First World War Stories: The Birtley Belgians

I’m currently working on the ‘Workshop of the World’ project to catalogue the historic records of Vickers Armstrong and its predecessor companies. This project will make thousands of fascinating documents available to the public for the very first time thanks to a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (made through the National Cataloguing Grants Programme). Included amongst these records is a superb album of photographs taken in the National Projectile Factory, built in Birtley during the First World War.

Introductory page to the album, 1916 (TWAM ref. 1027/271)

Introductory page to the album, 1916 (TWAM ref. 1027/271)

By May 1915 the British war effort was not going well. It had become clear that the Army was simply not being supplied with the quantity of high explosive shells it needed. The ‘Shell Scandal’ as it became known led to the fall of the Liberal government and its replacement with a coalition. A new Ministry of Munitions was created, with David Lloyd George as Minister and it solved the shell crisis by building new munitions factories across Britain, including one at Birtley, near Gateshead.

These National Projectile Factories needed workers, though, and with so many British men away fighting in the trenches there was a real shortage. This was partly resolved by the large-scale employment of women in the munitions factories but foreign workers also had a key role to play. What made the National Projectile Factory at Birtley so special is that the management and workers there were all Belgian.

The Director General of the factory was a Belgian, Hubert Debauche and the majority of the workforce was made up of Belgian soldiers who had been wounded during the War. Those men were unfit for military service but could still support the war effort through their labour. Significantly they were answerable to their own Government rather than the British. By running it as a Belgian factory, problems such as the language barrier and different working practices between Belgium and Britain were side-stepped.

The work in the factory would have been very hard by modern standards – 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week. The workers were still considered to be soldiers and were supposed to wear their military uniform at all times in the factory.

View of two Belgians at work in the National Projectile factory, Birtley, June 1916 (TWAM ref. 1027/271)

View of two Belgians at work in the National Projectile factory, Birtley, June 1916 (TWAM ref. 1027/271)

This rigid insistence on military discipline by some managers led to a riot by the Belgian workers on 21 December 1916. The trigger was the imprisonment of a worker for wearing a civilian cap when he went to ask for four days leave. The enquiry which followed recommended that military uniform should no longer be worn in the factory or the colony of Elisabethville, where the workers lived.

The factory was built and equipped by Armstrong Whitworth and the firm also built their own cartridge factory beside it. Research carried out by John Bygate using Belgian archives suggests that Armstrong Whitworth resisted handing over control of the shell factory but by early 1916 the Belgians had taken charge. The firm obviously maintained an interest in the factory, though, as the photograph album in the Vickers Armstrong collection testifies. The photographs were taken in June 1916, shortly after the factory became operational. The images show the Belgian workers carrying out various processes involved in shell production.

Pressing the copper band on each shell, June 1916 (TWAM ref. 1027/271)

Pressing the copper band on each shell, June 1916 (TWAM ref. 1027/271)

 

 Riveting the base plate of a shell, June 1916 (TWAM ref.1027/271)

Riveting the base plate of a shell, June 1916 (TWAM ref.1027/271)

All the images in the album have been digitised and are available online in a new Flickr set.

No attempt was made to assimilate the Belgian workers and their families into the local community. Instead, a separate village known as Elisabethville was established on the northern edge of Birtley, named after the Belgian Queen Elisabeth. The entrance to the Colony was opposite the pub, the Three Tuns.

Ordnance Survey map showing the site before the construction of the factory, 1915

Ordnance Survey map showing the site before the construction of the factory, 1915

The buildings were all prefabricated, with accommodation consisting of nearly 900 two and three-bedroomed cottages for families and 22 barracks for single men. The village was fenced off from the rest of Birtley and had its own police force or ‘gendarmes’ as they were called, who could deal with minor offences. Elisabethville had the facilities you would expect of a normal village – shops, a school, a hospital and a church.

At its height Elisabethville was home to around 6,000 Belgian men, women and children. After the signing of the Armistice in November 1918 the Belgians were repatriated back to their homeland and memories of what had happened at Elisabethville slowly began to fade. The album, though, is a reminder of a fascinating episode in North East history and we’re delighted to be able to share it with you. It’s also a testimony to the remarkable achievements of the Belgian workers, many of them left disabled by the War, who produced their shells at a faster rate than any other factory in the country.

You can find out much more about the Birtley Belgians in the book ‘Of Arms and the Heroes’ by John G. Bygate. Useful information can also be found in the recent publication by Brian Armstrong ‘They made ammunition at Birtley’, published by BAE Systems. Reference copies of both are available in the Archives searchroom. Details of our location and opening times can be found on our website.

Visit the Wor Life website for more about our events and exhibitions relating to the First World War.

