THE train arriving at Glasgow Central on October 19, 1914, carried 900 Belgian refugees.

They were part of the 250,000 refugees who came to Britain to escape a brutal German invasion. Glasgow eventually hosted 20,000 in total.

Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, with much violence. Many civilians were executed and survivors were forced to flee on foot. Thousands of families fled to France and Holland, eventually arriving at Folkstone and Dover, carrying only limited possessions. It was an unprecedented crisis and the Government decided to send groups to many different areas to relieve the pressure on London.

Glasgow Corporation was chosen to organise the Scottish arm of assistance.

At that time Glasgow was Britain’s ‘Second City’, with a population of more than one million, booming industries and advanced transport and utilities systems. Despite the city’s significant poverty, ill-health and overcrowding issues, Glasgow Corporation’s investment in welfare care was ahead of its time.

The Belgian Refugee Committee was formed, and it set about arranging lodging, healthcare and work. The plight of the refugees moved many Glaswegian and Scottish families, who welcomed them to their homes.

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There were public appeals, and cash records in the City Archives show kind donors included churches, guilds, trade unions and the Scottish Co-operative. An Old Firm football match helped to raise funds, and other events included lectures, concerts and plays.

The Belgian Relief Committee kept a register, now held at the City Archives, of around 8000 refugees, recording their names, origins, occupations and Scottish addresses. Registration helped reunite families and distribute relief to those most in need.

However, it was useful for the authorities to know the skills of the incomers in mind of the growing war effort. The occupations ranged from chocolatiers and chair-bottomers to pit pony boys and paper bag makers. Most were given work in Scottish munitions factories or covered the work of men away fighting in the war.

Sadly not all the refugees recovered from their ordeal and the archives hold lists of burials of those who died in Scotland.

A monument was planned in their memory at St Peter’s Cemetery Dalbeth, but it was never completed.

When the war ended, the Belgians quickly returned to rebuild their country, on ships like the SS Khyber in the image here (showing refugees with members of the Belgian Relief Committee in 1919).

Today, the committee records and register are one of the few traces of this now largely forgotten crisis.

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