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The Birtley Belgians

 
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BerichtGeplaatst: 11 Jun 2008 16:50    Onderwerp: The Birtley Belgians Reageer met quote

John North: The Birtley Belgians

From the archive, first published Thursday 23rd Mar 2006.

THE days when gendarmes patrolled the streets of a North-East village will be recalled in a book to be published before the month's out. Named after the Queen of the Belgians, Elisabethville itself became Little Belgium - a colony of 6,000 people, of boules and of boulevards, of cents and sensibility.

It had its own hospital, cemetery, school, church, nunnery and Co-op; only Flemish and Walloon were spoken. That some reports talk of the Belgians growing leeks and breeding whippets merely suggests how quickly they caught on.

Elisabethville became part of Birtley, between Chester-le-Street and Gateshead. Its inhabitants, with English alliterative affection, became known as the Birtley Belgians.

John Bygate's story begins in 1915 when, with front line units ordered to fire no more than ten shells a day, Britain finally realised that it was unprepared for a protracted war.

"It seems so often to have been the case," says John, a historian and retired teacher from Durham.

Appointed munitions minister, Lloyd George ordered the building of numerous new factories all over Britain as the nation approached its shell-by date.

Still they needed workers; most women were already involved in heavy industry. Desperately needing to arm the big guns, Lloyd George turned to little Belgium.

The Birtley factory was to the north of the town, British built but entirely Belgian run - a Belgian combo, as it were. By 1916 it gave work to 3,500 men, 85 per cent disabled in some way, with 2,500 family members also housed in the adjacent, iron fenced village.

"Unable to fight, they were still determined to play their part," says John. "By the end of the war their target would have been just over a million shells. They produced two and three-quarter million. It must have been an enormous undertaking"

They were housed in new prefabs within the colony, with running water, electricity, a stove for cooking and heating and even indoor toilets.

Conditions weren't just better than in occupied Belgium, they were better than in Birtley. "It caused a certain amount of friction at first," says John, and locals may further have been rubbed up the wrong way when handsome young Belgians began dating Birtley's bonniest.

"Some were single, of course," says John, "others may have had husbands at the Front...."

Though the men were officially discharged, the factory was run as a military operation, workers putting in 12 hour shifts - a week of days, a week of nights - in heavy serge uniforms. At least 13 were killed in industrial accidents.

"Imagine it when the furnaces or shell pressing machines might have been several hundred degrees," says John.

Other dissatisfactions led to a near-riot on December 21, 1916 when 2,000 men marched on the gendarmes and a shot was fired before things quietened.

"It was one of the problems," says John. "They were Belgian police but they were in England. Could they be allowed to carry guns? Elisabethville wasn't strictly Belgian territory, but it certainly wasn't English."

The Elisabethville villagers soon settled down. There were three choirs, a brass band, small orchestra, "umpteen" sports clubs, debating society - "I call it the Elisabethville Lit and Phil" - and even a newspaper, the Birtley Times, copies still held at Liege university.

"The main thing," says John Bygate, "was that the rest of Birtley discovered that they weren't for a skive, as perhaps they'd feared, but worked tremendously hard and stood shoulder to shoulder with Britain."

John Bygate first became aware of the Birtley Belgians when asked ten years ago to edit and update an earlier book. Until then, he admits, he'd not even heard of them.

Subsequently he heard from the grandson of the Belgian director-general of the factory, who had much documentary evidence. "It's fair to say that I was enthralled," he says over a lunchtime Guinness. "I realised I had to write my own book."

He has also spent a week helping a Flemish television company make a documentary about their compatriots.

Most of the Belgians were repatriated around Christmas 1918; 30 or so stayed behind to marry. Even today, the South Tyneside telephone book has an unusual number of names starting with "van". A six day sale was held to dispose of furniture and other Elisabethville essentials.

Though the factory still makes munitions, all that remains of the village is traces of the road pattern and a former food store and butcher's shop. Now used by motor traders, the two are Grade II listed buildings. The school, intended to last for ten years, was used for that purpose for 63.

Elisabethville has now disappeared from most maps. "That seems to me," says John Bygate, "to be a very great shame."

* Of Arms and the Heroes costs £10 (plus £1 postage) and is available from the History of Education Project, Miners Hall, Red Hill, Durham DH1 4BB.

Sisters under the stone

CALLED to attention in front of Crook war memorial, last week's column pondered several mysteries and has started to find some answers.

Who was Sister Alice May, the name atop the First World War memorial and its only woman?

Who was Evelyn Davies, the only woman among the fallen of the 1939-45 conflict, identified only as a NAAFI worker?

Who was the soldier whose name appears on the memorials both in Willington and Crook, because different sides of the family couldn't agree where he properly, proudly, belonged?

