The Story of The Peeters Family.
This story relates authentic dramatic happenings, supplemented by additional information, gathered during genealogical research. The author’s grandfather, Franciscus Peeters, provided most information by oral transmission. In the year 2000, his sister, Mathilda Peeters, provided additional details.
Maria Theresia Verelst:
Everything started with the mother of the hero of this story, Joannes Baptista Peeters. She, Maria Theresia Peeters, was born in Antwerp on the June 15th 1832. As many young Flemish girls, she started to work in the great town of Brussels to serve wealthy people. She married Albert De Greef on the June 8th 1859 and gave birth to four children with De Greef as their last name. Her husband, Albert, died on the November 4th 1861. Widowed she stayed in Brussels with her four children.
In the year of 1869 some of the battalions of the Belgian army stayed in Brussels and the pour widow fell in love with a high ranked Belgian military officer. She got pregnant just before the officer had to leave town, never to return again. Therefore her son, born on November 13th 1869, got her family name Peeters. The mother died on November 19th 1869, 6 days after the delivery. She probably had nobody to whom to relate her happening.
Contacts exist with the relatives of the family De Greef, and research is going on to investigate their knowledge of the story or about their contribution to the rest of the story.
Joannes Baptista Peeters´ youth.
The little Joannes Baptista Peeters, 6 days old, was brought to a nurse at Betekom, a little village near Aarschot. The decision was probably made by the remaining family (De Greef or maybe of the military officer?). At school age he was raised in the family of a notary at Betekom. Both facts can probably be traced back in the archives of Betekom or in the minutes of the notary. This is even more curious since there was never a connection between the family De Greef and the village of Betekom. There is even a possibility that the military officer was either the notary himself or one of his relatives, or that he accepted the task given by the actual father, the military officer, to raise the boy. In any case Jean Baptist was very well raised, most probably by the funds (or parts of it) provided by his lively father.
As an adult, he was offered the position as a driver of the mayor of the nearby Belgian town of Aarschot. In those years that was of course still on a chariot with horses, but it was considered an “honourable” position.
Joannes Baptista got to know Theresia Verelst, when he was about 18 to 19 years old. Having a good position, he was not supposed to marry young, even not after Theresia got pregnant. As such their son, Franciscus, born on December 13th 1889, was called originally Franciscus Verelst, after his mother’s family name. After the eventual marriage of Joannes Baptista and Theresia, the name Franciscus Verelst was changed to Franciscus Peeters.
All the other children that were born after their marriage were called after their father, Peeters.
Their oldest son, Franciscus, married on the October 5th 1912 to Maria Clementina Sidonia Verstrepen, and on the March 9th 1912 their daughter Sophia Joanna Francisca Peeters was born. They lived in a house in the neighbourhood of his parents in the Diestsestraat in Aarschot.
All other children were still living with their parents. Those were in order of age: the twins Jan and Louis (1898), Anna (1900), Justine (1906), Mathilda (1910) and Edward (1913).
They had a rather wealthy life in that little town of Aarschot until the Germans invaded Belgium.
The German army invaded (for the first time) Aarschot, in August 1914. The Priest Jozef De Vroey describes the entire story about their misbehaviour in that town in the book “Aarschot, op Woensdag, 19 Augustus 1914”. Without going into detail about all the events, we will limit ourselves only to those episodes that involve the Peeters family.
Aarschot, 19th of August 1914.
As marked on the back of a post card (see later), and as mentioned in many history books, a shooting took place in the town of Aarschot. A highly ranked German officer was shot on the balcony of the house of the Mayor Thielemans.
History claims later that his own soldiers shot him, as he was a very tough officer. But in any case, as a revenge, the Germans imprisoned hundreds of civilians on the market place were a first random selection was made.
After long tours through the streets of Aarschot, the selected victims were brought to a location in the Leuvensestraat. Amongst this selection were the Mayor of Aarschot and two of his under aged sons. Also the Mayor's coach driver, Joannes Baptist Peeters, was amongst them with his two twin sons. They had to stand in a row. Counting down the row of people performed the final selection. Each third person had to die while the numbers one and two had to burry the third-one. That was on 20-08-1914. The Mayor and his two sons were amongst the victims. The circumstances were also dramatically for the Peeters family. Joannes Baptista Peeters was standing next to his two twin sons while being shot. The two sons, Joannes and Ludovicus (more commonly called Jan and Louis) had to bury their father. Then they were released and could return home to their mother to tell her the sad story. In total 169 civilians were shot at different places in the town of Aarschot.
Other civilians buried the bodies of the victims in several different locations. After the war the bodies were recovered and identified. The content of their pockets were noted. Joannes Baptista only had a red and white handkerchief and a paternoster. Later the recovered bodies from the different places over town, were buried at the local cemetery, where the graves can still be visited today.
The Escape to England.
