The destruction of the Spanish town of Guernica, which inspired Pablo Picasso to paint his masterpiece of the same name, also brought nearly 4,000 children to Britain as refugees from the Spanish Civil War.

Public opinion was outraged by the bombing of Guernica, the first-ever saturation bombing of a civilian population. The Basque government appealed to foreign nations to give temporary asylum to the children, but the British government adhered to its policy of non-intervention. The Duchess of Atholl, President of the National Committee for Spanish Relief, took up the campaign to urge the government to accept the Basque children and finally, permission was reluctantly granted. However, the government refused to be responsible financially for the children, saying that this would violate the non-intervention pact. It demanded that the newly formed Basque Children’s Committee guarantee 10s (50p, but the equivalent of about £50 in 2010 values) per week for the care and education of each child.

The children left for Britain on the steamship Habana on the 21st May 1937. Each child had been given a cardboard hexagonal disc to pin on his clothes with an identification number and the words ‘Expedición a Inglaterra’ printed on it. The ship, supposed to carry around 800 passengers, carried 3480 children, 80 teachers, 120 helpers, 15 Catholic priests and 2 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 were violently seasick.

The steamer arrived at Southampton on 23rd May. Thousands of people 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 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 and all through the Bank Holiday to prepare it.

The children were completely unprepared for camping: the majority had lived in densely packed flats in the working class districts of one of the most industrialised city in Spain. In fact, many of the children did not stay there long: the idea was that they should be dispersed in homes or ‘colonies’ as soon as possible. (The Basque government insisted they stay in groups, to preserve their national identity.) The first to offer asylum was the Salvation Army, which undertook to take 400, followed by the Catholic Church, which committed itself to take 1,200 children. Little by little, from the end of May, the children left the provisional camp in groups to go to other homes situated all over Great Britain and staffed and financed by individual volunteers, church groups and trade unions.

The Cambridge colony was considered to be one of the most privileged. From June 1937 until January 1938, 29 children from the ‘Ayuda Social’ orphanage in Bilbao, whose fathers, militiamen, had been killed in the early stages of the war, were housed in a former derelict vicarage at Pampisford, then transferred until November 1939 to a house in Station Road Cambridge leased by Jesus College. The children had all been brought up in an intensely political atmosphere and were very receptive to and benefited from the support of local academics and students. A programme of essentially child-centred educational activities was drawn up, mornings being dedicated to schoolwork, afternoons to painting, music and handicrafts. The children produced their own magazine ‘Ayuda’, which came out monthly. Their music teacher was Rosita Bal, a pupil of de Falla, and she trained them in music and dances that were performed in concerts all over East Anglia and London. Professor Francis Cornford, whose son, the poet John Cornford, had been killed fighting with the International Brigade in Spain, invited the children for a month in the summer of 1938 to his mill at Ringstead, on the Norfolk coast. Another academic family actively involved with the children was that of the Dean of Trinity College, Dr H F Stewart, who with his wife, Jessie Stewart, offered much hospitality to the children. Their daughter Frida organised fund-raising tours all over the country for the Cambridge colony’s concert party

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 late 1940s, most of the children had been reunited with their families, either in Spain or in exile. Over 250 children settled permanently here. Despite the hardships that were endured, life in the colonies was a unique experience of community living. From a practical point of view, it was a positive experience – there were undoubtedly happy times - nevertheless, the underlying sadness and anxiety of separation from their families would never be forgotten.

Natalia Benjamin