Remembering Our Belgian Refugees

One hundred years ago this autumn, the first wave of an estimated 250,000 Belgians made their way to England as refugees of the hostilities in their native land.

Belgian Friends Remembered: a message of friendship from 1917

Rowntree’s Haxby road factory (now Nestlé’s home of Kit Kat) welcomed scores of Belgian refugees to York. Here at the Nestlé UK Archive we’ve been collecting photographs and memorabilia relating to the refugees to add to our online commemoration.  One local resident kindly brought in her grandmother’s autograph book which was signed by two of the refugees in 1917.

Belgian Friends Remembered: advice from a refugee in York

Although the Rowntree family members were pacifists, and opposed to war, they were keen to help as many victims of the hostilities as possible.

Those refugees who were able to work were given employment in the chocolate factory, but most had to be supported by donations from Rowntree’s workers.

Employees at the factory formed a council to manage and distribute resources until the end of hostilities. Factory workers cleared cottages in New Earswick, and space in the factory grounds for living accommodation.

Thanks to an experimental building project by the factory builders, the girls of the factory school had just been given a concrete cottage in the grounds of the dining block in which to “practice home economics”. The girls were given the Belgian Godenne family to care for as part of their home economic studies; the family were housed in the “practice cottage”, fed on the girls’ cooking, supplied with spending money from the girls’ salary and had their housework done by enthusiastic students.

The Nestlé UK archives are supporting the Mayor of Liège in this year’s centenary events, which will include an exhibition about the outbreak of hostilities in the town and the refugees who fled to York.

Descendants of the Loix family, who fled from Liège in 1914 to work at Rowntree’s, will be present at the Mayor’s celebrations. They will be reunited with members of the Rutterford family who worked at the factory and became their close friends during their exile.

We will update this blog later in the year when we have photographs of the commemorations in Liege.