On the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), this month’s Miners’ Library blog draws on our collections to relate the story of the Basque refugees evacuated to Wales during the conflict and the vital role played by the Spanish communities of South Wales in supporting the refugees and the wider Aid Spain campaign.
1) – The Spanish Communities of Cardiff, Dowlais and Abercrave
The first decade of the twentieth century marked a high point of migration into South Wales, with migrants arriving at a rate exceeded only by the United States within the Western world. The three Spanish communities that developed in Cardiff, Dowlais and Abercrave were therefore joining an increasingly cosmopolitan environment, their respective locations housing industries indicative of some of the primary ‘pull’ factors for labour into South Wales – shipping, iron and steel production, and coal mining. The earliest-established community was located in the Cardiff Docklands area. As Hywel Davies writes:
‘[f]or a generation, this enclave based around George Street had provided home cooking and hospitality to seafarers arriving at Cardiff docks on one of the regular sailings from Bilbao. By 1937, it had grown into the hub of a thriving Spanish community of between fifty and sixty families’.
The origins of the Dowlais community can be traced back to around 1900, when the Spanish Orconero Iron Ore Company, a subsidiary of the Dowlais Iron Ore Company, began recruiting and transporting workers from the industrial north of Spain to Dowlais, with the alleged aim of undercutting wages and established working practices. By 1911 there were 264 Spaniards living in the borough, with a street in Dowlais named after the reigning Spanish monarch – ‘King Alphonso Street’ – built specifically to house them. Company hopes of importing a more pliable labour force were misguided however, as many of the leading figures of the new community were products of the burgeoning socialist and anarcho-syndicalist traditions of northern Spain; some recruits explicitly fleeing persecution for their labour organising activities in their home country. Spanish workers formed anarchist groups and even a branch of the PSOE (the Spanish Socialist Workers Party) in Dowlais; the latter working closely with neighbouring branches of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), facilitating the circulation of ideas of an international provenance amid the local labour movement.
Spanish migrant workers on board a ship destined for South Wales, 1907. Courtesy of South Wales Coalfield Collection, Swansea University.
In 1909, a lockout at Dowlais prompted some Spanish workers to find employment at the French-owned International Colliery in the village of Abercrave at the head of the Swansea Valley. More Spanish workers and families followed and, along with smaller numbers of Portuguese, French and Belgians, gave an injection of diversity to what was hitherto a relatively culturally homogenous Welsh-speaking and chapel-going community. Our oral history collection provides a particularly rich resource for learning about the Spanish community at Abercrave, and features interviews with village residents from both within and outside this community.
The arrival of foreign workers generated some initial hostility in Abercrave. An interview with Dai Dan Evans relates some of these incidents. He recalls a checkweigher at International Colliery exploitatively keeping different weights for the Spanish workers, and an ill-fated attempt to have the Spanish and French workforce removed on trumped-up safety grounds given their inability to communicate with fellow workers through the medium of Welsh. Some evidence of cultural antagonisms within the wider community also emerges, with depictions of Spaniards as ominous knife-wielding adversaries, prone to drinking, dancing and playing music in their gardens on the Sabbath. Tensions came to a head in July 1914, when a protest march against the presence of foreign workers set off from Abercrave towards Ystradgynlais. Such localised grievances were doubtless compounded by broader ideologies of jingoism and racism that permeated imperial Britain in the early part of the century, from which Wales was by no means immune; the decade of the First World War seeing anti-Semitic riots in Tredegar and attacks on Chinese laundries in Cardiff in 1911 and violent anti-black riots in Cardiff in 1919.
Nonetheless, hostilities were gradually overcome. The Spanish workforce soon endeared themselves to fellow workers by proving to be committed and loyal trade unionists. In a sentiment echoed throughout a number of our oral history interviews, Dick Beamish suggests that:
‘amongst the Spanish miners we had some of the finest trade unionists that these lodges have ever produced’.
