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The Refugees in Pembroke Road

Henri Bertholet was born on 20 July 1882, in the small Belgian town of Dinant-sur-Meuse. When he grew up he joined the staff of the Belgian Ministry of Agriculture, married Marie Van de Bergh and became the father of four children. Because of his work, Henri moved away from Dinant, although many of his wider family remained there. In August 1914 when the Germans invaded Belgium, Henri and his family were on holiday in Bruges.

On 30 October 1914 Henri and his family moved into 73 Pembroke Road, Clifton. With him came his mother-in-law and her two other daughters together with Georges Dereere and his family – and their maid. So what brought these people to Pembroke Road, and what had it to do with Tyndale?

Refugees from Belgium in Paris 1914Following the invasion of Belgium at least 200,000 Belgians fled to Britain. Most of them (including the Bertholet family) landed at Felixstowe from where they were taken to London. The government asked other towns to accommodate some of the refugees and Bristol responded – by setting up a committee! Soon offers of help poured in to the office which was set up in Broad Street. Meanwhile Tyndale had resolved to offer its help. 73 Pembroke Road had been the residence of a widow, Mrs Hooper, who had died in 1912. By the middle of 1914 the house had passed into the ownership of two partners, Messrs Daunton & Tyler who ran an ironmongery business in Clifton. Neither partner ever came to live in the house and neither they nor the Hooper family appear to have had any connection with Tyndale. Nevertheless the house was made available to the church for the refugees.

Members of the church immediately set to work to prepare the house for their guests – “zealous people have been setting besoms [brooms] and scrubbing brushes in motion”, the minister reported. Money was also raised and furniture and other necessaries given by the members. A young nurse, Dorothy Turner (later to become a BMS missionary) and her maid moved in to organise the house and help the refugees to settle in. At the end of their first week a house-warming party was arranged by the church, at which the Belgians and the church people entertained each other with songs. Very soon the number of refugees increased by one, when Mme Dereere gave birth to a baby boy. They appear to have settled in quite quickly and soon Henri Bertholet was giving French lessons to interested Tyndale members!

Dinant 1914The two families had experienced some traumatic events in their home town. It had started on 13 August 1914. Some French soldiers were trying to defend a bridge over the river Meuse. The officer in charge was Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle! More than a week later, having captured the bridge, the Germans repairing it came under fire. These Germans claimed that they had been fired on by armed civilians and were therefore entitled to retaliate. The Belgians claimed that the shooting came from some French soldiers and that the German troops, as they entered the town, immediately began shooting randomly at the houses as they passed. What is in no doubt is that many civilians were shot in the doorways of their houses and most of the women with some children were herded into the local prison. Many men were summarily executed in the town square in full view of their wives and children. Over the next few days there were further, apparently random, killings. One claim was that some 800 inhabitants were killed. Others were taken as prisoners and a few people managed to escape into the surrounding countryside. Subsequently the town came under prolonged artillery bombardment and many of the prominent buildings as well as houses were destroyed – only about 300 of the 1500 houses in the town were left standing.

In The Tyndale Messenger Henri Bertholet gave a detailed account of the experiences of his family members who had been caught up in these terrible events. The family there was in three households in the same street. One consisted of his father, Alexis, and Henri’s two siblings; a second was that of his sister and her husband and their two-year-old son; the third an uncle and aunt and their six children. After the battle on the bridge, they all lived in their cellars for the next ten days. On 23 August a German soldier knocked on the door and, when she answered, threw Henri’s sister into the street before he and his companions looted the house. The families fled to another building from where a number of men were taken out and shot. From there the survivors were taken to the local prison, where they could hear what proved to be the execution of at least 148 men (they later counted the bodies). That evening more men, including Henri’s brother and brother-in-law, were taken out and lined up to be shot. Somehow they avoided being shot and the family was again reunited. There appears to have been some random shooting, as a result of which Henri’s aunt was fatally wounded. The family were then among a group who were taken to the scene of fighting between the Germans and the French and used as a human shield – at least one person was killed before the French stopped firing. After this the remaining men, including Henri’s father, were led away and taken as prisoners to Germany. The women managed to escape to a nearby wood where, two days later, Henri’s sister gave birth to a baby girl. They remained in hiding for a month until Henri himself was able to find somewhere safe for them to go. He described his own experiences as comparatively ‘insignificant’. He worked for the Red Cross for two months and, after providing for his female relations, as he had described, he took a week to escape across Holland and join his family who had by then reached London. They had escaped from Ostend to Boulogne in a fishing smack and thence made their way to England.

In February 1915 Henri’s father arrived, unannounced, at Pembroke Road having been unexpectedly released. Over the next four years there were a number of changes in the inhabitants of the house. Henri himself had to go to France, from where his Ministry was trying to give support to the farmers in the small unoccupied part of Belgium. Meanwhile the church continued to give its support to its guests – each year a Christmas party was arranged and gifts of money were used to support the people.

At the end of the war the owners decided to sell the house. So the remaining nine refugees had to move elsewhere while awaiting repatriation. At the national level this was an enormous task (co-ordinated by a prominent Baptist layman, Basil Peto). It took until the middle of 1919 to complete the task.

The last word should belong to Henri Bertholet. After he moved to France he wrote to the church assuring the members that “they have not ministered to the needs of ungrateful people. May we not hope that before the throne of our common God you will pray that He be mindful still of our family.” Sadly there is no-one left who can remember them, but it is appropriate that we should, indeed “be mindful” of them as we approach the centenary of their arrival here and of the terrible events which led to their coming.

David T. Roberts