Electronic searches have proved largely fruitless. Harry Brook, chairman of Crook Historical Society, has had rather more success.

"No Internet, no Google, no sod all," says Harry. "Just two charming old ladies who rang as a result of your column."

Sister Alice May - and this is the big surprise - was 83 when she died, of old age, in 1919. "She was a Nightingale nurse," says Harry. "The town was so proud of her that when she died, it seemed right to add her name to the memorial and to put it right at the top. It seems to me quite right."

Could she even have been one of the 38 nurses who went to Scutari with Florence Nightingale in the 1850s, when probably just 18?

Alice May, who lived with her brother in Railway Avenue, died in October 1919 and is buried in Crook cemetery.

Was Sister Alice May really alongside the Lady with the Lamp? As before, further enlightenment much welcomed.

Evelyn Davies was herself just 18 when she enlisted with the NAAFI - "possibly the first time she'd ever been out of Crook," supposes Harry Brook.

A few months later, her body was returned, her tombstone among the war graves in the cemetery. She died on September 6, 1943, but little else is so far known.

"I've been past those graves many times and never noticed that there's a woman among them," says Harry. If only the stones could talk.

Then there's the story of Trooper Ernest William Aspinall, known as Ernie, grammar school boy and master carpenter.

Born and raised in Willington, Ernie married Theresa Cairns from Crook and moved up the road to live there.

A reluctant soldier, he was with the Eighth Army in Tunisia when, on April 11, 1943 he was killed when his tank hit a mine.

"They were American mines, what crazily these days they call friendly fire," says Pat Aspinall, his daughter-in-law. "The Americans had botched it again."

Trooper Aspinall's father - "very proud of his family but always a bit opinionated," says Pat, a retired midwife - insisted that he was a Willington lad and should be on the town's memorial.

His wife, Pat's mother-in-law, wanted him to be remembered, no less proudly, in Crook.

When Theresa Aspinall married John Harrison four years later, it was her second husband - "A prince among me n," says Pat - who fought for his name at last to be added to Crook's fallen.

Tony Aspinall, Pat's husband, was three when his father died. Theresa was expecting a second child, who died from measles when nine months old. "He was totally besotted with Tony and so much looking forward to another baby," says Pat. "We still keep all his letters, I've wept buckets over them.

"Whichever war memorial he's on, after all these years we're still very proud of him."

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http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk
© Newsquest Media Group 2006
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Paddy



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BerichtGeplaatst: 11 Jun 2008 18:37    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

Voor wie het mocht interesseren, ik heb hier nog een werkje (niet te koop,
alleen ter informatie;-):
"The Birtley Belgians" by J. Schlesinger & D. Memurtry, 4the edition 1997, The
History of Education Project, Durham University School of Education, Leazes
Road, Durham DH1 1TA, (tel: 0191 374 3497/98, ISBN 1 870268 07 05, kostprijs
4.50 Pounds. Slechts 54 blz A4 formaat, maar heel wat informatie over de
Belgische kolonie aldaar en hun werk in de munitiefabrieken. Voor de Genealogen
onder ons ook lijsten met arbeiders in de fabrieken, bewoners van het "kamp",
leden van de fanfare, voetbalploeg enz.




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There is a very fine line between "hobby" and "mental illness".
"We're doomed, I tell ye!"
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arneken



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BerichtGeplaatst: 11 Jun 2008 21:05    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

Paddy @ 11 Jun 2008 19:37 schreef:
Voor wie het mocht interesseren, ik heb hier nog een werkje (niet te koop,
alleen ter informatie;-):


Mad ik dacht net ... puh Mooi verhaal toch?
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Bluedevil



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BerichtGeplaatst: 04 Jul 2008 9:17    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

Schitterend verhaal en het levende bewijs dat de Belgen harde werkers zijn...
Als ik nu dat boek ergens kan vinden...
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BerichtGeplaatst: 03 Aug 2008 9:21    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

Uit mijn mailbox:

moet ik U laten weten dat het boek "The Birtley Belgians" van Schlesinger & McMurtrie al in 2006 'vervangen' is door mijn eigen book 'Arms and the Heroes' by John G Bygate ( te koop vanThe History of Education Project, Miners Hall, Red Hill, Durham DH1 4BB - tel: 0191 370 9941), ISBN 1 870268 44 X, kosptprijs £10.00.
Maat A5,200blz, met veel nieuwe materiaal niet beschikbaar aan Schlesinger en McMurtrie, plus 36 foto's die niet te vinden waren in de verschillende edities van het oudere boek. Volgens Local History Magazine (May/June 2006) is het " … an admirable account of a little known and unusual corner of the home front."
John Bygate

john.bygate@talktalk.net
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Patrick De Wolf
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There is a very fine line between "hobby" and "mental illness".
"We're doomed, I tell ye!"
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