Spanish Refugee Drawings

A guest post by Gallery Assistant and resident Spanish Civil War expert Andy Hoyle

Every year the People’s History Museum utilises the quiet weeks in early January to replace their impressive banner collection on display. Banners that have been proudly exhibited for the past 12 months are returned to storage, to be substituted on the galleries by replacements. Often, those going on display are new acquisitions (such as the current Fakenham Labour Party banner on Main Gallery One) or are being exhibited to the public for the first ever time.

The museum does this for two reasons. The first reason is that many of the banners sustain wear and tear. The second is that the museum has such an extensive collection (the largest collection of trade union and political banners in the world – over 400!) and cannot possibly exhibit all of them at one time.

Basque 1It is not just banners that are annually changed however. This year, a number of Spanish refugee drawings from the late 1930s are displayed on Main Gallery One. Although they may not be as immediately eye-catching as the neighbouring banners they are just as fascinating.

The Spanish Civil War was fought between 1936 and 1939 and is often seen as a precursor to World War II. The conflict was a fight between democracy and autocracy. Although Nazi Germany and fascist Italy supported the rebel leader Franco (and provided troops, aircraft, tanks and artillery) Britain remained neutral throughout the conflict. ‘Appeasement’ was the watchword of British politics in the 1930s.

By 1937 Spanish republican heartlands were coming under attack. The Basque country in particular was subject to heavy bombardment, Guernica being just one example of a city effectively razed to the ground by aerial attacks. Despite such conditions, a number of Spanish children from republican areas managed to board ships bound for England.

Arriving on the south coast, many of the young refugees were placed in camps and were soon adopted by sympathetic British families. The drawings currently on display at the museum are sketched by these children, some as young as 3 or 4. The vivid detail is telling. Not only do they depict the true nature of mechanised warfare in the 1930s, they reveal just how close ‘total war’ was to the civilian population.

The grizzly and macabre depictions in some of them (notably the bodies floating along the river Ebro) are too disturbing to have been made up by children this young. Others, such as the shaded republican soldier or the ‘Mosca’ aeroplane are beautiful pieces of art in themselves.

These drawings are important for historic, political, artistic and also human reasons. I really do think that they are well worth seeing!


2 thoughts on “Spanish Refugee Drawings

  1. Hi Catherine
    As I expect you know…
    An exhibition of pictures by Spanish children called “Spain – The Child and The War’ was displayed in London at the time of the Civil War in Spain and had a preface written by Leah Manning, where she described herself as having become an ‘accidental’ mother to 4000 of the children and which she felt gave her a ‘mother’s right’ to speak on their behalf. I wonder if the drawings in your exhibition come from this source?
    Leah Manning was MP for Epping and was strongly supportive of the growth of the new town that became Harlow, from where I am writing. She played a central role in helping to evacuate and place young refugees from the Spanish Civil War. See: Ron Bill and Stan Newens: Leah Manning. Details below all come from their research and book.

    “In 1934 she visited Spain after the uprising of the Asturia miners and bitterly criticised the repression in the book she wrote, “What I saw in Spain.” …
    She threw herself into the Republican cause, working to raise money to send medical supplies and nurses, doctors and nurses. In 1937 she went to Bilbao, to arrange the evacuation of children from the war zone to Britain, and was in Guernica 2 days after it was blitzed. She was personally involved in the embarkation of thousands of people from Spain at that time and, back in the UK, helped organise their accommodation, with particular help from the NUT who housed some evacuees in Theydon Bois, Essex, at what was then known as the Leah Manning Home. She also took charge of a group of orphans of Socialist families and housed them in Cambridge.
    Leah returned to Spain in July 1937 and in 1938 …
    “visited a front line hospital … where she nursed Harry Dobson for some 14 hours before he died. Harry, an active member of the Blaenclydach Lodge of the National Union of MIneworkers, had first met Leah when she addressed an anti-fascist rally in TSouth Wales. He had been imprisoned following an anti-fascist rally in Tonypandy. On the day of his release he volunteered for service in Spain. He became a member of the XVth Brigade and was seriously wounded in fighting at Ebro. ”
    Leah wrote:
    ” ‘It was a fantastic night as I sat by this dying comrade, passing along the high winding road on the side opposite the cave, hundreds of camions passed by with singing reserves and loads of material and ammunition on their way to Ebro, whilst winding down the glen at the bottom came the ambulances with the dead, dying and wounded men.’ ”
    On her return, she spoke at meetings the length and breadth of the country and never gave up her strong interest in the cause of Spanish republicanism. The war in Spain convinced her to oppose the Munich Agreement and the necessity of standing up to Fascism. She spent the war years driving ambulances around East London from under the railway arches in Bethnal Green as well as becoming the NUT Evacuation Liaison Officer and Head of Organisation at the NUT Head Office.

    • Isobel,

      Firstly, apologies for the delayed response. Secondly, thank you for the information on Leah Manning. The Labour History Archive and Study Centre (LHASC) at our museum holds all the documents regarding the war in Spain, as well as thousands of other documents covering hundreds of other issues. The Dictionary of Labour Biography that is housed there confirms what you say about Leah Manning. She was near Guernica when it was bombed in 1937 and, by all accounts, was the integral creator of the Basque Childrens Committee. Also, Manning spoke to the Home Secretary personally to assuage his last minute misgivings regarding the acceptance of 4000 refugees. A remarkable woman!
      Regarding the drawings, it is unsure as to whether or not they were displayed at this exhibition you speak of. Much of our collection comes from a variety of sources, and not all of them are accompanied with supporting histories. It is known that some of the drawings come from the Carshalton and District Basque Children’s Committee. It seems that much of their documentation is dated from the mid 1940’s, so whether they collected retrospectively or not is unclear. Many of the drawings in our collection (though not the ones on display) are also drawn by Spanish children who were still in Madrid throughout the war. It seems that the International Solidarity Fund had developed ties enabling children in the Spanish capital to converse with the refugees in England.
      I hope this retort goes someway in answering your query. If you still desire more information do feel free to reply directly, or email me at Alternatively, do book a session in our archives. There is an abundance of stuff to get stuck into!

      Andy Hoyle (Gallery Assistant)

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