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Paul Quinet, a former Belgian refugee

22 Jul

Paul Gustave Désiré Quinet (surname pronounced key-nay) was born in 1899 in Koekelberg, Brussels. At the age of four and a half, he moved with his parents to Persia but returned to Brussels in 1906 to go to boarding school, where he remained until 1914.

His mother died in childbirth in Persia in 1908 and his father remained working there until returning to Brussels in 1913.

In 1914, after Paul proudly told his father that he had seen German troops in nearby woods, the family quickly gathered together belongings and left Brussels for the Belgian coast, taking the last train to leave before the entry of the German troops into the city.

On 13th September 1914, the family decided to try to get to France, travelling from Belgium to Holland in a horse-drawn dray. They caught a boat from Flushing, Holland to Folkestone, England where they spent three nights before catching a boat to Dieppe, France, where they stayed until May 1915. Paul’s father, Alexandre, obtained a position as Consul at the Belgian Consulate in Geneva, Switzerland, where he remained until after the war.

Paul was sent back to England on 5th May 1915 on his own, with £5 in his pocket. He sought advice from the Belgian Consul in London, and on 7th May 1915, speaking only a little English, he became a boarder at Arnold House, King’s School, Chester. After the first term, he was told he would be spending his holidays with a Doctor Whitehouse in Solihull. Having no idea where Solihull was, Paul visited the library in Chester to find out!

He arrived at Solihull Station where Mr Smith, the porter, told him that Dr Whitehouse was a “nice gentleman”. Setting off for the half-mile walk, Paul was met en route by Dr Whitehouse in his open-topped tourer and driven to his home at 681 Warwick Road. Paul promptly developed mumps so stayed for two months with Dr Whitehouse and his sister, Mary, who kept house for him.

One day, Dr Whitehouse found Paul in tears and, after enquiring why, was told of Paul’s fears that he could not fulfil his ambition of becoming a doctor as the Germans had occupied the University of Belgium. Dr Whitehouse immediately informed him that there was a very good university in Birmingham and, twelve months later, with the kind help of Dr Whitehouse and Professor Gamgee who used his influence to overcome Paul’s lack of English qualifications, Paul entered Birmingham University at the age of 16. He lived with Dr Whitehouse and travelled to the University every day by train from Solihull. At weekends he helped Dr Whitehouse with minor operations and assisted him on his rounds.

In June 1918, whilst still a medical student, he was called up into the Belgian Army in France, joining the Medical Corps and serving as an anaesthetist until October 1919. After this, he returned to Dr Whitehouse at Solihull and resumed his medical studies at Birmingham University.

Whilst at university, he had met fellow medical student, Doris Elizabeth Willcox, whose family lived at Fowgay Hall in Solihull. Paul and Doris travelled to Birmingham together, and both qualified in 1922, after Doris (known as “Doll”) had interrupted her own studies whilst Paul was in the Belgian Army in order that they might qualify together. As soon as they qualified, they became officially engaged, and they married at St Alphege Church, Solihull in 1924. Dr Whitehouse was best man.

The newly-weds set up home at the Doctor’s House, 321 West View, Stratford Road, Shirley, where they lived for about five years, setting up a consulting room in the house, and building a wooden shed in the garden to act as a dispensary. Paul joined Dr Whitehouse in general practice, and worked in the Bernays, Whitehouse and Thomas group until 1948. Doris also assisted in the practice during the Second World War.

In 1925, Paul became a naturalised British citizen. Although he applied for naturalisation before his marriage, it took some while for the papers to come through so, for a short period, Doris’s nationality was “Belgian by marriage”. After Paul’s naturalisation, Doris’s nationality on her passport was “British by birth; Belgian by marriage; British by naturalisation of husband”.

Paul and Doris had two children, and were much loved doctors in the ‘village’ of Solihull until their deaths in 1978 and 1981 respectively. Their home and surgery at the “Doctor’s House”, 681 Warwick Road, has become known as Quinet House and is now an office block.

Paul’s autobiography, My Life, was edited by his wife and published in 1982. It’s available in Solihull Libraries.

Image of book cover

My Life by Paul Quinet

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