The union provided a quick route to acceptance and common cause that would have been harder to achieve among immigrant communities occupying a more atomised small business-owning class. The political culture of the South Wales coalfields was also undergoing a significant period of transformation; with the influence of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF), and a developing tradition of independent working-class education, challenging some of the ideological roots of xenophobic reaction and promoting an increasingly internationalist politics of class-based solidarity. As Hywel Francis writes, the SWMF encouraged ‘an independent or even rather “anarcho-syndicalist” rank and file outlook towards industrial and political questions’, adding that ‘the parallels with the strong Spanish anarcho-syndicalist movement are obvious and significant’. Indeed, as Daryl Leeworthy notes, by around 1911 – just prior to the publication of the renowned syndicalist pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step (1912) – some Spanish workers established an anarchist cell in Abercrave known as the Ferrer Group, named after the Catalan anarchist and educationalist Francisco Ferrer, from which they circulated their ideas to the wider region, albeit with limited results.
The building of sociable relations would also depend on key personalities and interpersonal gestures, some of which are detailed in our oral history interviews. An especially resonant story emerges from an interview with Miss Morgan, who was a child at the time of the first Spanish migrations to Abercrave. She recalls how her father, a founding member of the ILP in the village, stood up for Spanish workers in the colliery and refused to take part in the 1914 protest. When her father died a year later, she remembers witnessing, as a child aged 8, a scene in front of her house in which two Spanish miners arrived and insisted on shouldering his coffin to the hearse as a mark of respect. We get another snapshot of growing interpersonal camaraderie in an interview with Dick Cook, a resident of Abercrave who temporarily lost his sight in an industrial accident. He recounts how a Spanish friend, Albino Garcia, would come to his house twice weekly during his period of blindness to read to him from the newspaper in broken English. Providentially for the new Spanish arrivals, in the nearby village of Ystradgynlais there was a shop-owner who had lived for a time in Patagonia and who was subsequently fluent in both Spanish and Welsh. ‘Williams the Temp’, as he was known, acted as an important ‘link man’ between the Spanish and the wider community, and would help by translating documents from one language into another. Moreover, we discover from an interview with Jim Vale that Goyo Esteban, who is often referred to as a ‘leader’ of the early Spanish community, was one of several in the first generation of immigrants to have learnt to speak Welsh fluently. In turn, Welsh colliers would frequently address their Spanish workmates at the coalface using Spanish words and phrases.
Leandro Macho, who was born to Spanish parents in Abercrave in 1918, provides a vivid account of the community and its ongoing development beyond the first generation in his recorded lecture ‘Growing up in Spanish Abercrave’. For anyone interested in exploring our interviews relating to the Spanish community, this is an excellent place to begin. He relates how the first Spanish inhabitants endured very basic living conditions; residing in small wooden huts, washing clothes in the river Tawe, and gathering stray fragments of sheep’s wool from the Cribarth mountain for use in homemade mattresses. But they soon moved into more settled accommodation, notably establishing a terrace of houses known as Spanish Row, and inter-marriages between Spanish and locals began to take place. At its height in the 1930s, he estimates that some 20 families belonged to the community. Migrant children’s entry into the local education system brought novel forms and expressions of cultural hybridity to the village. Children born of Spanish parents, like Leandro, grew up speaking Welsh as well as Spanish, played rugby as well as pelota, and would sing Spanish songs in the house and ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ with other children at St David’s Day concerts. For his classmates born of Welsh parents, Leandro’s Spanish community seems to have embodied an exotic parallel world conjuring fascination more than hostility. He jokingly remembers the shocked reactions on the playground to news that his family cooked with olive oil instead of the customary pig fat. Such esoteric goods would be bought from a Spanish-owned shop in Swansea, which members of the community would take turns to visit.
2) – Wales, the ‘Welsh Spaniards’ and the Spanish Civil War
When the writer Gwyn Thomas travelled to Spain as a student in the early 1930s, he was particularly struck by the Asturias mining communities of the north in which he saw a reflection of the coalmining districts of South Wales, particularly his native Rhondda. Such parallels help to explain why the plight of Asturian miners, whose strike and uprising was violently supressed in 1934, elicited strong empathetic reactions among South Wales mining communities locked in their own bitter struggles during these years. The Spanish communities in Wales played an important role in bringing conditions in Spain to the attention of their local political institutions and fostering a sense of common cause. When the SWMF sent £100 in financial aid to the miners’ families involved in the Asturias revolt, for instance, they were motivated to do so by the Anthracite lodges to which the Abercrave Spaniards belonged.
