Remembering Honiton’s ‘Guernica children’

PUBLISHED: 07:00 16 July 2017 | UPDATED: 09:20 18 July 2017

Tony Simpson outside St Ritas in Honiton. Ref ehr 24 17TI 4521. Picture: Terry Ife

Tony Simpson outside St Ritas in Honiton. Ref ehr 24 17TI 4521. Picture: Terry Ife


Tony Simpson looks back at Honiton’s role in caring for child refugees of the Spanish Civil War.

Spanish civil war refugee children, pictured in Honiton in the late 1930s. Picture courtesy of Not The Whole Story.Spanish civil war refugee children, pictured in Honiton in the late 1930s. Picture courtesy of Not The Whole Story.

In the summer of 1937, as Picasso was completing his most famous painting Guernica, depicting the aerial bombing of the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, a group of child refugees from the fascist bombing, which killed 2,000 civilians, arrived in Honiton.

They were among 4,000 Basque children who came to Britain, many of whom remained until the end of the civil war in 1939. This was the largest single group of child refugees and followed a public campaign led by the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. On May 23, children from Guernica and other Basque towns arrived at Southampton crammed on the deck of the Habana, an ancient passenger ship which, even while boarding the children near Bilbao, narrowly escaped bombing by the German Condor Legion.

A report by Devon and Exeter Gazette (September 24,1937) said the Honiton Basque children ‘are among 4,000 refugees the British government has decided to ‘mother’ until their native land can return to peace and order’. In fact, the Baldwin government had opposed offering the Basque children refuge, claiming they had to adhere to a policy of non-intervention. Ministers finally relented after rising public pressure, though, far from acting as ‘mother’, the British government seems to have largely washed its hands, insisting that refugee groups paid all the costs of the children’s maintenance while they were here. A colony at Plymouth was run by a grass roots campaign including trades unions. Another at Street was supported by local Quakers. The Honiton ‘colony’ was unusual in being run by priests of the Augustinian Recollect.

Children destined for the Honiton colony were met at Southampton by Father Mariano Ortiz, described by the Augustinian order as of an ‘impetuous and generous nature’, a Spanish-speaking priest from the Basque country who ran the mission at St Joseph’s, the present St Rita’s Centre. The response of the Augustinian order appears to have been humanitarian; they did not appear too sympathetic to the Spanish Republic to which they attributed a ‘growing climate of social unrest and anti-church feeling’. The annals record that ‘so they (children) wouldn’t fall into Protestant hands Fr Ortiz – Superior at the time - offered the authorities this refuge’.

Wearing labels saying Expedicion Inglaterra, many of the party of 46 boys aged six-14 years old and four female teachers were probably frightened, tired and hungry after their harrowing journey from Northern Spain. St Joseph’s, formerly known as Broomhills, was a large house with 21 acres of adjacent land. It had been donated to the Augustinian order in 1934 as a base for training priests and missionaries by the Lindsays of Deer Park, a wealthy Roman Catholic family who also set up an endowment for a Parish Priest. They also contributed to the costs of building the Spanish-style Parish Church of the Holy Family, completed in November 1937, only six months after the children arrived. The Honiton parish then had about 140 Catholics.

Father Gerald Wilson, the present Prior and priest, remembers Fr Ortiz as ‘a one-man band who would get things done’. He showed me where the Basque children, ‘the majority who had parents who were communists and socialists’, were tightly accommodated in attic rooms at St Rita’s, ‘probably sleeping on the floor to begin with’. At first many Basque children were alarmed by the sound of aircraft overhead, which reminded them of fascist bombing raids. A journalist who visited after the opening of the new Exeter airport assured readers that the Honiton group had ‘lost their terror now... for the first time in nearly 12 months they enjoyed a peace and security that their countrymen are still fighting to obtain’. The boys were ‘laughing and joking and whooping as they defied the war and played football with undaunted energy’. A headline said ‘REFUGEES LEARNING TO PLAY FOOTBALL’, though the boys had come from a Basque country area known for its footballing skill both then and now. One former refugee, Victor-Manuel Pena, returned on a visit in 1975.

Honiton at this time had a Spanish-speaking and very active mayor, Cllr Juanita Maxwell Phillips, who undoubtedly played a role in helping the children settle. With her husband Tom, Mrs Phillips had spent a long holiday in Spain which, says her biographer Julia Neville, ‘made a deep impression on her... she came back from Spain with Spanish costumes, coached her WI group to perform a Spanish cabaret and gave popular talks on Spain. She told an audience at Axminster ‘her hope was that the trouble in Spain would soon be over’. She visited the children and introduced them to local groups, which included a boxing display with Honiton boys under Jack Bond at which Mr Bowden was the MC. Entertainment was also provided at Honiton YMCA.

The colony of Basque children and their teachers remained in Honiton for more than two years, returning to Spain in 1939, ironically, shortly before British cities faced raids from Hitler’s bombers. Six hundred evacuee children and their teachers arrived at Honiton station from London and other threatened areas, where they were welcomed and escorted to their accommodation by Mayor Phillips, WVS, WI and other local groups; St Rita’s accommodated five evacuee children.

Undoubtedly, the experience gained in Honiton from helping the Basque children was put to renewed use, as it was in 1972 when Honiton welcomed Ugandan refugees fleeing from the dictator Idi Amin .

Eighty years after the bombing of Guernica, Picasso’s painting is recognised as one of the great anti-war images.

The sanctuary afforded to the Basque children is being commemorated in 2017, such as in West Sussex where a blue plaque is being erected by Lancing Town Council.

Is it time that Honiton also remembered the Basque children, refugees from what has been called ‘the crucible for World War Two’?

Of the 46 Basque children and four teachers who lived at Honiton between 1937-39 the Church stated they have no records. After 36 years ruled by Franco, the dictator died in 1975 and Spain returned to peace and parliamentary democracy.

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