House that became a home for refugees of civil war

Basdque refugee children at Roundhay Park in Leeds in 1939
Basdque refugee children at Roundhay Park in Leeds in 1939
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GIORDANO Diaz can still recall the makeshift ambulances he saw crossing a bridge in his hometown in northern Spain more than 70 years ago.

It was the evening of April 26, 1937, and the lorries he saw were carrying casualties to the nearest hospital in Bilbao from the stricken Basque country town of Guernica.

The infamous aerial attack on civilians on market day, which shocked the world, marked a turning point for the teenage boy growing up during the Spanish Civil War.

In May that year, the 13-year-old was to leave Bilbao with his older brother, Amador, and two cousins and board a ship with almost 4,000 other young refugees to sail to the safety of the UK before ending up in Yorkshire.

“I do not remember being frightened,” said Mr Diaz, 90, who had lost his mother when he was three years old and left his father and grandmother in Spain. “Some of the children might have been scared because it was something completely new, going on a ship or leaving their homes, but I am not aware of that.”

The young evacuees, who ranged in age from five to 15 years old, were initially housed in tents on a campsite near Southampton.

“In this camp we noticed there were tents,” said Mr Diaz. “That was a surprise. Everyone was thinking of playing ‘cowboys and Indians’ because there were these round tents.

“They were ordinary tents which were not as developed as they are today. We had imagined they were what cowboys and Indians were living in. That was the impression we got; it was a novelty.”

The children were soon distributed to ‘colonies’ around the country, established by local voluntary efforts and the Diaz boys headed to the Old Clergy House in Almondbury, Huddersfield, which was to become their home alongside 18 other boys for the next two years.

“Everything was new, even travelling in trains,” said Mr Diaz, who lives in London. “The trains in Spain were more rudimentary – wooden seats with slats. Here they were upholstered.”

More than seven decades have passed since Mr Diaz left his home in West Yorkshire but he will return on Friday to unveil a commemorative plaque at the Old Clergy House to remember those children who were offered refuge there.

The retired engineer, who worked at the Royal Mint, was delighted when he discovered he could access newspapers in the nearby library.

“One of the things I discovered was that we were right across from the public library,” said Mr Diaz. “I could not understand much English. I made it my business to keep going into the library to read the paper. I found that somehow the people who were running the library, the curators in there, must have been very kind to have tolerated me. No-one told me off for going there to read the papers.

“The papers were fixed onto sort of upright desks. You could turn them over but you could not take them away. You had to read them standing up but I did not mind. I was not very tall but able to read the papers. I could make out enough to know what was happening in Spain.”

He also recalls the Latin motto engraved in a fireplace in one of the Old Clergy House’s rooms: “Laborare est Orare: To work is to pray.”

The plaque at Almondbury has been sponsored by the Basque Children of ’37 Association and Huddersfield Local History Society, following a talk to the society last year by Carmen Kilner, trustee of the association.

She said: “We are delighted to be able to thank the people of Huddersfield who so generously offered a home, safety and kindness to children fleeing a vicious war 75 years ago.”