The 1930s marked a significant period of extra-parliamentary radicalism in the South Wales coalfields. Blighted by high rates of unemployment, the valleys in the first half of the decade were animated by hunger marches, protests against the Means Test, and anti-fascist mobilisations against the incursion of Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, the response from the Left in Wales was substantially conditioned by the activist networks established during these struggles and the War directly linked to domestic issues as part of an internationalist explanatory framework. But the Civil War also had a profound effect on the wider political culture of Wales and induced a remarkable public outpouring of pro-Republican sympathy and activity. Despite some divisions among the Spanish of Dowlais, the majority of the Spanish communities in South Wales, including the whole of the Abercrave community, were decidedly pro-Republican and played a prominent part in shaping Wales’ response to the conflict.
Two broad strategies are discernible in the South Wales Miners’ Federation’s reaction to the Spanish Civil War. Firstly, it sought to use its influence to lobby against the UK Government’s policy of Non-Intervention in Spain, which was effectively starving the Spanish Republican side of vital weapons and resources while the Nationalists were deriving military backing from fascist Germany and Italy. The SWMF became part of an effort in South Wales to promote a popular front politics to oppose the rise of fascism in Europe, supported in particular by The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the ILP and those elements of the Labour Party, notably Aneurin Bevan MP, critical of their party’s support for Non-Intervention and their perceived quiescence regarding Spain. The Communist Party’s outlook held a substantial influence within the SWMF during this period, particularly following the election of Arthur Horner as President of the latter in 1936, and the Communist Party and the Fed provided the organisational core for much of the directly political agitation in favour of the Spanish Republican cause during the Civil War.
The second principal strategy adopted by the SWMF involved raising as much material support for the Republican cause as possible as part of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain Spanish Aid Fund. A sum approximating £20,000 was raised by the SWMF during the conflict which, given the context of interwar Depression, was a remarkable achievement. This fundraising activity took place alongside various Aid Spain campaigns across Wales, which were supported by an array of civil society institutions – from political groups and trade unions, to charities and religious bodies – and buoyed by a hugely responsive public. Reports from Spain of the fascists’ aerial bombing raids on civilian populations, notably in the town of Guernica in April 1937, added to the humanitarian urgency of the Aid Spain campaigning, as people donated money, food, and other essential supplies. As Will Paynter writes in his autobiography My Generation (1972):
‘[t]he attack upon the democratically elected government of Spain produced the greatest spontaneous outburst of popular anti-fascist feeling experienced anywhere. The campaign we conducted for support and aid for Spain and its people was the most responsive that I have ever taken part in; it was magnificent’.
In the village of Onllwyn, where many of the Abercrave Spaniards worked, it became an oft-quoted phrase after the Civil War that their village gave more per head to the Aid Spain movement than any other in Wales.
Spanish Aid collection in Pontypridd, 1937. Courtesy of South Wales Coalfield Collection, Swansea University.
The SWMF relief effort included the provision of financial assistance to the International Brigades Dependents’ and Wounded Aid Committee. In total, there were 206 volunteers for the International Brigades from Wales, the vast majority of whom were communists and over half were miners. Of this number, 3 members of the Spanish communities of South Wales – Roman Rodriguez of Dowlais and Victoriano Esteban and Frank Zamora of Abercrave – fought and died in Spain. Other individuals from the Spanish communities provided direct support to the Republican Government, such as Leandro Macho who moved to London to work on their behalf during the Civil War. Many others of the Welsh-Spanish contingent, aside from campaigning work, provided vital support to the 4,000 refugee children from the Basque Country that were evacuated to Britain in May 1937.
