All posts by charlie_nurse

“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

The Mission of the School is to Transform the Country

Universal education is now considered one the most important duties of the state. This is, however, a recent development. Today, 14 April, to mark the anniversary of the proclamation of the Spanish Second Republic in 1931, we publish a blog-post on the efforts made by the early governments of the Republic to to deal with the high levels of illiteracy by establishing a system of universal primary education

Spain had been one of the first European states to recognise the importance of universal education. The 1812 Constitution proclaimed that every village should have a primary school (article 366) and the Moyano Law of 1857 made school attendance obligatory until the age of nine.

These ambitious aims were, however, not translated into reality and the state relied heavily on the Church to provide education, both at primary level and at secondary, where some of its schools were among the most prestigious in the country.  In 1931 the Ministry of Education estimated that there were 32,680 schools and 27,151 more were needed [see Educación y Cultura en la Segunda República]. Based on an assumption that the average rural primary school would have one class of 50 pupils, there was a deficit of one million primary school places.

The consequences of this shortfall in school provision were to be found in the high rates of adult illiteracy, which amounted to over 30 per cent in the early 20th century and which, in some provinces, were over 60% [see detail]. As in any society with such high levels of illiteracy,  the abilities of many of those who qualified as literate were probably also very low.  Not surprisingly these estimates obscured major variations – between different social classes, between urban and rural areas (literacy tended to be higher in cities) and also between different parts of the country (northern Spain was generally more literate than the south). Illiteracy also largely affected women: the overall rate of adult illiteracy in the province of Zaragoza at the time was 30 per cent but 62 per cent of those who were illiterate were women, according to the Museo Pedagógico de Aragón

For the political leaders of the Second Republic universal literacy was fundamental. The Republican project did not simply represent the replacement of the monarchical form of government, but rather the opportunity to modernise Spain. Part of that modernisation was the creation of a literate and informed citizenry who would be capable of exercising the responsibilities necessary to support a system of representative government. This was recognised, for example, by Manuel Azaña, who became Prime Minister in October 1933, when he stated that “the state school should be the shield of the Republic” [“la escuela pública debía ser el escudo de la República”]. The role of education was also stressed by Rodolfo Llopis, Director-General of Primary Education, in a speech in Zaragoza in December 1932:

the mission of the school is to transform the country….so that those people who are now treated as subjects may become the responsible citizens of a Republic [La misión de la escuela es transformar el país en estos momentos (…) que los que estaban condenados a ser súbditos, puedan ser ciudadanos conscientes de una República] [source]

Llopis’s words were reflected in several articles in the 1931 Constitution, which stated that “the provision of culture is an essential responsibility of the State, and it will be provided by means of educational institutions linked to a unified system of schooling”. [El servicio de la cultura es atribución esencial del Estado, y lo prestará mediante instituciones educativas enlazadas por el sistema de la escuela unificada].  Under Article 48 primary education was to be “free and obligatory” [gratuita y obligatoria] and teaching was to be “carried out by lay professionals” [laica] and “inspired by ideals of human solidarity” [se inspirará en ideales de solidaridad humana].

Given the shortage of primary schools, the new government  committed itself almost immediately to a plan to build 5,000 new primary schools a year for the next five years. Land was to be provided by municipalities while the government would contribute towards construction costs and pay the salaries of teachers.

After the first ten months the Minister of Education was able to announce the construction of over 7,000 new schools.  Thereafter the pace of building dropped, partly because of financial restraints and partly because of the conflict with the Church and its political consequences. As a result the figure for 1932 was 2,580, for 1933 3,990 and for 1934-35 (the two years of government by the centre-right) 3,421. This represented a total of 9,991 in four years. These figures should be compared with the  total of 11,128 new schools opened under the monarchy in the three decades after 1900.

The government ministers most closely associated with this building programme – and with further reforms to strengthen and modernise the school system –  were Marcelino Domingo, Minister of Education between April and October 1931 and Fernando de los Ríos who succeeded him from October 1931 until the fall of the Azaña government in October 1933.

