Marguerite Kesteloot

(c.1895-1930) – Belgian refugee

Marguerite Kesteloot came to Calstock in 1915, one of over 250,000 Belgian refugees who sought sanctuary in Britain during the war. Unusually, she stayed on, having married Richard Preston, a Calstock market gardener. A photograph of 1918 shows Marguerite (far right) working in the strawberry fields with her daughter Dorothy.

Credit: Stoke Climsland Parish Archive and photos from Calstock Archive

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Belgian refugee Marguerite Cornelia Kesteloot was about 20 when she came to live in Calstock.   In June 1916, she married local market gardener Richard Preston, who was five years older than her.  Their daughter Dorothy was born in March 1917.  A photograph of 1918 shows Marguerite and Dorothy (far right) working with a dozen others as strawberry pickers in the fields at Kelly Gardens above the Danescombe Valley.  The group also included other refugees, such as Jules and Celine Depikker.   Marguerite and Richard Preston’s son Edgar was born in June 1922, but died on Christmas Eve 1927 aged only five.  Within three years (20 March 1930) Marguerite was buried in the same grave overlooking the Tamar Valley, with the inscription ‘Peace perfect Peace’.   Richard later remarried and had another daughter.

The local Belgian relief committee, which helped support and house Marguerite and the other refugees, included Joseph Blewett, the headmaster of Gunnislake School. His daughter Marjorie Watson was born in 1910 and recalled diamond merchants from Belgium housed on the hillslope below St Ann’s chapel.  According to what she was told then, they all had tuberculosis and had wooden chalets which were on turntables so that they could face the sun.  No trace now remains.

Estimates suggest that about 250,000 Belgian refugees fled to Britain during the First World War – the largest influx of refugees in British history.  With 90% returning to Belgium at the end of the war, they left little tangible legacy.  At the height of the crisis, Lloyd George let his family home to three Belgian refugee families, and artists and writers donated their work to King Albert’s Book, a popular fundraiser.  By November 1914, the tide of refugees had reached Launceston, Bude and Port Isaac and committees were set up to raise funds for their upkeep.    Many Belgian refugees were traumatized by their escape, having fled their homes on foot as the German army advanced. In contrast to Calstock, parishes in central Cornwall like Ladock and Probus only housed one Belgian family at a time.  Madame Roelandt and her three small children stayed over four years as ‘the guest of [Ladock] parish’.  On 31 March 1919 the Roelandts set off back to Belgium leaving behind an illuminated expression of thanks in Ladock church.

Credit: Stoke Climsland Parish Archive and photos from Calstock Archive