“Expedición a Inglaterra” : The Basque Children in Britain

The Spanish Civil War disrupted the lives of a generation of children. Many were forced into exile, whether temporary or permanent. Nearly 4,000 children from the Basque provinces became refugees in Britain. To mark the anniversary of their departure, on Friday 21 May 1937, we are publishing a blog-post on their experiences.

When the Habana, a steamer chartered by the Basque government, sailed from the port of Santurce, 14 km north of Bilbao, she carried 3,826 child refugees who were escaping the assault by Franco’s forces on the city to an uncertain future. They were accompanied by 120 señoritas (female helpers), 80 teachers, 16 priests and 2 doctors.  The vessel, built to carry only 800 passengers, had a difficult voyage, hitting storms in the Bay of Biscay and arriving in Southampton on the morning of Sunday 23 May.  After disembarkation the children were taken, by a fleet of municipal buses, to a campsite at North Stoneham, outside Southampton, which had been hastily prepared for them.  [Watch this 1937 British newsreel report of the children’s arrival].

As the failed military coup of July 1936 developed into Civil War, the British Conservative-dominated government adopted a policy of “non-intervention”.  However,  within days local groups were launched across Britain to support the Republican government in its struggle against the military rebels. In the autumn representatives of these groups formed the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief

By the spring of 1937 support for the Republic focussed on the plight of the Basque country which was blockaded by Franco’s navy and threatened by the advance of the insurgent army. The destruction of Guernica on 26 April by the German Condor Legion was widely reported in the British press, most notably by George Steer, The Times correspondent who visited the destroyed town hours after the bombardment [Read Steer’s original article].

Even before this there were fears for the civilian population of Bilbao: the city  was being bombed daily and was home to an estimated 100,000 refugees. From early April, plans were made to evacuate some of the women and children, with offers to accept refugees coming from several countries including France and the Soviet Union. In Britain leading members of the National Joint Committee formed a separate Basque Children’s Committee (BCC), chaired by the Duchess of Atholl, a Conservative MP, to organise the evacuation of some children. Leah Manning, a former Labour MP, was sent to Bilbao to organise this and was followed in early May by two doctors and two Spanish-speaking nurses. Families were invited to apply for their children to be included.  In the crisis of May 1937 this was an agonising decision with important consequences: in some cases the children who left would not see their parents again for years, if ever.

The British government reluctantly agreed to the arrival of 2,000 children aged six to twelve, on condition that no public money should be spent on them and on the understanding that their stay would be limited to a few months.  Soon far more than 2,000 had been registered in Bilbao and the Duchess of Atholl persuaded the government to increase the number accepted to 4,000. Since she also highlighted the threat to teenage girls from Franco’s soldiers, the government agreed to accept children up to the age of sixteen, with girls making up a higher proportion of older ones. A desperate search for a site to house the children led to the offer of three fields covering 12 hectares at North Stoneham and volunteers worked hastily to erect tents and install necessary facilities including gas and water supplies. The War Office provided the tents and field kitchens and charged for their rental.

Accounts of life at North Stoneham stress the early difficulties which the children encountered – the strange food, the language, the life in tents and the heavy rain within days of their arrival which flooded the campsite. They also indicate the traumas caused by the children’s experiences of war (many, for example, ran to hide when a small plane flew over the camp to photograph it). The fall of Bilbao to the insurgent forces on 19 June led to emotional scenes as the children feared for their families and several hundred broke out of the camp.

North Stoneham was a temporary camp. Soon arrangements were made for groups of children to be dispersed across the country. 1,200 children were housed in communities run by the Catholic Church. The rest were moved to about 70 homes (known as “colonies”)  established by local community groups, the children being invited to put their names down for places of which they often knew nothing. Inevitably the colonies varied enormously as they depended on the resources of the host communities. Some colonies were clearly inadequate and were closed by the BCC, with the children being transferred.

The presence of the children was not welcomed by everyone. Supporters of Franco argued that allowing refugee children into Britain was a form of support for the Republic.  A campaign group, the Friends of Nationalist Spain, which included several Conservative MPs, was set up to press for their repatriation. Right-wing newspapers claimed that the children were communists, violent and unruly: a Daily Mail editorial described them as “potentially murderous little wretches”. In the summer of 1937 boys from two of the colonies were involved in disturbances with local residents, which provided further ammunition. After the fall of Bilbao the Catholic Church, which had supported the evacuation, joined the campaign for the children to be returned quickly.

However, most of the colonies managed to establish good relations with local communities. Boys’ football teams from the colonies played matches against local teams and some colonies organised concerts featuring Basque songs and dances to raise funds. The experiences of the children were very varied. Some of the colonies were better supported by local communities than others. Two of the best were those in Cambridge and in the south Wales town of Caerleon.

The 29 children in Cambridge were orphans from the families of Socialist militiamen. Initially they lived in a large vicarage outside the city, before moving to a big house near the railway station (a blue plaque now marks the house). They received classes from Cambridge University staff and spent a month in the summer of 1937 on the Norfolk coast as guests of the parents of John Cornford, who had been killed fighting in the International Brigades. Their music teacher, Rosita Bal, had studied under Manuel de Falla, and they performed songs and dances at concerts in London and elsewhere.

The colony in Caerleon benefited from the close links between Vizcaya and south Wales which developed in the nineteenth century as both areas industrialised (Vizcayan iron ore was exported to south Wales and the ships returned with Welsh coal for use in Basque steel mills). The Caerleon colony was supported financially by the South Wales Miners’ Federation as well as by local Methodists and Baptists and by the small Spanish community in Cardiff. The children were taught in both Spanish and English, established their own journal (Cambria House Journal) and gave concerts in towns across south Wales. In the summer of 1938 the children were invited to spend a week’s holiday with local miners’ families. Their football team developed a reputation as “the Basque Boys” and “the Invincibles”. The building which housed the colony also has a blue plaque. 

The children’s return to Spain was often a complicated process. In some cases one or both parents were dead or in refugee camps in Catalonia or in France. Letters from parents asking the children to return were in some cases clearly written under pressure from the Francoist authorities. Gradually, however, most children were reunited with their families, though this became more difficult after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.  Eventually about 400 children remained in Britain, either because they had no families to return to or because, on reaching the age of 16, they chose to stay. By 1945 only one of the colonies remained – at Carshalton in Surrey – and it closed soon afterwards. Although the Basque Children’s Committee was finally wound up in 1951, in 2002 a Basque Children’s Association was set up by descendents of those who remained.    

Further details on the Basque children in the United Kingdom may be obtained from BCA ‘37: The Association for the UK Basque Children.

Photo: Niños vascos en Stoneham, cerca de Southampton (Inglaterra). Biblioteca Nacional de España. Licencia CC-BY-NC-SA

2 thoughts on ““Expedición a Inglaterra” : The Basque Children in Britain”

  1. About the only thing the British Government, however reluctantly, got right in respect of the Spanish Civil War.

    1. Thanks for your comment Duncan. I agree entirely – “reluctantly” is about right.
      I even wonder whether there was an element of luck in the timing, though this depends on how influential one thinks that the Duchess of Atholl was. Stanley Baldwin was still British PM: he retired and was replaced by Neville Chamberlain on 28 May 1937. The Duchess had served in Baldwin’s 1924-29 government and my suspicion is that there was a kind of mutual respect between them which did not seem to exist later between the Duchess and Chamberlain…and it seems that Anthony Eden was sympathetic as Foreign Secretary (and he resigned in opposition to Chamberlain in 1938).

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