offer their hospitality to Belgians fleeing the War ‘until conditions in Belgium enable the refugees to return’. The government’s actions were not purely altruistic as the drastic 30% reduction of the workforce caused by armed forces recruitment had created a significant labour shortage and Belgian refugees could therefore be drafted into the war economy.

News coverage of the refugees’ exodus singled out the Belgians’ courage, Catholic faith and humbleness. Belgian refugees were portrayed as members of a pitiful and oppressed but deserving rural peasantry. Such newspaper coverage motivated a rush of popular enthusiasm toward Belgian refugees across the country. The founders of the War Refugees Committee, the largest relief organisation, Lady Lugard and Dame Lyttleton, found housing for refugees through emergency measures which were conceived to protect Irish Protestants who may have fled a Catholic revolution in Ireland following the Ulster Crisis. It was ironic that, instead, Catholic Belgians were to be hosted.

The plight of this small northern European nation perhaps struck a chord with some in Scotland as the Belgian’s Catholic piety was considered a sign of honesty and devotion rather than as a dangerous influence. Anti-Catholic feeling within Scotland had been particularly strong towards the Irish minority during the 19th and early 20th century. As the largest religious minority, Catholics in Scotland were maligned as a threat to employment and were regarded as politically dangerous.

As Glasgow became the main hub for refugees in Scotland, 8,000 Belgians were placed under the care of Glasgow City Corporation’s War Refugee’s Committee. This group of volunteers was composed of city councillors, business people, faith leaders and volunteers who regarded themselves as responsible for the refugees’ welfare. This paternalistic approach was a common feature of Edwardian philanthropy; however, co-operation and partnership between the state, charities and faith groups was very new.

While the War did not see an end to anti-Catholic sentiments in Scotland, the sense of common purpose in the aid of the Belgians saw some degree of ecumenical co-operation between Churches. Glasgow’s War Refugees Committee saw Catholic, Presbyterian and Episcopalian Churches give generously to the cause as flag days, special collections, entertainment nights and clothing drives were held. Several Reformed church ministers, such as John Galbraith of the United Free Church in Glasgow’s Kelvinside, even opened their houses to Belgian refugees.

A recruitment poster emphasising Belgium’s relationship to the War, 1914 (Source)

From the outset of the refugee crisis the Catholic Church also played an important role in providing assistance to Belgian refugees. Out of the 29 institutions that accommodated the initial arrivals of Belgian refugees in 1914, ten were run by the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the presence of Belgian Priests within the St Peter’s Seminary, in the suburbs of Glasgow, was of particular importance as these Priests became both representatives and interpreters for the Belgian diaspora. Octavius Claeves, a Belgian priest living in Glasgow, assumed this important responsibility. He was instrumental in the establishment of both a Belgian convent and school in Glasgow’s Garnethill area. Similarly, Father Ooghe volunteered in interpreting for refugees living within Paisley and found accommodation for over 200 throughout the parish. Priests, such as Ooghe and Claeves appeared regularly in the local press appealing for continued financial support for their compatriots and recounted the stories of the refugees’ exile and loss. While some Belgian children were educated separately, the majority of refugees attended schools around the city, both Catholic and non-denominational. Sources remarked on how many Belgian children had quickly become ‘Britannicised’ in their language and customs through educational immersion.

Yet, the arrival of Belgians refugees was not without controversy. An anonymous letter in the Paisley & Renfrewshire Gazette in 1915 makes this apparent:

‘Sir, I understand we are having another 200 Belgian Refugees coming…. would anyone be kind enough to inform me why our stripling and mere boys in many cases are being urged and almost shamed into these awful trenches while there are so many able bodied Belgian men skulking around’.

Such comments identified the xenophobic sentiments of some. As the War continued the Belgian presence in Britain became an unhappy reminder of the bloody toll the conflict was taking on the country, and accusations of Belgian cowardice were repeated. Belgian soldiers, on leave in Glasgow in the latter years of the War, increasingly found they had to sleep rough as accommodation was refused. Furthermore, some Belgians were seen to offend local sensibilities, such as the travelling Belgian musicians who caused consternation in the strongly Presbyterian towns of Falkirk and Linlithgow by playing concerts on Sundays. The extramarital affairs of another Belgian resident in Paisley created similar social anxiety regarding the degenerate influence Belgians might have upon the town. Glasgow City Council debated how to discourage intermarriage between Scots women and Belgian men of ‘bad character’. These negative perceptions of Belgians made it difficult, at times, for the War Refugee’s Committee to raise funds within the population to support refugees.

For the most part, these negative opinions of Belgians were largely in the minority. Following the War’s end however, the 250,000 Belgians were repatriated with urgency as politicians sensed the potential for industrial unrest amongst demobilised soldiers who regarded Belgians as a threat to their employment. Prime Minister Lloyd George remarked on the British ‘national sentiment of hospitality’ and more locally in Glasgow praise was heaped upon the volunteers of the War Refugees Committee and special attention was given to Father Ooghe. In short, the Belgian’s Catholic faith appeared to transcend the sectarian divide in Scotland and humanitarian action to support refugees united both faiths in Scotland, for a time, in common cause.


Adams, Iris. Belgian Refugees: Strathclyde Education Pack, (Glasgow, 1991)

Cahalan, Peter. Belgian Refugee Relief in England during the Great War. (New York, 1982)

Horne, John. Kramer, Alan. German “Atrocities” and Franco-German Opinion, 1914: The Evidence of German Soldiers’ Diaries. The Journal of Modern History. 66. 1994. p.p. 1-33 .

Jenkinson, Jacqueline Administering relief: Glasgow Corporation’s support for Scotland’s c. 20,000 Belgian refugees. Immigrants & Minorities. 34 (2016). pp. 171-191.

Letter to Octavius Claeves from the Sisters of the Belgian Community (1916) GC487,  Glasgow Archdiocese Archive

Minutes of the Glasgow City Corporation April 1915- November 1915 (1915), Glasgow Libraries Mitchell Archive

Suggested readings on this topic:

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) “Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying”

Greatrick, A. (2016) “Externalising the ‘Refugee Crisis’: A Consequence of Historical Denial?”

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Loss and Everyday Life on the Syrian-Turkish Border”

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”

Phipps, A. (2017) “A Tale of Humanity, Love and Reaching out to Refugees”

Phipps, A. (2017) “The Kindness of Strangers: The Challenges and Rewards of Opening Your Home to Refugees”

Stonebridge, L. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) “Time Machine: Stereoscopic Views from Palestine, 1900”

Featured Image: one of the few images of Belgian refugees arriving in the UK (c) A. Taylor, Folkenstone Historical Society, sourced from BBC News


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