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Birtley, County Durham and the First World War.

The Wrights inhabited Birtley during Charlie's youth. During WWI Birtley was a refugee town for Belgians. Many Belgians settled temporarily in the North-East (presumably because of the easy access to the port of Newcastle from Antwerp). The wooden carving above the font in Hexham Abbey was carved by a Belgian refugee apparently. Birtley had Belgian breweries, used Belgian currency and even had a Belgian policeman. According to Maureen Jenny/Jinny had a stillborn child by a Belgian (whether he was a soldier or refugee we don't know). 

Birtley was a very industrial area. There were salt pans, several pits, the Bowes railway Steel and brickworks. There would consequently have been plenty of employment there. Presumably the Wrights moved en masse from Heworth to Birtley sometime after 1901 and probably before 1914 and stayed there.

From the Gateshead County Library website....


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'. Maps of the area showing Belgian and later English names can be seen at the Central Library in Gateshead, along with many photographs of the area taken by a Belgian photographer in 1916 to 1918.


Background history

For many years Britain had stood alone with no allies to speak of. This period was one of 'Splendid isolation' although by 1902 Britain had allied itself with Japan. Britain did very little when Japan and Russia went to war in 1903 and that war was soon over with a startling defeat for the Russians at sea (The Russian fleet was defeated at Port Arthur in China) and in the East in Manchuria. Alliances came thick and fast with the arms race and the massive program of building steel hulled and heavy gunned 'Dreadnought' type battleships. Britain allied with Russia and France, France and Russia allied with Serbia while Germany allied with Austria-Hungary and Turkey. In fact when it came down to it the whole war hinged on railway timetables. In order to mobilize effectively each side had worked out how many weeks it would take to get their men to the front line by train. If you could get your troops in the field first then that would seize the initiative and you could go on the offensive. Thus when the spark came in Serbia (With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip) Germany and Austria were first to declare war in order to get their troops at the stations first and launch the Schlieffen plan to take France out of the war, then the troops could be released to take on Russia.

The Germans held the Russians in the east and made vast strides into France at the start of the war. British forces were small at first but grew rapidly in a surge of jingo driven and incredibly naieve (by todays standards) patriotism. The British Expeditionary Force (the BEF) called themselves 'The old contemptibles' after the Kaiser mockingly referred to them as a contemptible little army for havuing the sheer audacity to hold up his, so far, victorious army. The British forces, however, were at the time probably the best fighting force of the time and the German advance was suddenly stopped in it's tracks, at Mons. The British troops, many of them hardened Boer war veterans and colonial troops were able to rattle off 15 aimed rounds a minute. Their firepower was so accurate and rapid that at first the Germans thought they must be using machine guns, in fact the British army had very few machine guns compared to the French and Germans which in the early war years was a severe disadvantage.  After the abandonment of the Schlieffen plan (a few miles from Paris they suddenly stopped and began to advance west thinking France was virtually defeated) both sides dug in in France as both sides raced towards the north sea. The front line hardly changed at all, not for want of millions of lives being wasted in futile attempts to break through. By the time Charles Lewis was old enough to take part in 1916 the front was a system of trenches and shelters. An entire trench system could be 3 miles deep. No mans land could be as close as 20 yards or a couple of miles. Some trench systems hadn't moved at all for 2 years.  Most days were sheer boredom which would have allowed Charlie to fashion as many toys and trinkets as he could wish for from pieces of wood, metal and shell and bullet cases.

Herbert must have joined the army between September 1914 and 1917.

Twins in the Family

Arthur had twins (Clarence and Laurence), Maureen's Auntie Lil also had 2 sets of twins, Maud had at least one set of twins that didn't survive as did Nana apparently. That makes 5 sets of twins in the last 2 generations before mine. Thomas Wright, Father of James, also has a twin sister called Ann.


Last update: 13/3/2007