Kitchener refugees – Hansard

As we probably all do, from time to time I look through our family paperwork to see what new leads might be found.

My father sometimes jotted down the details of statements made in Parliament regarding the situation as it pertained to Jewish refugees, citizenship, reparations, double taxation changes, and so on.

I am not sure whether he made these notes whilst listening to radio broadcasts, or from watching televised parliamentary proceedings, or whether he consulted Hansard – the official record of British parliamentary proceedings.

"Hansard is a 'substantially verbatim' report of what is said in Parliament. Members’ words are recorded, and then edited to remove repetitions and obvious mistakes, albeit without taking away from the meaning of what is said. Hansard also reports decisions taken during a sitting and records how Members voted to reach those decisions in Divisions" (Source:

Anyway, I felt I could do worse than to follow my father’s path and carry out an online search in Hansard for items that pertain to our shared history.

What follows is necessarily couched in rather dry parliamentary language, so it won’t be for everyone, but for those interested in such things, it does give a flavour of the kinds of issues being raised, and the kinds of battles that were being fought at this high level, as they pertained to the rescue of our family members.

The first reference I found to Richborough (Kitchener) camp is from April 1939. It occurs in relation to the topic of ‘Refugees’, and is part of a speech given by Earl Winterton.

The whole session is here:

The section that pertains to Richborough transit camp and our areas of concern is as follows.

Earl Winterton 

I should like, also, to thank the Hon. Member who initiated this Debate. Normally, I do not think it is very helpful for a Government spokesman to praise the moderation of the speech of the Opposition spokesman, because there may be some covert object in view, but here there is no party question involved, because we are all trying to do our best, according to our different points of view, to solve this terrible problem. 

I do not want to be rhetorical, but I must make these observations at the outset of my remarks: that, superimposed upon all the evils to which flesh is heir, some of which are unavoidable in the present state of medical and other science, we have this terrible man-made evil of the refugee problem, and no one who lives with that problem from day-to-day, as I do, can exaggerate the aggregate of suffering which it causes in mind and body. 

In this as in so many other respects the world to-day has returned to a scale of human woe which is medieval in its poignancy and scope, almost like the Black Death or some other great scourge of the past. 

The Debate has mainly ranged round the work of the Evian Committee, of which I have the honour to be chairman, and on which I represent His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, and I think I can best answer the points as to what is being done, and what has been done since the formation of the committee, to assist in the solution of this problem by quoting certain facts and figures. 

The Evian Committee, wisely, I think, divided countries which can help into two categories, countries of temporary refuge, those countries where there has been infiltration, like most of the Western democracies, and countries of permanent settlement where there is a sparse population and much unoccupied territory, where it was hoped the refugees could go in greater numbers.Let me deal first of all with the countries of temporary residence. I would pay a tribute to what has been done in Holland and Belgium by private organisations, and I hope that I am giving away no secrets when I say that I understand that certain grants have been made from this country's voluntary funds to assist voluntary organisations in one of those countries in their work. 

Let me give a few facts. Between March, 1933, and March, 1938, there arrived in this country from Germany, classed as refugees—the figures have been given before in Debate, but I make no apology for repeating them—4,325 men and 3,310 women. Take the situation to-day. On 28th February, 1939, there were in this country 4,674 German men, 3,663 women, 3,340 Austrian men and 2,446 women, 357 Czech men and 169 former Czech women subjects. At that time there was, in addition, a total of 4,404 children in this country. 

I should like to disabuse the minds of hon. Members of any misunderstanding in regard to those figures and to show that the charges that have been made or suggested in the course of the Debate, notably by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) as to the extent of the contribution of this country are not accurate and constitute a very great under-statement. 

The British movement for the care of refugee children brought in about 4,000 children in December and January last. It will be a little time before all those children are settled in individual homes. When this has been accomplished it is expected that yet more children will come in. From October, 1938, to 15th March this year, Sudeten-Deutsch, Austrians, Slovaks, and others were being dealt with as rapidly as possible by the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia. The German coup interrupted that process, and a number of political refugees were left in Czecho-Slovakia, unable to get out. 

