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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - GEM FROM THE ARCHIVE - JAMES DARBY Project ar­chiv­ist at the Peo­ple’s His­tory Mu­seum

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?.

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