Posted in Country House, Film, History, Maritime History, Vintage, World War Two

Southampton & The Basque Refugee Children of 1937

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  • Basque children arrive at Southampton aboard the liner, SS Habana, having been rescued from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.  May 25th, 1937.

I am extremely pleased to finally be publishing this article which I have been researching, on and off, for about a year now. Since the plight of migrant children continues to dominate European news headlines, it felt like the perfect time to crack-on and write-up my notes. Regardless of your political views about refugees, economic migrants or asylum seekers, this is a heart-warming, true story, fundamentally about humanitarianism.

The successful evacuation of 3,840 children to Britain from the war-torn Basque region of Spain in May, 1937 is an event in our nation’s history that we should justly be proud of. As the narrator states in the British Pathé film below: ‘Britain has always been a safe haven for exiles’. Perhaps we should all bear this phrase in mind when formulating an opinion about the plight of families fleeing war-torn countries.

  • British Pathe film from 1937, ‘Tragedy of Civil War – Basque Refugee children arrive in England’.  Film shows the children arriving in Southampton as well as the temporary reception camp at Stoneham Farm, Eastleigh, near to the city centre. Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.2014.

In 1937, Spain was engaged in Civil War and had been since 17th July, 1936. The political background to the War is complex but I recommend listening to Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 documentary on the topic from the In Our Time series, broadcast in April 2003, which clearly sets-out the facts.

At first, the British government did not want the Basque refugee children to come, intervention could be seen as an act of taking sides. The government wanted to maintain a neutral reaction to this conflict. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, William Cosmo Gordon Lang (1864-1945), also found himself in a difficult situation, he too had to adopt the Church of England’s neutral position whilst supporting humanitarian initiatives for the Spanish women and children.

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  • Bombing Of Guernica In Spain, April, 1937. The event inspired Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting, ‘Guernica’.

On 26th April, 1937, the non-militarised Basque town of Guernica was heavily bombed. This was one of the first aerial bombings by Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe. The town was devastated and over 1,600 people killed. Archbishop Lang happened to be in the Basque region at the time, reporting back on the children’s harrowing plight. Public conscience was stirred and the British government were forced to back down.

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  • ‘Guernica’, a mural oil-painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), completed in June 1937, as a reaction to Nazi Germany’s bombing of the town. The painting is housed in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia.

Originally, the Home Office only gave permission for 2,000 children to be evacuated to Britain. However, since France had already given shelter to between 16,000 and 18,000 refugees, supporters argued that it was not unreasonable for Britain to ‘do her bit’ and take-in 4,000 children.

If England will not have them all, 2,000 will be landed at Bordeaux en route, and the rest will be brought to Southampton arriving Saturday. [22nd  May, 1937).

(The Daily Echo, 18.5.1937)

The people of Southampton rose to the challenge as one might expect from a Port town with a long history of welcoming migrants fleeing persecution. The town needed to pool all of its human resources to pull-off a successful reception and create a suitable base camp for the children. The children only needed accommodation in Southampton for a couple of months, as the plan was to send them on to new foster homes and country houses throughout Britain until hostilities in Spain had ceased.

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  • Volunteer helpers cleaning a house in preparation for the arrival of Spanish refugees, 1937.

Although the British Government now supported an evacuation, they made it perfectly clear that once on British soil, they would not be held responsible for the children’s welfare. Of course, such declarations just served to fuel the cause. Southampton’s citizens rallied and several days before the refugees were due to arrive, 1,000 of them gathered at the town’s Guildhall to pledge their help, support and donate money.

I found the following quotes from regional newspapers in a clippings folder at the Local Studies Centre of Southampton Central Library. They detail how local people rose to this challenge.  Organisations, such as the Scouts, Guides, Boys Brigade, YMCA, Salvation Army and Quakers lent their support. Southampton’s school children collected eggs and the town’s local co-op donated food and clothes. An egg-storing depot was set-up at Messrs A. E. Turner’s store, London Road, Southampton. High-profile supporters of the evacuation were The Duchess of Atholl, the Cadbury and Rowntree families and King George VI.

Southampton’s response in personal service and in gifts has been magnificent, but there are still several urgent needs unfilled. One of these is a caravan or hut for the use of V.A.D. nurses and as a medical examination room.

(The Daily Echo, 18.5.1937)

Gifts of vegetables toys, clothes, etc, are, of course, warmly welcomed, and there is a caravan just outside [of the Stoneham transit camp, near Southampton] for the receipt of gifts. The generous spirit  of local folk is above praise; hundreds have been working all hours of the night, and even if they go out of their way to engage a cook or collect a string of cars which turn out to be unwanted, they take it all most philosophically. 

The spirit of the camp is admirable: one recognised many of Southampton’s  leading spirits at work on humble jobs or helping in the shepherding of children: so long as they are useful they do not mind. Even trained nurses were cheerfully filling palliases  with straw on Sunday, because that was the most urgent task. Incidentally, someone had the bright idea of turning Sunday afternoon’s curiosity to account, and went round with a tin bowl. He collected £5 in pennies.

