In 2010, Swansea was officially designated a City of Sanctuary, a testament to Swansea’s long tradition of providing shelter and a safe space for persons fleeing war, famine and persecution. A neglected collection in the archives throws new light on one episode in this continuing narrative. Reproduced in countless exhibitions, books and television documentaries, photographs of men such as Harry Dobson of Blaenclydach and Alun Menai Williams of Gilfach Goch have come to personify Welsh involvement in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Much less well-known, however, is a collection held by West Glamorgan Archive Service relating to another aspect of our part in that conflict. Equally moving, and of exceptional quality, these images have remained largely unknown since they were taken in the summer of 1937.
The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936 when rebel generals launched a military coup against the Spanish Republican Government. Their attempted military takeover was only partially successful. After receiving logistical support from Nazi Germany, the rebel generals were able to establish control over much of the south and west of the country, however in the east the country remained loyal to the democratically-elected government in Madrid. In the north, there was also a Republican enclave in the regions of Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque country.
Despite being outgunned and outnumbered, the Basques had initially halted the advance of Nationalist forces from the south. By the spring of 1937, however, fighting had reached a critical stage. Surrounded on all sides by infantry and artillery, Basque towns were also being bombed from the air by units of the German air force known as the Condor Legion.
As conditions in the Basque Country worsened, the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief (NJCSR) pleaded with the British Government to provide sanctuary to the tens of thousands of refugees who had flooded into the city of Bilbao. Initially, the British Government had refused to open its doors to these refugees, but in May 1937 it bowed to public pressure. A limited number of children would be allowed to enter Britain, but only on condition that no public funds would be made available for their maintenance. Responsibility for caring for the refugees would lie solely with the NJCSR. Rising to the challenge, the NJCSR sent out a general appeal across Britain for aid and assistance to the refugees.
Among those who answered the call for help was the Mayor of Swansea, Richard Henry. Although public bodies were barred from providing direct support to Spanish refugees, the Council took the decision to place Sketty Park House at their disposal. The property in question was far from ideal. The house had been vacant for some time, and the interior was in a general state of disrepair. In normal circumstances it would have taken several months to bring the property up to an acceptable standard. However, on 30th June 1937, news was received that a party of 80 children was already en route to Swansea. With no time to spare, an army of volunteers set about preparing the house for the imminent arrival of the new occupants, all aged between five and fifteen years of age.
While the new refugee hostel at Sketty Park House was far from ready when the children arrived, at least they now had a solid roof over their heads after their brief sojourn in Southampton, where they had been living under canvas. One newspaper reported how one small boy bounced up and down in delight on his new bed at Sketty Park House before shouting to the reporter, “OK mister!”
The same report also noted that the children were excited to be living so close to the seaside. However, it was also clear that this was a group of young people who had been deeply traumatised by their recent experiences. On the night of their arrival at Swansea, a liaison officer came across a small child in tears. The young girl had witnessed the death of her mother as they had been rushing for cover during an air raid. Another small boy, referred to as the “problem child”, had lost both his mother and father.
The Basque refugee children at Swansea had been rescued from the conflict in Spain, but they now needed food and clothing. Indeed, if the refugees were even to begin to adjust to their new surroundings, they would need more than just the bare essentials. Once again the Swansea Mayor, Richard Henry, was at the forefront of efforts to provide material assistance to the refugees. In July 1937, he sent out 600 appeals asking for donations to the newly established Swansea refugee relief fund. Over the following months the fund raised hundreds of pounds and collected countless gifts and items of equipment from trades unions, religious congregations, local businesses and private individuals.
Shortly after their arrival, each child was photographed with a card hanging round his or her neck bearing an identification number and the Herald of Wales article below confirms this was part of the registration process. The photographs have survived but a list of names for them is seemingly long since lost. The project to provide sanctuary to the Basque children, and the public appeal that was established to fund it, must have created other records locally (accounts, invoices, correspondence etc.), but whether any still exist after this gap in time is unlikely. The majority of the surviving records of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief are in the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University, to be found in a series of personal papers of key figures from the Committee.
Basque Children Need Clothes and Books
TO ERADICATE TRAGIC MEMORIES FROM MINDS OF CHILDREN
Appeal For Assistance
By FREDA STRAWBOURNE
Last Friday was registration day at Sketty Park House, the temporary home of the Basque refugee children, and when I arrived in the middle of the afternoon it was to find the Borough Estate Agent, Mr. D. Ivor Saunders, assisted by Miss Aleman, filling in long questionnaires about each child, ranging from names (the spelling of some of these was a problem that only Miss Aleman could clarify!) to finger-prints. In the hall a Corporation photographer was taking a picture of each child to correspond with the details supplied. In this connection a funny incident arose, illustrating that a popular superstition is world-wide. Before each picture was taken, a numbered card was placed around the kiddy’s neck but when the number 13 was reached, there were loud cries which sounded to me like “Nombre malo! Nombre malo!”
(Taken from the Herald of Wales, 10th July 1937)
These photographs were captured on glass plate, a common method for high quality imaging at the time, and they manifest the work of an accomplished photographer. Whether or not it was intentional, the plaintive demeanour of the children and the sometimes dramatic use of interior light (as seen in the first picture) gives these images a brooding, melancholy quality. The children’s faces reflect the complex set of emotions which they were experiencing on arrival at Sketty Park House – grief, loss, homesickness and no doubt too a sense of adventure. They still speak to us across the intervening decades.
While this collection represents, we believe, one of the finest sets of images of Basque child refugees in this country, as yet no one has been able to identify any of the children featured in these photographs. One can only hope that, with the advent of the internet and widespread use of social media, their descendants, relatives or other researchers will be able to recognise them with reference to other family photographs.
David Morris, Archivist
West Glamorgan Archive Service
2 thoughts on “The experience of Basque refugee children in Swansea in the 1930s”
This is amazing! Thank you for sharing.