Discovering more about Belgian refugees in Wales and Rhyl
Public lecture: ‘Belgian Refugees in Wales and in Rhyl’
by Dr Christophe Declercq & Anoni Vitti
24 May 2016, 6pm,
Rhyl Little Theatre, Vale Road, Rhyl LL18 2BS
It’s remarkable to discover that Wales accepted 4,500 refugees from Belgium who escaped from the Germans at the start of WW1, and interesting to consider the arrangements in place for shelter, sustenance, education and work for these refugees, in a period that was far more challenging than the Wales of today. As part of the Wales for Peace project, and to coincide with the exhibition of the Book of Remembrance at Bodelwyddan Castle, a public lecture will be given by an expert in the field, Dr Christophe Declercq, at the Rhyl Little Theatre, on Tuesday the 24th of May at 6pm. Also presenting will be local researcher, Antoni Vitti, who will convey the experiences of the refugees in Rhyl and the steps taken in the town to re-establish links with the descenants of refugees, who naturally returned to Belgium after WW1.
The Belgians left with very little trace, apart from art, craft and building work still valued in Wales today. These include several plaques such as a beautiful one in Bangor, the carving at Llanwenog and Llanfihangel-y-creuddyn churches, the Belgian Pier in Menai Bridge and of greatest national significance, the intricately carved ‘Black Chair’ of the 1917 National Eisteddfod which was awarded posthumously to Hedd Wyn who died at Passchendaele.
The guest speaker, UCL lecturer Christophe Declercq, has researched the Belgian refugees story for over a decade and is the UK liaison officer for a project currently organized by the Amsab Institute of Social History, affiliated to the University of Ghent, Belgium. He said: “Reflecting on the past to illuminate the present is what history is all about. This Belgian-Wales sharing of information will enhance our understanding of the Belgian Refugees’ story during WW1. I was very pleased to respond to this opportunity to share my research through the Wales for Peace project, especially at Rhyl as there is some great community work underway in uncovering the stories of the Belgians who stayed here 100 years ago. I must praise Toni Vitti and all who are supporting the Belgian Refugees in Rhyl website, as it’s a medium for all across Wales, not to mention Belgium, to learn about the Belgian refugees’ experiences locally. Rhyl can also pride itself on the iconic photograph, which has survived, showing the warm welcome shown to the first refugees who arrived by train – an enormous crowd can be seen welcoming them. So I’m looking forward to meeting the people of Rhyl and North Wales, in order to share my research, but also to learn more from them regarding any new histories about the Belgian refugees in Wales that are now coming to light. Information exchange as will occur during the lecture in Rhyl, is an important part of understanding our heritage In Belgium as well as in Wales.”
Antoni Vitti, who received the Mayor of Rhyl’s Ambassador Award in 2015 for his work on the project, said: “My interest in the Belgian Refugees came from a post Rhyl History Club made to their website in March 2012. I’d never heard anything about them before, and it intrigued me. When I found that one of them died here and was buried in an unmarked grave I thought that needed putting right, so I went to Belgium in search of his family to get their permission to install a memorial. Whilst searching for his family I started to find more about the others who were here. The ‘Belgian RefugeesinRhyl’ website has now been seen by more than 125,000 people across the world, with more than half of them in Belgium. Research has led to new friendships both locally and overseas, and I’m so proud that the expert, Dr Christophe Declercq, is acknowledging the research we have done here in Rhyl and North Wales, by coming to lecture here with me.”
Head of Wales for Peace project Craig Owen added: “An exciting part of the Wales for Peace project is mapping out the impact of war and collecting the peace heritage of Wales. With the help of volunteers across Wales, we are interested in uncovering local hidden histories and archives relating to the Welsh-Belgian experience during WW1. The research by Antoni Vitti and other local volunteers, including the Rhyl History Club, is ample proof of the significant contribution volunteers make in uncovering our heritage. I encourage anyone who has an interest in volunteering to look at the themes and opportunities on our website www.walesforpeace.org. “
All are welcome to this free public lecture. An on-line advance registration option is available by clicking here, or attendees can collect a free ticket on the day.
The event is arranged by Wales for Peace to coincide with the WW1 Book of Remembrance exhibition at Bodelwyddan Castle.
Wales for Peace is a four-year project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and supported by 10 organisational partners including Aberystwyth and Cardiff universities, the National Library for Wales and movements such as the Urdd and Cymdeithas y Cymod. The project’s core question is: in the hundred years since the First World War, how has Wales contributed to the search for peace? Wales for Peace is a heritage project working with communities across Wales; it is also forward-looking in stimulating debate around issues of peace for the benefit of future generations.