Refugees Then and Now: A Story for Our Times by Rod Edmond

I’m writing a book about the East Kent coast, its history, geography and cultures.  I’m particularly interested in how this coast has long been seen as the nation’s front line, with Dover as ‘the key to England.’  The refugee crisis has made this so again, with calls to strengthen the border and for a new Dover Patrol to clear the Channel of small boats bringing refugees to our shore.

In researching and writing my book I’ve been struck over and over again by how the current hostility to refugees and other migrants contrasts with the hospitality offered to incomers in the past.  Sandwich is an interesting case in point.  In the Elizabethan period Flemish Protestant refugees were allowed to settle in the town and their influence is still felt there today, in the architecture and surrounding agriculture.  When the tower of St Peter’s collapsed in 1661 they rebuilt it and the church became their place of worship, known as the ‘Strangers Church.’

A recent book by Clare Ungerson, Four Thousand Lives, tells the neglected story of how almost four thousand Jewish refugees were given sanctuary in the town at the beginning of the Second World War.  The Central British Fund for German Jewry (CBFGJ) persuaded the British Government to allow the setting up of a camp on the edge of Sandwich, close to where Discovery Park is now sited.  Sandwich in 1939 had a population of just under 4,000 so the Kitchener Camp, as it was called, doubled the size of this quiet, rather economically depressed town.

The CBFGJ had its worries about the siting of the camp.  The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was strong around the Channel coast and several of its leading members lived in Sandwich and at Sandwich Bay Estate.  Among these were Lady Grace Pearson, a friend of the notorious leader of the BUF Oswald Mosley; Captain Robert Gordon Canning who owned the Fascist newspaper, Action; and a local magistrate and former mayor of the town, George Christopher Solley. When the refugees arrived at the camp a demonstration of flag-bearing Blackshirts (the foot-soldiers of the BUF) from Sandwich and Deal marched to the camp, and anti-Semitic correspondence appeared in the local East Kent Mercury.  Canning published an article in Action under the heading ‘Refugees’ describing how ‘the presence of this foreign excrescence’ was destroying ‘the good name of this ancient town and its repute as a beauty spot of England.’  He also invented a story of a young local girl having been assaulted by two of these ‘aliens’: ‘Sex starved they may be, but it is not for British womanhood to appease their appetites.’

But as Clare Ungerson’s book shows, very few residents were swayed by this virulent hostility.  Refugees from from the camp joined the local string orchestra and football club.  There was friendly table-tennis rivalry between the town and the camp and joint cycling activities were arranged.  Kitchener was a transit camp, not a detention centre, and its inhabitants were free to move about locally although they were not allowed to work.  Concerts put on at the camp attracted as many as 1,000 people from the town.  The refugees were invited to Betteshanger Colliery Social Club after which the miners sent money to the camp welfare fund.

By and large the arrival of these strangers was welcomed, social attachments formed, and the sudden dispersal of the men in 1940 when Kitchener became an army camp was experienced as a loss by the locals.  In many ways the refugees had brightened the life of the town and their presence was missed.  Several of them returned to the area after the war and one settled in Deal where he married and worked at Betteshanger Colliery.

I’m a migrant myself, though a relatively well-heeled and cushioned one, having come from New Zealand to England more than forty years ago.  Until recently I’d felt that the acceptance, certainly the tolerance, of ‘others’, those from elsewhere, had expanded during my time in this country.  I can no longer feel this.  In the past few years I’ve acted as a surety for detainees at the Dover Immigration Removal Centre when they’re released on bail and seen how these ex-detainees are treated when sent to Oldham, North Shields and other parts of the country.  One of them had the front door of the house in which he lodged with other ex-detainees painted red by G4S, the security firm to which his life had been outsourced by the Home Office.  Predictably this led to hostile knocking, stone throwing and verbal abuse.

The contrast between then and now is depressing.  Sandwich, then a small conservative town with marked class differences, the kind of place that today is likely to set its face against immigrants, in 1939 gave sanctuary to people with a different culture and from a nation its residents had been at war with just twenty-five years earlier.  In doing so it provides an example of how the offering of refuge can be an enrichment for all concerned.


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