25 Responses to First World War Stories: The Birtley Belgians

  1. Bill Lawrence says:

    Having researched the Birtley Belgians story for near on 10 years – mostly in Belgian archives and through interviewing Belgian people descendants of those who worked at the Elisabethville factory I was excited to see this unique album.
    I do not think it has ever before appeared in the public domain and will b ring it to the attention of my collaborators in Belgium.

    You will find http://www.birtley-elisabethville.be ( a site developed by the Debauche family) possibly the most comprehensive, contemporary source on the NPF.

  2. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for your message and for your telephone call this morning. It was a pleasure to chat to you.

    Many thanks for offering to bring the album to the attention of your collaborators in Belgium. It would be great for the images to be seen and appreciated there. If people can identify any of the workers then it would be lovely if they could add a comment on the relevant flickr page.

    I’ll be back in touch if I come across any of the subjects we discussed as I catalogue the Vickers Armstrong collection.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

  3. joan milne says:

    My great Aunt married a Birtley Belgian, where can I find out more?

  4. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Joan,

    Thanks for your question. I’m afraid that we have very few documents relating to the Birtley Belgians, which is why the photograph album featured on Flickr is so special. We do also have a volume of transcripts of baptisms, marriages and burials of the Belgian community covering the period May 1916 to January 1919. This is part of the records of St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church Birtley (TWAM ref. C.BI3/23).

    Most of the records of the Belgian colony at Elisabethville seem to have been taken back to Belgium and survive in the hands of the Debauche Family. You can find some details of these on the following website http://www.birtley-elisabethville.be/. If you haven’t already done so it might also be a very good idea to contact Bill Lawrence, who has carried out a lot of research on the Birtley Belgians. You can find contact details on the following website http://www.ourgateshead.org/birtley-belgians.

    As I mentioned in my blog there’s also a wealth of information in John Bygate’s book ‘Of Arms and the Heroes’. I hope this helps.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

  5. Bill Lawrence says:

    Just a thought before I forget it! There was also a Belgian community working at the Gosforth Aircraft Acceptance Park on the Town Moor during WW1. Northumberland County Archive has the file of the Northumberland Constabulary register of aliens – about 60 people with about 30 family names – these people were living in dwellings across the city and I can find no connection with the Elisabethville people as yet. Northumberland Archive ref: NC/3/48/1/17
    This AAP site was typical of many around the country where aircraft had final assembly and flight testing before going to the flying squadrons. The Gosforth site had aircraft from Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft and Sandersons.

  6. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the information about the Gosforth aircraft factory. Tyne & Wear Archives has a few documents relating to aircraft built by Armstrong Whitworth on the Town Moor (TWAM refs D.VA/3-15). I wasn’t aware of the Belgian links, though, so many thanks for bringing that to my attention.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

  7. barbara parker says:

    My Grandfather worked in the armanments factory at Birtley and was friendly with some of the Belgians. My mother who was born in Birtley in 1914 had a pen friend who I assume was born in Elizabethville, with whom we communicated for many years, her name was Madeliene Trokay she was an archeologist with a special interest in Egypt. Sadly we lost touch in the 60’s.
    There was also a family called Kronke who my family were friendly with. I think I have a couple of photos if they are of interest
    Barbara

  8. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Barbara,

    Thank you very much for taking the trouble to get in touch. If you’ve got any old images taken in Birtley during the First World War I’d be delighted to take a look.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

  9. barbara parker says:

    Alan
    I have looked at the things I have. There some photos of Joseph Trokay dated 1917 and a Memorial card dated 1936. there is one of his daughter Madeleine who was born after they returned to Belgium dated 1929 aged 6 years inscribed ” to the friends of her Daddy” also one taken when she visited us in 1948.
    A further photo of Mr Kronke is dated 1917 and inscribed “Affectionate Souvenir”
    I googled Madeleine and find she did marry after 1954 & had 2 children of who I was not aware an entry on Geni describes her as deceased.
    If you would like copies of the photos how can I get them to you
    Barbara

  10. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for getting back in touch. The photos sound very interesting and I’ll contact you separately about where to send them.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

  11. Ashleigh Richards says:

    My grandad was a Birtley Belgium, he married my grandmother Elizabeth Slater and they had a daughter Paula which is my Mother, she is now 84 years old and would love to find out more about the Birtley Belgiums.

    Ashleigh

  12. Ashleigh Richards says:

    Sorry forgot to put my grandads name on, he was called Joseph Driesen.

  13. barbara parker says:

    Alan you are probably having trouble getting to me as there was a letter missing from my e-mail address, have now corrected it
    Apologies
    Barbara

  14. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Ashleigh,

    Thanks for getting in touch. Sadly we have very little original material relating to the Birtley Belgians, which makes the photograph album of images inside the factory all the more precious.

    We do have a volume of transcripts of baptisms, marriages and burials of the Belgian community covering the period May 1916 to January 1919. This is part of the records of St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church Birtley (TWAM ref. C.BI3/23).

