Belgian shops at the foot of Richmond Bridge: Richmond Bridge Terrace (now called Langtrey House). These buildings are almost unchanged today; only the shop-fronts are really different.
East Twickenham has rediscovered its forgotten history as the heart of a community of 6000 Belgians during the First World War. Huge numbers of Belgians fled their country when the invading German Army swept across their country between August and October 1914, and they settled across the whole of Britain. East Twickenham was special, though, because it was one of very few places where Belgian refugees established a real community life. This was so striking that the neighbourhood became known among them as “le village belge sur la Tamise.
There was a special reason for this. A dynamic refugee engineer-entrepreneur called Charles Pelabon established a munitions factory in a disused roller-skating rink beside the river in East Twickenham.
Renovation of the disused roller-skating rink for the Pelabon Munitions Works, Nov-Dec 1914
No grass grew under the feet of Monsieur Pelabon: he was producing his first munitions by January 2015. Pelabon himself was in fact French, but he had been previously running a factory in Belgium; the new Pelabon Works had the distinction of being Belgian-owned. It produced its munitions not for the British but for the Belgian Army
Pelabon’s enterprise grew and grew, ultimately occupying the whole of the site which is now the luxury Richmond Bridge Estates residential development. At its height, the factory employed nearly 2000 people, both men and women, almost all of them Belgian. The workers and their families needed to find accommodation nearby, so they rented houses and flats in East Twickenham and the adjacent areas of St Margarets and Central Twickenham. With so many Belgian people in so compact an area, they inevitably brought their way of life with them in a way which was noticeable to the outside world.
Rows of Belgian shops opened along the East Twickenham High Street to serve their needs.
Belgian shops on the south side Richmond Road, East Twickenham, in the First World War, located just next to the pharmacy now Charles Harry.
Again, only the shop-fronts have really changed.
Thechildren mostly attended a special 'Belgian Department' opened for them at Orleans School in St Margarets, and were taught by Belgian teachers. The families were served by the two Catholic Churches: St Elizabeth of Portugal at the top of Richmond Hill, and the Church of St James in Twickenham. The Pelabon Works itself provided something of a social centre, with a number of social clubs: drama groups, a choir, and orchestra, and even a Boy Scouts’ Troop.
Belgian people were a constant presence on the East Twickenham streets, but particularly when shifts changed at the factory. At these times, workers thronged out of Clevedon and Cambridge Road into the High Street at the foot of Richmond Bridge. More Walloon and Flemish was heard than English, and the newsvendors called L’Independence Belge rather than the Times of Telegraph. Belgian families strolled down the towpath on the other side of the bridge, and paddled boats along the river in the Summer.
A group of Belgian women workers at the Pelabon Works, with their Managers and male colleagues
East Twickenham can be proud that it hosted so vital a Belgian community which made soimportant a contribution to the allied effort in the First World War. It is strange that this vast movement of Belgian people in our neighbourhood became so completely forgotten after the war ended. Within only a few months, the East Twickenham Belgians went back to their own country, like their countrymen across the whole of the UK. The British soldiers came back home, and life it seems went on.
Monsieur Pelabon himself maintained the Works for a few years more as a general engineering company, and then sold up and returned to France. His unoccupied lands along the river frontage became Cambridge and Warren Gardens. His buildings remained in light industrial use, all except for the one nearest the river. This became the world-famous Richmond Ice Rink which many of us remember and love. It is sad this this elegant building no longer exists.
Richmond Ice Rink: still easily identifiable as the old Pelabon Works building. Photo taken about 1970.
We owe a debt to Mr Derek Mitchell of the Twickenham Park Residents Association who has lived in the neighbourhood his whole life, like his mother and grandmother before him. Without his knowledge of the local area, this story would not have come to light (at least outside academic circles).
22 February 2014