(The Hampshire Advertiser and Southampton Times, 29.5.1937)

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  • Three young orphans from Bilbao arrive at Southampton aboard the liner Habana. May 23rd, 1937.

On Thursday 20th May, 1937, the SS Habana sailed from Bilbao, France with approximately 3,840 children on board accompanied by 80 teachers, 120 helpers, 15 Catholic priests and 2 doctors. The ship was only meant to carry 800 and conditions on-board were very cramped. It was a tough voyage, many suffered sea-sickness, diarrhoea, particularly around the Bay of Biscay.

SS Habana arrived in British waters on Saturday 22nd May, lying-off of Fawley, where it awaited English health authorities to clear its passengers so that it could dock at Southampton Port. Early on Sunday 23rd May, SS Habana finally left her anchorage and docked at Berth 106, arriving just before 8am.

The children were given medical examinations then immigration officers took details of their names and parentage, fixing labels to their wrists before they were allowed to troop down the Habana’s gangway onto the safety of Southampton Docks. The children were helped by white-uniformed, Spanish, Red Cross nurses.

Once the children had disembarked onto Southampton Quay, they boarded a long line of Hants and Dorset Motor Services buses which the company had loaned for such purposes. Next stop was Southampton Corporation Baths on Western Esplanade, where a host of volunteers bathed them in disinfectant and gave each child a fresh set of clothes.

The above immigration procedures may seem a little draconian by modern standards but you have to remember that the living conditions these refugees had left behind were so grim, many of them had become malnourished and vulnerable to disease. All sensible precautions had to be taken to ensure no communicable diseases were inadvertently brought into Britain and worse still, spread throughout the transit camp at Stoneham Farm.

In one of the local newspaper reports, I found an account of life in the war torn Basque region, given by a 15 year old girl from the town of Azkoitia in the province of Gipuzkoa.

Nine months ago, I was living with my father and two brothers in Azkoitia, where my father was a magistrate. Now my father is in Bilbao, one of 300,000 refugees from the war zone. My brothers are fighting in the Basque Army against the Fascists. When the fighting began all around my home we had to evacuate the village. My father and I went to Guernica.

We lived there for eight months – mostly underground – until in one air raid the whole town was wiped out.  What had a short time before been a pretty market town was reduced to a mass of flame and ruin. Incendiary bombs fell side by side with high explosives. Panic and bloodshed were rife. All the people in the houses next to that in which I was are now dead.

(Southern Daily Echo, 24.5.1937)

Another account was given by a couple of Roman Catholic priests who had accompanied the refugees to Britain. Benito Juan Sarakoetxea and Padre Gabriel Manterola told reporters at the Southern Daily Echo that the people’s diet had been very poor indeed, food was scarce. Daily rations consisted mainly of fish, black bread and water with some milk made available to children.

They also recalled how citizens were so afraid they were living in the safety of their cellars. In fact since 31st March, 1937, the children had been bombed every day except for three days, leaving many of them now in a heightened state of anxiety.

Southampton residents were asked not to visit the Docks or line the streets to greet the children. This was not an unfriendly gesture but instead one designed to ensure the children were not over-whelmed. Although, from some of the newspaper reports I have read, local children did cheer and wave as the buses transported the refugees to Stoneham Farm.

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  • Stoneham Farm temporary transit camp, May 1937.

The temporary reception camp was located at Stoneham Farm, near Eastleigh, just outside of Southampton. A local farmer, G. H. Brown, lent a parcel of farmland to the cause. The site, run by volunteers, was efficiently organised with 400 bell tents and plenty of facilities although it did take a few days for the terrified youngsters to settle.

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  • Traumatised Basque refugee child arrives at Stoneham Farm temporary transit camp, May, 1937.

In the period leading-up to the refugees arrival, local citizens rallied around to get the Stoneham land ready. Local plumbers laid water pipes, carpenters constructed simple structures and Dockers dug latrines. Depots for food, clothes and toys were set-up all over Hampshire, supported by cricket clubs, churches and women’s organisations.

Unsurprisingly, the refugee children were unused to a structured, daily routine. Many of them had, for quite a considerable amount of time, been running wild due to the horrific circumstances back home. There were some instances reported that whilst at Stoneham Farm camp, some children had been caught stealing from local orchards. Another incident detailed several boys having stolen communion wine from the temporary on-site church tent!

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  • Refugees lining-up to receive their meal at Stoneham Farm transit camp, Eastleigh. May, 1937.

The children were well-fed at the camp, diet consisted mainly of scalded milk, bread, boiled meat and potatoes with peas and onions. Each child was given a daily amount of milk equivalent to 1 and 1/2 pints. There was also plenty of fruit and sweets (thanks to Rowntrees). Cadbury’s also sent down 12,000 chocolate, 12,000 bars. Meals were cooked by local people under supervision of a team of ex-army and navy cooks.