Of course, new schools required more teachers and the Ministry launched a programme to recruit some of the many holders of the title of licenciado (a teaching qualification) who had no teaching experience by providing 7,000 places on refresher courses. There were also measures to improve the status and pay of primary teachers: the notoriously low pay of teachers was reflected in the common expression “to be as poor as a school-teacher” [“pasar más hambre que un maestro de escuela”]. Teachers, who under the Constitution were given the status of public servants or  “funcionarios publicos”,  saw their salaries increase by about 15% between 1931 and 1933.

Teachers were, in fact, seen as key figures in the consolidation of the Republic: as the Revista de Pedagogía stressed in May 1931: “As Spanish teachers, we more than anyone, are obliged to be the most enthusiastic defenders of the Republic. We have the duty of providing the schools with the essential ideas which support it: liberty, personal independence, solidarity, civility”. [“Los educadores españoles estamos, como nadie, obligados a ser los defensores más entusiastas de la República. Tenemos el deber de llevar a las escuelas las ideas esenciales en que se apoya: libertad, autonomía, solidaridad, civilidad.” [source]. As Carlos París has noted:

“this gave rise to a generation of teachers identified with the Republic. The Franco regime identified this and banned from teaching those who had taught in the Republican zone during the Civil War” [“Surge así toda una generación de maestros identificados con la República. El régimen franquista tomó tan buena nota de ello, que prohibió la enseñanza a todas las personas que la habían ejercido en la zona republicana durante la Guerra Civil.”

Measures were also taken to improve and extend secondary education, including the building of new schools. Co-educational secondary schools were to replace single-sex provision, a move which provoked opposition from parents especially in some rural areas and smaller cities. Co-education would later be banned by the Franco Dictatorship. 

The Republic’s educational reforms helped to fuel a serious dispute with the Church and to earn it the hostility of many devout Catholics. Article 26 of the Constitution prohibited religious orders from teaching. In 1931 the Ministry of Education asked municipalities for the number attending religious primary schools. The total came to 350,000 – to replace which, again on the basis of fifty pupils per school, would require the state to build an additional 7,000 schools. The Church also owned about 300 secondary schools with some 20,000 pupils. Unlike primary schools, the government could not immediately replace these because of the lack of qualified staff to substitute for the members of religious orders who taught in them. However, before this issue could be resolved, the Azaña government fell from office and was replaced by a centre-right administration led by Alejandro Lerroux which ignored this constitutional provision.  

PHOTO: José Sánchez Rosa’s school. He was an Andalusian rationalist teacher, follower of Francisco Ferrer Guardia’s teaching model. Image taken in Seville in 1936, shortly before the so-called ‘Alzamiento
Nacional’ (National Rising), the name given by its supporters to the
attempted military coup.. Author: Franciscojosecuevasnoa [CC BY-SA]

Pioneers: The First Spanish Women Deputies: Clara Campoamor, Victoria Kent & Margarita Nelken

The new Spanish government, announced in January, includes 11 women of a total of 22 ministers.  Women’s participation at the highest levels of government in Spain is, however, only a recent development. To mark International Women’s Day 2020 Innovation and Human Rights celebrates the first three women deputies to enter the Spanish parliament, all of them elected to the Constituent Cortes of the Second Republic in 1931

Clara Campoamor, Victoria Kent and Margarita Nelken were all elected under the 1890 electoral law which restricted the vote to men.  Women only received the vote under the constitution of the new Republic, passed by the Constituent Cortes in December 1931. This enabled women to vote for the first time in the Cortes elections held in November 1933.

