Leeds & West Yorkshire

Love letters unlock secrets of Yorkshire wartime romance

Cyrille
Image caption Cyrille Desager convalesced at Temple Newsam House in Leeds

Love letters sent from a Belgian soldier to the mother of his illegitimate child have helped unlock the secrets of a wartime romance.

When Cyrille Desager was injured in World War One, he was sent to recuperate at a stately home in Yorkshire, where he was to fall in love.

Between 1915 and 1917, Temple Newsam in Leeds was used as a convalescent hospital and it was while there Mr Desager met Beeston girl Lizzie Wark.

There was talk of an engagement between the couple, and by 1918 she was pregnant with their daughter Margaret.

The pregnancy was to be kept a secret from her immediate family to save casting shame on them, and Miss Wark was sent to Ireland to give birth.

Mr Desager returned to Belgium and never saw the mother of his child again nor had the chance to meet his little girl.

He apparently never forgot them, though, and wrote regular letters that are on show at the Tudor-Jacobean mansion where the couple met.

Image caption Letters and cards from Cyrille Desager are on display at Temple Newsam in Leeds
Image caption Lizzie Wark became pregnant with her and Cyrille Desager's daughter Margaret in 1918

Mr Desager wrote for five years but then the letters stopped in 1924, when Margaret would have been five. Miss Wark never went to Belgium and never married.

More stories from Yorkshire

It was through these letters and cards - many depicting images of young girls who would be the same age as their daughter at the time - that Miss Wark's grandson came to meet members of his Belgian family for the first time.

Intrigued by the letters written to his grandmother, Michael Hassell started researching his grandfather, as he wanted to know what happened to him on his return to Belgium.

Helped by historians from the University of Leeds, he contacted the Desager family in the soldier's hometown of Dendermonde in East Flanders, and got a letter back from his cousin.

He has now been on a trip to Belgium to meet his relatives and find out more about his grandfather's story.

Image caption The injured soldier wrote to Lizzie regularly until 1924
Image caption Mr Hassell discovered his grandfather had never told his family about his daughter Margaret

"Family history says they met at Temple Newsam, which opened as a convalescent hospital in 1914," he said.

"There was talk of there being an engagement and yes I think there was every intention of them getting married once the war had finished.

"They had to move around a lot, they were ostracised," Mr Hassell said.

Accompanied by the BBC's Inside Out programme, Mr Hassell went to Belgium to meet the family he never knew he had.

His cousin, Luc, told him how Cyrille Desager had married and had several children and grandchildren but never spoke of his daughter in England.

"The only thing that I know is that he has been in England but that's all," he said.

"He never talked about the wartime, never. Just before he died, he was very very restless and I thought that the images of the war were in his mind at the moment, but I can guess that now, knowing that he had a daughter that he never saw, these things could have been his last memories."

Mr Hassell said he could understand why his grandmother had maybe not wanted to move to Dendermonde to be with him.

"It wasn't much of a prospect to come to a country that has just been ravaged by war and say well, I'm going to live with this man who has no money, he has no property, he can't work. I mean, she wouldn't have had anywhere to go to, she couldn't have gone to live with him at the convalescent home.

"Maybe she thought, well if he's going to be an invalid all his life, how are we going to manage?"

The University of Leeds is urging anyone who is interested in the story of the Belgian Refugees in the UK during World War One to contact them.

You can see the full story on BBC Inside Out Yorkshire and Lincolnshire at 19:30 GMT on BBC One on Monday 5 November or via iPlayer afterwards.

Image caption Temple Newsam was used as a hospital during World War One

Related Topics

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites