We celebrated our 75th anniversary as British Council in the Netherlands in 2021 by sharing 75 personal stories from people who have a special connection to both the UK and the Netherlands. Read the 75 NL-UK stories and join us in celebrating our 75th anniversary. Watch the personal stories from Jeroen Dijsselbloem and David Alderdice, and expand the boxes below to read the full stories by Anne Popkema, John Cameron-Webb, Louise Gunning-Schepers and Angus Dunphy OBE.
75 UK-NL Stories - History
Ink leaves marks
We were on a mission.
Me and my mate Herre had good reason to suspect that Cambridge University Library holds an early print (c.1485) that was once the property of the Flemish Averbode Abbey. In December 1942, large parts of this proud and majestic Norbertine monastery, including its library, were lost to a fire that raged on for only two hours but was absolutely devastating nonetheless. Luckily, the monks were able to secure many of their old and rare books. Yet many of the rescued books were lost track of in the aftermath of the fire and, indeed, of WWII. Dozens of Averbode books entered the black market in the 1940’s, some of which seem to have ultimately found their way to the Amsterdam book trade. Including ‘ours’, which was sold to CUL in 1970. By that time any evidence linking the book to Averbode Abbey had been meticulously erased. CUL had no idea they were buying a ‘stained’ book.
We had contacted CUL in 2017 with a request to search the book for links to Averbode Abbey. Their excellent Special Collections staff had pointed out to us that there were indeed the vaguest of remnants of what might have once been a library stamp of sorts. Upon close inspection of the book on site in Cambridge in 2018 by myself and Herre and after CUL’s reproduction division had applied the sharpest of its cutting edge techniques, the remnants turned out to read: Bibliotheca Averbodiensis.
The satisfaction of giving an ‘orphaned book’ a history, of reveiling its background and telling its tale to both former and current possessors, caretakers, lovers of books and stories, is an experience that shaped me and my perspective of what unlimited and unhindered traffic of persons, goods and ideas may achieve – for bad and for good. I am who I am today because of our trip to Cambridge and the people we met. Those four days were among the best of my life. Partially because I learned something very valuable.
Ink leaves marks. Always.
The Dutch and British have far more in common than is often realised and for centuries British people have felt very at home here. For example, Samuel Pepys who was a clerk of the British Admiralty visited Loosduinen in 1660 and remarked on the neat and tidy way the Dutch lived, something which could still be written by a visitor today. I was made more aware of our shared heritage when I worked as a tour guide on the reconstructed East Indiaman The Batavia at her shipyard in Lelystad. Originally built in 1628 in Amsterdam she floundered on some sandbanks on her maiden voyage to Batavia in 1629. I took on this role as a hobby because of my love for maritime adventure stories but also because I knew that taking groups of Dutch visitors around the ship meant I had to improve my Dutch language pretty quickly. The Dutch and English were forever competing with each other for trade and continue to do so today; but it is an accepted, competitive situation adding an element of healthy respect which underlines our relationship today. So to really get even with our Dutch hosts, I say; learn their language and history and tell them about their great past; in a heavy English accent.
Maybe the fact that I was conceived in Britain but born in Amsterdam, now almost 70 years ago paved the way for a lifetime of crossing the channel both for work and friends. My parents started their married life in London not long after the war, when the NHS just started and did not yet cover deliveries. My grandfather, a general practitioner, suggested a visit to Amsterdam to deliver the baby and that is why I have been able to claim my origins in Amsterdam.
My husband and I also lived in Britain in the early years of our marriage. Life with young children in a small village near Oxford came pretty close to what all those novels had led me to expect. But more importantly, it gave us two essential constants in our lives. Both my husband and I met many young academics in Oxford, in the same early career stages we were in. And we made friendships for life, that stayed after we moved, eventually ending up back in the Netherlands.
Both the colleagues and the friends continued to be very present in our work and family life and grew old with us. First we became colleagues as we were appointed as professors, collaborators as we applied for EU funding, co-organizers of conferences and hosts to many doctoral students back and forth. We visited each other for summer holidays and we went to the weddings and the funerals. We are now at the stage that the grandchildren feel free to ask for accommodation as they explore either side of the channel, which they too consider part of their heritage. That is how good neighbours can and should live together.
University of Amsterdam
Angus Dunphy OBE part 1/2
75 Years of Anglo-Dutch Understanding
Born in Wolverhampton at the end of World War Two I was intrigued when eBay advertised a complete set of De Bromtol, the weekly newspaper of the wartime Royal Dutch military camp at Wrottesley Park. I purchased it and was transported back to Wolverhampton as it was in the war years.
