Despite all the platitudes of the government, the sound of spoken Ukrainian on our local streets is still rare to, I guess, non-existent. In a debate on this in the Commons earlier last week, Dominic Raab waxed enthusiastically about what he said were previous examples of (Tory) government ‘toleration’ of refugees – referencing the late 1930s ‘Kindertransport” as an exemplar. I have to say I knew surviving members of those transports, and they didn’t seem to remember the government then showering them with bouquets on arrival at Harwich. And at the same time, there was another refugee resettlement exercise which was widely supported, succeeded and was especially warmly received here in the North East. This was a welcome for the Basque children.
Spanish Civil War and the Basque children
Spring 1937. The Spanish civil war had broken out, and the opposition of the Basques to General Franco, the man seizing power from the legally elected Spanish government of the day, marked the Basque region out for his anger. It was the destruction of the Basque town Guernica by Franco’s bombers, manned by mercenary Luftwaffe crews practising for Warsaw, London, Rotterdam and Coventry, and which inspired Pablo Picasso to paint his masterpiece of the same name, which brought these children to Britain. A blue blood, The Duchess of Atholl, the President of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, took up a campaign to urge the government to accept the Basque children before more destruction was visited on their communities, and finally permission for this was reluctantly granted by a grudging government.
The children left for Britain on the steamship Habana on 21 May 1937. The ship, only supposed to carry around 800 passengers, carried 3840 children, with 200 teachers and helpers. The children were crammed into the boat, and slept where they could, even in the lifeboats or on the open decks. The steamer arrived at Southampton on 23 May and this is where our story begins. A number of the children were to be found communal homes in the North East of England and Guisborough, along with SW Durham, the Wear Valley and Darlington, was to be one of the main regional ‘colonies’ as they were styled.
Guisborough is where Ruth Pennyman, the wife of major James Pennyman, the squire of Ormesby Hall, entered the scene. Readers with a memory will recall that Ruth Pennyman – “Red Ruth” as she was styled due to her left wing politics – has featured in my pieces in NE Bylines before as the person responsible for setting up relief schemes for unemployed Ironstone Miners in East Cleveland, and it was those same skills that she developed in that scheme which were now uses in helping the Basque children. Earlier in 1937 she had been out to Barcelona, then in the front line, and it was clear that she was deeply moved by the suffering of the people standing up to Franco and his troops and bombers. Back home in Ormesby, she used her social connections to put a squeeze on the Pease estate for the use of their Hutton Hall mansion near Guisborough, a large pile with surrounding parkland and, at the time standing empty a a result of an earlier bankruptcy affecting one of the family. The estate agreed, and an initial 20 children, 13 girls and 7 boys aged between 7 and 15, arrived at the start of July 1937.
The Basque children in Cleveland
They did not have a good introduction to the area. Arriving off the Kings Cross train they would have found all too typical Cleveland summer weather – lowering clouds, drizzle and fog off of the North Sea. This led Tory Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to point out that the Basque community might want to rethink the scheme – England, he said, did not possess a ‘suitable climate’.
But whilst the Basque children would have known nothing of Cleveland, paradoxically some Cleveland people would have known the Basque country well. The local economy there was, at the turn of the century, built on newly discovered local ironstone. and as a result, this spawned a ‘Basque Cleveland’ based on iron mining and iron and steel works. Over the earlier decades many Cleveland engineers and miners would have worked in the valleys of the Basque country sinking pits and helping to build and operate new steel plants.
The children soon settled into stately home life, with a routine based on regular, if spartan meals, housework, and lessons delivered by volunteer teachers during the late morning and afternoon. It was recorded that the immense sympathy of local people for the children meant that much of the food was supplied on a regular donor system, and that many shopkeepers, local farmers and smallholders gave freely of produce. Regular cash collections were also organised by school children and staff at the Great Ayton Quaker School.
