The 4,000 Basque refugee children evacuated to Britain in May 1937

The 4,000 Basque refugee children evacuated to Britain in May 1937

What happened in 1937?

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was a bitter conflict which divided the nation. Even now, the Spanish people are still learning to come to terms with their past which saw tens of thousands of deaths and millions uprooted and destitute.

As the conflict intensified in the Basque country, the newly autonomous Basque Government appealed for foreign governments to accept child refugees for what they wrongly thought would be only a few months until the rebels were overthrown. The governments of France, Russia, Belgium, Mexico, Switzerland and Denmark between them accepted almost 29,000 child refugees. The British Government, as signatories to the 1936 Non-Intervention Agreement, refused to accept any refugees.

The Duchess of Atholl, President of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief (a cross-party committee coordinating aid to Spain), with her formidable team, took up the campaign to urge the government to accept the Basque children.

Following the devastating bombing of the market town of Guernica in April 1937 by the planes of the Nazi Condor Legion, there was such outrage in Britain that the government finally and reluctantly agreed to allow a single boatload of refugee children - niños (de la guerra) - and their accompanying adults to enter Britain. On May 21st 1937 the SS Habana evacuated almost 4000 children from Bilbao to Southampton.

The British government, however, refused any financial responsibility for the children and made it a condition that no public money was to be used to support them: they were to be supported entirely by volunteers and voluntary funds. The Government argued that supporting the child refugees would violate the Non-Intervention Agreement.  It also demanded that the newly-formed Basque Children's Committee guarantee 10/- per week (equivalent to £30+ today) for the care and education of each child.

The children left for Britain on the ageing SS Habana on 21st May 1937. Each child had a cardboard hexagonal disk with an identification number and the words 'Expedición a Inglaterra' printed on it. The ship, built to carry around 800 passengers, carried more than 3860 children, 95 teachers (maestras), 120 helpers (asistentas), 15 Catholic priests and 2 British doctors. The children were crammed into the boat, and slept where they could, even in the lifeboats. The journey was extremely rough in the Bay of Biscay and most of the children (and staff) were seasick.

Basque Children in the UK

They disembarked at Southampton on 23rd May 1937. Thousands lined the quayside and the children, in spite of their ordeal, were excited, thinking that the bunting that was up everywhere was to celebrate their arrival: later they learned that it had been put up for the coronation of George VI which had taken place ten days earlier.

They were sent in busloads to a reception camp at North Stoneham in Eastleigh that had been set up in three fields. The setting up of the camp in less than two weeks was the result of a remarkable effort by the whole community: volunteers had worked round the clock to prepare it.

The children were completely unprepared for camping: the majority had lived in densely packed flats in the working-class districts of Bilbao, a highly industrialised city. The first to offer assistance was the Salvation Army, who undertook to take 400 children, followed by the Catholic Church, who committed itself to take 1,200.

The Basque Government’s planwas that the children should be dispersed in groups of various sizes, each with their own maestras and asistentas, to homes known as colonies or colonias. Brothers and sisters were to be kept together where possible. Little by little, starting from the end of May 1937 and ending by mid-September, the children left the provisional camp to go to colonias situated all over Great Britain: there the Spanish staff were augmented by local staff and financed by individual volunteers, church groups, local businesses, trade unions, and other sympathetic groups.

After the fall of Bilbao and Franco's capture of the rest of northern Spain in the summer of 1937, the process of repatriation began. By the start of World War II in 1939 most of the children had left for Spain. For some this was a terrible ordeal: they had forgotten their Spanish, or worse - their parents. The 400 or so young people who remained in Britain either chose to stay (if they were over 16, they were given the choice), or had to stay because their parents were either dead, imprisoned or their whereabouts was unknown. By 1945, there were still over 250 Basque refugees in Britain and many of these settled permanently, remaining in Britain for the rest of their lives.

The impact of this event on the children, on Britain, on those involved in caring for the children, and on the lives of the more than 250 who remained in Britain - is the story that BCA’37 UK records, archives and aims to disseminate.

The Association for the UK Basque Children

BCA’37 UK – the Association for the UK Basque Children – is a non-profitmaking, non-political, charitable association run by volunteers. We are a small team, some with family links to the history of the Basque Refugees, others (Basque, Spanish and British) with an interest in this episode of history.

We believe it is important that this history should be documented and recorded so as

to be available for future generations of not only our own families, but also for the host nation. We work closely with academics in UK and the University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU, and various archives in Spain and the UK. In the last couple of years our talks, exhibitions and discussions have often been presented alongside current refugee organisations and present an interesting example for comparison and contrast.

Since the setting up of our association, we have considered it essential to collect archival material of all types: of the niños, those who accompanied them and all those involved in their support.

Our archives, to which we are continually adding, are held at the Special Collection Division of the Hartley Library at the University of Southampton

One thing is to have the information, the other is to disseminate it, which we do through our website and eNotices, exhibitions, talks and workshops at all levels: schools, local history societies, U3A groups and universities - we present in both Spanish and English, in Britain and in Spain. On a more individual level,

we help families of those niños who stayed in this country to trace details about their relatives. Either directly or indirectly we help researchers of all kinds, amongst them historians, students, journalists, novelists, artists, choreographers and film makers.


Photo credit: BCA’37 UK Archive

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