Looking back at the life of the Birtley Belgians

A NEW display aims to preserve the memory of a unique North East refugee village.

Belgian refugees, birtley munitions factory

A NEW display aims to preserve the memory of a unique North East refugee village.

Elisabethville in the centre of Birtley, Gateshead, was home to 4,000 Belgians during the First World War.

Now Beamish Museum in County Durham has launched its Belgians in Birtley project at Birtley Library.

Local people became involved in helping to research Elisabethville – named after the Belgian queen – and its community from records at Beamish and in Gateshead Library.

The Beamish collections include archive photographs and objects such as the clogs which were worn by the Belgians, a Belgian policeman’s cap and a poster from Sacriston in County Durham which was used to raise money for the refugees.

Helen Barker, collections officer at Beamish, said: “The Belgian soldiers who came to Birtley were not fit for active service but they still wanted to do something for the war effort. Their families later joined them.

“Today we are not sure how many people in Birtley are aware of this village.

“It was administered by the Belgian authorities and run as a military establishment.

“In addition to the housing there were three dining halls, a church, primary school, market, public laundries and baths, police station and a prison.

“A fence surrounded the village and the entrance was guarded by Belgian and British police.

“Societies were set up within the community including a brass band and an amateur dramatics society.”

About 4,000 people lived in the community. At the end of the war the majority of the Belgians returned home although about 30 decided to stay in the area.

Most of the village was demolished, but the school remained in use for 60 years.

The Birtley Belgians exhibition is on display at Birtley Library until Tuesday, June 2, at Beamish Museum on the weekend of June 6 and 7, and after that at St Mary’s Heritage Centre, near The Sage, Gateshead, from June 9 to 28.

The project is supported through ‘Their Past Your Future 2’ – a scheme run by the Big Lottery Fund and MLA Partnership to encourage learning about conflict.

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