The legendary historical moments, stories and tales of the 6,000 First World War refugees who made ‘The Belgian Village on the Thames’ were commemorated when the Belgian Ambassador unveiled a piece of public artwork and information boards at the centre of where they once lived.
The monument has been carved out of ‘Belgian Blue’ stone and inscribed with the words ‘memories flow through me like a boat flows down the river’. It was created by stone-cutter Kristoffel Boudens in Belgium and the words are shown in the three different languages spoken in the Richmond area at the time – English, French and Dutch/Flemish. The inscription was specially selected from the many outstanding poems taken from a poetry workshop at Orleans Primary School – where all the Twickenham Belgian children used to go.
The forgotten story of the thousands of refugees who worked and lived by the Belgian munitions factory in East Twickenham will now always be remembered thanks to the hard work, creativity and tenacity of the East Twickenham Centennial Group. It was made possible thanks to £5,000 from Richmond Council’s Civic Pride Fund and £8,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The memorial is part of a wider three-month project which revives the memories through newspaper clippings, old photographs and family keepsakes, all compiled by the East Twickenham Centennial Group. The exhibition will be showcased at Twickenham Museum on The Embankment from April 6. Researchers and volunteers will also trawl individual Belgian record cards held at The National Archives in Kew. Their work will later be displayed online on an interactive database showing the addresses in Richmond of where the Belgians lived or worked.
The memorial stands at the very centre of Warren Gardens – on the spot where once an army sentry guarded the Pelabon Munitions Works – which operated by the banks of the Thames along the East Twickenham stretch from 1914 to 1918. The Pelebon Works was staffed by refugees and wounded soldiers from Belgium.
Richmond Council’s Cabinet Member for Community, Planning and the Voluntary Sector, Cllr Susan Chappell, said:
“The unique stories of a village born by refugees and injured soldiers seeking employment from a munitions factory will never be forgotten. It has been a pleasure to help this project from our Civic Pride Fund so an East Twickenham Tale that could be transformed into a film is written permanently into the annals of history. I would like to thank all those who have played a part in bringing this story to life and allowing us to understand and appreciate this unique time in our borough’s history. "
Helen Baker, East Twickenham Centennial Chair, said:
“It’s been a thrill to put this project together and recount the fascinating stories of the Belgian Village on the Thames. This borough will never forget them and their stories will live on forever.”
Stuart Hobley, Head of HLF London, added:
“The impact of the First World War was far reaching, touching and shaping every corner of the UK and beyond. With this funding we are enabling even more communities like those involved in the ‘Belgian Refugee Project’ to explore the continuing legacy of this conflict and help people to broaden their understanding of how it has shaped our modern world.”
The First World War Belgium Refugee Ceremony and commemoration will take place at the site in Warren Gardens, Clevedon Road, East Twickenham, from 11.30am on April 1. The ceremony will take place around the new memorial.