Remembering Caerleon’s Basque child refugees
On Tuesday, 10th July, at midday, Gail and Jason were delighted to participate in the unveiling of a new Blue Plaque as Caerleon remembered the arrival of 56 Basque child refugees 81 years ago to the day, having fled from the Spanish Civil war.
The Ceramic Plaque has been provided by Newport City Council with the BCA’37 UK, the Association of the UK Basque Children and Caerleon Civic Society also contributed. It was produced by Nick Heywood.
The 80th anniversary was celebrated last year with a very popular, special event held by Caerleon Arts Festival.
This year’s event was organised by Gail, who uncovered the story while studying History at Caerleon Campus. Her paper ‘From Bilbao to Caerleon: The Basque Child Refugees of 1937’ was published in 2005. It is a story of exceptional courage, struggle and determination to help innocent victims of war and how those children overcame the fear and trauma caused by war, evacuation and separation from their families and homes. It is also a story about the kindness and support provided to them by Caerleon residents and Caerleon Urban District Council.
Councillor Debbie Wilcox, Leader of Newport City Council, opened the event: “I’m delighted to be here today to help commemorate a very special chapter in Caerleon’s history. The children must have been traumatised by having to leave their families at a time of war but they were taken to people’s hearts and settled into their new home, even going to schools in Caerleon.
“There are parallels with today when children from other war-torn countries are arriving here and, I hope, they will also find the safe and caring refuge that those children did when they came to Caerleon more than 80 years ago.”
Carmen Kilner, Secretary of BCA’37 UK, the Association of the UK Basque Children then provided a very moving talk describing the events leading to the bombing of Guernica and subsequent evacuation of 4000 children to Britain, including the 56 children who came to Caerleon.
Newport’s Deputy Mayor, Councillor Phil Hourahine, accompanied by Deputy Mayoress, Mrs Meryl Hourahine, then officially unveiled the new plaque to applause and cheers.
A combined Caerleon Schools choir, representing Charles Williams Church in Wales Primary School, Caerleon Comprehensive and Caerleon Lodge Hill Primary School, sang Basque and Welsh songs. The young people wore refugee badges and, like the Basque children, were aged 5-15 years old. They were the highlight of the day.
The event was then drawn to a close by Gail who thanked everyone who was involved in this very special occasion, Councillor Debbie Wilcox, Leader Newport City Council, Newport’s Deputy Mayor and Deputy Mayoress, Newport City Council, Caerleon schools, BCA’37 UK the Association of the UK Basque Children , Caerleon Arts Festival, Caerleon Civic Society, Peter and Kathryn Hitchings, Caerleon Tourism Forum, the National Roman Legion Museum, Councillor Jason Hughes, Charles Williams Trustees, Councillor Debbie Harvey, Lynne Daniels, Helen Lofts, Dame Rosemary Butler, Les James, Tony Hopkins ( Gwent Archives) and all others who had attended, including Basque relatives and local residents.
“We can be proud of the welcome these children were given by the people of Caerleon, and further afield. I would especially like to pay tribute to Josefina Savery, who shared her experiences as one of the child refugees, and also Mrs Maria Fernandez, the warden who made sure they received an exceptionally high standard of care and education during their time here. The children remained devoted to her throughout her life.”
Delicious Spanish refreshments were then provided with the assistance of Curro’s restaurant.
When the 56 young refugees first arrived in Caerleon, they lived in Cambria House, Mill Street after an army of volunteers helped clean and prepare the building. They attended the Charles Williams Schools and some went on to attend higher and further education.
In 1939, after the outbreak of World War Two, 25 of the young people were repatriated, some children were taken in by local families while the others moved to Vale View, in the grounds of Cambria House, but that too was taken over by the army shortly afterwards.
So 29 children were found a new home in Cross Street, in the property now known as Pendragon House, where they were joined by Mrs Fernandez’ sister, Mrs Garay and her family, until they eventually left.
For further information:
G Giles ‘From Bilbao to Caerleon: The Basque Child Refugees of 1937’. Gwent Local History. Number 99. Autumn 2005. pp 63-77
BCA’37 UK, the Association of the UK Basque Children www.basquechildren.org
Gwent archives www.gwentarchives.gov.uk