Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Writing - Researching WW1 and home

You can live in a place for decades and still not know everything about the area. When researching places for our stories we can enrich the readers experience by adding nuggets of information. I have done this to a degree when writing the Steele novels.

Doxford House

In some of the books I have referred to Doxford House, which is on the edge of the village in which I grew up. Something of the history of the house is included in I Have To Get It Right in an effort to add colour.

As the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the WW1 approaches various media are beginning to explore the influences of that conflict on the UK. I was trawling through some of that information on the BBC News website when I came across a story that occurred not 10 miles from where I was brought up.

Birtley (means 'bright meadow')


Elisabethville was a small town built to house Belgian refugees during the Great War of 1914-18. The name is spelt with an ’s’ rather than a ’z’ as the town was named after the Belgian Queen Elisabeth. The town was quite separate from Birtley. In addition to huts for families, there were barracks for soldiers and workmen, shops, police force, hospital and a cemetery. As far as possible the refugees were kept away from the population of Birtley by railing off the site and having only a few gateways! The men were employed at a munitions works, making shells for use mainly in France. 

Later, after the Belgians returned home in December 1918, the community was used to house the growing population of Birtley. Streets were given English names in place of their original Belgian names, and even the place name Elisabethville fell into disuse as most people called the area simply ’the huts’.

No one was allowed in or out of Elisabethville without a special pass - it was completely unique, as it was a sovereign Belgian enclave on British soil. The Belgian authorities looked after the administration, and it was run on military lines, with a force of gendarmes to assist.

I never knew anything about Elisabethville and my parents never spoke of the place even though we were only ten miles away. Someone interested in writing historical fiction could use this small story to produce a larger work.

Over the next four years I feel sure that there will be other revelations around the conflict of 1914 - 1918.

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