Engineer and Munitions Manufacturer
Charles Pelabon was born in France into a dynasty of engineer-entrepreneurs. He trained in Antwerp and ran a mining equipment factory south of Brussels. Helped by the Belgian government, he left Antwerp with some of his key workers just before the arrival of the German army and reached Britain on 7 October 1914. Within 3 weeks he was producing shells for the Belgian army. Initially he was using a building in Teddington on the riverside at 20 Manor Road. This proved too small and he found another building in Cambridge Road, East Twickenham, initially built as a roller-skating rink and later better known as Richmond ice rink. Munitions production continued in parallel at the Teddington site for about 6 months.
The Belgian Village on the Thames
Despite not getting approval from the Twickenham Urban District Council, by December 1914 Pelabon had moved equipment into the East Twickenham factory and was producing munitions by January or February 1915. He expanded the premises adding extra workshops and was ultimately employing a workforce of about 2,000, both men, including injured Belgian soldiers, and women. It has been estimated that up to 250,000 Belgians came to the UK during the First World War, and around 6,000 of those, workers and their families, were living in Twickenham and Richmond, attracted by the employment opportunities at the Pelabon works. The Belgian community was so strong that a number of Belgian shops, cafes and restaurants opened in the Richmond Road area which, with special schools and social groups and activities gave rise to the description 'The Belgian Village on the Thames'. Pelabon himself was living in a large house in Fife Road, East Sheen. He took a paternalistic approach to his staff and many of the social and philanthropic activities took place on the Pelabon site.
After the War
Most of the Belgian refugee population left East Twickenham within a few months of the end of the war but Charles Pelabon remained and continued to use the munitions site for general engineering, including motor parts, until 1925 when it was sold to Charles Langdon who converted the building into an ice rink.
Pelabon left the area in 1925 to pursue his career as an engineer and industrialist in France. He died in 1958.