In May 1937, los niños, the Basque child refugees, were among approximately 4,000 children escaping the dangers of the Spanish Civil War who arrived at Southampton docks on board the Habana.On arrival in Southampton, the children were to be sent to a camp at North Stoneham, near Eastleigh, on a 30-acre field lent by G.H.Brown of Swaythling Farm. This “canvas town”, as it was called, had been hastily erected and then extended to accommodate twice the original number of refugees after the Home Office changed its decision at the last minute allowing in 4,000 rather than the original 2,000 children. Work was carried out by hundreds of local volunteers — plumbers, carpenters, employees of the Southampton Gas Company and the Corporation Water Department, the Co-operative Society, Southampton Labour Party, the Trades and Labour Council the Scouts and Guides, Boys’ Brigade, Southampton Boys’ Clubs, members of the Round Table and the Rotary Club and students from University College, Southampton. Many gave up their Whitsun holiday to help prepare the camp and, according to reports, “entered into the spirit of the occasion with splendid enthusiasm”. Appeals went out for clothes and equipment and for further volunteers to staff the depots where donations were to be sent and to assist with cutting up toweling and filling paliasses with straw. University College students spent several days cleaning and distempering Moor Hill, West End, a house loaned to the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief to accommodate children who were sick or unable to endure camp life. Women students from Bournemouth Municipal School of Art converted banners that had been made by art students in honour of the coronation of George VI into sleeping bags for the children. “Viva Inglaterra!” was the cry that went up as the children, packing the railings of the Habana, made its entry into Southampton. Most of the children recalled the warm welcome that met them on their arrival in the city. One sight that excited and enthralled was the bunting and flags that had been put up for the coronation of George VI and which the Mayor of Southampton allowed to be left up for the children. As one of the children recalled “Southampton was full of decorations — every lamp post, every balcony, everywhere there was flags and golden wands and posters and all sorts hanging and it was quite a sight…” Each child was given a medical check on disembarkation. They then were tagged with different coloured ribbons to indicate if they needed to go to hospital, to the public baths for a wash or were able to go straight to Stoneham Camp. Those marked with red ribbons were taken to the public baths, as one girl found after swapping the ribbon because red was her favourite colour.
After the checks were completed the children were bused to the camp at Stoneham. They were amazed to see hundreds of bell tents, that were as one boy noted “round tents like the Indians in America” an image taken from the Hollywood Western films. This image reinforced a sense of adventure for the children, even if the reality of living in a camp could be some what different, with the latrine trenches hated by many and music broadcast over loudspeakers each morning to wake the children from their beds.With the fall of Bilbao on 19 June 1937 was a realisation that the children were going to have to remain in the UK for longer than intended. Alternative arrangements were therefore made for the children. They were dispersed to be cared for by the Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, which accommodated children in a hostel in London, or in the so-called “colonies” set up by local committees across the country.
Set up as a temporary arrangement, the camp was to remain open for four months: the last 220 children departed for St Mary’s Bay Holiday Camp at New Romney, Kent in September. As the children said “Adios” to their temporary home, the camp administrator, Major Neil Hunter, reflected on the enterprise, including how around 1 million meals had been prepared at the camp over the four month period, and expressed a sincere thanks to all those in Southampton and Eastleigh who had given their support.The Special Collections at the Hartley Library, University of Southampton, holds archives relating to the Basque Children. There is an online exhibition produced as part of a Heritage Lottery funded project to mark the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the children.