Among the many thousands of fugitives from Belgium not the least grateful for British hospitality are those now located at 29 Selbourne Road, Luton. The exiles are indebted to members of the Luton Liberal Club for a most comfortable home, and they voiced their appreciation in unmistakable terms to a Luton New representative who called on them.
The Liberal Club undertook the responsibility of maintaining six refugees, and furnished the house accordingly. The expenses of maintenance are being met by weekly subscriptions from club members. These are spread over a large number, as the amount required per week is beiong made up wholly of small amounts, and it is believed that it will be possible to keep the home going without any outside assistance.
The Belgian refugee committee in Luton, through whom the refugees have been obtained, have promised to give financial assistance, if it should be required, but they will not be called on to do so if the sub-committee of the club which has the matter in hand can avoid it.
The refugees will do their own housekeeping and will be allowed a fixed sum per week for maintenance. Four of the refugees were accommodated in apartments at Brook Street pending the preparation of the house, and they took possession on Saturday morning.
When the News representative arrived, Monsieur was busily engaged in putting a shine on the brass fittings of the front door, and the visitor's first impression was that the reputation of the Frenchman for loquacity does not extend to the Belges. Monsieur was not lacking in politeness, however, and his apparent reticence was probably due to the fact that while his knowledge of English is less than elementary, the interviewer's French was, to put it mildly, quite quaint.
The situation was saved by the timely arrival of Miss Marie Wuyts, who kindly suggested that the sitting-room would be more conducive to an easy interpretation of the linguistic antics and gestures of the interviewer. And so, in the cosily appointed sitting-room, the Misses Wuyts and Mme Vestrepen gave the News their story, while Monsieur spent his elbow grease on the front door.
The daughter of Monsieur and Mme Vestrepen married the brother of the Misses Wuyts and the parties being well known to each other, their stay in Luton is likely to be all the more enjoyable.
Midnight was approaching on the 6th October when the bombardment of Antwerp by the Germans became so oppressive that the two families were advised to leave the city. Monsieur Wuyts is the manager of a large laundry business in Antwerp, and having gathered a little of their portable property, he called his family from the cellar in which they had taken refuge and they fled the city.
Shells were bursting over the city and buildings were bursting into flames as the party joined in the general flight towards the Dutch frontier. Vehicles were at a premium and the only way to escape the danger was by tramping through the night and getting as close to the Dutch frontier as possible before resting. So they walked to Capelle, a distance of 15 miles, where Monsieur Wuyts fils (son) has a little summer residence.
But it was only a brief sojourn. The boom of guns became almost incessant, and after a short rest the fugitives made their way to the railway station and caught the first train across the frontier to Roosendaal, Holland. After staying one night they made for the coast.
Fortunately Monsieur Wuyts had enough money to defray the travelling and other expenses incidental to comfort and during their three days sojourn in Rotterdam, awaiting a boat, they were not in the terrible plight of thousands of their compatriots.
Eventually they arrived in London, where they were accommodated at the Grafton Hotel. They were eventually brought to Birchington and stayed with a large party of refugees at St Saviour's Home for 14 days. To make room for wounded Belgian soldiers they were taken to private houses.
Monsieur Wuyts pere (father) here announced his intention to return to Antwerp. He was "home ill", to use the not unpretty expression of his daughter, and Mme Wuyts was also afflicted with home-sickness at Birchington and returned to their ill-fated land.
I letters to his daughters Monsieur Wuyts says there are 300,000 Germans in Antwerp. His home is intact except for the depredations made by the billeted German troops, but naturally his business is at a standstill. The German censorship is very strict and his letters are restricted almost entirely to affectionate greetings, but he managed to say that food was a little dearer than usual. Such was the news received six weeks ago, but since then the ladies have not heard from him.
All the party are very contented and comfortable, and their gratitude to their Luton hosts is of a very deep and lasting kind. Naturally they will be glad to return to Antwerp, and Monsieur Vestrepen ventured the opinion that they might be able to do so in a matter of three months. The young ladies said they had been strongly advised not to return until the German soldiery had been cleared out, and they were taking that advice.
They had an opportunity of hearing some of the stories of refugees who crowded into Antwerp prior to the bombardment and they also saw many hundreds of German prisoners, and they were particularly struck with the fact that these men appeared to be well advanced in years, and quite lacking the activity and general vivacity of the Allies.
They are confident that the overthrow of the invaders in only as matter of time, and the young ladies thought it would be hardly wise to return home while the Germans are in Brussels. They will be quite ready to return when the enemy has retreated to Liege.
Marie Wuyts and her sister Henrietta participated in a concert from which the proceeds were for the Park Street Baptist Fund which was maintaining two families of 14 Belgians in Luton. Following her interview with the Luton News the previous week, she recounted to the audience how she and her sister had escaped from Antwerp.
"We were very frightened of Zeppelins and so we slept in cellars for three weeks," she said. "By day we could see German aeroplanes, sometimes as many as five in one day. We were in a cellar when the bombardment of Antwerp began. It was terrible, and the police knocked at every house door and told the people to get out of Antwerp as the Germans had come.
"As soon as we got into the street we heard the bombs and saw houses in flames. For three hours we walked into the country and spent the night at a relative's."
Miss Wuyte then told how they had caught a train to Holland, then to Rotterdam and finally a boat to Tilbury.
"We are very happy here in Luton," she said. "We forget that we are refugees, as the English people are so good to us. We have found a new home at 29 Selbourne Road."
[The Luton News, January 14th and 21st, 1915]