Letter to a Spanish refugee, 1940
James Darby and Darren Treadwell, archivists at the People’s History Museum, tell Rosemary Collins about a letter sent to a refugee during the Second World War
The Spanish Civil War broke out on 17 July 1936, when the army, backed by the country’s nationalist elements, led a coup against the left-wing Republican government. In Britain, the public began calling for the country to take in refugees, especially following the notorious Nazi bombing of Guernica in April 1937. The government was reluctant because of its official position of neutrality in the conflict, but eventually gave permission for the Basque Children’s Committee to evacuate nearly 4,000 children. It refused to provide financial support, so the committee raised funds from members of the public.
On 21 May 1937, the steamship Habana set sail from the besieged Basque city of Bilbao, carrying an estimated 3,886 children, accompanied by teachers, assistants and priests. The ship docked at Southampton and the refugees initially stayed in tents at a farm in Eastleigh, where they suffered from insanitary conditions, before being dispersed into ‘colonies’ throughout Britain. Most of the children were repatriated by the end of the war in 1939, but some stayed in Britain and many went on to fight in the Second World War.
The People’s History Museum in Manchester holds the archives of the Carshalton Refugee Committee, including correspondence with former refugees. Project archivist James Darby and archive assistant Darren Treadwell told us a bit more about their chosen document.
Which document have you chosen?
The document we have chosen is a letter deposited by the Carshalton Branch of the Basque Refugee Committee. It’s one of a number of letters sent to Spanish refugee children and their teachers who, by 1940, had returned home after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The letter is addressed to Miguel (who may have been a teacher or returned Basque refugee) and is from Edward West (who as far as we know was one of the organisers of the Carshalton Committee). The letter is dated 24 September 1940 and talks about early wartime experiences in Britain.
What does it say about our ancestors’ lives?
The letter mentions the fall of France, Belgium, Holland and Norway in 1940 and speaks in stoical terms about the people of Britain being “quite prepared to receive the worst that may come”, although they are hopeful that the country would not fall to the Nazis and be able to help other nations to regain their freedom. Edward West describes day-today life in wartime Britain, including his experiences of joining the Red Cross and using the air raid shelter which they had built. It is a very personal reflection on civilian experience of war and is interesting as an account of war in Britain being sent to someone who was a refugee from Fascism in Europe. Despite the interruptions to daily life caused by the war there is a sense in this letter that life was continuing as normally as possible – the fact that this and many other letters in the collection went through a censor before reaching their destination may have had an influence upon what was written.
How did it come into the archive?
I’m unsure as to the exact details
On 21 May 1937, the steamship Habana set sail from the besieged Basque city of Bilbao
regarding the deposit of the collection, as it has been with the archive for some time, or how the letter came to be in the possession of the committee when it was sent abroad. Sometimes one of the mysteries of an archive collection is how an item ended up in someone’s possession. We can’t always answer that one!
Why did you choose this document?
This year is the 80th anniversary of the arrival of over 4,000 child refugees and their teachers from the Basque Country of Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
A number of refugee support groups were set up across the country to welcome them; the Labour History Archive holds the records of the Carshalton branch and a few other branches across the country. The collection contains postcards, correspondence, newsletters, minutes and several hundred drawings and sketches by Basque children depicting their experiences of the Spanish Civil War. The committee began work in August 1937 and received 22 children and accompanying teachers, some of whom lived in a large Victorian house called Oaks in Banstead, Surrey. Sadly, the house was damaged during an air raid in 1940 (not long after this letter was written) and was subsequently demolished after the war. During their time in England the children and teachers produced their own newsletter, Basque Home News, which ran through until 1946. The letters have a deep resonance with the current refugee crisis in Europe and North Africa and how societies and individuals respond to the needs of others.
Tell us more about your collections…
The Labour History Archive and Study Centre at the People’s History Museum in Manchester holds the archival records of the Labour Party, the Communist Party of Great Britain and many collections of individual politicians and radical leaders such as Michael Foot MP and the former Chartist leader, Henry Vincent. The archive is rich in correspondence including those from conscientious objectors in the First World War – it also has over 100,000 photographic images, 19,000 political pamphlets and many late 18th and early 19th century newspapers. Recent deposits are from campaign groups such as Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. We hold one of the largest collections of political papers in Europe and receive readers from all over the world. Our records have been used in research for a large number of books, radio and television programmes, including
Who Do You Think You Are?.