The newspapers were in Dutch and I became determined to get them translated, so that I could re-tell the Dutch forces’ story at their main base in Britain. Lambert Groen and Yvonne Corfield generously came to my rescue with the 134 issues. A few others including some Dutch students from Atlantic College in South Wales transcribed sections of newsprint (HM King Willem-Alexander is a former student, whilst his second daughter Princess Alexia begins her studies there this autumn).
August 2021 sees the 80th anniversary of the first visit of HM Queen Wilhelmina to Wrottesley Park when she named and presented colours to her newly formed “Princess Irene Brigade” (Irene, her second granddaughter, has a name that means ‘shethat brings peace’.)
The camp now settled down to preparing the troops for retaking their homeland. De Bromtol (‘The Humming Top’) gives a clear picture of camp life, both its highs and lows, for troops were far from home and loved ones and in a foreign environment. The camp of 1500-2000 personnel was never still.as troops came and went.
Of vital importance was the welcome given by the host community. The local newspaper, the Express and Star, vigorously promoted a scheme for local families to adopt a Dutch soldier and welcome him into their home, so that he could experience British family life. Then there were the camp dances from which many a romance blossomed. Local girls would be offered “Dutch transport” home, which involved riding on a bicycle’s crossbar! No wonder the girls referred to Wrottesley as “Rockley Park”! Today, many local families in Codsall, Tettenhall and the wider West Midlands have Dutch surnames and relatives. The pubs, cinemas, theatres and dancehalls in Wolverhampton were a huge attraction. The sketches of soldier Herman van den Bosch captures the spirit of the age.
Between Tettenhall ‘s Upper and Lower Green is ‘The Rock’, a long steep cutting in the sandstone plateau. Herman’s sketch depicts Mr Swindley’s clock tower of 1911 on the Upper Green. Our artist has added cables to help returning soldiers scale what they called “The Alps”, after a heavy night in Wolverhampton’s pubs. What they did not know was that it was said Mr Swindley, in a similar state, had his gardener push him up The Rock in his wheelbarrow…
Nations have different customs and the war years saw a sharing and understanding of each other’s culture. Christmas was celebrated in Dutch quarters in early December with a visit from Sinterklaas and in town at the Bodega public house in Dudley Street. Meanwhile Dutch troops were given an explanation in De Bromtol of the British pantomime. It was explained that the leading man was in fact a lady and that the dame was actually a man! Troops however, had no difficulty in recognising the ‘baddie’ – a black-market dealer with the face of Adolf.
Angus Dunphy OBE part 2/2
There were many shared experiences. Birmingham University opened up its lecture programme; sports fixtures were encouraged between other military establishments; and a Wrottesley Park XI played Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molyneux, only losing 4-2. Whilst Wolves were the better side the Dutch with more training would pose a real threat. Wartime Britain saw casualties and the Dutch-staffed wing at New Cross hospital was kept busy. Queen Wilhelmina awarded the Order of Oranje-Nassau to Dr Lee and Matron Miss Cain, together with Lady Brenda Hickman, the commandant of the Little Wyrley Auxiliary hospital.
2021 sees the celebration of the 75thAnniversary of the unique relationship of the British Council’s NL–UK link. It also marks the post-war Wolverhampton–Tilburg cultural, sporting and educational exchanges of 120 schoolchildren from both cities. Given the severe wartime deprivations, even the idea of an exchange at this time can only be wondered at. However, strong friendships and a determination to succeed by involving the youth of both cities ensured success. The pages of the Express and Star reported every event in both the Netherlands and Wolverhampton. One wonders if the British Council was involved? The Mayor and Mayoress of Wolverhampton presented their counterparts with a tandem cycle. Goodyear’s tyre factory was visited and most children took bicycle tyres home as they were unobtainable in the Netherlands.
Strong links between the Dutch military, the Royal British Legion and the City are renewed each November with an annual Remembrance Service at Jeffcock Road cemetery, where 23 Dutch soldiers lie at rest. Afterwards tea is taken in the mayor’s parlour.
My wife and I flew to The Netherlands to visit Oirschot’s military museum within the large military base, where we were shown nothing but kindness by Regimental Sergeant Major Dennis van de Wijngaart and museum volunteers Harrie Dijkhuizen and Hans van Schaik. We travelled widely and found the Dutch people helpful and engaging.
After researching the book,The Princess Irene Brigade at Wrottesley Park 1941-4, I am left with the view that there is a joy in sharing each other’s experiences, differences and cultures. After all we live in a shrinking world where relationships matter. The work of the British Council is better understood these days. Raw recruits at Wrottesley sometimes thought they could get a loan from it!
Angus Dunphy OBE
Angus Dunphy published the book, The Princess Irene Brigade at Wrottesley Park 1941-4 in late 2019. Available from and orders via firstname.lastname@example.org