Fundraising for Belgian Refugees, Blinded and Sick Soldiers and Prisoners of War

The St Martin’s community led and participated in a number of fundraising initiatives during the war, mostly led by women.  Some initiatives were driven by obvious local need, such as the need to house and feed Leicester’s 1000 Belgian refugees, or to improve conditions for the many wounded soldiers cared for at the 5th Northern General Hospital. Others were driven by personal trauma, such as the blinding of the vicar’s son, which triggered fundraising for others in his situation.  In total the community of St Martin’s raised several thousand pounds for wartime charities between 1914 and 1918, at a time when general giving reduced and expenses increased.

Belgian Refugees

During the last three months of 1914 over 200,000 Belgian refugees arrived in the UK, escaping the invading German army and the fighting.  Leicester welcomed over a thousand refugees and found them accommodation, firstly organised by the Women’s Catholic League and then by The Belgian Refugees Committee for Leicester, led by Cecil Vernon Levesley. A number of charities then undertook to feed and house the refugees, many of them established by Leicester’s Anglican and non-conformist churches. In February 1915 the parish magazine reported that an address written by Cardinal Mercier, Patriotism and Endurance, calling Christians to patriotism, had been read in Leicester in three languages “while tears streamed down the cheeks of many of the Belgians.”

In 1914 a St Martin’s committee was established by Canon Nugee and by January 1915 donations, subscriptions, furniture and household effects had all been received and the refugees were in residence at 27 Tichborne Street. Unfortunately the house was demolished during the 1950s so it isn’t possible to show it here, but it was a reasonably sized Victorian house.

In March 1915 the St Martin’s committee pledged to maintain the house and the refugees therein until they were able to return to their own country – by July 1915 the realisation had dawned that this could be a long war. Whilst plenty of people had been found to subscribe to the initial appeal, the commitment maintaining the refugees for several years began to concern the committee. In January 1916 subscribers were asked to give half of what they had donated the previous year, reflecting the maintenance costs rather than setting up the families with furniture etc.  By the end of the following year the committee was finding it harder to get people to pay up, perhaps as finances were becoming tighter for some people or perhaps as compassion fatigue set in.  By 1918 the accounts were £100 short and the committee were under criticism but as they said, “We undertook this work at the invitation of the Government…no one of course knew what we were in for.”

The committee thought themselves very fortunate in the refugees who had been placed with them. These were the Asscherick and Wynants families of Ostend, who were initially placed in the village of Hallaton before arriving in Leicester at around Christmas time 1914.  Both families were practising Roman Catholics who attended Holy Cross priory on New Walk. They were related by marriage and ran a hotel in Rue d’Eglise/Kerkstraat, Ostend.

Asscherick hotel postcard
Hotel de la Vieille Tour, Ostend, 1914
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From L-R  Back row Florentinus Asscherick, Leonia Asscherick and possibly Constantius Wynants.  Middle row Marie Wynants, Therese Augusta Asscherick and Fransiscus Asscherick. Bottom row Leonia Wynants and Joanna Wynants. Taken after the wedding of Franciscus and Therese Augusta in 1917.

The Wynants family included Constantius Adolphus Wynants, his wife Maria Louisa Joanna Asscherick and their two daughters Leonia Maria Luciana Wynants (1905-) and Joanna Maria Florentina Wynants (1907-).

The Asschericks comprised hotel keeper Florentinus Asscherick (1862-1952), his wife Leonia Byt (1863-1919) and son Franciscus Carolus Asscherick (1895-) , who was serving in the Belgian army.  Before the war they had lived at their hotel on the corner of Rue St Paul and Rue de l’Eglise, Ostend.  Franciscus married fellow refugee Therese Augusta Werbrouck (1894-1985) at Holy Cross on 29th December 1917.  Therese was a chambermaid working at the Wellington Hotel.  They were married by Father Thomas Aerts, a Belgian Priest who served at Holy Cross during the war.

In March 1915 Canon Nugee received a postcard from Franciscus Carolus Asscherick:

Cher Monsieur. Just to thank you for the good precautions you take for my dear relations. I am still at Granville to give the instructions on the bigg [sic] lot of volunteers. Kind regards, very sincerely, Asscherick Fr.

The men were in “regular work, and well spoken of” by May 1915.  Later in 1915, just before Christmas, Canon Nugee received a letter:

Dear Sir and Mr Nugee

In the names of my Grand-father, Grand-mother and parents I am writing to thank you for all that you have done for us during the months we have spent in England as exiles from our country.  We can never forget the kindness and consideration which we have received at the hands of the committee and we wish to take this opportunity of once more expressing our gratitude and at the same time wishing you all a very happy Christmas. Yours gratefully, Leona Wynants and family Asscherick & Wynants.

The following Christmas two letters were received:

Dear Mr and Mrs Nugee

My sister and I thank you very much for the kindness you have shown us and our parents since we came to Leicester.  We are very happy here in our home and at school, thanks to your kindness, and our parents think we are having a very good education at our new school.  We will never forget when we return to Belgium, what the kind English people have done for us and we hope you will believe we shall always be grateful to you and your family. At the same time we wish you a Happy Christmas and a bright New Year. Your little Belgian Friend, Leona M Wynants.

