Escaping the German Army
During the First World War 250,000 Belgians came to Britain fleeing the conflict that had taken over their country. This was, and remains, the largest ever single displacement of populations into the UK. They were mostly civilian refugees fleeing the German armies, but they also included wounded and discharged Belgian soldiers. Most Belgian refugees were billeted in local communities around the UK, often housed with families who offered rooms or homes. However, for over 6,000 Belgians a new Belgian town was built in the British countryside.
Soon after the First World War began the British government was faced by a shortage of munitions as existing factories could not meet the growing demand, especially for artillery shells. David Lloyd George, then Minister for Munitions, led the drive to establish new factories all over the country. Factories were established at Birtley, Co Durham, by Armstrong Whitworth, one to produce shells, the other for cartridge cases. Many skilled British workers were serving with the armed forces so a shortage of labour was a problem.
Vital Labour Shortages
Women filled many of the vacancies but at Birtley it was the Belgian government that was approached to see whether refugees and wounded soldiers would be available to work in the factory. Prior to the war, Belgium was regarded as the premier country for the manufacture of armaments in Europe and so there were many skilled munitions workers available but who could not be easily integrated into British factories due to language and differences in working practices.
A Belgian village in Co Durham
A village, named Elisabethville after the Queen of Belgium, and also known by the Belgians as ‘the Colony’, was established close to the factory in 1916. It was decided that where possible the families of these workers in Britain would also be brought to the village.
Elisabethville was unique as it was actually a sovereign Belgian village run on Belgian law. It had its own gendarmes, the Belgian Franc as currency and Flemish and French were the main languages. In total over 6,000 people lived in the village. It was laid out on a modern grid pattern, with wide roads and open spaces. Families were housed in prefabricated wooden houses known as the ‘huts’, and contained such luxuries as running water and indoor flush toilets. Single men and wounded soldiers were accommodated in barrack blocks that had central heating.
Elisabethville had its own shops, a primary and secondary school for 700 pupils, a Catholic church, a 100 bed hospital, butchers, public houses, a British Post Office, a recreation hall which was also used as a cinema, and even a cemetery. Sports clubs, orchestras, and drama clubs, all flourished, allowing the factory workers some brief entertainment and relaxation between their long shifts. Unlike their British counterparts, the Belgian women were not permitted to work in the factories, but soon filled other roles in the town.
Elisabethville was very much a separate entity, fenced off from Birtley village and with only a few entry/exit gates. There was very little mixing between the Belgians and local inhabitants of Birtley. Leave passes were hard to obtain, and if any men did leave the village they had to wear military uniform, meaning that they then were not allowed to enter British pubs.
There was also a certain amount of jealousy from the local population in neighbouring Birtley who saw the Belgians enjoying a better lifestyle than them. Security was also an issue, and essential to the war effort, so the knowledge that a sovereign Belgian town on British soil was not to be divulged. Elisabethville did not appear on most maps during the war.
The dining hall could seat 1,200 people together and 900 meals were served in 20 minutes. Three meals are served per day, the main meal at 1 pm. The menus were varied, with a breakfast of bread, butter, honey, jam and cheese, and dinners of soup, meat or fish, potatoes, vegetables, rice cakes, and of course a coffee.
At the munitions factory the Belgian workers were set a production target of 1 million shells. They actually managed to produce 1.5 million. Conditions in the factory were hard, with almost military discipline imposed. Shifts were 12 hours long, with only two half hour breaks, and accidents were frequent.
After the Armistice in November 1918, the Belgian workforce began returning home, although some did remain and settle in the North East. Elisabethville was then used to house the growing population of Birtley who were surprised at the luxurious accommodation which included electricity. Belgian street names were replaced by English ones and the name Elisabethville fell into disuse. Today only a few signs of the original village remain, these being a shop, the hospital, part of a factory and the cemetery that contains a number of Belgian headstones.