As a result of the Spanish Civil War, over 4000 children, some only just over the age of six, were evacuated from Northern Spain to Britain in 1937. Suffering extreme hardship, violence, imprisonment without trial, and widespread poverty under the Franco regime, for the families of the Basque evacuees life had become an endless struggle for survival. Twelve and ten year-old Virgilio and Rodolfo were given a few coins each day by their father, with the instruction that if they saw a queue, they must join it, and buy whatever there was.
Their desperate parents were willing to send their children to any foreign country, in the hope of keeping them safe. They were encouraged by the thought that it would not be for long. “It’s only for three months”, became their mantra as they shepherded their unhappy children on board Habana, the rescue boat taking the children from Bilbao to Southampton. One boy, who was still living in Britain fifty years later, declared “We didn’t come [here], we were sent”.
A year after the refugees’ arrival in Britain, in April 1938, more than half of the children were still here. By June 1939 there were still over a thousand here, and although by then repatriation was being speeded up, following the fall of France in 1940, it was too dangerous to ferry children across the Bay of Biscay. Some 470 children were stranded in Britain, and about 250 of them stayed here, some eventually marrying into local families. The youngest evacuees adapted most readily, to the extent of never feeling quite at home when they returned later to their birthplace. Some of the girls found it particularly difficult: having been part of a more liberated, broader educated society, they returned to a culture where women played a very different role from that in Britain. Even though initially it was all so ‘foreign’, they were all grateful for the acceptance, the stability and the security that Britain gave them.
Leamington History Group member John Baldwin has many memories of three of those Basque children who came to live locally, all of whom contributed to Adrian Bell’s moving account, “Only for Three Months: The Basque Children in Exile.” Eliseo Ochoa, whose father had had to bribe him with a small silver coin to board Habana, at fifteen was already an established a musician who had played clarinet in a military band at home. In Leamington, he later also played guitar in local dance bands, and for his day job, was the main driver for the bakers, Elizabeth The Chef. In later life he made many return visits to Spain, but only really felt at home back in Leamington, after a pint of bitter! He kept the silver coin from his father all his life.
Virgilio Molina, who with his younger brother Rodolfo had seen some horrifying sights in the early days of the war in San Sebastian, where both had been almost killed by a collapsing building, had taken the evacuation in his stride. To him it was “just another adventure”. Settled in the Midlands, he became an electrical contractor running his own business in Leamington. He married a fellow Basque, Nieves, whom he first met at the frontier in Hendaye, on a brief visit to his mother. Nieves came to England to work at the Manor House Hotel in Leamington. They lived for many years in Rugby Road and when they retired, Virgilio and Nieves and their son and daughter went back to live in Javea in Spain.
Virgilio’s younger brother Rodolfo also settled here, in Warwick. Having left school early owing to a mistake on his original registration documents Rodolfo had begun work as a navvy at the age of thirteen, on a building site at Eastleigh in Hampshire. He worked hard and was well thought of by his foreman. He enjoyed working outdoors, and the camaraderie on site, but didn’t want to move on with the gang when the building project was completed. He wrote to Virgilio, who helped him move to the Midlands and find work, first at the Clarendon Hotel, then at Peter Bedford, the Wine Merchant in Bedford Street. Rodolfo was quite keen on boxing and for a time was one of a group of sparring partners to Randolph Turpin. He became a recognised local boxer in his own right, known by his nickname of Joe. Rodolfo married Diana Steel from Emscote, (John’s sister-in-law), and over the years John and his wife Peggy enjoyed many social evenings with them and Basque refugee friends in Birmingham and Oxfordshire. Rodolfo worked for over thirty years at Lockheed, and was proud of his attendance and time-keeping. “Not once did I start my tea-break before the bell went ……. I never left [before the bell]. I didn’t want people to say, ‘That foreign bloke!’ “ His comment on the evacuation so many years before is telling: he felt that although the Basque parents did what they thought was best for the children at the time, “The decision was wrong, but they were right to make it.” Sadly, Rodolfo died in 1992, but Diana still lives in their family home in Warwick.
John Baldwin & Margaret Rushton
Images by kind permission of John Baldwin