Basque Children at Brampton: Background

Photograph courtesy of Eliena Sagasti

Cumbria played its part in providing a safe haven for children from the Basque region of Spain from 1937 -1939.   

After the destruction of Guernica in April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, there was a fear that the Francoists supported by Hitler and Mussolini would bomb Bilbao next.  In Britain the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief (NJCSR) and the Basque Children’s Committee (BCC), which included a number of parliamentarians and other supporters of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, pressed the British government to allow children from Bilbao and the surrounding area along with some teachers, priests and other adult helpers to be evacuated to Britain.  Eventually the British government gave permission for about 4000 children to come to Britain and they arrived in Southampton on a single ship, SS Habana, in May 1937.  Initially they were accommodated in a tented camp at North Stoneham, near Eastleigh.  
The government insisted that this scheme should not be paid for from public money.  Consequently the NJCSR and the BCC had to rely on charitable giving by the public to finance this venture, and to eventually pay for the children’s repatriation.  The Roman Catholic church took responsibility for about a quarter of the children, but the future of the rest was in the hands of local committees which were formed across the country, and which became responsible for finding accommodation and day-to-day living costs.  It was a requirement of the Basque regional government that the children had to live in what were called ‘colonies’, in effect children’s homes, so that they could remain with siblings and friends, be educated together and retain their language and culture.
One such committee was the Cumberland and Westmorland Basque Children’s Committee with the Bishop of Carlisle as President and Charles Roberts as Treasurer. Charles and his wife Lady Cecilia were the parents of Wilfrid Roberts, the MP for North Cumberland and one of the parliamentarians championing the Republican cause.  The local committee leased the disused workhouse at Brampton as a home for 100 of the children.  Lady Cecilia organised its refurbishment with the help of local businesses and residents, and Charles set about raising money from people across Cumberland and Westmorland. On 18 June 1937 one hundred children, more boys than girls, arrived in Brampton.  A few days later more children arrived at other Roman Catholic institutions in Carlisle and Wigton.  The Committee raised money through appeals for donations, an ‘adoption’ scheme whereby individuals and groups were encouraged to finance the upkeep of one or more named children who they ‘adopted’ although the children, as required, continued to live at the Brampton home; and also by the children themselves who gave performances of Basque dances and songs in people’s homes and community centres across the two counties and beyond.  
For most of the children life at Brampton was ‘happy and safe’.  The children were taught by the two Spanish teachers who accompanied them from Bilbao, and by a number of teachers employed locally.  One of these was Winifred Nicholson, daughter of Charles and Cecilia Roberts and a well-known Cumbrian artist who taught the children watercolour painting.  Food was adequate but rather English and institutional.  There was limited contact with the local children, but the youngsters enjoyed walks through the countryside, and had some sporting opportunities.  A small amount of petty vandalism and trespassing annoyed some local people.
It had been expected that by the autumn of 1937 it would be safe for the children to return home, but this did not prove to be the case, so it became necessary to keep the children’s homes open and maintain the flow of funds indefinitely.  For a few months during the winter of 1937-38 twenty-five of the Brampton children lived in a satellite home in Ambleside in order to reduce the overcrowding at Brampton.  Although some of the children at Brampton were repatriated during 1938 and 1939, their places were taken by other children whose homes had closed. In August 1939, Brampton closed with most of the remaining children being transferred to a home at Montrose or to families in the Glasgow area who agreed to foster them.  Over the two years that Brampton was open nearly 200 children from the Basque region were accommodated at one time or another at the home.  Not for the first or last time, the people of Cumberland and Westmorland demonstrated their compassion for those forced to flee other countries for reasons of political and religious persecution, or military conflict.  What was learnt about the needs of refugee communities helped the two counties welcome those fleeing Nazism from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia shortly afterwards.
In June 2023 a plaque was placed on the successor building to the old workhouse in Brampton commemorating the children who lived there between 1937 and 1939, and the people of the area who had supported them.

R. David, A County of Refuge: Refugees in Cumbria 1933-1941(Kendal 2020).
R. David, ‘Happy and Safe’: The Basque Child Refugees in Cumberland and Westmorland 1937-1939 (Carlisle, 2023).
Carlisle Archive Centre: there is a significant deposit of records associated with Brampton and Ambleside in the Roberts family archive (DROB Box 15 and other as yet unlisted boxes).

Text by Rob David
Photograph courtesy of Eliena Sagasti.  It shows Brampton children dressed for a performance of music and dance at a local venue.