Meeting Neville Chamberlain
Ruth Pennyman was of the left, but her husband, Major James, was a staunch Conservative. Although many leading conservatives were well-disposed to Franco, Major James was not, working himself at Hutton Hall, and on one occasion lending the grounds of his Ormesby Hall for a monster rally at where the Prime Minister in waiting, Neville Chamberlain, spoke. But the reason for this was not party advantage – it was to make sure that Chamberlain met the Basque children and their helpers and to hear of their experiences, something the Pennymans saw as valuable, if emotive, lobbying for a more resolute approach to Spain from a government wedded to a spineless policy of ‘non-intervention’ in the Civil War raging in a fellow European nation,
But, by 1938, it was clear that the initial enormous support that the refugees had enjoyed on their arrival was fading, and that it was necessary to put a great deal more effort to raise funds to meet the government demand that ten shillings per child per week should be raised by the National Joint Committee and distributed to centres like Hutton Hall.
Music and the arts
Again, it was music and the performing arts that was the key element utilised by Ruth Pennyman. Readers of a previous article may remember how she used the talents and connections of a young and upcoming classical composer, Michael Tippett, to help sustain the ‘self-help’ communal allotments and workshops at Boosbeck which helped local miners and their families escape the worst of the hunger and poverty that came with pit closures in East Cleveland, and how she sent East Cleveland sword dancing troupes on fund raising concert tours across the region.
On this occasion it was the fortunate arrival on the local scene of a lady called Consuelo Carmona in early 1938 which meant the survival of the Guisborough colony. Consuelo was a well-known Spanish flamenco dancer and cabaret artist who was a regular at top London venues like the Palladium, the Holborn Empire and the Colosseum. She was also an early TV star appearing with the young Edmundo Ros on a cringingly titled series “Rumba to Romance”. By all accounts she was a striking beauty and was a habitué at many of London’s top artistic and literary salons.
Her vivacity and flair – and a dislike of Franco – led to her taking time out to train a group of five of the Hutton Hall refugees, three girls and two boys, to present fund-raising concerts of Spanish and Basque music and dance – something new to British audiences. In February 1938, they took part in a BBC radio Concert and in July of that year they embarked on a 14 day tour of Norfolk which raised £250. In September a tour of the Lake District was planned. These tours were far from being a holiday as there was at least one performance in a different town each day. The Lake District Tour visited Kendal, Bowness, Ambleside, Grasmere, Langdale, Carlisle, and Penrith ending at Keswick. This was followed by a local tour visiting Hartlepool, North Ormesby, Darlington, South Bank, Loftus, Redcar, Saltburn, Middlesbrough and Ormesby’s new Village Hall, which had been supported by Ruth as the ‘lady from the big house’.
A return home?
But by then, the situation here and in Spain was changing. The Civil War was ending, and the iron hand of Franco’s fascism was to plunge Spain into a 34 year darkness. Both the Franco Government and the Catholic Church began to put pressure on other European nations to see that their refugee children were returned, and despite the fears of exactly what kind of country they would be returning to, many of the Guisborough children did, in fact, go home.
But others could not, or would not, return. Some had parents who had lost their lives in the war, whilst others had parents behind the walls and barbed wire of Franco’s bulging jails and concentration camps. Others knew that the Basque country was seen as an irredeemable ‘enemy’ territory by Franco and could foresee only a bleak future in their old homeland.
Major James Pennyman summed it up in a letter:
“some of our children got themselves jobs and were making good, others were adopted by friends ……..They made a mountain of work for Ruth but it was a job worth doing – and I am glad we took them in.”
Hutton Hall is still standing and has now been partly turned into high quality residential flats. Descendants of the Basque children who stayed there are still living in the UK The Basque nation survived the three and a half decades of Franco and is now a proud, prosperous autonomous state with its own flourishing language and culture.
We should look at those Ukrainians who reach our shores in the same light and welcome them in the same spirit as we welcome all fleeing persecution and war. A starter on Teesside would be to support the town centre rally planned for 1.00pm on Friday 1 April in Central Square, Middlesbrough organised by Asylum Matters NE.