On May 23 1937 a ship docked at Southampton with an unusual cargo. The steamer Habana had been designed to transport 800 passengers in some comfort across the Atlantic but on this occasion it was filled with 3,840 Basque children and around 200 adults, including teachers, priests and doctors. They were refugees, fleeing the terrible violence of the Spanish civil war, and especially the merciless bombardment of the Basque country being meted out by General Franco’s rebels, aided by Nazi Germany.

A month earlier, the ancient Basque town of Guernica had been reduced to rubble by the bombers of the Nazi Condor Legion in what came to be seen as the defining act of the civil war, commemorated in Picasso’s “Guernica”.

The political situation surrounding the children’s arrival in England was anything but simple. The semi-autonomous Basque government, loyal to the Republic, had issued an appeal to foreign governments to accept refugees. The British government, then led by Stanley Baldwin, who was to give way to the arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain, was at first unenthusiastic. Its stance towards war-torn Spain was neutral. Arguments for intervention on the side of the democratically elected Second Republic and against the military plotters had been rejected.

It was only after pressure exerted by the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, led by the Duchess of Atholl (later, a separate Basque children’s committee was formed), and by the British consul in Bilbao, Ralph Stevenson, that the government reluctantly agreed to accept the Basque child refugees, though it stipulated that they should not be funded from the public purse. One Foreign Office official (quoted by the historian Tom Buchanan in a lecture to the UK’s Basque Children of ’37 Association) wrote in July 1937 that the Home Office and Ministry of Health “will be only too glad to see the last of the Basque children . . . their speedy repatriation . . . is a clear British interest and one which would go far towards justifying our original action in the eyes of [Franco’s government in] Salamanca”.

Baldwin thought the English climate would not suit the children. Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, on the other hand, wanted to “help the Basques on this”.

The British government did, however, make sure the Habana was protected by a naval flotilla. Once safely arrived, the passengers were accommodated in a transit camp designed to house 2,000, where overcrowding caused health problems; by September nearly all had homes, either in residential “colonies” or with volunteers; the Trades Union Congress, the Salvation Army and the Catholic church were among the organisations that helped.

It seems fair to say the children were welcomed. Some remained unhappy, and prejudice was not entirely absent, but on the whole they fared far better than if they had remained in Spain. Most returned home after the war ended in 1939, some to find that they were orphans; around 250 ended up settling in the UK permanently.

Fast forward 77 years, and another terrible civil war rages. In this case the British government’s stance – towards Syria – is not so much neutral as wildly inconsistent. In August last year armed intervention was proposed by the prime minister but when his motion was defeated in the House of Commons, the mood changed completely. Where once there was an intention to spend hundreds of millions on cruise missiles, suddenly there appeared a reluctance to spend far smaller sums sheltering refugees. As late as mid-December, the Home Office said “the UK has no plans to resettle or provide temporary protection to Syrians”; preferring instead to focus on giving “as much help as possible to people in the region”.

It was only late last month that the government agreed to provide shelter for 500 of the “most vulnerable” refugees. The words “most vulnerable” caused me difficulty. Did these refugees have to go through a competitive examination in vulnerability? How many Syrian refugees would not feel vulnerable, having lost their homes, in many cases family members and friends, having seen what no one, especially no child, should witness?

Certainly the Basque children were vulnerable. You can hear it in the voices of 14 of them, now men and women in their eighties, recorded in the fine animated film To Say Goodbye (2012), produced by Izaskun Arandia and directed by Matt Richards (still awaiting DVD release). Perhaps the greatest wound was being separated from their parents, whom in many cases they would never see again. They had also witnessed atrocious violence. “A civil war is the worst thing you can imagine,” said one. “I don’t want anybody to go through what we went through,” reflected another. Somehow, in different circumstances, 77 years ago, the British people, with the barest help from government, summoned the generosity to give nearly 4,000 of them – the largest single influx of refugees ever into the UK – the chance of a better life.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

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