Although the research on the story is far from being finalised, the escape will be described in roughly. Mother Theresia, fled with her six unmarried children through small dumpy roads. It was important for them to be away as far as possible from Aarschot, away from the Germans. They went over pastures and through the fields. The little things they could take with them were loaded on a wheelbarrow. They went north to arrive at a castle of de Merode, noblemen in Westerlo, were she and the children were allowed to stay for the rest of their life. But the twins, traumatised as they were, rejected. They, but particularly Louis, wanted to escape from the Germans. So they continued after some time towards Antwerp. There she received an identity card and she was able to flee to London (via which route, ship and by which funds, is still under investigation). Also her oldest son, Franciscus, his wife Sidonia, and their daughter Joanna Sophia, fled from Aarschot, maybe they even joined them on the trip but that is not certain. Afterwards they lived as a separate family.
They arrived in London and then moved around in Great Britain eventually arriving in Witton Park, Durham County. This little town was selected by the British Government to locate fugitives of WW1 as it was very well suited for it. Metallurgic industry collapsed and the houses of entire streets were empty. The Peeters widow and 6 children arrived with a first group of 42 fugitives on the October 6th 1914.
Franciscus and his wife Sidonia and their daughter Joanna, probably arrived later, as they are not depicted on the picture of the group made at Witton Park station.
On the October 29th 1915 Louis Jean Baptist Peeters was born in Witton Park, as the second child of Franciscus Peeters en Sidonia Verstrepen. This proves that also the eldest son and his family stayed in Witton Park before moving on to Elisabethville. Also the family Cypers of Aarschot, including their son Victor, lived in that area, but probably in the nearby town of Durham. Mathilda narrated that « the Cypers came and visited us from Durham »
The locals at Witton Park were extremely gentle towards the Belgian fugitives. Justine en Anna Peeters were enrolled in the local mixed catholic school, Saint Chad´s, as numbers 171 and 172.
A local priest, John Francis Krajicek, took pity on the Belgians. On the November 2nd 1914 he wrote, as the responsible person of the school, in the diary: « A party of Belgian children came to school to-day. They have taken possession of Std I and II classroom, consequently these classes are now in Infant Room. M. Van Criekinge in charge of above. » and on January 11th : « Owing to lack of accommodation the Belgian class has been transferred to room, usually occupied by Infants ». Also on September 21st 1915 he wrote: « School closed for afternoon session as Belgian children are going to Durham ». Did they go on a visit or was it final? The first option looks acceptable. On the September 4th 1916 someone wrote in the diary: « This morning I transferred Belgian Class children, three to Class III, and five to Class II, as Belgian teacher in charge completed her duties August 31th, and will leave W.Park. »
The Belgian children were enrolled under the numbers 149 till 188 with 5 missing numbers. That means that 34 children went to that school. On the September 4th 1916 however, only 8 remained. Possibly 26 left on September 21st 1915. They were probably the first delegation to move to Elizabethville.
It was decided by the British Government on the September 23rd 1915, to construct a camp called Elisabethville, near Birtley. This camp would serve to lodge the people that would be employed in the ammunition factory in the close neighbourhood. On arrival of the first workers by the end of October 1915, the camp was not ready yet. When exactly, the families Peeters joined the camp is not correctly known. But they surely moved from Witton Park to Elisabethville. Several pictures were made there and in addition there is the testimony of Mathilda. One of the pictures show Franciscus Peeters working as a carpenter on the construction of Elisabethville. Also the twins were seen on a picture.
Franciscus Peeters, was also employed in the adjacent ammunition factory. He arranged for the maintenance of the machinery. The current was supposed to be cut on his request, but a colleague failed to do so. The machine started and his left arm was taken off. Because of his handicap he was left the choice between a lump sum (unknown amount) or a monthly payment. Seen the difficult circumstances he chooses the first solution. The family is represented on a picture after the accident and after the birth of my uncle.
In the mean time mother Theresia continued her own life with the children in Elisabethville.
A picture is taken of the family. Mathilda narrated: « We lived in a camp that was protected by Belgian soldiers. No one was allowed in or out without permission. We also went to school in the camp. A Belgian Canon De Wachter or was it Verpoorten came to visit us regularly. Later I worked for him »
The reason of having a fence was not at all to enclose the Belgian fugitives but rather to protect them against possible intruders. The living conditions were not in favours to the locals. Their houses did not always have water from the tap or “modern” toilets.
The Return to Belgium.
Both families Peeters returned to Aarschot and were registered in that town. Theresia Verelst and her children moved in at Diestschestraat, 53 on January 21st 1919 and Franciscus Peeters and his family lived at Diestschestraat, 40 from May 16th 1919 onwards.
One of the twin brothers, Louis, was left over with such a trauma that he became mentally ill. He remained in a special home in Mortsel until he died.
Finally, all children got married and moved out, Theresia Verelst stayed with her youngest daughter, where ultimately she also died on August 21st 1960.
As you can see, many questions remain unsolved. Can you i.e. imagine that Mathilda did not know that her brother Franciscus had the name of Verelst before the marriage of their parents? What intrigues me most is the rather rich education and the unknown what-I-call Nobele Onbekende (Noble unknown) on top.
So now you got a glimpse of our history.