'The Pelabon Works' in Twickenham
Twickenham 1914 - 1918
When the German army invaded Belgium on the 4th of august, 1914 the civil economy stopped abruptly. From one day to the next, it was necessary to convert to a military economy.
Therefore we needed people like Charles Pelabon. Charles was a son in a family of French entrepreneurs from Arras. He completed his studies for mining engineer at Mons. At the beginning of the war, he was a director of the Franco-Belgian Society of Construction and Equipment at Air Comprimé in Ruisbroek near Brussels. This company adapted tools so that they could operate with compressed air. Mainly the pneumatic hammers that were used in the mining industry.
On august 4, 1914 Charles Pelabon and his employees were placed at the disposal of the war industry. Charles became responsible for the operations of 'la Fabrique Nationale de Tubes sans Soudure' in Merksem. On october 7, 1914, three days before the fall of the fortress of Antwerp, it had become impossible to work safely in Merksem because of the permanent bombing of the city of Antwerp by the German army. At that time, there were already 2,400 houses destroyed in the Antwerp region. Charles Pelabon and his employees left Antwerp for England with one of the last ships that were still available for that purpose.
Three weeks later, in a disused factory in Teddington, a district of Richmond, 'The Pelabon Works' produced the first cannon grenades for the allied troups. A few months later they started work in a second workshop in Twickenham. A covered ice rink, not used during the war, was converted into an ammunition factory and the grenades departed from Twickenham to the mainland at increased speed. Late 1915 Charles had seven ammunition factories on the banks of the Thames and employed 2,000 Belgian workers. More than 30% of them were women.
Accommodation of the Belgian refugees was not a problem. Because of the continuous bombardments on London by the Germans, Londoners abandoned the town in good numbers for the countryside. In Richmond and in other London suburbs dwellings were widely available. The work in the munitions factory provided an income sufficient to cover the needs of life for these families. At the peak of the Belgian migration to England at Twickenham and the surrounding communities, some 6,000 Belgian refugees settled there.
Entrepreneurs as they were, the Belgians opened their own shops. Names such as 'Comptoir Belge d'Alimentation Dubois' and 'Grande Epicerie Liègeoise' dominated some streets, which led to the widespread use of 'Twickenham, the Belgian Village on the Thames'.
After the war the Belgians, few exceptions excluded, left Twickenham and England to return to their city or town in Belgium.
In 1928, the new Twickenham skating rink was reopened. But it disappeared in the early 90s of the twentieth century.
100 years after the invasion of the Belgians in Twickenham they have not forgotten the Belgians and their contribution to the final victory of the First World War. In 2014 in Twickenham a committee was founded to create a lasting memorial at this captivating period of Belgian existence in this beautiful suburb of London on the Thames.
Thus was born the East Twickenham Centennial Group.
In november 2014, I wrote to the administrator of the Church of St. Mary at Twickenham, asking if he could get me pictures of the graves of four Belgian war victims, buried in the Twickenham cemetery. These four soldiers had been transferred, after wounding, from the battlefield in Belgium to Twickenham for treatment and recovery, but they died in the hospital from the consequences of these wounds.
My question to the administrator was transmitted to Dr. Helen Baker, and that is how I got in touch with her and with the East Twickenham Centennial Group. The pictures I received immediately thereafter.
On february 8, 2017, we received the following invitation from Dr. Helen Baker:
This is called an invitation that cannot be refused or denied. My daughter An and her husband Michael wanted to accompany me. We immediately made it a long weekend. So we left on friday, march 31, with the Zaventem-Heathrow flight at 9.45 am. Because An and Michael also wanted to visit the city of London, we booked a hotel in Hounslow.
On Friday afternoon we visited the mass grave of our Belgian soldiers whom died in London during the First World War.
The grave is located in Kensal Green Cemetery.
Our heroes are buried in the catholic part of Kensal Green Cemetery, St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery. They were initially buried individually, but at some point in time the individual graves were abandoned, however, the remains of our soldiers were reassembled in a mass grave near the chapel of St. Mary.
On the large standing columns of the monument are the names of 77 Belgian soldiers who came to London for treatment and recovery of their wounds or sicknesses, then died in the local hospitals and were buried here in St Mary.