3) – The Basque Refugees and the Spanish Community
In the spring of 1937 Franco’s forces lay siege to the Basque Country, restricting the transportation of food and other supplies to the region over land and sea. The event prompted attempts by a number of British seafarers to breach the blockade and deliver goods to the people of Bilbao, despite the absence of British naval protection. The Swansea seaman Captain David ‘Potato’ Jones gained a degree of publicity at the time for openly declaring in the press his intention to take on Franco’s blockade, chiding the British navy for losing its ‘guts’. His initial attempts failed however, the first to succeed being Captain William Roberts of the Cardiff-registered Seven Seas Spray. Other supply ships followed, but the situation for the Basques remained desperate; food continued to be severely rationed, there was a constant threat of German aerial bombing raids, and General Mola’s Nationalist forces edged ever-closer to Bilbao. It was in these conditions that many parents or guardians made the difficult decision of sending their children away to seek refuge in other countries. The 4,000 refugees bound for Britain left in the early hours of the 21st May 1937 on board the Habana, an old liner owned by the Basque Government, sailing across the Bay of Biscay to Southampton.
Basque refugees on board the Habana, May 1937. From pamphlet: ‘The Martyrdom of the Basques’, South Wales Coalfield Collection.
Our oral history collection again provides some useful sources for learning about the experiences of refugees; featuring interviews both with refugees themselves and support staff involved in accommodating them. Paula Felipe was 10-years-old when she made the journey with her sisters on board the Habana. After a rough crossing, she describes the scene that greeted her on arrival in Southampton:
‘I put my head through the porthole and all I could see was the Salvation Army playing and I said “look how they dress in this country”’.
After disembarking and undergoing a medical examination, the children were transferred to a transit camp at North Stoneham outside Southampton. In another recorded interview, Casimira Duenos, a member of the Abercrave Spanish community, describes her work as a volunteer at the camp. It consisted of some 500 bell tents in which the children slept, and some larger tents to house a kitchen, stores, and hospital. It was at this camp that the children learned the sorrowful news that Bilbao had fallen to the Nationalists on the 19th June 1937. Gradually the numbers in the camp diminished over the summer months, as children were transported to more permanent sites of accommodation in other parts of the country.
In Wales, refugees were housed at one of four ‘colonies’ – Caerleon, Swansea, Brechfa and Old Colwyn. Of these, it is the colonies at Caerleon and Swansea that are best covered by the material in our collections. The Caerleon colony was based at Cambria House, a large estate that accommodated 56 refugee children of ages ranging from 6yrs to 15yrs. We get a sense of life at Cambria House from the recorded interview of Maria Fernandez. Maria grew up within the Spanish community of Dowlais, having made the journey with her family from Bilbao to Wales in 1906. She began working at Cambria House as an interpreter, but soon took over as Warden of the house where she seems to have been much-loved by the children. She describes some of the activities that children undertook, which both provided recreation and served as a means of raising funds for the colony. Children produced their own monthly magazine, The Cambria House Journal, in which they wrote about their native culture and about life in the colony. It had at its peak an impressive print-run of 4,000, with copies being sold to the public for 2d. The children also raised funds through playing football matches against teams from across South Wales, and giving concert tours in which they would entertain audiences with Spanish and Basque song and dance. The children continued their education while at the colony, and their list of teachers throws up some eminent participants. These include the socialist journalist and linguist Cyril Cule, headmaster at Cambria House and one of the few active figures within Plaid Cymru to proffer vocal support for the Republic during the War; the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, who was then lecturing at Cardiff; and the writer Gwyn Thomas.
Basque refugee children at the Caerleon colony, with fists raised in anti-fascist salute. Courtesy of South Wales Coalfield Collection, Swansea University.
The colony at Swansea was situated at Sketty Park House, a large Regency mansion circled by scenic gardens, which accommodated 84 children. Our video interview with Rose Steel (formerly Rose Noriega), an interpreter at the house who was born in Swansea of Spanish parents, provides a valuable document of the children’s time there. One story stands apart for its moving portrayal of the enduring war-induced trauma suffered by the refugees, which was especially evident in the early months of their stay. The Spanish Civil War featured the first aerial saturation bombing of a civilian population, and the psychological imprint of this tactic on the young minds that witnessed it is evident throughout the historical record on the Basque refugees. Children’s drawings at the colonies would frequently feature aeroplanes, often shown dropping bombs onto innocent targets such as ambulances, and one young contributor to the Cambria House Journal wrote an especially haunting piece in which the aeroplane is depicted as an emblem of Enlightenment gone astray:
‘the harmless aeroplane that brought us food from distant places now will bring us death’.
