Refugees and the language of class

With huge numbers of Belgian refugees arriving in Britain in a matter of weeks only – most in the first half of October 1914 – pressure on administrators involved in the reception and registration of the huge number of arrivals must have been far beyond the call of duty. The sheer numbers made it impossible to oversee the whole reception, allocation and accommodation operation, not least because several organisations were involved. These were mainly the War Refugees Committee and the Local Government Board, but the Catholic Women’s League was involved too, and local refugee committees, as well as the police. A period in which several registers were in place was only concluded when by the end of November the services of the General Register Office, established in 1837, were extended to include refugees. This was put into practice in early December 1914.

Not only did the various registration institutions struggle with the spelling of Belgian names and often as well with Dutch, let alone the variety of Flemish dialects, but also registration meant a rudimentary classification of Belgians: better-off refugees were provided with a pink registration card, all the others were given a blue label. A pink card entitled refugees to better transport and better accommodation. Belgians who were given a blue card were sent to dispersal centres such as Alexandra Palace and Earl’s Court, where it was said ‘one does not want to take good class people’. As the Ilford Recorder put it on 6th November 1914 ‘Everything is now being put in order for the reception of Ilford’s visitors, who are all of the superior artisan class’. The designation of pink for well off and blue for not well off may have been an unofficial standard language of colour (there were several codes in use in popular culture at the time; the language of stamps, coding signals according to the angle of the stamp on an envelope, and the languages of flowers both facilitated the passing of simple messages between lovers). The source of this pink and blue may well have been Charles Booth’s famous ‘poverty map’, properly the Maps Descriptive of London Poverty, part of his Inquiry into Life and Labour in London (1886-1903), in which the social status of the residents of streets and sections of streets was described using a designated colour-coding: “Middle class. Well-to-do” as red; “Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings” as pink; “Mixed. Some comfortable others poor” as purple; “Poor. 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family” as light blue; “Very poor, casual. Chronic want” as dark blue; and “Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal” as black. Booth’s colour-coding of social class may have seemed in the early twentieth century as natural as the colour-coding in relief maps that we now accept without questioning. Certainly one of the strongest class distinctions at this time – between the middle class and the working class – was maintained in the pink and blue apportioned to the arriving Belgian refugees. It is a distinction found in the ranks of the British Army, particularly later on in the war, in the terms ‘gentleman ranker’ and ‘temporary gentleman’, respectively a man of the upper middle class or above who chose to serve as a private soldier, and a working class or lower middle class man commissioned as an officer in wartime.


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Imperial War Museum Q 53305

There is a really nice picture – copyright owned by the Imperial War Museum – of a party of Belgian refugees arriving at Victoria Station where the labels are clearly visible.

This practice of separating the poor and working class Belgians from those who had the means to support themselves in exile – for the war would be “over by Christmas” – was implemented by the WRC in September 1914 and remained in place well after the reorganisation of registration. However, judging the destitute upon arrival and categorising them must inevitably have incurred problems.

As the war dragged on a peculiar process of inverse social mobility occurred in the Belgian community in Britain: working class Belgians, who were unemployed in exile, constituted a great workforce that was rapidly absorbed into the British war industry. They started earning fair wages, whereas those better-off Belgians who had been privileged from the start exhausted their own means, became increasingly dependent on charity support and, more importantly, started working too.

Lady Lugard, who had been instrumental in establishing the War Refugees Committee subsequently established a network in support of those Belgian refugees who needed support different to those of a poorer background.

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(Imperial War Museum, Women Work Collection, BEL 3 – 12)


Most of the really well-to-do though would not be part of any of these charity and reception schemes as they would have crossed the Channel earlier. People who were able to afford a Channel crossing in August or the first half of September did so and fled the country with as much household material they could take. Those heading for Britain end of August did so in the wake of the royal children.

The first, rather small, wave of refugees followed the first Zeppelin raids on Antwerp. These took place during the night of 24 August, with one of the devices demolishing a house only 100 yards from the Royal Palace in Antwerp where the royal family was staying at the time. The three royal children were subsequently brought to England and left in the care of a friend of King Albert, Lord Curzon, at the latter’s Hackwood estate in Basingstoke.[1]


Declercq, C. (2015) Belgian refugees in Britain 1914-1919. A cross-cultural study of Belgian identity in exile. Unpublished PhD dissertation. London: Imperial College London. p. 108, 114-115.

Gatrell, P. (2013) The Making of the Modern Refugee. Oxford: OUP. p.32.

[1]                 Lord Curzon was the translator of the opening text of the Book of Belgium’s Gratitude, a charity book published in 1915.

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