    Most of the records of the Belgian colony at Elisabethville seem to have been taken back to Belgium and survive in the hands of the Debauche Family. You can find some details of these on the following website http://www.birtley-elisabethville.be/. It might also be a very good idea to contact Bill Lawrence, who has carried out a lot of research on the Birtley Belgians. You can find contact details for him on the following website http://www.ourgateshead.org/birtley-belgians.

    As I mentioned in my blog there’s also a wealth of information in John Bygate’s book ‘Of Arms and the Heroes’. We have a copy of this in our searchroom if you’re able to pop in to have a read.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

  15. barbara parker says:

    Sorry Alan e-mail still wasn’t correct have now corrected again
    Barbara

  16. John Bygate says:

    One thing in your article I was pleased to see was a mention of my book ‘Arms & the Heroes’, of which I am quite proud, seeing that it was the first really comprehensive work on the subject. (Schlesinger and McMurtrie’s ‘The Birtley Belgians’ was the very first but they did not have the unlimited access I had to the Debauche Archives in Belgium.)
    Sadly, nowadays there are few if any on-line references to it (which is why I was glad to see yours) – and no copies for sale, seeing nobody seems to want to publish it again (in an updated version). (The original publishers are no more.) I could get it reprinted, but that would mean I had to have all the hassle of distributing it here there and everywhere – and at my age I do not want that!
    But thanks anyway for the mention!

    • Eunice Watson says:

      Hello Mr Bygate
      Can you advise where I can purchase your book ‘Of arms and the heroes’. I would dearly like to buy this as a gift for my husband. His passion is WW1.

      Thank You
      Eunice Watson

  17. John Bygate says:

    As to original material on Elisabethville, not all documents were lost! Contact the Birtley Heritage Group, which now has my archives, including a large number of copies of original documents from Birtley (along with my translations of many of them), obtained (legally!) from the Debauche Archives in Belgium, courtesy of the curator and good friend, the late Robert Debauche, grandson of the MD of the factory. (And there are a lot of photos, some of which Gateshead Library does not have.)

  18. Alan Hayward says:

    Many thanks for getting in touch and for the useful pointer to the Birtley Heritage Group. It’s a shame that your book won’t be reprinted but I can certainly appreciate the reasons why.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

  19. David Blanchard says:

    I came across a Belgian who was commemorated in a pamphlet called ‘What a club did in the war’ about Eldon Lane Workmsns club.

    His name was Bernard Dogaer and was killed in the Belgian army in 1928.

    ‘This is part of the extract in the booklet Anyone receiving honours became the recipient of a present from the club funds to the value of five pounds. and presented to them personally. except in the case of John Jacques and Benard Dogaer, the former having gone abroad his present being sent on to him and the latter being amongst the fallen, therefore the award will be posthumous , and will be forwarded to his parents in Belgium. Whilst working at Birtley Ordanance factory it was common knowledge that a few Belgian families lived close by.’

    I also have found a memorial card to Bernard Dogaer. The question is why would they have been members of a club which is about 30 miles from Birtley?

    Regards

    David

    • Alan Hayward says:

      Hi David,

      Many thanks for getting in touch.

      I’m afraid that I can’t answer your question, although it’s certainly an interesting one. If you haven’t already done so it would be a good idea to contact Bill Lawrence, who may have some useful suggestions. He’s far more of an expert on the Birtley Belgians than I am. His contact details can be found here http://www.ourgateshead.org/birtley-belgians.

      Best wishes,

      Alan

  20. Karen Morrison says:

    Does anyone know if any of the Belgian ladies made lace?

  21. Alan Hayward says:

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for getting in touch. I’m afraid that I can’t help with your question. It might be worth contacting the Birtley Heritage Group, though, in case they can offer any advice. Contact details can be found here http://www.ourgateshead.org/Birtley%2520Heritage%2520Group.

    Best wishes,

    Alan

  22. Bill Lawrence says:

    Hi Alan, I confess since my 2014 entry I haven’t looked at this blog. A few weeks ago I was with a group who were helped through the archives by Rachel Gill. Among the items was the Vickers photo album and I was intending to contact you about the identity of some men in the photo’s. I have spent the past 10 days in Brussels and with a 2 page feature in yesterday’s Journal about a student’s study tour I helped with (they also had a session with your educational officer Tom….) I somehow looked again at your blog.
    There are several enquirers who may have been pointed in my direction but I had not heard about them from the heritage group who of course may have answered them. However I am sure I can offer more information.
    Perhaps we should meet up sometime.
    Please reply to my email address.

  23. Chris I’Anson says:

    Hi, I’m researching my wife’s family and two of them worked at Armstrong’s and lived in 11B Munitions block, Scotswood. This was 1918/19. Have you employee records etc and any info on the cottages area?

    Regards

    Chris I’Anson

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