Noticed the Belgian flags in East Twickenham recently? If you haven’t we can reassure you that yes, they are actually there. And they’re there for a good reason. On Saturday 1st April a memorial artwork is going to be unveiled by the Belgian Ambassador to celebrate East Twickenham’s Belgian connection. Many of you will know the backstory to this but just in case….
During the First World War this part of London became home to around 6,000 Belgians who had fled their home country after the German invasion in 1914. A real community developed earning the area the moniker, “the Belgian village on the Thames”. Many of these refugees worked in the munitions factory established by Charles Pelabon in what had previously been a roller skating rink. Pelabon, a Frenchman who had previously operated factories in Belgium, supplied munitions to the Belgian army from January 1915 and throughout the war. At its peak his East Twickenham works employed 2,000 people.
During the war years French and Flemish could be heard on the streets of East Twickenham, Belgians established shops and businesses to serve their community, while the children attended a special ‘Belgian department’ at Orleans School in St Margarets.
After the war the community dispersed with most returning to Belgium. The Pelabon factory continued for a few more years as a general engineering company before Monsieur Pelabon eventually sold up and returned to France. Some of the buildings remained in industrial use and part of the site became the famous Richmond Ice Rink but that, of course, is another story.
A great deal of work has been done to uncover and publicise this hidden history especially by Helen Baker and others. On Saturday April 1st, to celebrate East Twickenham’s Belgian connection, a public work of art will be unveiled by the Belgian Ambassador H.E Guy Trouveroy as a memorial to this unique community of Belgian refugees . It’s being organised by the East Twickenham Centennial Group. As Helen says, “We see this as not so much a celebration of war as of two communities cooperating towards a common goal and of friendship for refugees.”
The unveiling will take place on Saturday 1st April from 12.00-2.30pm at Warren Gardens, Clevedon Road, TW1 2HZ. And of course the project team are always keen to hear from anyone with information about the time, one hundred years ago, when East Twickenham became little Belgium.