The Rev. Canon Nugee

Sir – Will you allow me to express to you and your Committee, on behalf of my husband, myself and my family, our deep sense of gratitude to all who have extended such generous help to us in our time of need.

We are all indeed grateful and pray the good God to reward you as we cannot. Also we thank you on behalf of those soldiers, our compatriots, whom you have helped when on leave. It is not only the material help given which we appreciate, but the sympathy, and the manner of helping.  This is our third Christmas in exile, an exile which would have been more bitter had it not been for your goodness. Will you accept from all your Belgian proteges hearty wishes for a Happy and blessed Christmas and New Year.  Yours respectfully (family) M Asscherick and Wynants.

By January 1918 the refugees were hoping to return to Belgium during 1919.  This did in fact occur and the Asshericks and Wynants returned to Ostend.  Leonia Asscherick died soon after and was buried in Ostend.

Red Cross

In June 1915 Canon Nugee asked the community to contribute to the purchase of 1,000 copies of a small book of devotion for wounded soldiers entitled “Red Cross Prayers”. These were to be given to the chaplain at the Base Hospital for distribution. The books were duly purchased. Half of the money was given by a small group including the patriotic Miss Jane Flude (c1832-1922), who had established a recruiting office in her home, The Hollies, New Street in August 1914, and her niece Catherine Flude (c1853-1940).

In February 1918 an offertory was taken for the British Red Cross, raising £29 13s 4d

St Dunstan’s Blinded Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Hostel

In August 1917 the vicar’s wife, Mrs Nugee, began to plan a sale of work in aid of St Dunstan’s, Regents Park. St Dunstan’s cared for and trained blinded soldiers for life and work after their life-changing injuries.  Mrs Nugee’s plans were postponed due to a clash with another fundraising event (something that irritated Canon Nugee and caused him to vent in the parish magazine).  Nevertheless she managed to raise £300 10s 10d in September 1917.  In 1918 she organised a bazaar in aid of St Dunstan’s – one assumes that it met her husband’s approval by being in no way enjoyable.  It was held at Edward Wood Hall (now known as the Fraser Noble building, on London Road) on the first two days of May and opened by Colonel Robert Edmund Martin of the Leicestershire Regiment, raising an impressive £781 10s.

The cause was very dear to Mrs Nugee. Her son, Andrew Charles Nugee (1895-1977) was blinded at the Battle of Hooge on 30th July 1915, during the first use by the Germans of flamethrowers – known at the time as “Liquid Fire.” St Dunstan’s opened its doors to the first blinded soldier on 10th July 1915.  In his 1919 autobiography Victory Over Blindness Sir Arthur Pearson wrote ‘The main idea that animated me in establishing this hostel for
the blinded soldiers was that the sightless men, after being discharged from hospital, might come into a little world where the things which blind men cannot do were  forgotten and where everyone was concerned with what blind men can do. A world where they could learn to be blind.’ The blinded veterans were taught massage, shorthand writing, telephone operating, poultry farming, joinery, mat making, boot repairing and basketry to enable them to earn a living.  Andrew Nugee was assisted to return to Oxford, where he completed his degree in 1919.

Necessities for Prisoners of War

In June 1915 The Reverend Francis Reginald Chassereau Payne, vicar of St Margaret’s, organised a local fund to send ‘necessities’ to prisoners of war whose homes were in Leicester. An alms box was placed in St Martin’s church next to the freewill offering fund box, to enable the congregation and any visitors to donate to the fund. £1 17s 6d was raised in just a few weeks and just over £1 was raised each month for the remainder of the war.  By January 1916 more than 4000 parcels had been sent to Prisoners of War, none of whom were members of the St Martin’s community, though there would be St Martin’s POWs before the war was out.

In August 1917 Canon Nugee wrote in the parish magazine “These men…depend for their lives upon food parcels sent from England. This we believe to be the literal truth. It is not so with the thousands of Germans who are in prison camps in England, or behind the lines in France…our men in German prisons would starve if left alone to the mercy of their captors.”  There was some truth in this but not because the Germans were inherently more brutal than the English, but because German soldiers and civilians were suffering from malnutrition and starvation due to lack of food supplies.

Other fundraising

Harvest festival gifts of fruit, flowers and vegetables were given to the wounded soldiers at the Base Hospital and in 1916 the annual congregational tea – which Canon Nugee would have liked to have cancelled due to its frivolity during a time of crisis – was also used as an opportunity to raise funds for a war charity.

In May 1917 the Mayor of Leicester held a bazaar to raise money for his War Emergency Fund, at which St Martin’s had a stall. The fund was to support the future welfare of soldiers disabled during their war service. Again, Canon Nugee made it absolutely clear that there was to be no fun or enjoyment at the bazaar: “There will be no attempt to make this a pleasure fair, which would be entirely incongruous with the state of things which we may expect in the spring.”  Madame Asscherick and Madame Wynants, Belgain Refugees, helped at the stall.

A concert was held in the Church House in January of 1918, raising £23 which was used to send tokens of remembrance to soldiers on the St Martin’s list.

Mrs Nugee’s brother, Captain Alston, was serving in the navy.  In 1916 she asked the congregation to donate gramophone records for him to share with sailors on ship and in recreation huts.