THE Memories blog really needs a kick up the backside, but the fact that God only put 24 hours in a day often prevents even that. However, here's some background reading about one of the most intriguing and overlooked of wartime stories.

Saturday's Memories contains an article about a new book which has been written by Peter O'Brien about the Basque children who fled the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and ended up living in Hutton Hall, near Guisborough. They were part of a contingent of almost 200 children who found sanctuary in the North-East. I wrote about them in 2002, particularly those who were sent to St Peter's Orphanage in Gainford and St Mary's Orphanage in Tudhoe.

Since 2002, Fermin Magdalena has died.


BILBAO, May 20, 1937. The dead of night. About 4,000 Spanish children are being herded aboard a ship called the Havana which has room for 1,000.

A seven-year-old boy is crying on the quayside, refusing to leave his parents. Just as the Havana is about to set sail, he is thrust aboard.

"I heard my father say 'they will all be safe or they will all be killed'," says Pilar Cowen, who was 11 at the time, and already on board.

Her elder brother, Fermin, and sister Julea were with her.

"My father said it will not be long, two or three months and we'll all be back together," says Pilar, "so we didn't take many clothes. And we forgot our sandwiches."

"I thought it was great," says Fermin, "three months' holiday in a foreign country. I never thought I would still be here 65 years later."

Fermin now lives near Northallerton; Pilar lives in Bishop Auckland. They are probably the only two who remain in the region of the couple of hundred of Basque children who sheltered in Tudhoe, Gainford and Guisborough during 1937.

They were fleeing the Spanish Civil War which had broken out in 1936 when General Francisco Franco and other right-wing army generals led a revolution against the left-leaning Republic. With the help of Hitler and Mussolini, Franco crossed from Africa into Spain and gradually fought his way northwards.

It was a bloody war: a little under a million of Spain's 25 million people lost their lives.

The problem for the Basques was that they were in the north of Spain, and by 1937 Franco had them surrounded. The only way out was by sea, and so the children were thrown aboard the Havana, with 500 female teachers to look after them, bound for the safety of England.

That was the last Fermin and Pilar would see of their father. He was politically active, supporting the Republic, and working in the Government's social services department. Having seen his children off, he fled with their mother. They travelled by car to Barcelona, and then walked over the Pyrenees - no mean feat considering he had a false leg.

They were placed in a refugee camp, where he died in 1940.

Fermin and Pilar made it safely to Southampton - the Havana being escorted in by three British warships following an encounter, and "a lot of flashing backwards and forwards", with one of Franco's battleships in the Bay of Biscay.

They stayed in tents for a couple of months before a group of 40 of them were sent to Hutton Hall, near Guisborough. It was owned by Ruth Pennyman - nicknamed the "red duchess" because of her political leanings - of Ormesby Hall, who was chairman of the Basque Children's Committee.

Although the British Government had allowed the children into the country, it refused to pay for their up-keep. Because of their religious background, the Roman Catholic church rallied round, and because of the political nature of the civil war, trades unions collected money for them. The refugees themselves also ran a concert party, which toured the North-East raising funds.

Fermin, Pilar and the 40 others at Hutton Hall were not the only Basque children to head to the North-East.

On June 28, 1937, a trainload of 155 "excited and joyous" young refugees pulled into Darlington's Bank Top station. The children, with their flashing eyes and black hair, seemed quite content to be brought north in a country far from their own," reported The Northern Echo.

"They longed to make friends with a small crowd of English people on the platform. Before the train had stopped, arms and hands shot out of carriage windows to wave and be shaken.

"There was a Darlington girl on the platform with a terrier dog. A carriageful of boys saw it and grabbed excitedly to pet it. The dog was handed to them and immediately disappeared into the carriage, being returned just before the train was starting. It was as excited as its newfound friends."

According to the Echo, 140 refugees were taken to St Peter's Roman Catholic Home in Gainford (the other 15 went on to Newcastle). The mining unions of south-west Durham raised money for them.

In Spennymoor, local people had been organising themselves since March 1937, collecting money door-to-door. On July 7, their contingent of 64 refugees pulled into Croxdale station.

"Long before the train was due to arrive, hundreds of people crowded around the little station to extend their sympathy and to welcome the little victims of the Spanish war," reported a local paper.

"As they left the platform it was pathetic to see them carrying their few belongings, which were contained in paper parcels, cardboard boxes, biscuit tins etc."