Paul Preston has pointed out that “pressure for the female vote had come not from any mass movement but from a tiny elite of educated women and some progressive male politicians, most notably in the Socialist party” (“Doves of War: Four Women in Spain”, Harper Collins, 2003).  Female suffrage was above all the work of Clara Campoamor, who was a member of the commission which drafted the constitution and who led the argument for women’s legal equality in the Cortes debate in October 1931. Article 36, which would give the vote to women over the age of 23 – on the same terms as men – passed by the Cortes by 161 votes to 121, mainly due to support from the Socialist party. (Read the 1931 Constitution here)

Before being elected in June 1931 for Madrid as a deputy for the Radical party, Clara Campoamor had made her name in the 1920s as a lawyer.  Born in Madrid in 1888 to working-class parents, she qualified in 1924 and then specialised on paternity issues and cases relating to marriage at a time before divorce was legalised. In 1928 she helped establish the International Federation of Women Lawyers. She was the first woman to appear before the Spanish Supreme Court and, in 1931, was the first woman to address the Cortes during the Republic.  Her campaign for women’s suffrage was met not only by opposition from the Church and hostility from conservative opinion, but was also opposed by most of the members of her own party. She was defeated in the 1933 election and left the Radical Party soon afterwards in protest at its increasingly right-wing policies. In 1933-1934 she served briefly as Director of Public Welfare. In 1936, fearing for her safety, she left Spain and settled in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she died in 1972. 

The other two women deputies in the Constituent Cortes, Victoria Kent and Margarita Nelken, opposed female suffrage in 1931, though the latter was only elected in a by-election in October 1931 and had not entered the Cortes in time for the debates on Article 36.  Both Kent and Nelken argued that women were not socially and politically ready for the vote and that, since many women were subject to the influence of the Church, they would support parties which were hostile to the Republic. As Victoria Kent argued during the debate  “this is not a question of the ability of women; it is a question of the future prospects of the Republic” (“no es cuestión de capacidad; es cuestión de oportunidad para la República”). Both Kent and Nelken, had impressive backgrounds as campaigners for women’s rights and social justice and their fears about the consequences of women’s suffrage are, perhaps, a good measure of the strength of opposition which the Republic faced within months of its proclamation.

Victoria Kent was born in Málaga in 1891. She was one of the first women to pass the Spanish bar exams and became famous as the first woman to address a military court when she successfully defended Álvaro de Albornoz in his court martial after the attempted rising against the monarchy at Jaca in December 1930.  After the proclamation of the Second Republic in April 1931 Albornoz became Minister of Justice and Kent was elected to the Cortes as a member of the Radical Socialist Party. As Director of Prisons between 1931 and 1934 she implemented important reforms to improve conditions; these included the building of the new women’s prison of Ventas in Madrid (read about its inauguration here). 

Although she lost her parliamentary seat when the parties of the right won the 1933 elections, she was returned to the Cortes in February 1936, this time for the Left Republican party (Izquierda Republicana) in Jaen. During the civil war she worked in the Spanish embassy in Paris, helping child refugees from the conflict. After the German invasion of France she lived under a false identity, avoiding deportation to Spain where Francoist courts had sentenced her in her absence to 30 years imprisonment. In 1948 she moved to Mexico and then to New York where she lived until her death in 1987. One of the railway stations in Malaga is named after her. 

When Margarita Nelken entered the Cortes as a Socialist deputy for Badajoz in 1931 she was already a celebrated art critic, novelist and women’s rights campaigner. Born in Madrid in 1894 into an affluent Jewish immigrant family, her book La condición social de la mujer en España (1919) exposed the subordinate position of women in Spanish society and argued that the achievement of women’s rights depended on the success of a revolutionary movement. The book created such a scandal that it was debated in the Cortes and was condemned by the Bishop of Lleida. Right-wing newspapers and politicians maligned her, accusing her of being a foreigner and of being sexually promiscuous. Once elected as deputy for Badajoz she adopted the cause of the landless labourers and campaigned for land reform. Her experiences in Badajoz, including the resistance by landowners to the labour reforms of 1931-1933 and the right-wing violence and electoral fraud in the 1933 elections, led her to join the more radical wing of the Socialist party.  She was re-elected to the Cortes in 1933 and 1936. In the autumn of 1936, when Madrid was threatened by Francoist forces, she stayed in the capital, helping to organise the defence of the city. In 1937 she joined the Communist party but her relations with the party were very strained and she was expelled in 1942. In the later stages of the civil war she worked in government jobs first in Valencia and then in Barcelona, leaving the latter city shortly before Francoist troops entered in January 1939. After the war she settled in Mexico, where she made a living as an art critic, supporting her mother, daughter and grandaughter and where she died in 1968.