On saturday morning, we were present at 11.30 at the site where the ice rink of Twickenham once stood on the banks of the river Thames. At noon, the official part of the program began with an overture played by the Music Corps of the Royal Military Academy of Music, Kneller Hall, in Whitton.
Eleven years old Milly Stephens declaimed the poem 'Sonnet of the Belgian Expatriation' by Thomas Hardy. Herein, the author of the poem describes Belgium as the country of 'chimes'. The Belgians dreamed that they brought their own church bells to England, but the bells fell apart and so did their dreams. Milly declaimed this beautiful poem in precise intonation, so that the beauty of the text was striking.
The text on the monument, in the three languages, English, French and Dutch, was selected by schoolchildren from the Orleans Primary School, the school where Belgian elementary schoolchildren learned English and other usefull things a hundred years ago.
The selected English text 'Memories flow through me like a boat flows down the river' was written by nine-year-old Issy Holton. Issy, now aged twelve, read her own text.
The Dutch part of the text 'De stroom van herinneringen glijdt door me heen als een boot over het water' was read in duet by Louis de Pauw (8 1/2 years) and Amber Sourbron (11 years).
The French text 'Des souvenirs naviguent en moi tel un navire sur la rivière' was read by nine-year-old Elodie Butler.
Then Dr. Helen Baker gave us a warm welcome continued with and explanation of why this memorial, its design, the realization and its place in the history of the First World War.
With her yellow blouse, red jacket and beautiful black shoes. She had adapted her wardrobe in a subtle way to our national tricolor flag.
The next act was again top! To the great surprise of all, a choir of children of seven to eleven years olds, students of the Orleans Primary School sang, acapella, the Flemish song 'Witte zwanen, zwarte zwanen, wie gaat er mee naar Engeland varen'. Their prononciation was just perfect!
Then it was time for the dignitaries. His Worship the Mayor of Richmond Upon Thames CLIR. David Linette, after a short speech, invited Guy Trouveroy, Belgian ambassador to the United Kingdom to unveil the memorial with him.
The Ambassador welcomed the initiative here in Twickenham and reminded the close ties that had always existed between Twickenham and Belgium, a hundred years ago as it is today, despite recent political developments in the UK.
After his brief address, the Belgian Ambassador and the Mayor of Richmond upon Thames, whereoff Twickenham is a district today, unveiled the memorial.
After removing the red fabric a block of solid blue stone emerged with the texts in undulatory movements and in the three languages.
The Royal Military School of Music produced a moving Last Post causing wet eyes to a good part of the audience.
Guy Pelabon, the great cousin of Charles Pelabon representing his family and his great-uncle told us about the life and history of Charles Pelabon.
He then thanked the residents of Twickenham and Richmond for the hospitality extended to us, Belgians, here today and the hospitality accorded the Belgian refugees a hundred years ago. He thanked also for the generous contribution by local people, businesses, institutions and commoners resulting in the realization of this project.
Two students from the Der Deutsche Schule in Petersham then gave their reflection on 'peace and reconciliation'. Speaking with force and eloquence of the pride of living in this part of Europe, in spite of the recent political realignments, cooperating closely in a spirit of conviviality and respect.
Nikolaus Siller, who spoke in impeccable English, told us that the area around Ham, Richmond Park and Kingston North has a German school, a German kindergarten and some German shops and that the German and local German-speaking people in general are welcome and are considered part of the community. Just as a hundred years ago the people of Charles Pelabon were also welcome.
Lukas Rossmanith comes from Alsace-Lorraine a region along the Rhine, which at different times of the twentieth century belonged to Germany or France. In French he comes to the conclusion that the history of Europe has come to a point that there is no longer any need in Europe to build ammunition factories to murder each others. The two teenagers thus decided worthily of this wonderful event.
To conclude the Royal Military School of Music played La Brabançonne and God Save the Queen. Thereafter, to the sound of Vanished Army by Kenneth Alford ended the official part of this event. An event that brought together the English, French, Dutch and German speaking Europeans in a spirit of openness and friendship.
The guests started moving towards the canapy set up for the reception.
No More War?
The East Twickenham Centenial Group
Thomas Forsythe, Worldpress