Tag Archives: Basque children

Researching and remembering the Basque refugee children of 1937 in the Special Collections

This week Dr Edward Packard, Lecturer in History at University of Suffolk and Trustee of BCA’37: The Association for the UK Basque Children, discusses his use of the University’s collections relating to Basque child refugees as part of a research project on the Basque colonies that existed in Suffolk between 1937 and 1939.

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The Habana arrives at Southampton [MS404 A4164/4/6]

“Following a turbulent crossing of the Bay of Biscay, four thousand children from the Basque Country disembarked from the overcrowded liner SS Habana at Southampton on 23 May 1937. These niños vascos were refugees from the Spanish Civil War and were initially accommodated in a temporary reception camp at North Stoneham, near Eastleigh, before being dispersed in groups to approximately eighty ‘colonies’ across England, Wales, and Scotland. The government refused to provide any financial assistance for the young refugees, who instead relied on donations and other forms of support from private individuals, groups, and organisations. Most of the niños had been repatriated by the start of the Second World War, but around 250 settled permanently in the UK rather than returning to the dictatorship established in Spain by General Franco following his victory in the Civil War.

North Stoneham Camp [MS404/A4164/2/24]

North Stoneham Camp [MS404 A4164/2/24]

The remarkable history of the Basque refugee children and the vast public effort to support them is not as well-known in the UK as the subsequent Kindertransport, or the internal migration of evacuees during the Second World War. However, since the start of the twenty-first century, public awareness of the niños vascos has been boosted by the activities of BCA’37: The Association for the UK Basque Children. The Association was founded in 2002 by Natalia Benjamin, whose parents taught and cared for some of the children, and Manuel Moreno, the son of a niña vasca, owing to their concerns that archival material related to the children was at risk of being lost. By developing a network of surviving niños, their family members, and others with an interest in the Basque refugees, the Association accumulated a wide range of written and visual sources about the children’s experiences in the 1930s and since. These were passed to the University of Southampton Special Collections in 2016 to ensure their preservation and to facilitate access for researchers.

BCA’37: The Association for the UK Basque Children 70 Years Commemoration Event Programme [MS404/A4164/1/2]

BCA’37: The Association for the UK Basque Children 70 Years Commemoration Event Programme [MS404 A4164/1/2]

The archive, catalogued as MS404 (A4164 and A4171), is especially intriguing as it contains not only original and facsimile historical documents pertaining to the Basque children, many of which have not featured in published work to date, but also includes administrative papers and correspondence related to the Association’s activities. Besides gathering documentation, the Association has also been involved in numerous events, including exhibitions and educational work. Given that the memory and memorialisation of the Spanish Civil War remains controversial and contested in the present, these materials offer insights into the ways in which a specific organisation has been involved in the construction of the public memory of the niños.

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Children and adults at North Stoneham Camp [MS404 A4164/2/24]

My own research focuses on the Basque colonies that existed in the county of Suffolk between 1937 and 1939, and I am also interested in the different ways that the history of the niños vascos has been told, and what remains untold. It is often difficult to research local case studies connected to the Basque refugees, owing to the impermanence of the colonies and the fragmentary nature of the surviving historical record. I found that the materials held at Southampton, which include further collections of relevant papers catalogued at MS370, helped me to fill some of the gaps and add texture to the history of the Suffolk colonies and the local experiences of the niños. For instance, while I considered myself very familiar with the history of the Wickham Market colony, which was located in a decommissioned workhouse, file MS404 A4164/2/13 contained several photographs that I had not seen before, including the children eating a meal inside the workhouse, and a striking image of some of the Basque boys with bicycles. While these subjects might sound mundane, the photographs help to convey a sense of the children’s experiences of colony life.

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Basque boys with bicycles [MS404 A4164/2/13/5]

Among the other highlights of my visit to Special Collections was viewing an original souvenir programme for an ‘All Spanish Concert by the Spanish Refugee Children from Wherstead Park, and West-End Spanish Artistes’ held at Ipswich in December 1937 (MS370/8 A4110/1). Such entertainments were a crucial part of the fundraising activity required to maintain individual colonies, although the participation of ‘West-End Artistes’ was unusual – the songs and dances were usually performed exclusively by the children.

Souvenir programme for an 'All Spanish Concert by the Spanish Refugee Children from Wherstead Park, and West-End Spanish Artistes’ held at Ipswich in December 1937 [MS 370/8 A4110/1]

Souvenir programme for an ‘All Spanish Concert by the Spanish Refugee Children from Wherstead Park, and West-End Spanish Artistes’ held at Ipswich in December 1937 [MS370/8 A4110/1]

The enduring and poignant connection between some of the Basque refugees and those who cared for them is highlighted in a short letter, dated 1 January 1988 (MS404 A4171/2/3/1/5), by Poppy Vulliamy, then in her eighties, who had established a series of colonies, including in Suffolk and Norfolk, for a group of fifty older Basque boys in 1937 and 1938. She was writing to one of these ‘boys’, Rafael de Barrutia, now a man approaching retirement age, thanking him for a Christmas card. Poppy signed off ‘From your friend who never forgets you.’ The preservation of memory is a key theme that runs through the BCA’37 archive and influences its continuing activities in the present. These include an undergraduate dissertation prize, for which the Special Collections at University of Southampton are likely to prove an important resource.

