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How Norfolk gave a home to children fleeing war-torn Spain

PUBLISHED: 11:50 15 June 2020 | UPDATED: 13:00 15 June 2020

The Hoxne/Rollesby colony, Poppy Vulliamy Album, 1937-1939. Picture: University of Southampton Special Collections

The Hoxne/Rollesby colony, Poppy Vulliamy Album, 1937-1939. Picture: University of Southampton Special Collections

University of Southampton Special Collections

When a bloody conflict threatened innocent lives in northern Spain in the late 1930s, it was East Anglia which provided a safe haven for some of them after fleeing the country.

The evacuees on board the SS Habana. Picture: University of Southampton Special CollectionsThe evacuees on board the SS Habana. Picture: University of Southampton Special Collections

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, and was won three years later by an alliance of nationalists led by General Francisco Franco who, with support from Nazi Germany as well as Italy and Portugal, became ruler in a dictatorship which would last until 1975.

The rebellion’s northern campaign began in March 1937, with the German Luftwaffe involved in bombing raids on the Basque Country, whose anti-separatist leaders had sided with the republic.

This left innocent people in the firing line, and saw one of the most infamous horrors of the conflict – the bombing of the market town of Guernica that April killed hundreds and was immortalised in the famous painting of the same name by Pablo Picasso.

Horrendous devastation and loss of life in Guernica was a trigger for the mass evacuation of children from the region, including a group of around 4,000 who departed Bilbao on May 21, on a course for Britain.

Arrival at Southampton, Poppy Vulliamy Album, 1937-1939. Picture: University of Southampton Special CollectionsArrival at Southampton, Poppy Vulliamy Album, 1937-1939. Picture: University of Southampton Special Collections

Their stories have been brought to life in a new project led by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in time for the start of Refugee Week in the UK, which runs from June 15 to June 21.

Havens East follows the lives of some of the boys and girls who came to Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, as well as the selfless families who took them in during their hour of need.

After the tireless work of Labour MP Leah Manning, who organised the escape to Britain, a group of almost 4,000 children, 96 teachers, 118 female volunteers and 15 Catholic priests left Spain aboard the SS Habana and, after a rough voyage through the Bay of Biscay, arrived in Southampton around 36 hours later.

They received a warm welcome on the south coast, including a greeting from the Salvation Army band and medical checkups before setting up camp at Stoneham.

Some of Poppy Vulliamy's boys at Rollesby, Poppy Vulliamy Album, 1937-1939. Picture: University of Southampton Special CollectionsSome of Poppy Vulliamy's boys at Rollesby, Poppy Vulliamy Album, 1937-1939. Picture: University of Southampton Special Collections

Their stay here was only supposed to be short, but a request from the Basque Government for the children to be kept in large groups for them to retain their identity made it difficult to find groups of families who could house them.

Eventually, around 100 were moved to Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, where colonies were established.

ARU’s project focuses upon two Norfolk colonies – a group of around 50 Basque boys – which were established at Hoxne near the border with Suffolk and at Rollesby, near Great Yarmouth.

It reveals details of how the young Spaniards were assimilated into Norfolk life, looking at it from the perspectives of both the children and the host families, while also looking at how important a mutual love of football was in helping the communities come together – on friendly, on Boxing Day 1937, saw a Great Yarmouth team thrashed 9-0 by the Rollesby Basque Boys.

Rollesby Rectory, Poppy Vulliamy Album, 1937-1939. Picture: University of Southampton Special CollectionsRollesby Rectory, Poppy Vulliamy Album, 1937-1939. Picture: University of Southampton Special Collections

A recreation of this match was planned as part of the Havens East project but had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but while a small number of the project’s plans have been shelved, others have still gone ahead.

A project website was launched on Friday, June 12, to showcase in details some of the stories uncovered by researchers.

In addition, the same day saw schools take part in a day of remote learning called A Day of Welcome, designed to support teachers and families during Refugee Week, where the online exhibition website served as a ‘virtual school trip’ for students.

The project has been led by Dr Jeannette Baxter, a senior lecturer in English literature at ARU.

Basque children at Pampisford. Picture: The Association for the UK Basque ChildrenBasque children at Pampisford. Picture: The Association for the UK Basque Children

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She said: “We are very grateful to all project participants who have helped us to share this incredible piece of heritage in the best way we could under the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in.

“In the future, we plan to deliver our creative workshops physically in schools, and of course we will not forget that football match.”

Jake Rose-Brown, who led A Day of Welcome, said: “The story of these Basque children is a little-known and enthralling aspect of our island’s rich history as a place of sanctuary.

The Basque Boys at Wellesley Road, Great Yarmouth on Boxing Day 1937. From right, from back row, E. Aldecoa, F. Arana, F. Pérez, W. Barrutia, B. Lopez, J. Treco, A. Altube, J. Ibarra, A. Fernández, E. Ochoa and J. Ibarra. Picture: The Association for the UK Basque ChildrenThe Basque Boys at Wellesley Road, Great Yarmouth on Boxing Day 1937. From right, from back row, E. Aldecoa, F. Arana, F. Pérez, W. Barrutia, B. Lopez, J. Treco, A. Altube, J. Ibarra, A. Fernández, E. Ochoa and J. Ibarra. Picture: The Association for the UK Basque Children

“A Day of Welcome invited young people to learn more about them and other refugees, both past and present, who have come to the UK seeking safety and to build a culture of welcome for everyone in our schools and in our communities.”


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