Politics, Women's History

Excluded from the Record – Women, Refugees and Relief 1914-1929


Eglantyne Jebb – Founder of Save the Children


In August 1914 the influx began into the U.K. of approximately 260,000 refugees, mostly Belgian women and children.  Reports of female refugees fleeing from the German invaders published by The Times in August and September, depicted them as defenceless and homeless, clutching few belongings, frantically seeking for, or burdened by their aged parents and children, heading towards the coast of Holland, Belgium or France and the safety of a foreign land.  Many such refugees when they reached England had lost everything except the possessions they carried, and had no money with which to support themselves and their families.  But for some, their suffering was not ended.

Lady Flora Lugard was foremost amongst the far-sighted people who began immediate preparations for the arrival of refugees on the Bank Holiday weekend that War was declared.  She had helped to make preparations for Irish refugees to come to England in case of the anticipated civil war and used these plans to set up the ‘War Refugees Committee’ (W.R.C.) in London instead.   Within 24 hours she had established the preliminary organization to re-home Belgian refugees instead of Irish ones.

Mrs Webbe, who ran the W.R.C.’s Rescue Department in London, was in charge of women and girls who in various ways ‘needed assistance’.  In some cases, the police were involved.

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The records do not necessarily provide the full stories of these individuals.  For example, Miss Alma Tadema, daughter of the artist, on 30th September 1915 brought to Mrs Webbe, Mme Marie Wybo, aged 29.  She had thrown vitriol and threatened suicide.   A younger girl in unspecified trouble, possibly theft or being out all night, was Maria Caroline Verwilt,  aged 15.   In this instance, as in many others, Mrs Webbe was appointed her Guardian by the Old Street Juvenile Court.  However, women who were categorized as morally deficient were likely to find themselves in positions where power relationships became particularly complex.  One of these was Gertrude Kuypers.  In May 1917, Somerset House, responsible for refugee registration, asked the W.R.C.’s Intelligence Department to find Gertrude’s Baby.  It was found in Nazareth Convent at Hammersmith, placed there by Father Christie, the Catholic priest who worked with the W.R.C., because the Mother, i.e. Gertrude, was ‘leading an immoral life’.  She and the baby were then taken to the W.R.C. Hostel in Maida Vale from which she absconded.  In July 1919, by which time she should have been repatriated, the Police were trying to trace her.  Another example is Julyana Keyen who was put into a convent as a lunatic, apparently on instructions from the W.R.C.  In August 1916, after 17 months, a visiting Priest found her there, and asked for permission to release her as he had obtained a place for her as a servant.  Who had placed her in the convent remains a mystery as the W.R.C. had never heard of her.

Each of these refugee women was exhibiting a certain type of autonomy.  Others did not conform to middle-class moral standards because they were pregnant outside marriage.  However, being an unmarried Belgian refugee mother at this period ensured help being given.  The W.R.C. ran a Hostel for Girl-Mothers, and since most were Catholics they were visited by nuns, who pressed on them the importance of keeping their babies.  Marte Verbist, however, was urged to get rid of hers.

Marte had been raped by German soldiers during her escape from Belgium.  After the birth the Belgian Doctor who attended her said she was no true patriot if she kept the baby.  He wanted her to put him in an orphanage as being ‘not Belgian.’  Nevertheless, she kept him, naming him Albert.  Needing to earn some money, she weaned him.  Mrs Webbe found a crèche but Mrs Lyttelton warned Marte to go and see it first.  It is not stated that she did so, or even whether she used it for more than one day, only that she ‘left the baby for the day …and gets it at night’.  However, when she visited in the dinner hour, the baby was lying crying in a wicker cradle with no mattress and Marte said ‘it’s not been properly cared for’.  The Matron was angry and said she couldn’t take the child away.  But ‘Marte is a tigress’, snatched up the child and said she would call the police.’  The next day the baby was ill, and couldn’t keep food down.  Mrs Webbe sent her own nurse and a specialist, but to no avail;  Mrs Lyttelton visited Marte in her little room in Soho, but was unable to help.  A few days later a French woman, a fellow lodger of Marte, rang Mrs Lyttelton at 10.00 p.m to say the Baby was very ill, please come.  Despite the fact Mrs Lyttelton was expecting her son back on leave, she went to Soho to sit up with the mother and child all night, leaving about 6 a.m.

‘Poor little Albert was an attractive baby with big brown eyes, [but] kept uttering little cries of pain all the time.  Marte had been told to give him nothing but water for some hours, then try milk but he could keep nothing down and went into convulsions.  Marte’s anguish was dreadful and [despite the nature of Albert’s conception] she was ‘Unutterably tender.’

Mrs Lyttelton said it ‘broke my heart.  About 6 a.m. I left and walked home through empty streets.  Mrs. Webbe’s nurse was to help again but the baby died.  Marte was frozen in despair.’


The baby died and is buried in Kilburn cemetery.

Marte’s cousin Albert was due to marry her, but she had no word from him until 1917; he was touched by her fidelity.  In 1919 Lady Lyttelton went to Brussels and saw her.  Her father was dead, but her step-mother was good to her, and she was working at home as a Brodeuse.  But Cousin Albert said the war had altered him, and that he couldn’t be faithful to one woman, and didn’t want to marry her, so she told him nothing of her story.  As Sir Philip Gibbs (1933:83) said of such women:   ‘The wound of the spirit is hardest to bear.’  This was a life-wound.


Katherine Storr (c) December 2013


A social and cultural historian, Dr Katherine Storr specialises in women’s history, especially in connection with the First World War and the inter-war period.  Her publications include Excluded from the Record:  Women, Refugees and Relief, 1914 – 1929 (Peter Lang, 2009) and Belgian Refugees in Lincolnshire and Hull, 1914 – 1919  (Yourpod, 2010) and a chapter contributed to Women, Education and Agency, 1600-2000, eds Aiston, Spence  & Meikle  (Routledge, 2009).  Women, Education and Agency, 1600-2000.  During her career in teaching she taught children in primary and secondary schools and worked in adult education. Taking early retirement from her post of Head of Business Studies at Horley Comprehensive School in 1986, she later took up further studies, commencing at the University of Sussex in January 1994, in May 2004 gaining her DPhil in Contemporary History.  Since living in Lincolnshire Dr Storr has been researching the impact of the Great War on civilians in the eastern counties of England and giving talks to local groups.

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