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Part of letter by Poppy Vulliamy, 1 January 1988 [MS404 A4171/2/3/1/5]

After spending much of my research trip to the Hartley Library pondering the relationship between historical experiences and the ways in which they are remembered, it seemed appropriate to head back to Southampton railway station via the Civic Centre to visit the plaque commemorating the arrival of the Habana over eighty years ago. I also reflected again that, while the Basque refugee archive at Southampton is inevitably incomplete, it offers significant glimpses into local refugee experiences. With the number of surviving niños vascos declining each year, these documents will only become more valuable in preserving the memory of this crucial part of Britain’s refugee history.”

Commemorative plaque of the arrival of the Basque refugees at the Southampton Civic Centre

Commemorative plaque of the arrival of the Basque refugees at the Southampton Civic Centre

“Viva Inglaterra!”: los niños arrive in Southampton

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.

The Habana

The Habana arrives at Southampton [MS404 A4164/7/1]

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”.

Aerial view of North Stoneham Camp [MS404 A4164/2/4]

Aerial view of North Stoneham Camp [MS404 A4164/2/4]

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.

Children on board the Habana [MS 404 A4164/7/1]

Children on board the Habana as it arrives at Southampton [MS 404 A4164/7/1]

 “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.

People line the streets of Southampton to see the refugee children arrive [MS404 A4164/7/1]

People line the streets to greet the refugee children arrive [MS404 A4164/7/1]

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…”

Nurses taking children for medical examinations [MS404 A4164/2/23]

Nurses taking children for medical checks [MS404 A4164/2/24]

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.

Life at camp [MS370/7 A4010/1]

Life at camp [MS370/7 A4010/1]

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.

North Stoneham Camp [MS404 A4164/7/1]

North Stoneham Camp [MS404 A4164/7/1]

 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.

The Spanish Civil War

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.

Photograph of a tiled wall in Guernica showing Picasso’s painting, originally produced in response to the bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War

Photograph of a tiled wall in Guernica showing Picasso’s painting, originally produced in response to the bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War

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.

The Habana with children on board [MS 404 A4164/7/1/1]

The Habana with children on board [MS 404 A4164/7/1/1]

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:
http://www.southampton.ac.uk/archives/resources/basquecollections.page

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:
http://www.southampton.ac.uk/archives/projects/losninos.page

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:
http://www.basquechildren.org/

Universal Children’s Day

Today, 20 November, is Universal Children’s Day in the UK and many other countries around the world.  Over 60 years ago, the United Nations encouraged all countries to promote mutual exchange and understanding among children and to initiate action to benefit and promote the welfare of the world’s children.  Universal Children’s Day is not simply a day to celebrate children for who they are, but of bring awareness to children around the globe that have suffered abuse, exploitation and discrimination.

We take the opportunity to share with you some of our holdings which relate specifically to the welfare of children.  Recent acquisitions are archives concerning a relatively little-known influx of child refugees just prior to World War II.

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Black and white photograph of six boys in a colony; some are giving the clenched fist salute, a symbol frequently used express unity or defiance and resistance in the face of violence. [MS 370]

In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, a group of almost 4,000 children, the niños vascos, plus some teachers and priests, were evacuated to the UK from Santurce/Santurzi, the port of Bilbão/Bilbo in the Basque region of Spain.  They were part of a movement which saw some 20,000 children leave the war zone, dispersed to countries across Europe and overseas. War, hunger, revolution, counter-revolution, denunciations, persecution, summary trials and executions, and mass repression resulted in the disintegration of family and community life and forced thousands of people into exile. Homes or “colonies” were set up all over the UK, mainly in England and Wales, staffed and financed by individual volunteers, church groups, trade unions, and other interested groups. Those Guernica evacuees who remained in the UK became known as the “Basque children” and tried to keep in touch with each other.  An organisation, the Basque Children of ‘37 Association UK, was founded in November 2002 with the desire that these children should not become los olvidados (the “forgotten ones”).

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. There are also a series of interviews of niños vascos conducted as part of an oral history project undertaken by the University of Southampton: http://livesite.soton.ac.uk:1776/archives/projects/losninos.page

The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the University of Southampton, in partnership with Hampshire Archives and Local Studies, a grant for a project under its Your Heritage scheme. Led by Dr Alicia Pozo-Gutierrez and Professor Chris Woolgar, the project recorded life story interviews to document an important facet of the Spanish Civil War and its consequences.  The project looked at the experiences of the children who came to Southampton and the UK, their lives here, the question of return to the Iberian peninsula, and the complex questions that arise from transnational migration in time of conflict. The interviews were carried out by volunteers.

A book, Here, look after him, came out of the oral history project and can be purchased at the online store: http://store.southampton.ac.uk/browse/extra_info.asp?compid=1&modid=1&catid=150&prodid=1109

You can also view an online exhibition which was produced as part of the project: http://livesite.soton.ac.uk:1776/archives/exhibitions/online/basques.page