The High Commissioner for the League, who is also director of the Evian Committee, and I, with the full support of His Majesty's Government, did everything possible to get these people out. We went to exceptional steps. 

I do not want to comment on the circumstances which caused this deplorable state of affairs, but it was literally impossible to get those people out of the country. They were not allowed to go. Until 1st April, no visa was required by Czech subjects, and had the Germans not occupied Czech territory, a larger number of refugees would have been able to leave. A large number have come to this country without visas. The difficulty was that, before they could come, the Germans imposed an exit visa. The whole responsibility for the situation lies, not in the action of this country, but in the action of the German authorities.

 I am just going over the facts to show the extent of what we have done in what I think I may call an emergency. I want now to deal with the permanent situation, and to say a word about the activities of voluntary organisations, and about Richborough camp. 

I mention these, because they support my argument that it is unfair to blame His Majesty's Government or the voluntary organisations of this country for certain things that have occurred. There is room, I understand, in Richborough camp, for between 400 and 500 more refugees than are there at the present time. 

It is hoped that those refugees would be people capable of being trained, but we cannot at present get them there, as they are not allowed out of Germany. I shall say a word in a moment about our discussions with the German Government, but let me go on to say one or two things about the question of infiltration, especially since the first meeting of the Evian Committee. 

I have already dealt with the facts of immigration into this country. The numbers both here and elsewhere are larger than many people suppose.
Colonel Wedgwood

Will he tell us the figure?
Earl Winterton

Not necessarily. This is a technical question, but the suggestion is for an equivalent of 25 per cent. of the Jewish wealth. Even when that has been done the main question is, Where are these people to go? I shall devote the remainder of my speech to this point.

It is best to be entirely frank and to mention something which is unhappily pervasive and hampers the work of the Committee and of all refugee work. It is the sub-current of anti-Semitism or anti-alienism which exists in many countries. So far as it is based on absurd prejudices and an almost pathological credulity concerning the alleged evils done by the Jews, or is instigated by certain organisations, one of which exists in this country, it is a wholly cruel and evil thing. 

But some of it proceeds from genuine apprehension. It is thought in more than one country that refugees admitted for permanent settlement will merely enter already crowded professions or swell the existing army of retailers and middlemen. That is why I am so desperately anxious, in order to dispel these fears, to get some of these land settlement schemes actually in operation, for I believe it will be found to be the case, as in Palestine, that these Jewish refugees, if properly trained and selected, will make good primary producers.

I should like to answer one of the points made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who did not seem to have a single supporter in this regard, by saying that the leading Jews with whom I have discussed this question share my opinion and my keenness on the subject of land settlement generally—not land settlement in one particular country. But we must have the land first in considerable quantities in countries with sparse population and undeveloped resources. It is impossible to generalise about these land settlement schemes, but what my colleagues of the Evian Committee and I have in mind are schemes large enough to give a community feeling without producing alarm in the minds of the people of the countries settled that they are going to be swamped by immigrants. 

I see the hon. Gentleman assenting. I should like to thank him and others who have put suggestions before me, which shall be carefully considered. 

These settlements would benefit the countries with which they were effected by increasing the general volume of trade and production and by  causing an inflow of capital. It is obvious that it would be impossible, on both political and economic grounds, to propose that the great bulk of these immigrants should be taken into the national life of the densely populated Western countries, but there is room for them in other parts of the world. May I give a very brief resumé of what has been done? I am saying nothing improper when I say that I have pressed, not only on the Governments of other countries but on His Majesty's Government, the extreme urgency of finding land in order to settle these people, and in this I have had every support from the Colonial Secretary. There is at present an expert mission of investigation to British Guiana, which has just finished its work. It is partly American and I should like to pay a tribute, if it is in order—I think it is—to the personal interest displayed by the President of the United States. I hope that the report of the Mission will be in the hands of the director very shortly. 