Rose describes how the mere sight of planes in the skies over Sketty Park would induce panic in the children, and adults were obliged to explain that they were not enemy aircraft. One day, whilst investigating the disappearance of blankets from the children’s’ dormitories, she was led by a young child to a wooded area within the grounds where she discovered that the children had constructed a makeshift shelter. Encouraged to ‘crawl in Mama Rosa’, she found the tunnels, camouflaged with brushwood and shrubs, were some 4 or 5ft deep and lined with bricks taken from a nearby building site.
Much like the Cambia House colony, life for the refugees at Sketty Park was also full of agreeable pastimes; they received scores of visitors, went on daytrips, and enjoyed short stays with local miners’ families at weekends. Fundraising was likewise central to the activity at the house given that, in common with all the refugee colonies, they were not afforded any grants from the UK Government and had to rely on voluntary donations. What is striking about the Basque Children’s Appeal in South Wales is the breadth of assistance it garnered from the local community, which extended well beyond the political organisations of the Left, though refugees and staff often pay particular tribute to the South Wales miners and the SWMF for their unwavering support. Maria Fernandez’s statement is typical in this regard:
‘The miners in South Wales were very good and for that I have a deep, deep feeling for them’.
In conjunction with this support, the contribution of ‘Welsh Spaniards’ also warrants special consideration. These communities provided a vital pool of visitors, volunteers, campaigners and support staff that were uniquely placed to assist the children and alleviate their sense of estrangement within an unfamiliar environment. The communities’ overall commitment to the wellbeing of the refugees is evident at multiple levels; volunteers helped to run the Southampton camp, worked without pay in colony kitchens, and lent their skills as interpreters and teachers; Spanish communities at Abercrave and Dowlais made regular visits to their local colonies, and hosted children and fundraising events in their own neighbourhoods; while, in the Cardiff Docklands, a grocer provided Spanish food to the South Wales colonies, and a Spanish café served as a drop-off point for mail smuggled between refugee children and their parents in Bilbao.
As the Civil War drew to a close, and it became clear that the Nationalist side had prevailed, thoughts inevitably turned to the repatriation of the Basque refugees. The issue was not straightforward; there being realistic fears that returning children would face persecution by the incumbent regime, suffer food shortages, and enforced re-education programmes. Letters sent to children suggesting that it was safe to return home were found to have been written under coercion, some sent from parents interned in San Sebastian gaol. Many other parents were themselves refugees; part of the mass flight of some 450,000 Spaniards into France in February 1939, who were subsequently detained by the French Government in notorious concentration camps along the border. Moreover, some children were now orphans or had lost contact with their parents during the conflict. Nevertheless, repatriations gradually began to occur and the outbreak of war in Britain in September 1939 provided an added impetus to return children to their parents. By 1941, the vast majority of the initial 4,000 refugees had been repatriated. The 416 that remained in Britain were either adopted or being temporarily fostered by families.
An estimated thirty-five refugees made their homes in Wales, and Leandro Macho recalls some of them receiving ongoing support from the Abercrave Spanish community with settling in and finding work. Leandro goes on to describe the gradual dissolution of the Spanish communities through the post-war decades, as employment opportunities and marriage ties began to disperse the children and grandchildren of the first generation away from their respective locales, though he suggests that an identifiable community still existed in Abercrave at least until the closure of Abercrave Colliery in 1967. Maria Fernandez made a trip to Spain soon after the end of the Second World War to visit some of the children that were previously in her care. She describes being dismayed by the conditions of poverty in which children lived but also touched by expressions of gratitude she received from their parents. She kept in touch with former refugees at Cambria House until her death in 2001.