There were many daily activities to keep the children occupied including boxing (organised by ex-heavyweight champion, Joe Beckett), a cinema and Spanish/English lessons.  Entertainment was organised by Spanish-speaking actor Neville Towne. The artist, Augustus John (1878-1961), visited the camp everyday and sketched the children.  A tannoy system was also installed, to keep everyone updated with news from Spain. This was not always very well-received and on occasion very distressful.

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  • Boxing practice at the Stoneham Camp. Professional boxer, Joe Beckett (1892-1965) looks on. May 29th, 1937.

Over the following months children were gradually sent to foster families and designated centres, which were also known as ‘Basque Colonies’. There were 94 Colonies set-up across Britain. The children were dispersed to country houses and private homes in: Manchester, Swindon, Scarborough, Cambridge, Brampton, Worthing, Tunbridge Wells, Worthing, Ipswich, Derby, Welwyn Garden City, Birkenhead, Watford, Thame, Watford, Richmond, Birmingham, Newbury and of course Southampton.

The refugees stayed in Britain for 2 years and when the war ended on 1st April, 1939, all, apart from 500 children were returned to Spain. Many children could not be returned as their families either no longer had a home or had been killed. Approximately 400 children settled permanently in Britain. The father of former Conservative MP-turned broadcaster, Michael Portillo, was a Basque refugee.

I was 14 at the time. I cried a lot in the boat on the way over. It wasn’t just me – many children were crying. It was because we knew what was going on with the war, especially in Bilbao. When we arrived in Southampton we were taken to be checked by a doctor, then we went to the campsite at Stoneham. There were so many children to sort out. Our group were sent to Caerleon in South Wales, between Cardiff and Newport. We had a lovely time there, we were very happy in Caerleon because we were one big family. There were 67 of us, and one Spanish lady who looked after us all – we called her our mother. We stayed there for 2 years until the Second World War started and the soldiers needed the rooms.

(Basque refugee, Maria-Louisa Cooper, 84, reminiscing at the 70th anniversary in 2007.)

Further sources:

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  • Basque children being given toys in Watermillock, Bolton. 26th June, 1937.



Social historian, based in the UK.

17 thoughts on “Southampton & The Basque Refugee Children of 1937

      1. Just reading this wonderful report again.Just wanted to point out,the Basque Children stayed at Avenue Park in North Stoneham,not Stoneham Farm.


  1. This is a great article for which I love to see full citations – I know blogs are less formal but it would be good to know more of the sources. Thank you for connecting on Twitter too. Sonia


    1. Thanks for your kind comments Sonia, glad you enjoyed the article. Most of the research is based upon a large newspaper clippings folder containing local newspaper articles that can be found in Southampton Central Library’s Local Studies Collection should you wish to consult it. Direct quotes from articles have the source quote afterwards. Kind regards Emma.


  2. Fabulous – that makes it even better. I can just imagine the immediacy of what you found and the excitement at this discovery. Look forward to keeping in touch. Sonia


  3. Like you I have been researching this on and off and never get around to putting on my blog in case I miss something out or get it wrong. (I am still planning the Mary Rogers piece too). So well done and what an excellent article. I am so proud of my City for organising this rescue.


    1. Thanks so much for your comment. Apologies for the delay in replying to you. I had a serious accident earlier in the summer and have been convalescing after surgery. Today is my first day back at the laptop, albeit only for a few hours. The Basque Children story is so relevant once again. I still think there is more that can be done to promote the story but I am pleased the archives now have a safe home. If you look at the list of items in the collection they include games, toys, paintings. So well worth you making an appointment to view. Best wishes. Emma

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you very much for this article. My mum and some of her brothers were part of 3,840 Basque children evacuated o Britain in 1937. They were finally located at Clapham and a RAF officer home during weekends. Always were grateful to the British people care and solidarity.


    1. Thank you so much for your fascinating comment. I am so pleased that my article is a poignant reminder of your own family’s history. Such an interesting story. Proud to live in a city that welcomed refugees with open arms. Kind regards Emma.


  5. I was one of the 4,000 children, I am now 92 years old. Has been a pleasure to find this article. It helped to add many things to my good memories of England. Now I live in Los Angeles, California


    1. Dear José, thank-you so much for taking the time and trouble to write a comment on this article about the Basque refugee children of 1937. It is incredible the reach that this story has. This is where the internet is such a wonderful platform, bringing the world that little bit closer together. I lived in Southampton until earlier this year and have long been fascinated by the story of the Basque children and the kindness and generosity of Sotonians in that difficult, pre-WW2 period. Stay safe, take care. Many kind regards. Emma.


  6. Thanks everso much for this great post! I live in Southampton, I write fiction for readers aged 9 and up and my latest story was inspired by The Basque children’s camp – I’ve referred to your post and its sources throughout the writing it’s been really helpful! At the moment I have a kickstarter running to get the books ‘The Wonder Girls Resist’ published – it’s the second in a trilogy about a 1930’s girl gang resisting the Blackshirts. I write as J.M. Carr.


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