A mission has gone out to Northern Rhodesia, where I have considerable hope that it may be possible to bring about a settlement. The possibilities of settlement in British Nyasaland are also going to be examined by the Commission which has gone to Northern Rhodesia. Suggestions have been made about Dominica and British Honduras. They are under consideration by the Colonial Office.
 Source: Hansard online, 6th April 1939, Vol. 345, ‘Refugees’.
Reproduced here under the terms of the Open Parliament Licence:

The next reference to Richborough in Parliament was a little later that summer, only a couple of months before war broke out.

On the subject of Refugees (Agricultural Employment), a short exchange follows, given in full below – and this is interesting not least in giving a taste of some of Nancy Astor’s ‘interventions’.

Source: Hansard online, 6 July 1939, Vol. 349, ‘Refugees (Agricultural Employment)’.

Reproduced here under the terms of the Open Parliament Licence:

In August 1939, as the last of our families were making last-minute desperate escapes, as noted in Hansard under the heading of ‘Refugees’,  Mr Williams and Mr Peake discuss agricultural training for Palestine and Richborough refugee camp.

Mr Williams

asked the Home Secretary how many refugees are being trained in this country with a view to immigration to Palestine; the estimated cost over a period of six months; and what body or organisations are responsible for financing the scheme?

Source: Hansard online, 2 August 1939, Vol. 350, ‘Refugees’.

Reproduced here under the terms of the Open Parliament Licence:

Finally, in the following link, there is some oversight of the debates that were taking place once war had broken out and the country was trying to decide what to do about the presence in Britain of our fathers and grandfathers, uncles and cousins.

Of particular interest for our purposes, for those who do not wish to read the entire entry, is the following, spoken by Lord Bishop of Chichester

Further, national security and national service are not altogether disconnected. Large numbers of the men who have now been so suddenly interned were actually working for the Government when they were taken.

Some of your Lordships know the camp of the Pioneer Corps at Richborough. The men who were working at Richborough as proved and trusted servants of the Government, because they lived in Richborough, on Whit Sunday last were removed from Richborough and are now interned. They do not understand it. This action is really depriving the country of valuable work. 

These men were encouraged—rather strongly encouraged—to join the Pioneer Corps. They most willingly accepted this opportunity of serving the country to which they are so grateful. Now they are interned and out of action, unable to help. 

There is another category of considerable  importance—quite a different class. Amongst the internees lately made are something like thirty scholars of great eminence in Europe whose loyalty to this country is beyond any manner of doubt. Some of these men have made very great contributions to science and to learning in various branches. Some of them have been doing work for the Government. Now they are useless. They cannot work. There is an extraordinary waste of their capacity. Even if they were allowed to go harvesting when the time comes, they would be doing infinitely less service in the camp as internees than they could do if they were outside and have done. I believe that, all unconsciously, acts of injustice have been done. I also venture to say that, all unconsciously, the policy—unless, as I hope, it is changed—is playing into Hitler's own hands. I do not understand how the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, can really miss that point. 

I am sure that that is the remark which is made in secret in his chamber by many a Nazi leader in Germany, and I can have little doubt that it is not an uncommon impression abroad. I would suggest that there are certain steps which ought to be taken for the sake of justice. When the Order was made, it was described as a temporary measure and hope was given that there would be a re-examination of the cases which were admittedly hard. I would like to suggest that that promise should be implemented with all speed, and that there should be local tribunals in the camps set up now which should have the power to order the release of persons of indubitable integrity and loyalty. 

I should further like special consideration given to the hardships of students, boys and girls just over sixteen, going through their ordinary school course.But if nothing can be done for a large number of individual cases of undoubted integrity—and I hope that is not the case—I still hope that special action may be taken with regard to the conditions under which these men are interned."

Source: Hansard online, 12 June 1940, Vol. 116, ‘The Fifth Column: Position of The BBC’.

Reproduced here under the terms of the Open Parliament Licence: