British perceptions of Francophone refugees

Aisha Butt, Guillaume Lamorlette, Halima Mozid and Mehk Syed are A Level students at Newham Sixth Form College. We met on February 9, 2016 to discuss British perceptions of Francophone refugees. Dr Charlotte Faucher had selected four articles published in local British newspapers during the first few months of the First World War. The students decided to look at positive and negative depiction of refugees in these four pieces. Here are some of their conclusions.

Overpopulation and Francophone Refugees

According to Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald Folkestone was the second home of the French in 1914. It was an area of England over populated by French, Belgian refugees and over fifteen thousand New Army soldiers. The article is clear: this district is “abnormally populated”. Yet, what might have led to an accommodation crisis happened to have been a profitable situation for hotels in the Folkestone area. As the journalist explains: ‘some of the hotels have little to complain of in the amount of patronage which they have enjoyed during the past month or so…’.

Source: ‘Our populous district’, Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald, Saturday 26 September 1914

Economy and the Refugees

The press tells us of the complaints voiced by local traders: Belgian and French refugees working as tradesmen in Britain, they say, are very keen on trying to bring prices down. But the journalist refuses to take this negative stance further and reminds his readers that the refugees may have not been as well off as they appeared to be and that the custom of bargaining is something of their culture. The journalist goes on to explain that their expensive items of clothing, attractive and all, do not reflect the fact that they might be facing economic difficulties: ‘perhaps through the war their business is at a standstill, if not altogether ruined, and that they have to subsist for the present on their savings…. Therefore they are obliged to observe economy in their shopping.’

The situation is not unique to the Folkestone area: the journalist concludes: ‘as to the endeavour to beat tradespeople down in price, it is stated that many of the large West End business establishments in London are experiencing the same difficulty with Belgian and French refugees.’

Source: ‘Our Note Book’, Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald, Saturday 7 November 1914.

‘Belgian lads who are shirkers’

An Exeter and Plymouth Gazette journalist argues that some Belgian and French refugees should be in France fighting for their country instead of being in Britain. In a column entitled ‘Our London Letter’ published on Wednesday the 13 January 1915, the journalist says ‘we are rendering assistance to a great number of young Belgian lads who are shirkers, and who ought properly to be in the fighting line instead of walking about the streets of London with their hands in their pockets.’

The benefits of French refugees into Britain

There have been many benefits following the arrivals of French refugees to Britain in 1914, both for the refugees themselves as well as the British hosts. Refugees in Britain have brought with them trade skills, as we can see in ‘Our note book’ published in Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald on Saturday 7 November 1914. One main challenge for the French refugees in Britain was to find employment in Britain, as their businesses were on standstill in their native country due to the war. Also, the British have benefitted from the French entering Britain even though they may not admit it, as they have improved the UK’s economic and financial growth.

Another benefit for the French coming into Britain according to ‘Our London Letter’ published in Exeter and Plymouth Gazette on Wednesday 13 January 1915 was that refugee children were likely to become bilingual whilst staying in Britain. The press sheds a positive light on the opening of a dedicated Francophone school in London that we have discussed here in the blog. The journalist explains: ‘The little refugees will speedily pick up our language, but at present it would be almost useless for them to attend the ordinary Council schools.’ The paper also mentions the cases of ‘many Belgian boys and girls planted out north of the Tweed [who] are now talking in the broadest of broad Scotch.’

Source: ‘Our London Letter’, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Wednesday 13 January 1915. ‘Our Note Book’, Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald, Saturday 7 November 1914.

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