On the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War, thoughts inevitably turn to parallels with our present historical conjuncture; as European politics is once again being forged in the aftermath of a global economic crisis, with a concomitant emboldening of the far-right. At a time when the political status of immigrants and refugees is so central to present-day struggles against fascism and reactionary nationalism, revisiting the history of the Spanish migrants and Basque refugees seems especially significant. Echoes of the xenophobic narratives and decrees of our own age are plainly discernable in sections of the press and political class of the 1930s, for whom Franco is a defender of the ‘European tradition’ and the Basque refugees are dangerous and ungrateful intruders onto British soil. While the response from the Left in Wales was by no means uniform or immune from political divisions, the most effective practitioners tended to combine a commitment to grassroots organising and pragmatic coalition-building with a strong ideological sense of how their actions coalesced with a wider political schema. Notably, underpinning the motivations of many of those who worked together to accommodate the refugees was a concept of class relations that went beyond methodological nationalism to conceive of shared problems and solutions within an internationalist frame. Leandro Macho’s closing remarks give a sense of how this internationalism was seen and lived as a complement, not an occlusion, of cultural difference and complexity:
‘I feel as Welsh as any Welshman, and I feel as Spanish as any Spaniard. But I think I feel as much an Internationalist as any Internationalist’.
 Hywel Davies, Fleeing Franco, Cardiff 2011, p. 16.
 Hywel Francis and David Smith, The Fed, London 1980, pp. 11-12; Interview of Dick Cook, SWML AUD/222; Daryl Leeworthy, Labour Country, Cardigan 2018, pp. 196-204.
 Interview of Dai Dan Evans, SWML AUD/263.
 Leandro Macho, ‘Growing up in Spanish Abercrave’, SWML AUD/251.
 Interview of Rhys Morgan Watkins, SWML AUD/206.
 See, Neil Evans, ‘Through the Prism of Ethnic Violence: Riots and Racial Attacks in Wales, 1826-2002’ in A Tolerant Nation?, Cardiff 2003, pp. 93-108.
 Interview of Dick Beamish, SWML AUD/13.
 Hywel Francis, Miners Against Fascism, London 1984, p. 33; Daryl Leeworthy, Labour Country, pp. 199-201.
 Interview of Miss Morgan, SWML VID/39.
 Interview of Dick Cook, SWML AUD/222.
 Leandro Macho, ‘Growing up in Spanish Abercrave’, SWML AUD/251.
 Interview of James Vale, SWML AUD/223; Hywel Francis and David Smith, The Fed, p. 12.
 Interview of Hywel Francis, SWML VID/33.
 Hywel Francis, Miners Against Fascism, p. 141.
 An account of divisions in Dowlais is given in Recording of Maria Fernandez, SWML AUD/439. One issue that does not seem to be covered in our collections, however, is the impact of internal divisions on the Left in Spain during the Civil War on Spanish communities in Wales.
 For more on the role of the Fed during the Civil War see Hywel Francis, Miners Against Fascism, pp. 139-55.
 Daryl Leeworthy, Labour Country, p. 375.
 Will Paynter, My Generation, London 1972, pp. 61-2.
 Hywel Francis, Miners Against Fascism, p. 205.
 Daryl Leeworthy, Labour Country, p. 376.
 Interview of Leo Macho, SWML VID/38.
 Hywel Davies, Fleeing Franco, p. 43.
 Recording of Paula and Maria, SWML AUD/443.
 Interview of Nicolas and Casimira Duenos, SWML AUD/200.
 Recording of Maria Fernandez, SWML AUD/439; Hywel Davies, Fleeing Franco, pp. 53-68.
 Quoted in Hywel Davies, Fleeing Franco, p. 65, see also p. 136.
 Interview of Mrs Steel, SWML VID/32.
 Recording of Maria Fernandez, SWML AUD/439.
 Hywel Davies, Fleeing Franco, pp. 16-7.
 Hywel Francis, Miners Against Fascism, p. 131.
 Interview of Leo Macho, SWML VID/38.
 Recording of Maria Fernandez, SWML AUD/439; Hywel Davies, Fleeing Franco, p. 140.
 Hywel Francis, Miners Against Fascism, p. 129; Hywel Davies, Fleeing Franco, pp. 79-81, p. 116.
 Leandro Macho, ‘Growing up in Spanish Abercrave’, SWML AUD/251.