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Modern Languages and LinguisticsPart of Humanities

From Spain to Southampton - the story of the Basque children

Published: 27 May 2010
The story of Basque children

The story of 4,000 Basque children who fled wartorn Spain in 1937 is now reaching a wider audience thanks to Humanities lecturer Dr Alicia Pozo-Gutierrez

Alicia first uncovered the fascinating history while researching her PhD at Southampton. As she investigated the migration of Spanish people to the UK in the 1950s and 60s, she came across many men and women who had made the journey much earlier, during the Spanish Civil War. Now the fruits of her research are helping inform new generations about these young refugees.

“They were the niños, the children who were sent overseas by their worried parents during the bombing of the Basque country by the Nationalists,” says Alicia. “They left their homes and sailed across the stormy Bay of Biscay from Bilbao to Southampton on the SS Habana. Everyone thought they would only be away for three months. In the event, many had returned home by 1939, but around 250 were still in Britain in 1945 and most went on to make their lives here.”

Before embarking on her PhD, Alicia had worked with refugees at a centre in Cambridge and was fascinated by their stories. After she became a lecturer at Southampton, she seized this opportunity to find out more about the niños and what had happened to them in the years after the evacuation. Southampton Professor Jo Labanyi, who is now at New York University, also pioneered the research.

No official help and support was available to the niños and their teachers and helpers when they arrived, but a makeshift camp was quickly created at North Stoneham near Eastleigh by volunteers. The children were then dispersed to various ‘colonies’ throughout the country, many run by churches and charities.

The Basque Children of ‘37 Association UK was founded in 2002 to keep the memories alive and an archive was created to preserve the documents and photographs from the time.

“The niños are now in their eighties and we are still in touch with around 60 of them,” says Alicia, who is a co-opted member of the Association’s committee. “Many have wonderful stories to tell and we have been recording their experiences for an oral history of the time. We celebrated the 70th anniversary of their arrival in 2007 with popular events and a university symposium and more activities are planned to mark 75 years since their arrival.”

A grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has helped Alicia and Professor Chris Woolgar create a travelling exhibition to tell their stories to the wider community. An educational pack is being devised for schoolchildren in Hampshire by the County Council and both an oral history book aimed at a popular audience and an academic book are in production.

The official archive of the niños will be kept at the Hartley Library Special Collections of the University of Southampton to aid students and other interested people learn more about the Basque children and their lives.

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