Elisabethville - The Belgian community in Birtley.

This project explored the Belgian refugees who worked at the Birtley munitions factory in the First World War.

Thousands of Belgians moved to Birtley during the conflict where they lived in a self-contained village called Elisabethville, after the Belgian queen. This village was administered by the Belgian authorities and was run as a military establishment, with approximately 4,000 people living in the community. In addition to the housing, there were three dining halls, a church, a primary school, market, public laundries and baths, a police station and a prison.

This project took place at Birtley library where their heritage was reviewed, with visitors viewing photographs and exhibits, with activities organised for children. The Elisabethville exhibition was launched at Birtley library on the 26th of May 2009 and was also on show at Beamish museum on the 6th and 7th of June 2009. The exhibition was displayed at Gateshead Heritage Centre for a month, where local schools visited to look at Elisabethville’s objects. The exhibition and Elisabethville objects also travelled around the schools in Birtley, where children took part in activities based on discovering Elisabethville, hoping to gain a better understanding what it might have been like.

Some schools, such as Birtley East Primary School and Portobello Primary School were lucky enough to enjoy a visit from Dr. Leon Le Dune, who gave an insight into what life was like for his father, a Belgian who had escaped during the first world was, settling in Birtley. The children loved listening to Leon’s stories and even stated so in thank you letters addressed to him. St. Joseph’s Catholic Junior School were lucky enough to be visited by Margritte, her father was a Flemish Belgian and she discussed her family’s experience.