Flemings in the UK: Michel Vanhoonacker on ceremonial titles


In the third instalment of our new series on Flemish people living and working in the UK, we talk to Michel Vanhoonacker, a business consultant who was recently crowned Freeman of London

Reign over London

In days gone by, Michel Vanhoonacker from Bruges would have had free reign over London. He’d have had the right to walk his sheep across London Bridge without charge, to carry an unsheathed sword in the streets, and to be escorted home rather than arrested for being drunk and disorderly in public.

That’s not quite accurate, of course: until 1995, foreigners couldn’t  be granted the freedom of a British city. And nowadays, the honour is almost entirely ceremonial – though some present-day holders of the title have been known to exercise their right to drive sheep over the bridge for free.

But it’s nevertheless a source of pride for newly crowned Freeman of London Vanhoonacker, who first moved to the UK as a postgraduate student in 1991 to study business in Bristol. In the intervening 25 years, he’s helped numerous Flemish companies break the UK market, became head of the Belgium-Luxembourg chamber of commerce in Great Britain and has been instrumental in creating the Flanders Fields memorial garden in London.

Remembrance of the war dead is something Flanders and Britain both take very seriously, and the idea for the garden came from three of Vanhoonacker’s friends: Nic Vandermarliere, the Flemish representative in the UK, Andrew Wallis, the curator of London’s Guards Museum, and Piet Blanckaert, a landscape gardener from Bruges.

“They noticed that an old pond next to the museum’s chapel was looking dilapidated, and one suggested turning it into a memorial garden for the centenary of the First World War,” Vanhoonacker explains. “For these things of course you need money, and they thought it would be nice if Flemish companies could help. So it was logical that I became involved.”

A proud recognition

It was this project that won the men the Freedom of the City of London, an honour first presented in the 13th century. “To become a freeman of the city, you have to have done something special, and I’m very proud of it,” he says. “In olden times it was important as it allowed you to take your sheep across London Bridge without paying a toll, for example, so economically it was a very good thing to get.”

In today’s world,  he says, it’s very limited. “But it’s still an honour. It’s nice to be able to say this country took me in and I’ve been able to give something back that they appreciate.”

To become a freeman of the city, you have to have done something special, and I’m very proud of it

- Michel Vanhoonacker

Something else he’s giving back is providing employment through helping Belgian companies do business in Britain. If a company from Belgium or Luxembourg wants to invest, set up a company or employ local staff, the chamber of commerce offers various practical services.

“We support all kinds of companies: we helped a lingerie company from Brussels open a shop in London, for example,” he says. “Then there was Pierre Marcolini, and a biotech company developing cancer treatments. It’s really anybody who wants to come to the UK.”

They help traditional companies as well as start-ups. “Before, a company would set up in Flanders, then look at Holland, France and Germany, before going to the UK,” he explains, “but now with start-ups what we see is they set up in Belgium and the next step is London or New York.”

Belgian connections

Having set up his own businesses in the past, he says, helps him better support others wanting to do the same. “I can go to a CEO of a company and say, ‘I’m one of you, I’m doing it myself, what I’m going to tell you here is based on my experience.’”

When he joined the board of the chamber, everybody else was a banker or an accountant or a solicitor. “The board recognised that was a bit of a problem – though we need these other professions, of course,” he says. “But businesses want to talk to people who do the same thing, people who have the same issues and questions.” 

Though Vanhoonacker’s work often takes him to London and further afield, he’s happily settled even farther north, in the East Yorkshire countryside, where his British wife’s family come from. “I’ve lived in the city centres my whole life, and I’m really a city boy,” he says. “So in that respect it’s very strange that I live where I do.”

The family lived in London, but it was not ideal for raising a family, and living East Yorkshire means they have very good connections to Belgium. “I’m on that boat all the time,” he says. “This is a beautiful region, the people are very friendly, there’s space and nature.”

And he and his children love going back to Flanders whenever they can. “They feel more Belgian than British, even though they were born here,” he says. “I always try to take them with me when I go back, so they don’t lose sight of where they come from.”

Photo courtesy Michel Vanhoonacker