Belgian Refugees in Glasgow: Philanthropy and Faith

Belgian Refugees in Glasgow: Philanthropy and Faith

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 faith communities in Glasgow had in providing support to refugees.

Much of this article was originally published on Refugee Hosts.

The common narrative of the Great War within Britain often considers the brutalising experience warfare had upon those who volunteered or who were conscripted into the armed forces. The collective memory of the Home Front during the First World War is remembered as a time of rare political unity in the 20th century which was historically important to the Suffrage and Trade Union movements.

While these narratives dominate the contemporary understanding of the Great War within Britain, there are other lesser known stories of voluntary action, faith and humanitarianism which are worthy of consideration during the War’s centenary. My research examines one such narrative: the Scottish response to the arrival of over 250,000 Belgian Refugees to Britain between 1914-1918.

The German invasion of Belgium led to the mass exodus of the Belgian civilian population. While the British state and media were quick to exaggerate atrocities for the purpose of propaganda, the large numbers of Belgian refugees who crossed into the Netherlands, France, and across the channel did witness the reality of war crimes and civilian displacement in Belgium. The impact of these media reports stoked anger and resentment against Germany and were used to encourage enlistment.  

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 humility. Newspapers described the refugees as ‘pitiful’ and Belgians were portrayed as an oppressed but deserving rural peasantry. Such coverage motivated a rush of popular enthusiasm towards Belgian refugees across the country. Lady Lugard and Dame Lyttleton, the founders of the largest relief organisation ‘War Refugees Committee’, found housing for refugees through emergency measures that were originally conceived to protect Irish Protestants fleeing a possible Catholic revolution in Ireland following the Ulster Crisis. It was ironic that, instead, Catholic Belgians were to be hosted.

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

As Glasgow became the main hub for refugees in Scotland, 8000 Belgians were placed under the care of Glasgow City Corporation’s War Refugees Committee. This group of volunteers was composed of city councillors, businesspeople, faith leaders and volunteers who regarded themselves as responsible for the refugees’ welfare. This paternalistic approach was a common feature of Edwardian philanthropy; however, cooperation and partnership between the state, charities and faith groups was very new.

While the War did not see an end to anti-Catholic sentiment 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, Presybterian and Episcopalian churches give generously to the cause as flag days, special collections, entertainment nights and clothing drives were all held to assist the relief effort. Several Reformed Church ministers even opened their houses to Belgian refugees, like John Galbraith of the United Free Church in Glasgow’s Kelvinside.  

The Catholic Church also played an important role in providing assistance to Belgian refugees. 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 responsibility. He was instrumental in the establishment of a Belgian convent and school in Glasgow’s Garnethill area. Similarly, Father Ooghe interpreted  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 recounting the stories of the refugees’ exile and loss.

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 throughout the War. 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. Humanitarian action to support refugees appeared to transcend the sectarian divide in Scotland and, for a time, united both faiths in Scotland 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

Picture credit: The Belgian Refugee by Norah Neilson Gray (1882-1931)

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