Leeds and the Spanish Civil War

This week Local and Family History’s Josh Flint and Scott Ramsey – PHD Researcher, School of History, The University of Leeds – tell us about the exciting Exhibitions from the International Brigade Memorial Trust and the Basque Children of ’37 Association coming to the Leeds Central Library from the 19 March – 5 April. This article explains the role that Leeds played in the Spanish Civil War. This includes both fighting in Spain and Leeds hosting child refugees from Basque during the conflict and how this is represented in the Leeds Central Library’s Collection.

July 2019: Since the publication of this article, a new collection of local newspaper cuttings on Basque child refugees in Leeds has been added to stock in the Local and Family History department. 

This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War. During that conflict, the British Government stuck to a policy of non-intervention which it cloaked in an official non-intervention agreement. Twenty seven European states signed up to this agreement, including Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. However, within a week of the outbreak of the civil war, Hitler and Mussolini began putting in place plans to aid the military rebels attempting to overthrow the legally-elected Spanish Republican government. Germany and Italy persistently violated this agreement throughout the conflict while most other nations, with few exceptions, left the Republic alone to battle against the military might of Germany and Italy.

The Leeds Central Library Collection has the first issue of the Leeds Communist Party’s publication ‘Leeds Vanguard’ from July – August 1937 and the publication has several articles relating to the Spanish Civil War. The Leeds Vanguard is scathing about the non-interventionism of the British government in Spain, highlighting the growing influence of Germany and Italy in the Spanish Civil War and warning that non-interventionism gives Spain to the Fascists.

Leeds Vanguard Issue 1 July 1937 – August 1937
Madrid after German and Italian attack – Leeds Vanguard Issue 1 July 1937 – August 1937.

Two issues in particular caused problems for the British Government and its attempt to uphold strict non-intervention. Within months of the outbreak of civil war, thousands of volunteers from around the world, frustrated by their own governments’ unwillingness to aid the Republic, had enlisted in the International Brigades to defend the Spanish Government against fascism. Approximately 2,500 of these volunteers came from the UK, and more than twenty from Leeds. Many of them died in Spain fighting for democracy.

The Leeds Vanguard reports the loss of Leeds born Phil Ellis, who went to Spain to fight against Francisco Franco and the Fascists. In the below article The Leeds Vanguard is holding a fundraiser for the Phil Ellis Memorial Fund to help his family after his death in Spain. It shows the different groups that are giving money to the fund. The Leeds Vanguard explains how more Leeds volunteers are fighting in Spain, including Arnold Hoare who had been fighting on the front lines for sixty consecutive days.

Paul Ellis Memorial Fund – The Leeds Vanguard Issue 1 July – August 1937
Leeds Boys in Spain – The Leeds Vanguard Issue 1 July – August 1937

The twenty British men from Leeds who joined the British Battalion of the International Brigade that fought in the Spanish Civil War have been commemorated by a Plaque, which was unveiled on the 11th November 1989 in the Leeds Town Hall. Eight of the twenty Leeds volunteers died during the conflict, they were buried in Spain. Two veterans from the Spanish Civil War attended the unveiling, they were Bert Ramelson and Alan Harris. The last living Leeds fighter, Alan Harris, died in 1993.

Spain Veterans Honoured – Yorkshire Evening Post 13/11/1989 Page 3
Men of Leeds who fought in the International Brigade Plaque, Leeds Town Hall 1989

The second issue was the mass evacuation of children from the Basque Country in the spring of 1937, when the military rebels were approaching Bilbao. Thousands of children were evacuated to different countries around the world, but almost 4,000 were brought to the UK and housed in various locations around the country. While many returned to Spain after the war, some stayed and grew up in the UK. General Franco, leader of the military rebels, resented the British Government for offering this humanitarian aid to the Republic and accused it of taking sides.

The Basque children, who came to Leeds in July 1934, were initially brought to Cottage Homes in Bramley before being housed at Hill End Road in Armley. Here a map from 1933 shows the location of Hill End Road, Hill Top in Armley and the surrounding area the Basque children stayed in.

Hill End Road, Hill Top, Armley – Ordnance Survey Map 1933 CCXVII 8

There were fears about how well the 25 Basque children would settle in Leeds as they were seen to have different characteristics to British children. Peter Davies, the President of the Spanish section of the Polyglot Society, states that the Basque children were more accustomed to going to bed later, eating much less sweet food compared to English children and because of their experiences of the Spanish Civil War have become older than their years. Davies’ key piece of advice is not to expect the Basque children to become just like English children and to help them adjust to their new surroundings slowly.

Basque children coming to Leeds – Leeds Mercury 23rd July 1937 Page 1.

The Leeds Central Library’s newspaper archive has some great pictures of the 25 Basque children. These photographs from the Leeds Mercury show the Basque children playing football and meeting the local Leeds resident’s days after they arrived in Leeds.

Young Basques Settle Down in Leeds – Leeds Mercury 26th July 1937 Page 4

However, it must not be forgotten that these children were still refugees from a warzone and had not seen their parents in months moving into years. Leandro Puente, who is living in Leeds with his younger brother, revealed how he only knew about his new baby sister from the photographs sent from his mother and how fearful he is because his mother hasn’t had any contact from his father since he left to fight with his three brothers. Jose Luis Garcia shared his harrowing report about his father being captured and not knowing if his father and six year old younger brother are still alive. Jose’s story finishes with the quote, ‘I have written 20 letters to my parents and never have I received one reply.’ These are just two examples of the fear and torment that the Basque children were experiencing while living in Leeds.

Where Are Their Parent’s? – Leeds Mercury 17th November 1937 Page 6

To commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War, the Leeds Central Library will host two exhibitions: one from the International Brigade Memorial Trust and one from the Basque Children of ’37 Association. These exhibitions provide a detailed history of both the brave men and women who went to fight in Spain, and of the thousands of children evacuated from the Basque Country. In addition to information boards and images, one of which includes details of the Basque children housed in Leeds, there will be various personal items and artefacts on display.

Exhibitions from the International Brigade Memorial Trust and the Basque Children of ’37 Association, 19 March – 5 April 2019

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