An incredible tale of a group of refugees from the Basque country who briefly made Norfolk their home. One of them played for Gt Yarmouth, Barcelona and Spain and another played in goal for the Canaries.
In the middle of September 1937, a group of about 50 boys from the Basque country of Northern Spain arrived at the Old Rectory in the small Norfolk village of Rollesby.
At the time the Old Rectory was a disused building without electricity but it was definitely an improvement on the field they had been camping in at Hoxne, near Diss across the border in Suffolk, where they had been flooded out in late August.
Like many boys of their age (9-16) they loved football and spent most of their spare time playing. But how had they ended up in Norfolk?
In March 1937 the Spanish Civil War raged. General Franco, leader of the Fascists who were fighting the Republican Government of Spain, ordered an attack on Northern Spain.
A month later, on April 26th Guernica, the spiritual home of the Basques became the first town in history to be destroyed by aerial bombing, carried out by the German Condor Legion killing around 1,600 and injuring about 900. The atrocity was immortalised in paint by Picasso. The horror also prompted the first mass evacuation of children from a war zone with between 20,000 and 30,000 kids sent away to safety – some to Belgium and France, others to the Soviet Union and 4,000 to Britain.
The British government initially refused to have refugees (no change there then) citing the Non-Intervention Pact, which had been signed by Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Italy in August 1936. PM Stanley Baldwin also claimed that ‘the climate wouldn’t suit them’ but he relented after huge public pressure. The proviso was that charities had to finance their stay.
Even though the Republican government was the legitimate government of Spain, Britain and France wanted to avoid a European war and came out with the policy of non-intervention, which was a part of the policy of appeasement.
It was certainly in accord with the thinking of the British ruling class who were sympathetic to the Nationalists and very anti communist. UK government supplied no arms and little help to the Spanish Republic. This (non-intervention) ‘passed a death sentence on the Spanish republic’ (Preston). Germany and Italy, on the other hand, had decisively helped Franco from the start despite signing the Non-Intervention pact.
The 4,000 children, aged five to sixteen and accompanied by teachers and priests, arrived in Southampton on 23rd May 1937 on a converted liner designed for only 400 passengers, the SS Habana. To make things even less comfortable, their journey involved navigating a storm to rival Ciara or Dennis.
From the chaos and overcrowding of the boat the Basque children were moved to a tented camp at North Stoneham and from there dispersed around the country.
Among the 4,000 were the Gallego brothers, José and Antonio who would go on to play football for a variety of League clubs including Norwich City – and Emilio Aldecoa who played a single game for Great Yarmouth Town before his footballing career took him to Wolves, Coventry, Athletic Bilbao, and Barcelona, where he gained a champion’s medal, as well as an international cap for Spain. He returned to England in 1960 to coach Birmingham City where he was assistant manager for two years.
The talent didn’t end there. Raimundo Peres Lazama played for Southampton in 1940 before returning to Spain where he played for Athletic Bilbao, winning the double in the 1942-3 season and retaining the Copa del Generalissimo (the equivalent of the FA Cup) in 1944 and 45.
Sabino Barinaga spent a season playing for Southampton Reserves, scoring an impressive 62 goals, before going on to play for Real Madrid, where he won three major trophies. Baringa also holds the honour of scoring the first goal at the new Santiago Bernabeu stadium in 1947.
At first the British press praised the rescue of these children from the grip of war, however the tone changed quickly and the Daily Mail (no surprise there) coined the term ‘Bad Basque Boys’. In the week of their arrival The Sphere quoted an anonymous British businessman who claimed that they were all ‘reds and revolutionary in outlook’ and that they should be ‘kept from all contact with British children’.
Later scare stories hinged on a ‘riot’ in Brechfra, Wales where, the Western Daily Press reported windows smashed and the boys carried ‘table knives filed to daggers’. Apparently a local man had booted one of them in the arse after they had touched and lounged around his car and some of the boys exacted revenge by breaking windows.
