How Shropshire became wartime 'paradise' for Belgian refugees

For the Hoorne family who came to the village of Chesterton, near Bridgnorth, their new surroundings were like paradise.

Three of the Hoorne children at the door of their cottage – Gabriel, Maria, and August
Three of the Hoorne children at the door of their cottage – Gabriel, Maria, and August

They were Belgian refugees who fled their home in Ostend after their country was overrun by German forces in 1940 and made their way to England on a fishing boat.

For Monsieur Hoorne it must have been a case of deja vu, for he had also been evacuated to Britain during the Great War a generation before.

Even on arrival in England the family's troubles were not over, for twice they were bombed out of the houses found for them in London.

It was at this stage that a Mr R V Bradburn, of Chesterton Farm, took an interest in the displaced family. He was one of Shropshire's best known farmers and a member of the Shropshire War Agricultural Committee.

With many men having left the farms to serve in uniform and others preferring to go into towns to earn bigger wages working on munitions, together with the Government appealing for farmers to produce more food, Mr Bradburn decided to experiment with Belgian refugees.

He applied to the labour officer of the committee, and had four Belgians sent to his farm – M. Hoorne, two sons, and his nephew.

M. Hoorne had been a plumber in Ostend, two of the others had been in the dairy business, and the third a sailor, but after a couple of months' tuition they became efficient farm hands.

His experiment made the press, and was featured in an article in the Express & Star on February 28, 1941.

"They came to me last October and they are all working and have given me very satisfactory service," Mr Bradburn told the reporter.

Monsieur Hoorne gets digging

The paper said his experiment had been so successful that at that time there were something like 30 Belgians being similarly employed on Shropshire farms.

"Mr Bradburn saw that the four men were comfortably housed in a trim little cottage on his land, but confessed that he experienced some difficulty in procuring furniture for them, as these poor folk had lost all their belongings in their invaded Belgium," the report said.

"He thought, however, it was too bad for the four men to attend to their household duties as well as work on the land, so he readily consented to M. Hoorne's request that his wife and family, then living in London, should join them.

"It was a huge family that arrived. There was madame, her married daughter, another daughter aged 18, and four other children whose ages range from four to 12."

We know the names of some of these Hoorne children – Gerard, Gabriel, Maria and August.

Madame Hoorne in the kitchen of the cottage on a Chesterton farm in 1941 with her son Gerard

The report went on: "The two elder girls were found domestic positions where they sleep in, and with an assurance from the local health authorities that some overcrowding might be tolerated in wartime where it was inevitable, the rest of the family moved into the cottage to join their menfolk.

"And there they are today, in this 'paradise' as they call it, glad to be alive, happy in their work and deeply grateful to Farmer Bradburn for all his kindness and generosity towards them.

"You will not find them talkative, although all of them now have learned a smattering of English.

"Even the baby of the household gives you a 'cheerio' as you leave, while M. Hoorne himself speaks quite good English, he having been a refugee in this country during the last war.

"They will not, however, talk of any of the horrors of their experiences. All they have words for is their domestic happiness and their appreciation of all that has been done for them.

"The proudest thing of Mme. Hoorne's life is that she has mothered 17 children. Two of her sons, she told in broken English, are in the merchant navy, helping to bring food to Britain."

One of the Hoorne sons on the farm

So what became of the Hoornes? Cyril Rowley, who turns 84 in June and has lived in Chesterton all his life as did his father Bill before him, can shed some light on the matter.

"I don't remember them myself, but one of them came back to look around and spoke to my father, who had worked on the farm and had known them. My father Bill Rowley was born in 1905 and was 84 or 85 when he died," he said.

So that would be in about 1990, and Mr Rowley thinks the Belgian visitor would have come on their nostalgic trip down memory lane about 10 years before that.

"They had lived down in the wood in Bogs Cottage, which is now fallen down."

They were, says Mr Rowley, the only Belgian refugees in the village.

"They left after the war. And it was at the end of the war that Mr Bradburn died – we're not talking about George Bradburn, but his father Vincent Bradburn."

It seems then that the Hoorne family returned to Belgium and as it was a big family, descendants will surely be living there now, and the tale of the wartime stay in Shropshire will perhaps be a story still told to children and grandchildren.

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