The Basque Boys
A change of tack today but one nonetheless in keeping with this site’s support of grassroots football and the importance of the sport in society. Joe Harrison, one time co-editor of The Seventy Two, has put pen to paper to bring us a moving tale of how football can bring people together in the teeth of oppression. Joe’s article is inspired by and uses certain information from Rob Stradling’s book, Cardiff & The Spanish Civil War.
Mention Basque football to a British fan and it’s likely that their first thought will be of Athletic Bilbao, the team famed for their ‘Basque only’ player recruitment policy and whose outstanding performance in defeating Manchester United last year brought them to the continent’s attention (though the less said about this season, the better). Those of a certain age may also recall the escapades of John Aldridge and John Toshack at the other competitor of the Basque Derby, Real Sociedad. Others may be aware of the existence of the Basque national side, a team without any FIFA or UEFA recognition but playing friendlies once or twice a year, such as against Wales in 2006. What most people don’t realise is that there were another team of Basques to play in Britain, nearly 75 years before Bielsa’s men stunned Old Trafford.
In 1936, Spain was launched into Civil War as Franco’s Fascist forces begun an armed uprising against the country’s left-wing government, a war that consumed the whole country and would last a number of years, before the Fascists’ eventual victory. It is relatively well-known that the plight of Republican Spain inspired much sympathy and solidarity from those with left-wing political affiliations throughout the world, with George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia a famous depiction of life for those who volunteered for the International Brigades — men and women who chose to go for Spain to fight against Fascism.
Indeed, the response was strong throughout Britain, and it is believed that around 150 from Wales joined the International Brigades while groups such as the South Wales Miners’ Federation levied their members to raise funds for Republican Spain while attempting to pressure their government into more proactive support for the Spanish Republic. As for the Basque region, the majority of its inhabitants stood themselves on the side of the Spanish government — although as anyone with any awareness of the region will no doubt expect, the general motivations of the area were also in many cases primarily with defending Basque interests, and the opposition to Franco’s forces developed more nuances than a simply pro-Republican tone.
The significance of Basque industry made the area an important target for Franco, particularly as the political geography left Euskadi (Basque in Basque) isolated and vulnerable to attack. When this attack came, it was brutal. The bombing and utter devastation of the ancient city of Guernica on the 26th April 1937 shocked the world, bearing in mind this was years before the Second World War, and therefore the first time Europe had seen carpet bombing of defenceless civilians on such a destructive scale.
The horror of events has been immortalised by Picasso’s painting named after the city, and coverage of the events inspired huge sympathy for the Basques, particularly in Britain. As would happen in Britain a few years later, the ferocity of the attack would lead to many, particularly children, fleeing to safer shores, and over 4,000 child refugees landed in Southampton. Arrangements were quickly made by the Cardiff Aid Spain Committee to bring some of these children to South Wales, housing them in Cambria House in Caerleon, which is where many would stay until the end of the war, and some even beyond that.
Cambria House was able to serve as a type of boarding school, with both carers and teachers initially offering their services for free, before a fund was set up to help pay for all the necessities caring for a group of youngsters far from home required. Though there were dissenters who felt money would be better spent on locals, those opposed were a distinct minority and with help from a supportive local press, this fund did remarkably well, allowing paid teachers to be employed.
Some details of the activities of the children can be found here, in the fascinating Cambria House Journal, which was initially released to help raise funds for the House. The children also helped to garner donations for themselves by performing in concerts centred on traditional Basque singing and folk dancing, using costumes they themselves had made in school, while an entry in the journal describes a day out in Cardiff, where the children were taken to see Cardiff City at Ninian Park — some would say these refugees of a brutal war had suffered enough, but apparently not — and watched the Bluebirds duly win 2-0.
Football became an important theme for the Basques as they set up their own team and began to play against other boys’ teams from the area. Between 1938 and 1939 this team became known (imaginatively) as Basque Boys AFC and achieved remarkable success, becoming the dominant side in the region. I appreciate it’s quite hard to imagine a group of Spanish footballers looking far more technically adept than their Welsh counterparts, but apparently it did indeed happen.
The spectacular success of the team, and the fact that Cambria House itself had become something of a cause cà©là¨bre in the local area, meant that by playing friendlies, the boys were able to help raise yet more money for their school. Remarkably, this culminated in a glamour tie against Cardiff schools champions, Moorland Road School at Ninian Park, the ground the youngsters had previously visited as fans. In an interesting comparison to more recent times, and to provide some idea of the quality of the Basque players, this Moorland Road team included 3 future Wales internationals including one, Ron Stitfall, who would go on to make over 400 appearances for Cardiff City in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. So it was that years before Llorente, Javi Martinez and co. arrived at Old Trafford, a team entirely comprised of Basques lined up on British soil against local opposition.
Most of the refugees would of course return home in 1939 following Franco’s victory and though with any account of refugees it’s wrong to assume all experiences were the same, it seems most in Cambria House enjoyed the experience and appreciated the support from the locals. In fact, South Wales was so noticeably supportive of the Basque and Spanish Republic’s cause that during the war, Franco sent one of his British spies to Cardiff to assess the situation, fearing it as a hub of anti-fascist activity! The strength of the feeling on the part of (many, at least) of the refugees is made clear by one of the last entries to the Cambria House Journal, where one child, writing of his mixed feelings when hearing he was to rejoin his parents in Spain, concludes:
While I am writing these few lines, I want to take this opportunity of thanking the workers of England and Wales who have helped us to live for two years and four months in this country, far away from our loved ones’
First of all, I want to thank the workers of Britain as a whole, for it was they that offered to take 4,000 children away from invaded Spain, – the children who will be men and women of tomorrow, and who were suffering from the horrible bombardments and from hunger.
Secondly, and principally, I want to thank the Welsh miners, and other workers of Wales who have helped us while we were living in Cambria House, in Vale View, and latterly in 18 Cross Street, Caerleon. Thanks to them, we have spent two happy years which we shall never forget.
Thank you very much, comrades.’
The events and goings on at Cambria House were not earth-shattering, they did not change the fate of Spain or have immensely far-reaching consequences. What they did though is show the power of political and above-all human solidarity, that basic wish many people have to help others in need, making it a small episode of British history to be cherished, and worth bringing to attention. Oh and the match at Ninian Park? The Basques won, of course.