As the children were dispersed around the country other papers followed suit, The Leeds Mercury reported local fears about their arrival including ‘bedtime problems’ and ‘they are different ‘ and ‘can’t be made into little English boys’. In Elford, in the Midlands the parish council was against them staying in Elford Hall. Mrs Wylie, claiming to speak for the villagers said: ‘I think we should do everything we can to stop them coming’.
Following the moral panic in the national press about the behaviour of some of the boys, Poppy Vulliamy brought 50 of the older boys to camp, in Hoxne at Oakley Park near Diss, among them future Barca star Aldecoa.
Poppy Vulliamy and her sister Chloe were living on the Costa Brava in 1936 when the Civil War had broken out. They spoke good Spanish and were especially interested in the educational reforms of the Republican Government. The war forced their return to England but their aunt, Grace Vulliamy, an experienced refugee worker, was involved with the arrangements for evacuating the children from Spain. Grace had received a CBE for her work with Belgian refugees in the first World War.
They were the daughters of the Suffolk coroner and their activism and work for the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee ensured that over a hundred of the children arrived in Ipswich on their way to staying in a ‘colony’ at nearby Wherstead Hall with much money and support supplied by the Ipswich Co-Op, churches and Trade Unions. This process was being repeated all over the country to help the 4,000 Basque children.
Poppy allowed the boys to elect their own parliament and keep their own discipline, leading to the formation of a government, made up of a President and five ministers, each elected fortnightly. The boys were left wing (according to Poppy and the Yarmouth Independent) and adopted a dog, called Reddy.
Learning from their earlier experiences, Poppy ensured that good relationships were built with the village and the group quickly allayed rumours that the villagers were ’scared stiff of them’ by inviting local people to meet them in person.
From Hoxne, the group moved into the Old Rectory at Rollesby in Mid-September following a visit to Great Yarmouth where they were given the ‘freedom of the Pleasure Beach’, taken to the Hippodrome Circus, had tea with the mayor and mayoress and then went to a swimming gala.
Some of the boys at Rollesby Rectory (Kind permission of University of Southampton collection)
From there, villagers were encouraged to invite the boys to their homes every Sunday and good relationships were formed. Locals from the area invited over 20 boys back to Rollesby and Yarmouth for a few days of the Christmas holidays.
The boys had already played a number of football matches where, according to the Diss Express, they beat Hoxne twice and came out best in a third game where they won 3-2 in a ‘thrilling struggle.’
They also played Brome and Oakley: ‘With the lead it was only natural that the Brome and Oakley 11 should give of their utmost to maintain it, and likewise the lads from the land of the olive to strain their footballing souls to get on terms’. The Basques won after 10 minutes of extra time.
Their final game in Suffolk was played in very wet conditions against Brome and Oakley at the Rectory ground. They lost 6-2. ‘The larger pitch and heavy ball affected the play of the Basques, who were unable to get going with the short passes for which they are renowned.’
In their two months at Rollesby the boys played numerous games against the local villages and some of them were described in the Yarmouth Independent:
‘On Saturday morning they visited the cinema at Yarmouth, and on Saturday afternoon travelled to Flegg Burgh for their return football match. Burgh, anxious to avenge their 13-0 defeat by the Basques a fortnight ago, fielded a strong team and on their own mud-patch, the scene of the defeat of the hopes of a good many visiting teams – they turned the tables on a weakened team and despite the splendid efforts of the diminutive goalie Burgh netted 5 times and the Spaniards once. This Saturday the Basques are playing at Winterton.’
The boys’ football impressed local observers with one journalist noting: ‘Their canny footwork is the result of the Spanish rule banning shoulder charging. Jose Luis Bilbao is a marvellous goalkeeper for his age and an eye is being kept on him with a view of making him a professional’.
Taking note, Norwich City manager Bob Young donated a ball and blue kit to the boys and although there’s no record of the boys attending any City matches it’s known that Poppy occasionally took some of them into the city and had them run errands for her.
