Basque Refugees in Huddersfield, 1937-1939

basque plaque


Yorkshire Post  23 November 2013

GIORDANO Diaz can still recall the makeshift ambulances he saw crossing a bridge in his hometown in northern Spain more than 70 years ago.

It was the evening of April 26, 1937, and the lorries he saw were carrying casualties to the nearest hospital in Bilbao from the stricken Basque country town of Guernica.

The infamous aerial attack on civilians on market day, which shocked the world, marked a turning point for the teenage boy growing up during the Spanish Civil War.

In May that year, the 13-year-old was to leave Bilbao with his older brother, Amador, and two cousins and board a ship with almost 4,000 other young refugees to sail to the safety of the UK before ending up in Yorkshire.

“I do not remember being frightened,” said Mr Diaz, 90, who had lost his mother when he was three years old and left his father and grandmother in Spain. “Some of the children might have been scared because it was something completely new, going on a ship or leaving their homes, but I am not aware of that.”

The young evacuees, who ranged in age from five to 15 years old, were initially housed in tents on a campsite near Southampton.

“In this camp we noticed there were tents,” said Mr Diaz. “That was a surprise. Everyone was thinking of playing ‘cowboys and Indians’ because there were these round tents.

“They were ordinary tents which were not as developed as they are today. We had imagined they were what cowboys and Indians were living in. That was the impression we got; it was a novelty.”

The children were soon distributed to ‘colonies’ around the country, established by local voluntary efforts and the Diaz boys headed to the Old Clergy House in Almondbury, Huddersfield, which was to become their home alongside 18 other boys for the next two years.

“Everything was new, even travelling in trains,” said Mr Diaz, who lives in London. “The trains in Spain were more rudimentary – wooden seats with slats. Here they were upholstered.”

More than seven decades have passed since Mr Diaz left his home in West Yorkshire but he will return on Friday to unveil a commemorative plaque at the Old Clergy House to remember those children who were offered refuge there.

The retired engineer, who worked at the Royal Mint, was delighted when he discovered he could access newspapers in the nearby library.

“One of the things I discovered was that we were right across from the public library,” said Mr Diaz. “I could not understand much English. I made it my business to keep going into the library to read the paper. I found that somehow the people who were running the library, the curators in there, must have been very kind to have tolerated me. No-one told me off for going there to read the papers.

“The papers were fixed onto sort of upright desks. You could turn them over but you could not take them away. You had to read them standing up but I did not mind. I was not very tall but able to read the papers. I could make out enough to know what was happening in Spain.”

He also recalls the Latin motto engraved in a fireplace in one of the Old Clergy House’s rooms: “Laborare est Orare: To work is to pray.”

The plaque at Almondbury has been sponsored by the Basque Children of ’37 Association and Huddersfield Local History Society, following a talk to the society last year by Carmen Kilner, trustee of the association.

She said: “We are delighted to be able to thank the people of Huddersfield who so generously offered a home, safety and kindness to children fleeing a vicious war 75 years ago.”

The next article  first appeared in the Huddersfield Examiner 3rd October 2012:

Local historian Alan Brooke, who has himself worked with refugees for 20 years, tells the story of the Basque children who were given a warm welcome in Huddersfield in 1937 in the run-up to a talk in Huddersfield from one of the children’s descendants at the end of this month.

HUDDERSFIELD took part in the largest single refugee arrival operation the UK had then known 75 years ago.

The Basque Refugee Children at the Old Clergy House, Almondbury.

The Basque Refugee Children at the Old Clergy House, Almondbury.

On April 26, 1937 Gernika, the cultural capital of the Basque country in northern Spain, was destroyed in an air raid by the German Condor Legion, killing over 1,500 civilians. The Nazis supported General Franco, the leader of the fascist military uprising against the democratically elected Republican government, whose troops were now advancing on Bilbao the main Basque city.

An international effort was launched to save as many Basque children as possible from the bombing and the British government agreed to allow 4,000 to enter the UK. So 3,861children and 230 adult teachers and other helpers landed at Southampton on May 23 and were housed in a temporary camp at Stoneham, Eastleigh, built entirely by volunteers.

The mayor of Huddersfield, Clr Barlow, endorsed the local campaign and 80 delegates held a planning meeting at Huddersfield Town Hall on June 8. A telegram was read out from the Duchess of Atholl, chair of the national support group, requesting that the town take 40 refugees.