In total only nine women were elected to one or more of the three parliaments of the Second Republic. Of these, five represented the Socialist party (Julia Álvarez, Veneranda García-Blanco,  María Lejarraga, Margarita Nelken and Matilde de la Torre), two were Radicals (Clara Campoamor and Victoria Kent), one represented the Communist party (Dolores Ibarruri) and one the right wing CEDA (Francisca Bohigas Gavilanes).

Photographs: [From left to right] Clara Campoamor, Victoria Kent and Margarita Nelken. Author: Estudio Alfonso. Source: Archivo General de la Administración at Portal de Archivos Españoles.

Some Recommendations for Summer Reading

Top of the list of summer reading recommended by Innovation & Human Rights this year is La vall de la matança (Cossetània Edicions, 2012), by Josep Masanés, a writer from Barcelona now based in Menorca. This novel won the award for Narrative Fiction at the 29th  Ribera d’Ebre Book Fair. It tells the story of the Civil War struggle by Republican troops led by Captain Creus and Second-lieutenant Ciurana during an attack on Francoist defensive positions held by the fearsome Major Marín. Although this attack resulted in victory, the Republican armies were forced to continued retreating.  Summoned in front of the General Staff, Creus and Ciurana were entrusted with a difficult mission. As they carry this out we meet the other men chosen for the mission including Ulldevidre, Reimann and Homs.  By the end of the Civil War we have learnt about their fears, their desires and their loves, along with the enemies who pursue them, personified by the diabolical Major Marín. Josep Masanés has paid tribute to the influence of the American writer, Cormac McCarthy.

Our second recommendation is La memòria de l’Oracle (Edicions del 1984, published in 2018), the third novel of Pere Joan Martorell, which won the Premio Mallorca de Narrativa 2017.  In this the author reflects on the human condition in a harrrowing tale set in the brutal atmosphere of the Civil War on the island of Mallorca. The story follows the search for their father by Jacob and his family: his mother, his aunt and his uncle. Jacob himself is the omniscient narrator who begins his account from within his mother’s womb. The novel offers a double perspective: it takes place both at the time of the conflict and during the post-war years. It is neither a historical novel nor a documentary.  The author details the barbarity and the dark times of the Fascist period in Mallorca. Martorell’s language is both rich and poetic.

While we are on the subject of the Balearic Islands, we cannot fail to recommend Llibre d’Exilis (2018), by Josep Portella, a biographical dictionary of Menorcan exile. This is a work which took over seven years of research, documenting the lives of Menorcans who were driven into exile by the Civil War and the Franco Regime. It is a volume of great documentary value: extending to over 700 pages and  including over 1,000 photographs, it is a major contribution to the recovery of historical memory in Menorca. It was published in collaboration with the local council (Consell Insular de Menorca).

Another book which is highly recommended is Las heridas (Editorial Pepitas de Calabaza, 2012), by  Norman Bethune, translated from English by Natalia Fernández. Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor is famous for the role played by his medical units during the Spanish Civil War and, later, with the Chinese armies during the Second Sino-Japanese War. He is considered to have developed the first mobile blood transfusion service in Spain in 1936. This small but interesting volume is a compilation of his fundamental writings. In the first part, Bethune defends the idea of universal medical attention. In the second, he narrates the events which he witnessed as a doctor during the flight of the population of the city of Málaga along the road towards Almería in February 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The third part describes the privations of life in China and his work for the cause of medicine there.  

Finally, since it has been topical recently, we take this opportunity to recommend Los Girasoles Ciegos (Editorial Anagrama, 2004, published in English as Blind Sunflowers, Arcadia Books, 2008). This, the only published work of Alberto Méndez, consists of four connected tales:  “If the heart could think it would cease to beat”,; “Manuscript found in oblivion”; “The language of the dead”; “Blind sunflowers” .  This is in many ways a grim book, reflecting the atmosphere of the Civil War and the post-war Francoist repression.  A Spanish-language film version of the novel was released in 2008.