WW1: How Morley Hall came to host Belgian war refugees

The first refugees outside Morley Hall  taken by S Barnes, a local photographer and stationer.''Picture courtesy of The David Atkinson collection, Leeds Libraries.
The first refugees outside Morley Hall taken by S Barnes, a local photographer and stationer.''Picture courtesy of The David Atkinson collection, Leeds Libraries.

Although the Great War was a disaster for all concerned, this country felt threatened when the Germans invaded Belgium on August 4 1914 and declared war against them.

The Belgians suffered terribly during the invasion and many fled.

It is estimated that over 250,000 of them came to Britain which was eager to offer refuge. The government asked local authorities to help in placing them and Morley, as an independent borough at this time, answered the call.

The Mayor, Brian Bradley Barker, a textile magnate like many of the councillors in those days, made a public appeal and a funding campaign was set up in the town.

Over the course of the war, over £1,170 was raised but most of the help came when former Town Clerk, Richard Borrough Hopkins, offered to house some refugees in Morley Hall (now to be seen overlooking Scarth Gardens in central Morley).

Strangely this fine house, which had been built for the Dawson family in 1683, was now empty. Its last occupants were Oliver Scatcherd and his wife, Alice Cliff.

As a childless couple, they were the last of the Scatcherds to live in Morley where the family had been since the mid-17th century.

Oliver pre-deceased Alice and when she died in 1911 the house became unoccupied.

Borrough Hopkins was a close friend and partner with Oliver in a local law firm so he became the beneficiary of their wills.

It is very odd that this man who made so many property deals in his life should allow the house to remain empty. Nevertheless, when the town was asked to support the Belgian refugees he immediately offered it, rent free, for this purpose.

The council quickly accepted and said that they were prepared to support their living expenses with a grant in the order of £500 a year.

Mr Herbert Mitchell, the Borough Sanitary Inspector, and his wife took a special interest in the Belgians. Together with the Medical Officer of Health, Dr Sidney Steele, they set about preparing the hall. Rooms were converted and 22 beds were installed.

The authorities in London organised their placement and the first of them to come to Morley arrived on November 29 1914.

They travelled by train, arriving at the Morley Top Station (situated near the present auto repair shop on Chartists Way) and were met by the Mayor, town dignitaries and a large crowd of people.

The first group of 21 consisted of several families of adults and children. They were all well-dressed and smiling but none could speak English other than to enquire if they had arrived in ‘Moerleigh’.

The Morley Observer published a series of interviews and stories about them over the coming months. In particular, the story of the Maes family from Berchem near Antwerp still arouses astonishment and admiration.

The head, a diamond cutter, had been separated from his wife and seven children but they were reunited in Morley after he made a very harrowing journey through the war zone and Holland.

The majority settled in very well and although their traditional Christmas celebrations were on St Nicholas Day (December 5), they insisted on observing a traditional English Christmas.

Mrs Mitchell organised a meal of Yorkshire pudding, turkey and plum pudding with half a dozen lucky trinkets inside and the Mayor visited.

Festive music was provided by the Morley Brass Band who also played the Belgian national anthem.

Some of the Belgians remained in Morley for the whole of the war and many friendships were created, a welcome outcome of the terrible conflict.