Sunday, December 3, 2023

When thousands of refugees were welcomed into Tilbury

AN INTERESTING historical document came across our screens via our Tweetdeck on Tuesday morning.

The document from the Wellcome Library chronicled the influx of thousands of people from Belgium, fleeing the German army in December 1914.

As you may or may not know, Germany invaded Belgium as they made their way into France. As Britain had guaranteed Belgian neutrality, via the Treaty of Belgium of 1830, GB duly got drawn into what soon became known as The Great War.

And so, thousands, fearing for their lives, fled Belgium. Many got on boats in Antwerp and headed to Tilbury.

The documents held by the Wellcome Trust deal with health and well-being but it is still a fascinating insight into a time in history.


The object of the Medical Inspection was to ascertain if an alien was undesirable

on account of:—

(a) The absence of the means of decently supporting himself and his

dependents (if any), or

(b) Being a lunatic or an idiot, or owing to any disease or infirmity likely

to become a charge upon the rates, or otherwise a detriment to the public.

Daring the period, 77,295 aliens were medically examined, and 1,368 were

refused leave to land.

At first the rejections were numerous, but when the shipping companies who

brought undesirable passengers found that they had to return them whence they came,

they found it to their interest to have them all medically examined before embarkation,

and as the standard of fitness at the port of departure was based upon the standard of

examination in London, the number of rejections on immigrant vessels became

ultimately very few.

It is, however, known that many aliens undesirable on medical grounds found

their way into this country on vessels not carrying the requisite number of alien

steerage passengers to constitute them as " immigrant vessels " within the meaning of

the Act, thus they escaped any medical inspection.

On one occasion a vessel arrived and declared 20 alien steerage passengers, and so

was not an "immigrant vessel." The discovery of an American passenger on board

who had been considered as English raised the number to 21, and the passengers were

then carefully examined, with a result that six cases of trachoma were discovered who

were rejected and sent back after appealing to the Immigration Board,

The arrangement under which I have been acting as Medical Inspector of Aliens

in the Port of London terminated after notice from the Home Office on December 31st,


In connection with these duties, since the Act came into force, a certain amount of

clerical work has had to be done, and this has been willingly performed by the clerical

staff, in addition to the ordinary clerical work of the Port Sanitary Authority.


On Thursday evening, 3rd September, 1914, Dr. Buchanan, the Acting Principal

Medical Officer of the Local Government Board, telephoned that a large number of

Belgian refugees, 50,000—100,000, were expected to arrive at Tilbury from Antwerp.

It was reported in the press that these refugees would have to leave Antwerp before

midnight on the 4th September, and the probability, therefore, was that they would be

packed on such vessels as were lying in that port, possibly cargo boats without proper

accommodation for a number of passengers, or even sufficient food on board for the

voyage, and therefore they might arrive at any time.

The matter was very urgent, so I visited Gravesend forthwith, and all the necessary

arrangements for dealing with the arrival of a large number of such people, were ready

by 5 p.m. of the 4th September; these were as follows:—

(1) A medical inspection of all persons on board to ascertain whether anyone

was suffering with a dangerous infectious disorder.

Your Medical Officer of Health, with three assistant Medical Officers, were

available for this work, whilst Dr. Buchanan had kindly offered the services of

three of the Local Government Board Medical Inspectors to assist in the work

of inspection.

All persons suffering from dangerous infectious disorders would have been

removed to hospital—the Local Government Board were especially apprehensive

of the presence of small-pox and enteric fever amongst the refugees.

(2) If any of the passengers had been obviously filthy and unwholesome,

they would have been landed at Denton Hospital, cleansed, their clothes

disinfected, and arrangements were made at the Hospital for doing this.

(3) If any of the refugees had been in a state of collapse, or suffering from

some illness other than an infectious disorder, which would have rendered them

unfit to travel without danger to life, I intended to have landed them at Denton

Hospital as a matter of common humanity, so far as accommodation was


(4) A supply of bread, milk, bovril, tea and hot water could have been

available at short notice in the event of any of the refugees suffering from want

of nourishment.

The Local Government Board arranged to telephone to me and send a telegram to

the Hulk at Gravesend directly they received any information of the departure of vessels

conveying refugees from Antwerp.

These arrangements were kept available throughout Saturday and Sunday, the 5th

and 6th September respectively, but on Monday, 7th September, I received a letter from

Dr. Buchanan, of the Local Government Board, saying that there had been a hitch

about transport and certain international matters, and that it was uncertain if the scheme

would take effect.

The British Government had consented to receive these refugees, had taken over

all the arrangements for transport to this country and their reception after arrival, and

in accordance with the instructions of the Court of Common Council, I rendered all

possible assistance and co-operated with the Government Officials in every possible way,

at the same time carrying out all the duties of Medical Inspection, &c., as the Port of

London Sanitary Authority are required by statute to do.

The refugees began arriving on Friday, 11th September, by the ordinary passenger

boats of the Great Eastern Railway Company, which usually ply between Antwerp and

Harwich, so that they arrived under satisfactory conditions as regards personal

cleanliness, food, &c.

The boats usually arrived in the evening, the largest number on any one boat being

928, and 13,389 refugees have arrived in this Port up to 31st December. They were

all medically examined before leaving the boat, or before embarkation, for infectious

diseases, and then were landed by a tender at Tilbury station, where special trains were

in waiting to convey them to their destination.

A supply of bovril, milk, &c., was available on the station platform, handed

round by kind voluntary helpers, whilst a doctor and nurse were in attendance, who

travelled with the train, so that the refugees were well looked after, and seemed much

to appreciate the kindness shown them on their arrival in this country.

I desire to express my appreciation of the assistance given me by Dr. Willoughby

and the other Medical Officers of this Authority, cheerfully and willingly rendered at

times when they were not officially on duty.

It was not found necessary to admit any of the refugees to Denton Hospital, either

for infectious disease or for other causes. Three children were found suffering with

measles, but they were allowed to go to the hospital of the Metropolitan Asylums Board in charge of a doctor and nurse of the Metropolitan Asylums Board.


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