The Spanish Civil War 80 years on and the moving story of a former Basque refugee

Maria Patchett, pictured in her garden in Scalby, was one of the Basque refugees who came to England in 1937. (Picture Richard Ponter).

Maria Patchett, pictured in her garden in Scalby, was one of the Basque refugees who came to England in 1937. (Picture Richard Ponter).

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It’s 80 years since the start of the Spanish Civil War which led to nearly 4,000 Basque child refugees being sent to Britain. Maria Patchett was one of them. Chris Bond talks to her.

Maria Patchett was just six years old when the Luftwaffe came.

From the far left: Maria, with her siblings Juanita, Max and Rosario.

From the far left: Maria, with her siblings Juanita, Max and Rosario.

“Franco had tried attacking our area but he couldn’t get through because of all the hills and mountains,” she says. Instead he called on Hitler who used the Basque country as a testing ground for his fledgling Luftwaffe and their terrifying aerial bombardment, which would soon become known to the world as blitzkrieg.

One of 11 children, Maria (born Maria Incera) lived with her family in La Arena on the north east coast Spain. Guernica, which inspired Picasso’s famous painting of the same name, was among the Spanish towns attacked. So, too, was Maria’s sleepy seaside village.

“When my mother heard them coming she would shout ‘planes.’ There was a big dyke surrounding the fields and we would all go and hide in the water,” she says.

Each time the planes flew over she led her family to safety. But on one occasion their house was bombed while her newly born twins were still inside. “My mother ran back to the house and we all ran with her because we were terrified. She managed to save Tomasa but Dolores died,” says Maria.

It is 80 years since the start of the Spanish Civil War which pitched left-wing republicans against the right-wing nationalists, led by Franco. Following the bombing of Guernica the beleaguered Basque government appealed to foreign countries to give temporary asylum to its children, fearful that other towns and cities would meet a similar fate. Many, including France, Russia, Belgium and Mexico, agreed, but the British government initially refused to provide any assistance fearing this would breach its non-intervention pact.

Demonstrations were held in cities up and down the country by trade unions and the Labour Party, which condemned Franco as “the assassin of Spanish democracy”, and following mounting public pressure the Tory-led coalition reluctantly agreed to allow the Basque children to seek sanctuary here.

On May 21 ,1937, Maria, along with her sisters Juanita and Rosario and her brother Max, were among the 3,860 children and 200 teachers and priests who clambered on board an ageing Spanish liner called the Habana docked at Santurce, near Bilbao, bound for England.

Two of her brothers had already run away to fight Franco and her parents, like many others, feared what would happen if their children remained with the violence escalating.

Maria, who now lives in Scalby just outside Scarborough, remembers the chaotic scenes as frightened and bewildered children were herded onto the boat. “We were terrified. Can you imagine all these children screaming and shouting? I remember being put in a hammock on the ship. We were all frightened, we didn’t know where we were going,” she recalls.

“We were told that Franco’s warships were waiting outside the Bay of Biscay and threatening to sink the ship if it didn’t turn back to Bilbao.” Instead, the Habana’s captain sent a message to two British warships in the area which came to their aid. “They were much bigger and when they arrived the Spanish warships fled,” says Maria.

After arriving in Southampton on May 23, the children were initially housed in a temporary campsite nearby. “I found out years later that the British government didn’t want us there. It was the people who wanted us to come over because they wanted to help.”

Some of the refugees were teenagers while others were just two-years-old. They were sent to stay in children’s homes all over the country, but in the confusion Maria almost became separated from her siblings. She was being led away by a couple until she was spotted by her brother and sisters from the back of a lorry. “I couldn’t speak English so I didn’t know where I was going but when I heard them shouting my name I ran after the lorry. If hadn’t I would have been separated from my whole family.”

They were part of a convey taken to Hull where locals had organised for Spanish fisherman to greet them. “They made us feel at home and there were crowds of people with clothes and bags of sweets.”

The four of them stayed at Pearson Park for the next couple of years. “All the Spanish teachers had to go back to Spain so we weren’t allowed to speak Spanish. When you’re little you pick up the language and slowly I did,” says Maria.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War Max and Juanita, the eldest, remained in Hull to work, while Maria and Rosario were sent to Scarborough where it would was hoped they would be safe from the German bombers.

For Maria, though, the move to the seaside was not a happy one to begin with. “I was a vegan and they knew in Hull that I didn’t eat meat. But when I came to Scarborough they used to give me bacon and eggs for breakfast and when I wouldn’t eat it and they locked me up in the attic because they thought I was being difficult.”

The headmaster of her school found out about this and complained to the authorities who had Maria and Rosario moved to Eskrick, near York. “I loved it there. That’s where I was happiest,” she says.

After the Second World War was over Rosario and Maria remained in Yorkshire for a couple of years before being flown back to Madrid. “We were met by my father and my elder brother but we couldn’t speak Spanish, we’d lost it. So they couldn’t speak to us and we couldn’t speak to them.”

It was more than a decade since they had left Spain and the country had changed. “I remember on the train home it was full of Franco’s soldiers all with their guns,” says Maria.

She spent three years working in Spain before returning to England where she trained to be a nurse in the North East. After getting her nursing qualifications she worked for a time at Hull Royal Infirmary where she met her future husband, a perfusionist called Donald Patchett.

He moved to London where she joined him and the pair then got married. When the couple retired they moved to Scarborough, which might seem strange given her unhappy wartime memories of the town.

But something else drew her back. “It was the primroses. I had never seen them before until I came here - I used to think they were little fairies. I just thought they were beautiful,” she says. “Also the hills and the countryside here reminded me of Spain.”

Her husband died a few years ago but Maria still has an extended family both here in England and back in her homeland. Looking back, Maria, who is now 86, remains full of gratitude to those who helped her and all the other Basque children who came here frightened and facing an uncertain future.

“It was the British people who stood up for us and looked after us when we first arrived. I will always thank them for that. If it hadn’t been for them we would all have been dead.”

British aid for Basque children

The arrival of 3,860 Basque children to the UK in May 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, was the single biggest ever influx of child refugees in this country, bigger even than the Kindertransports.

Yorkshire was one of the first places to provide refuge with JB Priestley among the numerous figures offering their support.

A total of 450 Basque children arrived in Yorkshire, though some returned after just three months and over the next couple of years a steady stream went back to Spain.

During the Second World War some of the refugees stayed to fight for their adopted country.

By the time the war had finished there were around 300 still here and they went on to begin a new life in Britain.

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