They were taken in two buses to St Mary's Orphanage in Tudhoe, which, like St Peter's, was Roman Catholic.

"Sleepy-eyed, these children, far from their sunny Spain, after many weary months, during which they have passed through many trials and much suffering, have now found a haven where peace reigns and where every care will be given by the kindly sisters to whose care they have been entrusted, and who will endeavour to eradicate from their young minds the horrors through which they have passed," said the paper.

How long the Basques stayed is not known. Several months after their arrival, Franco's forces captured their home province and it was soon safe for most to return home.

At Gainford, about 20 or so remained for longer, as did a handful at Guisborough. These, it seems, were children of displaced, or murdered, parents. At Gainford, it is believed there were children of Basque leaders who had to escape Spain and form a government-in-exile in London before they could be reunited.

At Hutton Hall, Fermin, Pilar and Julea remained. Even when Spain subsided into peace, they had nowhere to return to because their parents were still in a French refugee camp.

When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, the Spanish Civil War became yesterday's conflict. The Army needed Hutton Hall as barracks, and the refugees were left to fend for themselves. They became "aliens", and were regarded with suspicion. They were subject to a 10pm curfew, they were banned from having weapons or radios, and they needed special permission if they were to ride a bike.

Fermin got a job as a footman at Ormesby Hall, and then in the Co-op's coal depot in Middlesbrough - he was an alien in essential employment.

He joined the Home Guard "and the first thing they did was give me a gun and show me how to use a radio".

Pilar, though, had a tough time in Middlesbrough, staying in lodgings and paying for her keep through her housework. She is reluctant to be rude about her hosts, who treated her as a glorified slave, for she was grateful for a roof over her head.

As the war progressed, they grew up and fell in love. Their sister, Julea, fell for an Army translator who'd been seconded to them at Hutton Hall. His English parents ran a business in Majorca and she went over there with him in peacetime. She died seven years ago.

Pilar met Fred Cowen, an RAF man from Loftus; Fermin, doing his delivery round, met Sheila, the daughter of a Middlesbrough grocer. Soon wedding bells sounded.

"My parents-in-law told him to think very carefully if he was going to marry a foreigner," says Pilar.

"Mine said 'there are plenty of nice English boys around'," says Fermin.

But they both married happily and had children. Fermin's life story saw him become a manager for Fred Hall's fruit wholesaler, and then move to Shildon to help set up Geest's banana factory.

Pilar's life story saw her save enough money to buy a house, which allowed her to bring her mother over from the French refugee camp.

Her husband became a manager with Moore's stores, in Middlesbrough, before he moved to Aycliffe to run the North-East's first supermarket. They lived in Shildon for 23 years.

Between them, Fermin and Pilar have seven children, nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and one hell of a story to tell.

ST Mary's Home, in Tudhoe, was built around 1898 by the Roman Catholics on the site of an old orphanage. It had room for 200 girls although in 1939 the girls were moved out - many to St Joseph's Home in Darlington - and boys were moved in.

St Mary's closed in 1962, with the boys going to smaller homes within the community, and it was demolished in 1968. St Mary's Grove, a private housing estate, was built on its site.

St Peter's Home in Gainford is now derelict. It was built in about 1900 as an orphanage for 300 boys. Its children were transferred out and it became an approved school in 1943. The school closed in 1984, and the building - and its estate of 48 acres, two bungalows, one house and one mile of fishing rights - was sold for £161,000. The west wing, including the church, was demolished but the east wing became a nursing home.

That closed several years ago, and now the building is something of an eyesore.

A few years after the Basque refugees left, they presented a statue of Our Lady of Begona to the home. It was inscribed: "In thanksgiving to St Peter's Home from the Basque children." It was last heard of in 1987 being stored in a builder's garage in Darlington - we'd love to know where it is now.

A FORMER vice-president of Spain, Alfonso Guerra, is arranging an exhibition about the Basque refugees, which will be shown in Madrid later this year before touring Coruña, Granada, Cádiz and Barcelona.

Heather Riley, a English translator at the Spanish Parliament, alerted Echo Memories to the fact that there were no mentions of Gainford in Spanish records - she knew there should be as her father, Thomas, had taught the children there in 1937.

Our information and pictures are going to the exhibition. We are indebted to Heather, Fermin and Pilar, and also Tony Coia of Spennymoor and Mike Stow of Gainford.

If you have any further memories or information about the Basques, please write to Echo Memories, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington DL1 1NF, or email or call 01325-505062.