The following week a Spanish Relief Committee, formed at the town hall under the auspices of the mayor, resolved to adopt 20 children as ‘an experiment’.The mayor suggested the Old Clergy House at Almondbury, which belonged to the corporation as suitable premises for the children, especially as it was opposite the recreation ground.

An appeal was made for boots, shoes, socks, towels, caps, games and musical instruments, while Mrs W Lawton from Marsh – chair of the house committee – appealed for help with the gardening and donations of carpets, furnishings, balls, cricket bats and boxing gloves! Members of the Labour League of Youth stripped the wallpaper and helped transform a ‘wilderness’ into the semblance of a garden.

The boys arrived by train at 7.30 on the evening of July 28 to a welcome by the mayor in the station entrance hall and the acclamation of a crowd of several hundred people in St George’s Square. They were then loaded onto a special bus to Almondbury where another crowd was waiting to greet them. They were accompanied by a teacher, Senorita Soleded Gorrino, from Gernika, and an assistant. After coffee they had a medical examination and it was proposed to quarantine them for two weeks to monitor their health. They were put to bed on ‘a good Spanish supper’ of tripe, onions, potatoes and coffee.


On August 25 the boys were treated with a trip to Greenhead Park.The Examiner reporter found them ‘terrifically keen’ about ‘soccer’ and said they had been to a Huddersfield Town practice match a couple of days before.

In December, writer ‘Rosalind’ in the Examiner’s ‘Woman to Woman’ column reported on the staging of the operetta ‘La Princesa Carmencita’ by the Basque boys and children of Dalton New Church. She told the readers: “Some of them don’t even know whether or not their mothers are alive.’’ The boys and their teachers also produced their own newsletter, Ambiente Nuevo which translates as New Surroundings. The first issue featured a dramatic eyewitness account by one of the boys, Amador Diaz, of the bombing of Gernika.

Their homeland now firmly in the grip of General Franco, and facing an uncertain future, the last seven Basque boys parted from their Huddersfield friends at the railway station with tearful goodbyes in June 1939. As war clouds gathered over Europe, concern turned to the fate of Jewish and other refugees fleeing the Nazis – and to fears that the same bombers that had devastated the Basque childrens’ homeland would soon be raining death on Huddersfield itself.


A fuller account of the Basque Refugees can be found In Huddersfield Local History Society’s Bulletin of May 2013, No. 24.

HUDDERSFIELD’S international connections over three centuries are the theme that runs through the latest annual Journal from Huddersfield Local History Society. A major essay by Alan Brooke charts how the town rose to the challenge of the refugee children displaced in 1937 by the Spanish Civil War. A group of them found a new home at the Old Clergy House in Almondbury, where Huddersfield Local History Society is supporting the placing of a commemorative plaque.

Old Clergy House at Almondbury showing proposed location of Blue Plaque

Old Clergy House at Almondbury showing proposed location of Blue Plaque

Strong links with eastern Germany arising from the 19th century wool trade and spilling over into family ties are charted by David Cockman and David Griffiths. Martha Stocks from Holmfirth died Baroness von Sternburg in a palatial castle in Saxony, while Bretton-born concert pianist Robena Laidlaw attracted the romantic attentions of famous composer Robert Schumann while giving a recital in Leipzig. And a great-grandson of wool-dealer Joseph Brook, of Greenhead – who imported fleeces from Silesia – briefly became German foreign minister in the 1920s.

Earlier in the 19th century, as Pamela Cooksey sets out, Wooldale weaver Samuel Haigh was transported to Australia in 1814 for stealing a few oats. Historian George Redmonds has found that 70 years before that Robert Rockley, of Woodsome Lees, was apprehended while en route from France to Scotland to support the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. David Verguson takes a look at Lindley on the eve of World War One using information about the local men who died while in service overseas.

The 68-page Journal also profiles the history of Huddersfield Music Society which has been bringing excellence in European classical music to the town since 1918 – and this is written by its archivist Hilary Norcliffe.

Journal editor and Local History Society chairman John Rawlinson said: “Local history is far from parochial. The articles in this year’s journal show how events in Huddersfield are closely linked to those in the wider world. We’re fortunate in having so many talented local historians to bring these stories to life.”

The 2013 Journal is available from retail outlets for £3.00 or by post for £4.25 (including p&p), either from Huddersfield Local History Society, 24 Sunnybank Rd, HD3 3DE or through the Society’s website:

The author by the sacred oak at Gernika, 1989

The author by the sacred oak at Gernika, 1989

For a brief but moving account of the bombing of Gernika see the video:

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