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Tell us your tales of a special relationship

PUBLISHED: 09:41 06 June 2011

Arthur Fosser, one of the Belgian servicemen cared for in Norfolk during the First World War

Arthur Fosser, one of the Belgian servicemen cared for in Norfolk during the First World War

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Researchers need your help to find out more about the links between Norwich and Flanders. Derek James reports.

It’s our own special relationship. Norfolk and Flanders go back centuries.

But did you know that Norwich people raised money for Belgium during the First World War – selling items ranging from a doll’s pram to a “silver watch taken from a German” and from a raincoat to a leg of mutton?

Now researchers are hoping to find out more about the many links between Norwich and Flanders – and you could help.

Perhaps one of your relatives fought in Flanders, or helped raise money for the beleaguered people of Belgium.

Perhaps your family fled to Norwich, or your father or grandfather told stories of his war on the other side of the North Sea.

For centuries people from what is now Belgium came over here as “strangers”.

They were welcomed into Norwich life so completely that they influenced our industry and our architecture – and the yellow pet birds they brought with them even gave us the nickname for our football club.

Now heritage and tourism experts from Norfolk and Belgium are working together to find out more about our shared past – and are particularly keen to hear about our wartime links. The fields of Flanders, where so many fell in fighting, are remembered in poetry and memorials. But researchers on both sides of the North Sea would love to have more information about this period.

Some of those links are very well known, others might be lost for ever unless the history is collected and preserved.

One of the best known, and most tragic stories, is of Edith Cavell the Norfolk nurse, who was arrested in Belgium for helping wounded British and Belgian soldiers and executed by the Germans.

Many Flemish soldiers found refuge in Norfolk during the First World War.

Arthur Fosser was one of 180,000 Belgians who arrived in Norfolk to be cared for in a convalescent hospital run by the Bulwer family. In November 1916 he had recovered sufficiently to return to Flanders to fight with the Belgian Army. Throughout the war, fund-raising events, including auctions and concerts were held in Norfolk to raise money for Belgian refugees like Fosser.

A 1915 auction catalogue shows a sale was held at Norwich’s Agricultural Hall on January 13 to help Belgian soldiers. Most of the people of poverty-stricken war-time Norwich had very little, but the Belgians had even less. The sale catalogue is packed with lots – mostly small, everyday items given by ordinary people to help people even less well-off than themselves. They donated a tin of food, an umbrella, a pair of baby shoes, a leg of mutton...

The researchers, from Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART) and Ghent City Council, are particularly interested in hearing about links between the cities of Norwich and Ghent, in Belgium.

They are keen to record people’s memories before part of the common history of the two cities is lost forever.

They know of a Flemish pilot called François Venesoen, based at Bircham Newton during the Second World War, but would love to hear of more people who link Norfolk and Flanders.

If you know any stories of Flemish refugees in Norfolk, or of Norfolk people serving in either of the world wars in Belgium, or of anything else which highlights our special relationship, contact Madeleine Coupe, on 01603 599577 or email info@shaping24.eu. But hurry, because she would like to have the information by June 10.

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