Certain stereotypes of English (muscular and big and used to muddy conditions) and Spanish (skilful, canny footwork, short passing) football emerge and in one report describing a loss of 4-3 to a Filby team: ‘The standard of the Spaniards’ football was far higher than that of Filby, who were stronger and heavier than the foreign lads’ which suggests that brute strength and size overcame Spanish skill.
The Basque Boys team at Wellesley Road, Gt Yarmouth (Kind permission of University of Southampton collection)
The highlights of their football in Norfolk were the two games against Yarmouth at Wellesley Road, both of which were watched by crowds of over 1,000.
The first match in October was 8-2 to the Spaniards with Francisco Peres scoring 6. ‘The Basque boys, playing in blue shirts given to them by Norwich City had brought with them not only 30 refugees but a large part of the village of Rollesby as supporters.’
In the second match on Boxing Day they beat Yarmouth schoolboys 9-0. Emilio Aldecoa played both these games on the left wing.
The boys left Rollesby for Tythrop House in Buckinghamshire on 23rd November. The Yarmouth Independent describes ‘all the emotionalism of a Spanish leave taking…happily most of them were able to call “until Christmas” instead of “goodbye” for most of the boys will be enjoying the festivities with local families.’
A Yarmouth man, Mr Dawson reflected on their visit in January 1938. “Some people thought ‘we were harbouring desperadoes and running a risk of being murdered in our beds. Another strange attitude of mind is that which resents friendship being shown to a ‘foreigner’, which exhibits a lack of appreciation of the dreadful circumstances, which brought these children among us.”
Sadly, of course it’s an attitude that some people still hold today.
Mr Dawson continued: “There is a nicer side. A shoe repairer refused, almost with indignation to accept a payment for a job done and an equally sympathetic barber, when told the reason for a boy’s blank look to his ‘trim up or a close crop?’ declined to accept his fee. Antonio, who has five brothers, said how one of his brothers returned home from the fighting and ‘spoke with sadness at having shot a fellow country man – the tragedy of civil war’. The boys all believe intensely about the rightness of the cause in which their relatives are fighting and several of them have themselves been in the firing line. One of the three who left here last week was in the trenches for months and wounded before his age was discovered.”
Mr Dawson knew that their parents didn’t want them home but he had thought it was because of the bombing. “From Antonio I learned another reason ‘For one day, yes –but there is no food’. There was also an influx of refugees from the countryside in Bilbao …(which led)…. to an acute shortage of food and that ‘nothing could be spared for the dogs and that one belonging to a friend of his killed a cat and partly devoured it. For some weeks before he left home donkeys and cats formed part of the food of the people.” On a lighter note Antonio’s description of Christmas at home was ‘plenty wine, all drunk, me drunk’.
Most of the refugees had returned home by late 1939 when the Second World War broke out but about 400 remained in Britain, including Emilio Aldecoa, who, while visiting friends, had played a game for Yarmouth against Eastern Coach Works in May, and the Gallego brothers. It is to their story that we now turn.
Tony and José Gallego
The Gallego brothers, José and Antonio ended up in a children’s home in Cambridge. The brothers became known as Tony and Joe, noting: ‘The English weren’t very good at pronouncing our names’, when Antonio was interviewed about his life in 2012 by Naomi Westland for Spanish Daily, El Pais.
He recalls his mother putting him and his brother Jose in an orphanage after their house was bombed. ‘Leaving Bilbao was a sad occasion. But things were so bad I think our mother was just pleased to get us out alive.’
They were reunited with their mother and their younger sisters in 1947. ‘My mother always begged us not to go into politics. Our dad was a socialist, very active, very strong minded,” says Gallego. For many years after he disappeared, the family didn’t know what had happened to him. ‘We only found out later that he had been killed at Gernika (sic) but we don’t know how and we never had a funeral for him. We never got his body. Things were too upside-down to do anything like that.’
