The Camden church set up by Belgian refugees

Our Lady of Hal church in Arlington Road, Camden

Our Lady of Hal church in Arlington Road, Camden - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

A church in Camden Town is a striking reminder of what has been, to date, the largest single influx of refugees into Britain. 

A quarter-of-a-million Belgians came over to Britain when their country was invaded by Germany during the First World War.

This huge wartime migration has been largely forgotten – mainly because almost all the refugees returned to Belgium within a year of the end of the war. But Our Lady of Hal, a Catholic church in Arlington Road, stands as testament to the movement of the uprooted and dispossessed and the welcome they received on these shores. A place of worship which has its roots in the upheaval of war is today part of the Catholic church’s broader initiative to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.  

Amid the trauma and inhumanity of war, the willingness of so many British households to welcome Ukrainian refugees into their homes is one of the few glimmers of positive news to emerge in recent days. More than 150,000 people have expressed a willingness as part of the Homes for Ukraine initiative to offer an individual or family from Ukraine a spare room or an empty flat. How many Ukrainians will come to the UK depends on the course of the war, and the speed with which bureaucratic bottlenecks can be overcome which have so far restricted the flow of refugees to a trickle. 

Our Lady of Hal church in Arlington Road, Camden

The Belgian connection - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

The Belgian refugees who came to Britain more than a century ago set up their own schools, newspapers, hospitals, shops – there were even Belgian “colonies” in England run by the Belgian government and using Belgian currency. 

Some large buildings served as an initial temporary refuge, including Athlone House in Highgate. 

The most renowned Belgian to come as a refugee is fictional – Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s fiercely intelligent detective with his trademark moustache, is depicted as coming to Britain as part of the First World War exodus. 

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While almost all these refugees returned to Belgium, a small number of Belgian priests stayed, eventually founding the Catholic church in Arlington Road and naming it after a revered shrine in the Belgian town of Halle or Hal. The founders of Our Lady of Hal in Camden Town were members of a Belgian missionary order, the Scheut fathers, which decided as a result of the First World War to move its base to London. 

Within a few years, the order sought to establish a church, with the dual purpose of providing a spiritual focus for the Belgian Catholic community across the capital and serving a locality which had no Catholic church close at hand. The initial building on Arlington Road opened in 1922. It was little more than a hut, opposite where the church now stands, and almost from the start proved insufficient to accommodate the congregation, which was in large part of Irish origin. 

The current church was completed in 1933. The architectural style is said to be based on a traditional Flemish design while the architect responsible, Wilfrid Mangan, was of Irish descent. So the building combined the twin pillars on which it was established: Belgian clergy and Irish congregation. In architectural terms, it’s certainly a better than average inter-war church and clearly loved by those who worship there. 

The Arlington Road entrance doesn’t immediately catch the eye, though there’s a charming mosaic as well as inscriptions which explain the Belgian connection. A small side chapel, the Hal chapel – usually open for an hour or so after midday mass – has a likeness of Our Lady in dark wood, a replica of the venerated medieval statue at the shrine outside Brussels. 

Our Lady of Hal church in Arlington Road, Camden

A panel bearing a profile of King Albert of the Belgians, the country’s sovereign through the First World War - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

Also in the chapel is a panel bearing a profile of King Albert of the Belgians, the country’s sovereign through the First World War who died in a mountaineering accident in 1934. The work was commissioned in his memory by “the Belgian colony in Great Britain”, though by the time it was finished the country was again caught up in a world war.

The Scheut fathers ran the church into the 1980s when it was handed over to the diocese and all but one of the Belgian priests returned home. Father Joseph van Pelt, still remembered by some of the older members of the congregation, stayed on. He first came to Camden in the early 1950s, after ten years as a missionary in China, and finally went back to Belgium in 1995. He died the following year. 

Our Lady of Hal church in Arlington Road, Camden

Our Lady of Hal church in Arlington Road, Camden - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

Our Lady of Hal now has a truly global congregation, including worshippers with family roots in Ireland, Poland, the Philippines, several African nations and across the Portuguese-speaking world. As far as the church administrators are aware, there are no longer any Belgians among the parishioners – nor any Ukrainians.

Everyone must hope that the Ukrainians who find refuge in Britain will have the opportunity to return to their homeland and rebuild their lives – but the history of this city also demonstrates how much we all gain from refugees who put down lasting roots in their adopted country.

Andrew Whitehead is a local historian and author of the Curious series of books about different localities in North London.