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The Birtley Belgians.

Byline: By Neil Mckay

New facts have emerged about a unique experiment which created a Belgian "town within a town" in County Durham.

Local historian John Bygate became hooked on the story of the little-known Birtley Belgians when he was asked to edit and update a book about them in the 1990s.

Now, after uncovering new information about the workers, he has written his own story about the Belgian nationals who came to the then County town to boost the First World War effort.

Retired teacher Mr Bygate, 66, will be at Durham Clayport Library tomorrow at 7.30pm to talk about his book called Of Arms and Heroes.

A cemetery and a few buildings are all that remain of the experiment in which the Belgian community produced one and a half million shells at a specially created munitions factory set up by the government and Armstrong Whitworth. The factory was overlooked by what is now the Three Tuns pub in Birtley.

Eventually, around 6,000 people, including former soldiers and their families, lived in Elisabethville, named after Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians.

As well as a munitions factory, Elisabethville had a school, which survived until the 1970s, grocer, butcher, pubs, a restaurant, and hairdresser while its wooden houses were the envy of local people.

Flemish and Walloon were spoken, and the community adhered to Belgian law and currency.

At the end of the war, many workers returned home, the town was used to house Birtley's growing population and streets were renamed.

Mr Bygate, of Durham, said: "Even when the new version of The Birtley Belgians came out, I went on trying to learn more about this little-known group.

Information came to me slowly over the next few years, but things started to snowball in 2003.

"Radio programmes on the subject brought in snippets of information and the fifth edition of the book resulted in more, including a letter from someone related to the grandson of the Director General of the Birtley munitions factory whose information archive was intact."

Tickets for his talk are free but should be reserved by calling the library on (0191) 386 4003.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 26, 2006
Words:357
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