Published on September 3rd, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Birtley Belgians’ Witbier wisdom
It’s amazing what you discover in a glass of beer, writes Alastair Gilmour
Who would have thought that drinking an innocent can of Belgian-style Witbier produced on Tyneside would lead down a trail of history that has largely been forgotten?
Firebrick Brewery’s Little Belgium (4.7% abv) is in Witbier (white or wheat) style; pale and opaque with a crisp wheat character and refreshing orange peel notes laced with spicy coriander. It is named in honour of the “Birtley Belgians” who were recruited from their homeland to work in armaments factories during the First World War, principally in Birtley (now in the Borough of Gateshead but then part of County Durham). Before the First World War, Belgium was renowned for the quality of its armaments, mortars, artillery and landmines.
The history lesson began with Sheilagh Matheson, former BBC North East journalist (also ITV and Channel 4) who discovered the story of the Birtley Belgians a few years ago when she was on a working holiday in Poperinge, a small town near Ypres.
Sheilagh says: “I go there every year for a fortnight to work in the original TOC H building, called Talbot House, set up during the First World War. (TOC H is an international Christian movement and charity.)
“Four years ago, Talbot House had an exhibition all about the Birtley Belgians. I contacted (journalist and writer) Dirk Musschoot, who had done all the research and written a book about them and one thing led to another, in particular an eight-minute television film produced for BBC North East.”
Dirk Musschoot reveals his side of the story that includes a long association with the North East. He says: “In 1978 I became friends with a family from Ponteland. Ever since I have been visiting them and the North East at least once a year. More than 20 years ago, they asked me if I knew about the so-called Birtley Belgians. I didn’t, so we visited Birtley (the building in which once the Belgian Hospital was housed was still there) and I became interested…”
“The Birtley Belgians were either Belgian refugees during World War I or wounded soldiers who were send to the UK to recover but who never again became fit enough to return to the trenches.
“The British shell crisis in spring 1915 made clear that there was an urgent need of ammunition. So, in no time ammunition factories were built and manned with whoever was available.
“One of those factories, the National Projectile Factory in Birtley, was completely manned with Belgians: 85% ‘rejected’ soldiers and 15% refugees. In total they were a workforce of 4,000 plus 2,000 wives and children.
“Next to the factory in BIrtley a complete Belgian village was erected for those 6,000 Belgians: Elisabethville (written with an ‘s’ – the village was named after the Belgian Queen Elisabeth). It had some 700 houses, about 20 dormitories, a hospital, shops, a restaurant, offices, a school and a church. Today only the food shop and the butchery remain (they are garages now) plus the Belgian cemetery.
“Once the war was over, all the Belgians went home, apart from about 40 men who had married local girls and stayed.”
In all, the Birtley workforce made more than two million artillery shells, making it one of the most productive armaments works in Britain – and were celebrated as heroes helping to end the war.
There are a couple of twists to come in our Birtley Belgians story, however.
Alistair Lawrence from Firebrick Brewery says: “Funnily enough, the idea for Little Belgium Witbier didn’t actually come directly from the Birtley Belgians. We brewed a beer for the Newcastle Beer Festival in 2017 and wanted to see what we could do with coriander seeds and bitter orange peel, like in a Belgian white beer. We thought if it went OK we’d keep it on in our Heritage Range – and it came top of its category.
“Then I thought how do we tie a Witbier in with the heritage of Gateshead and Newcastle and started googling and came across the Birtley Belgians. What a gift! It was similar to how Giuseppe Lager came about – I discovered that Giuseppe Garibaldi (Italian patriot and freedom fighter) stayed in Blaydon with (local MP) Joseph Cowen who campaigned for women’s rights and the emancipation of slavery. Our brewery is on Cowen Road in Blaydon – I’m on the ball with all of that.”
Elsewhere at Firebrick, business appears to be doing well. “Not so long ago, a busy week used to be 80 casks but we’ve done 140 this week,” says Alistair. “It seems to have come from nowhere. We’re 25% up on sales this year and struggling to keep up with demand.”
A canning and bottling line is earmarked for the new next-door unit which also features a shop with eight taps and a visitor area.
But back to Birtley and one of its most distinctive pubs, the Railway Hotel – and another turn in our story. It’s owned by North West-based businessman John Brearley who fell for the handsome Railway Hotel some years ago and, coupled with his passion for real ale, decided to buy it.
John says: “I was aware of the Birtley Belgians. When I was a young trainee accountant at Coopers and Lybrand (now PwC) in Manchester I was posted on my first ‘away’ audit job to some bleak Royal Ordnance factory in a mysterious place called Birtley. The company had just been privatised by Mrs Thatcher and had yet to be taken over by BAE.”
See how you get carried away when you sit back with a nice drop of beer!
*The Railway Hotel, Birtley, will be stocking Little Belgium, possibly on keg and in cans, during October. A precise date is yet to be fixed but we’ll let you know in next month’s magazine and on social media.
*With thanks to Sheilagh Matheson, Dirk Musschoot and Bill Lawrence for the background information – and Firebrick Brewery for Little Belgium.