Local History Society

 The 'Mercury' and the Home Front in WW1

There was a major food crisis in Reading by the end of 1917, prompting a reader's letter on the subject of Belgian refugees in the town.
The correspondent asked:
'Why don’t they exercise self-denial in this time of shortage?'


Caring for French, Belgian and other Refugees

1915 began with two types of flood; the first was an influx of Belgian refugees, who were accommodated in Reading, Wokingham, Maidenhead and other Berkshire towns, and would become quite established as the year progressed. The second was ‘Storms and Floods in the Reading District’ following 23 days of rain in December.

There were many articles on the Belgian refugees throughout the war; the refugees would have become a well-known sight to the 'country cousins' from Arborfield even if none were billeted there. At war's end, they took a prominent place in the Armistice processions in Reading. Another article on the Armistice mentioned French residents in Wokingham celebrating the victory; whether they were mainly Nuns at the convent in Easthampstead Road, or whether they were refugees, is not clear.

London was within range of Zeppelins from the start, but this threat lessened after 1916 when British fighters were able to counter the threat from these lumbering airships.

However, by late 1917, East London was being targeted by German heavier-than-air bombers able to navigate the unmistakable line of the Thames. The Reading Mercury reported the exodus in its October 6th edition that the town had to cope with a large number of people from London escaping the air raids. It recorded that most were Jews and at least 90% were Prussian Poles, and that many had had to sleep at the station to start with.

The Reading Standard had a more graphic description of the exodus:

'Air Raid Refugees'

  • Refugees from the air-raided centres continue to pour into Reading and some pathetic sights are witnessed.

  • One man arrived with his wife and 13 children, while a mother with two children was seen carrying a large bath containing a feather bed.

  • Some of the refugees brought the breakfast with them and ate their meals at the police station while they awaited registration.

  • For days past, the police have been busily engaged in this work.

  • On Sunday a man with his wife and eight children, unable to find other accommodation, was sheltered in the Jewish Synagogue.

  • Owing to the influx of visitors some of the shops sold right out of tea, butter and bacon.

From April 5th 1919:


After over four years' hospitality in Reading, 113 Belgian refugees left Reading on Wednesday to London en route for Antwerp. [..] It is of interest to note that the idea of having refugees in the town started from a very small beginning, when a number of workmen offered to subscribe 3d weekly towards the maintenance of one Belgian. Since then over 500 have been entertained. [..] As one official present was heard to remark, they looked far healthier than when they first arrived in Reading. [..] This leaves only 65 refugees in Reading at the present time, and these start for Ostent [sic] today.



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