The Spanish Civil War began on 17 July 1936 when rebel Nationalists led a military uprising against the Popular Front government, a coalition of left wing parties which had been elected earlier in the year.
The Popular Front aimed to continue the reforms which had begun with the establishment of the Spanish Second Republic in 1931. With the ambitious agenda of eliminating deeply-rooted social inequalities, the republican programme encompassed land and education reform, improved rights for women, restructuring the army, and granting autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country.
Threatened by these far-reaching changes, diverse political groups rallied together in the so called ‘two Spains’, determined to annihilate each other. The government was supported by workers, a large number of the educated middle class, militant anarchists and communists. In contrast, the Nationalists were supported by landowners, conservative elements in the clergy and military, and the fascist Falange. While government forces successfully quelled the uprising in most regions, the Nationalists continued to control parts of North West and South West Spain, naming General Francisco Franco the head of state.
Britain was among the 27 countries to sign a Non-Intervention Agreement. Despite this, hundreds of Britons, many of them communists, went to fight against the fascists in Spain. In a letter from Professor Dan Pedro to Professor H.Brian Griffiths, Department of Mathematics, University of Southampton, dated 15 Jun 1981, he mentions David Hadden Guest, a former student of the University who was killed fighting in the war:
‘We heard that he was leaving us, and when I enquired whether it was an educational venture, he replied, with a mysterious little smile: “Yes! I suppose that you could say it was educational!” Only when I heard that he was killed fighting against Franco did I understand this remark.’ [MS88/11]
With Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy helping the Nationalists, Communist Russia the Republicans, and Chamberlain’s Britain leading a policy of appeasement amongst Western democratic nations, the war was to last three bloody years. In this bitter conflict, there was a third Spain, which did not want to take up arms, but to live in peace. War, hunger, revolution, counter-revolution, denunciations, persecution, summary trials and executions, and mass repression often resulted in the disintegration of family and community life, desolating a country and forcing thousands of its people into exile.
On 26 April 1937, General Franco, with the support of the German Condor Legion, attacked Guernica and Durango, one of the first bombings of a civilian population in Europe. In April/May 1937, the Basque government and the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, co-ordinating relief in the UK, organised an evacuation of children from the north front of the war zone. No public funds were made available for the expedition, nor for the care of the children in the UK. Their maintenance was provided for entirely by private funds and those raised by voluntary groups and organisations.
Approximately 4,000 children, known as the niños vascos, came to Southampton in May 1937 by boat from Santurce, the port of Bilbao, fleeing the conflict. They were part of a movement which saw more than 30,000 children leave the war zone, dispersed to countries across Europe and overseas.
During the course of the following year the Nationalists continued to gain territory. By April 1938 they reached the Mediterranean and succeeding in splitting the republic in two. This resulted in 250,000 Republican soldiers, together with a comparable number of civilians, fleeing into France. In March 1939 the Republican government was forced into exile. As the remaining Republican forces surrendered, Madrid finally fell to the Nationalists on 28 March. The aftermath of the war saw the establishment of a dictatorship led by General Franco that lasted almost until his death in 1975.
The Special Collections holds archives for the Basque Children of ‘37 Association UK (MS 404), together with small collections relating to Basque child refugees (MS 370) that have come from individuals. Further details on the collection can be found on our website at:
There are also a series of interviews of the niños vascos conducted as part of an oral history project undertaken by the University of Southampton:
Next year commemorations will be taking place to mark the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the niños in the UK. Further information can be found on the website of the Basque Children of ‘37 Association UK: