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'Here, look after him': los ninos,
refugee children from the
On 23 May 1937, the SS Habana docked in Southampton. The ship was carrying
some 4,000 children — los ninos — from Spain, fleeing civil war. They were part of
a movement which saw more than 30,000 children leave the war zone, dispersed
to countries across Europe and overseas, and part of a much wider movement of
refugees. The Habana had left Santurce, the port of Bilbao, two days previously, amid
highly charged scenes. An intensification of the war, within a few weeks in March-April
1937, had seen the bombing of Durango, a non-military target, and the devastation of
Guernica, the historical seat of the Basque government: attacks on civilians marked a
new dimension to warfare. The 1930s had already seen migration to northern Spain
and the Basque Country, with opportunities for employment in industrial cities like
Bilbao. Now the terrors of civil war brought more than 200,000 women and children
to Bilbao. With appeals for international help, the evacuation of children from the
region was organised by the Republican and autonomous governments in Catalonia
and the Basque Country, in conjunction with humanitarian organisations. At the time,
this was considered to be a precaution that would endure for a short period only.
Although many children did indeed return to Spain, in some cases there were many
years of exile as the Second World War succeeded the disruption of the Civil War.
This exhibition marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the arrival of the ninos in
Southampton. It is based around activities of commemoration supported by the
Basque Children's Association of '37 UK and a project funded by the Heritage Lottery
Fund to record the life-stories of the ninos, who came on the Habana, as a way of
understanding the experience of exile. Some of the material gathered by the project
features in this exhibition, and there is an accompanying volume, Here, look after
him. The full interviews are held in the Special Collections Division. The narrative to
this exhibition is one that continues to the present.
Spanish Civil War
M li
Why was there war? The Spanish Second Republic was established in 1931, with
an ambitious agenda to eliminate deeply-rooted social inequalities. The Republican
programme encompassed land and education reform, improved rights for women,
restructuring the army, and granting autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country.
Threatened by these far-reaching changes, political groups rallied together in the
so-called 'two Spains', determined to annihilate each other. With Nazi Germany and
Fascist Italy helping one faction, Communist Russia the other, and Chamberlain's
Britain leading a policy amongst Western democratic nations of non-intervention
and appeasement, the Spanish Civil War was to last three bloody years from 1936
to 1939. In this bitter conflict, there was a third Spain, which did not want to take up
arms, but to live in peace. War, hunger, revolution, counter-revolution, denunciations,
persecution, summary trials and executions, and mass repression often resulted in
the disintegration of family and community life, desolating a country and forcing
thousands of its people into exile.
In Britain, the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief was established in late
1936, with a focus on the women and children of Republican Spain. Britain was to
admit the third largest number of child evacuees after France and Belgium, but it did
so reluctantly, accepting refugees could be interpreted as going against the spirit of
non-intervention. For this reason, the evacuation to Britain was organised entirely by
non-governmental organisations. In 1937, Leah Manning, the joint secretary of the
Co-ordinating Committee against War and Fascism, which had raised fundsfor medical
supplies, visited Bilbao at the request of the Basque government and the information
she brought back was influential in obtaining the British government's agreement —
after the bombing of Durango and Guernica — to allow in 2,000 children. The figure
was subsequently doubled, with the proviso that no public money was needed, that the
National Joint Committee would guarantee 10s. per week per child, that the children
would be accompanied by carers, that the children would be accepted regardless of
the political affiliation of their parents, and that they would stay in Britain only until
the danger was over.
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