He says football played a big part in helping the children – the boys at least – traumatized by the war, to settle into a new country and a new language. ‘It was all we thought about. As long as we had football, we were happy,’ he says. “Football meant everything to us; it was the only thing we knew about,” Antonio continued: “We got attached to Cambridge and made a lot of friends here through playing football. If it hadn’t been for football, we would have lived a very different life.” They joined Cambridge Town and were spotted by league clubs – José was the more skilful and played for Brentford, Southampton and Colchester United, before returning to Cambridge United.
Antonio was a goalkeeper (and at 5 feet 9 inches, not a tall one). He played one game for Norwich City in the 1946-47 season, the first full football programme after the wartime interruption. Norwich were in the Third Division South at the time and finished 21st out of 22 with 28 points, forcing them to apply for re-election to the league. Thankfully this was proposed by Mr Blenkinsop of Leeds United (we have something to thank them for) and the club were reprieved.
Home attendances that season fluctuated between 11,000 and 29,000 (against Port Vale) with Cardiff City away attracting 36,000 (they were champions on 66 points). We scored 64 goals, but conceded 100 and used 35 players. Canary Citizens credits Cyril Spiers, for bringing in young players and developing a youth policy; ‘but one is left with the impression that he did not handle his senior players too well.’
Tony in goal for Cambridge Utd
As for Antonio, he was signed from Cambridge Town on 12th March 1947 and played on March 15th against Bristol Rovers in front of more than 18,000 at Carrow Road. According to the match report it was an exciting 3-3 draw with City coming back from a 3-1 deficit at half time and ending Rovers’ five match winning sequence.
One match report noted that Antonio: ’shaped promisingly and showed no disinclination to come out when necessary. The occasion made a big demand on a player who had never appeared in anything higher than senior amateur ranks…. though he should have saved when the third goal was scored’. Another report said: ‘he did not set the Wensum on fire but he will develop with experience’ – at least it wasn’t a Michael Theoklitos experience (he conceded 5 before half-time in a 7-1 defeat against Colchester Utd, 2009).
Sadly, Antonio never played for City again and was probably released at the end of the season to return to regional amateur football. He and José played football into their fifties, living in Cambridge to the end of their lives.
José made a living reading meters for the Gas Board and Antonio was a sweets and cigarette salesman. Their football story is very different from that of footballers today but at Norwich we have our own refugee, Mario Vrancic whose family escaped from Bosnia and then Croatia, finding refuge in Germany in 1994.
In this story we see the power of football to bring people together and among the Basque boys, witnesses to horrific events and torn away from their parents at such a young age, the power to help them get by, to heal and to make new friends. We also see how Norfolk people took them to their hearts and showed them hospitality inviting them back to stay over the Christmas period.
I carried out this research for The Havens East Project:
Havens East is investigating the lost histories of child refugees who sought sanctuary in East Anglia during the Spanish Civil War. It aims to uncover the stories of the children, who were from the Basque region of northern Spain, and the local volunteers in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk who worked tirelessly to help them. Activities will take place across the region with specialist teams working with citizen researchers, local schools, refugee groups and heritage supporters, including Basque Children of 1937 Association (UK). As part of Football Welcomes Refugees (April 2020), the project will recreate an historic football fixture. The Basque Boys beat a local Great Yarmouth Boys XI 8-2 at the Wellesley Ground, Great Yarmouth on 21 October 1937, and then triumphed 9-0 in a rematch played on the same ground on Boxing Day 1937. Havens East is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and based at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.
Sources and references:
A shorter version of this article can be found on the Along come Norwich website: https://www.alongcomenorwich.com/articles/basque-refugees-football-norfolk-and-norwich-city/
Out now: https://havenseast.org/
An excellent look at most of the research. Beautifully designed and highly accessible.
Firstly thanks to
Stuart Mclaren who found and made available all sorts of contemporary newspaper reports.
Dr Ed Packard, University of Suffolk who has huge expertise on the Basque boys and was more than happy to share some of it with me.
Canary Citizens, Eastwood and Davage
The Spanish Civil War, Paul Preston