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Refugee Children 1937 fleeing Spain for Britain

Seventy five years ago, Basque children fleeing the Nazi bombs in the Spanish Civil War arrived in Southampton on board the  dilapidated steamship the Habana.

The terror and misery inflicted by the German bombing of Northern Spain on the civilian population meant thousands of children sought safe refuge in England and France

    • The journey from Spain to Britain was fraught with problems, from the moment the idea of bringing Spanish children to our country took breath, it faced hostility from the British government.
    • The British government watched the Spanish Civil War from a discrete distance, trying to maintain a neutrality that many of it’s population did not support, as they signed up  to join International Brigades, to fight the nationalist dictator, General Franco.
    • The British government reluctantly accepted to take the Spanish children after the destruction of Guernica in April 1937.
    •  The children were put on board the Habana, nearly 4000 of them in total, on a ship  built to take 400, and given a Royal Naval escort through the Bay of Biscay to Southampton.

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin remarked,  “The climate will not suit them”

    • It was left to organisations such as the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church to house these traumatized and malnourished children.
    • They housed them in ‘colonies’, to start with these were tented encampments and then the children were moved to old houses and institutions.
    • The Duchess of Atholl guaranteed a sum of money for each child, all else was provided by voluntary contributions.
    • The children were split up and taken all over the country, the list of ‘colonies ranging from Brighton on the South to Liverpool in the North.

When Franco came to power he demanded the return of the children, 17000 had gone to France. He published their names in newspapers and branded their families as traitors. It was not a happy homecoming.

By 1945 only 250 of the children out of the 3,826 who came to Britain remained.

Since 2009 a project has been underway to collect and maintain an archive of the lives of  the Basque children which welcomes any information, in particular if anyone has any information about the ‘colonies’ these children were placed in.

Use our free resource Intriguing Family History, to explore more intriguing archives, to extend and enrich your history project




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