Exhibition to reveal how Leeds folk stepped in to give refugees a home

Leeds is examining its past with an exhibition exploring how immigration has helped grow and shape the city, but it clearly has resonance for us all today

By Northern Housing Staff 

HISTORIC documents revealing how a Leeds market town refused to turn its back on refugees fleeing the horrors of war-torn Europe are going on display in a new exhibition this month.

The century-old collection is being displayed for the first time at Leeds City Museum, as part of a programme of events and exhibits celebrating how immigrants have helped build the city and the wider county.

On loan from West Yorkshire Archive Service, the documents are one part of the museum’s thought-provoking exhibition entitled A City and its Welcome: Three Centuries of Migrating to Leeds.

The documents are said to present a heart-warming picture of how the residents of Otley rallied round to give Belgian refugees a home in Yorkshire while their native land was decimated by the First World War.

A City and its Welcome
Photograph of Yvonne van den Broeck, a Belgian child who came to the town with her parents, sister and two brothers. Courtesy of Otley Museum.

Along with a huge selection of fascinating stories from the city’s history, the exhibition explores the events of October 1914, when members of the local council in Otley resolved to welcome around 30 Belgians forced from their homeland by battle.

They quickly formed the Otley Belgian Hospitality Committee to ensure the town was prepared, the council sent leaflets to residents appealing for help and before long three houses had been identified and outfitted with furniture, all donated by local people.

A moving description of the committee and its activities, drafted at the time, is included in the collection. It says: “How the terrible ravages of the enemy compelled thousands of the country-men of gallant Belgium to leave their native land for the shores of England is known to everyone.”

Describing the arrival of the first refugees, who were among around 250,000 who came to the UK, it adds: “In spite of the pouring rain hundreds of people assembled at the Otley railway station to welcome the guests and after the latter had been provided with a good meal they were taken to their new homes.”

Also included in the collection of documents are luggage labels and information given to the newly-arrived refugees, alongside lists of the many household items like mattresses and furniture donated by Otley folk. The town also provided food and jobs.

“The warm welcome which Otley gave to its Belgian refugees gives us some insight into the radically different ways public perception of immigrants and refugees has fluctuated over the years and the contrasting challenges people travelling to Leeds have faced as they began their new life in a strange country,” said Ruth Martin, the city museum’s curator of exhibitions.

A City and its Welcome
A typed list of Belgian refugees in Otley (29/10/1915)

“What’s certain is that history of Leeds has been enriched by those who have come here from all across world, some fleeing famine, war or persecution and others in search of work and opportunity.

“Each of them has played their part in shaping the city we know today and has left a lasting legacy which we can see all around us in our modern culture and communities.”

Also included in the exhibition, which opens on July 12, are pieces drawn from the city’s Irish, Jewish, Caribbean, Sikh and Muslim communities, some focussing on colourful events like the Leeds West Indian Carnival and others examining personal and individual stories.

The exhibition is one of a number of projects taking place at the museum this year telling stories of migration in Leeds and the impact it has had on the city.

“Modern Leeds is a diverse and eclectic city which embraces and celebrates the many different cultures which call it home,” said Councillor Judith Blake, leader of the city council.

“Becoming that cosmopolitan place has been a long and fascinating journey which has seen those who have come from abroad to make a home here overcome some huge individual and collective challenges and accomplish remarkable things.

“In doing so, they have become a part of our heritage and history, making a lasting and indelible impact on Leeds and its culture.”



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