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THE BASQUE CHILD REFUGEES WHO CAME TO NEWPORT

As the Spanish Civil War conflict intensified in the Basque country in 1936 the newly autonomous Basque Government appealed for foreign governments to accept child refugees for what they wrongly thought would be only a few months until the rebels were overthrown. The governments of France, Russia, Belgium, Mexico, Switzerland and Denmark between them accepted almost 29,000 child refugees. Following the devastating bombing of the market town of Guernica in April 1937 by the planes of the Nazi Condor Legion, there was such outrage in Britain that the government finally and reluctantly agreed to allow a single boatload of refugee children - niños (de la guerra) - and their accompanying adults to enter Britain. There was no financial aid from the government, so the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief undertook to raise ten shillings (50p) a week per child for maintenance.

Some 4,000 children  left northern Spain and came to Southampton on the rescue ship the SS Habana in May 1937 as the right-wing Nationalists, aided by Spain’s army and the fascist leaders of Germany and Italy, fought to oust the left-wing Republican government. The children, together with the 95 women teachers, 120 female helpers and 15 priests who accompanied them, spent their first two months under canvas near Southampton. From here they were dispersed to a variety of accommodations throughout the country. Two homes in South Wales took in the refugees: Sketty Hall, in Swansea, and Cambria House in Caerleon. Basque speaking Maria Fernandez, who had moved to Wales with her family some years earlier, became guardian of fifty six of the child refugees at Cambria House.

Carmen Kilner secretary of the Association for the UK Basque Children gave some detail of the circumstances leading to the evacuation at the unveiling of the blue plaque in 2018. She said the Basque children’s parents wanted them to be in a safe place in Britain while the Basque Country was at war. She pointed out to the children that there were many similarities between Wales and the Basque Country: both have their own language and a love of singing, iron ore mining in the Basque country and coal mining in Wales which was exchanged in trade, both countries are roughly the same size, have a similar population and the same three colours in their flags. She gave a picture of how it would have been for the children who came here leaving everything they knew behind and would have been very bewildered on arrival. Most of them had never travelled before, did not speak English, were separated from their families and brought only a small bag of belongings with them at very short notice. On top of that, communication was difficult. The camp they arrived at near Southampton was prepared at very short notice by local people including boy scouts. The children had never seen tents before and the food was very different but much appreciated. They were soon divided into groups and sent to different parts of Britain including Caerleon with one or more teachers and assistants to each group. The children who could not return home after the Spanish Civil War, stayed in Britain.

Shortly after World War II began, the military moved into Cambria House and the Basque children were moved to Vale View, Mill Street. This was a far smaller house; the move was only possible as some of the children returned to Spain and others were placed in private homes. No sooner had they made Vale View their home than the military took this over. The 30 or so remaining children and Mrs Fernandez then squeezed into 18 Cross Street, a move organized by Monmouthshire County Council.

In order to raise funds for the children's maintenance, a monthly newsletter was published and sold for tuppence (1p) a copy. The "Cambria House Journal" contained articles written by the children and staff. Copies still survive in Newport Reference Library.

On 9 July 1939 the journal reflects on two years in Wales

On July 10th, 1937, we arrived at Cambria House, where we have been so well treated. Here, we have learned so many things. It is here that we have learned all the English we know, and we have learned something of carpentry and many other things.

On May 20th, 1937, we set sail for England. After three days on the sea, during which we all got sea-sick, we arrived at Southampton where we lived for two months in tents. Then, on July 10th, they brought us here to Cambria House.

It is here that the football team was organised, that played successfully against champion players from Newport schools, and played a Cardiff team that had won the Seagre Cup.

It is here too, that the concert party was organised, that gave a number of concerts last winter, and will also give several concerts in the open air this summer. The money that is raised through these football matches and concerts goes towards the maintenance of the home.

By the start of World War II in 1939 some of the children had left for Spain. For some this was a terrible ordeal: they had forgotten their Spanish, or worse - their parents but Mrs Fernandez remained at Pendragon House until she was 97 years old.. She continued to receive updates from the former refugees until her death in 2001.

On February 1 2001 Mike Buckingham wrote in the Argus "Maria Fernandez, who sheltered young Basque refugees during the bitter Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, has died peacefully in Gwent at the age of 97. The daughter of an ironworker from Bilbao who came to Dowlais at the turn of the last century, Mrs Fernandez had lived at Caerleon only yards from the site of Cambria House, where the young refugees from Franco's bombs were housed.Mrs Fernandez' death severs one of the last links between South Wales and the Spanish Civil War, a conflict which saw many men from the mining villages make their way to Spain to fight for the Republican government against Franco's insurgents."