Saturday, 12 May 2012

Basque children’s evacuation – and their seafaring ‘aunties’.

75 years ago, on May 21 1937 British philanthropists helped thousands of children from a Spain being torn apart by war ( Los Niños (pictured on arrival, above) were to stay in England for up to two years.

And today 12-13 May 2012 a conference, reunion and exhibition at Southampton celebrate that mercy mission and its aftermath (

Let’s give praise where praise is due. Women, socialist women, were the main organisers of that 1937evacuation. They were led by Leah Manning (later a Labour MP)(see pic)

of Spanish Medical Aid, along with Edith Pye of the Society of Friends, and the Tory but progressive Duchess of Atholl, President of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief.

Women, particularly single left-wing teachers, were the main people who joined the famous evacuation on an especially chartered ship, Habana. They looked after the children on the two-day voyage.

I found this when researching women who had been escorts on other ships, for my new book, Risk: Women on the wartime seas (Yale University Press, 2013).

In world wars, women, almost always volunteers, escorted children and also disoriented adult refugees on British ships. Often they were not even being paid expenses. Some were even killed during their WW2 voyages, captured and interned.

Called ‘aunty’, many of the women were experienced travellers and lively independent types, at a time when women’s mobility was still limited and their solo travel problematic. Unsung and overlooked, these pioneers deserve recognition. They were members of a minority who cleverly utilised gendered conventions (‘women are suitable carers for little ones’) to do all the travelling they could, despite low incomes.

WW1: women escorts, especially Quakers, often suffrage campaigners, escorted Belgian families fleeing to Britain, or German women and their children who were being repatriated (usually against their will).

WW2: female escorts were employed by CORB, Children’s Overseas Reception Board, CORB, in summer 1940 to take British children to the US, Canada, the Cape and Australia.

1937: In the Spanish case the children and their escorts sailed as a result of following intense British socialist campaigning, after Guernica was destroyed, on April 26 1937. The British Government insisted that this was a one-off voyage.

Homerton graduate Leah Manning, Dr Audrey Russell and others went out to fetch the nearly 4000 children, helped load them in Bilbao and then sailed back to Southampton. Evacuations almost always meant ships were worryingly overcrowded. The ship too, which was supposed to carry around 800 passengers, actually carried 3840 children, 80 teachers, 120 helpers (escorts), 15 catholic priests and 2 doctors.

Teachers’ and escorts’ work was not only to help children find places to sleep – even lifeboats. It was also to help them settle despite the difficulties such as separation trauma, disorientation and homesickness.

On the Habana, said Leah Manning, ‘Head to tail the senoritas laid out our precious cargo - on the bulkheads, in the swimming pool, in the state rooms and along the alley ways. [They were] for all the world like the little sardinas about which they were always singing.’

The Bay of Biscay is notoriously choppy and it was on that voyage too. Most of the children were so seasick, that ‘for two dreadful days and nights … [we] slipped and slithered from one pool of diarrhoea and vomit to another… assuring them it wasn’t the fascists who had stirred up the troubled waters against them,’ wrote Manning.

No one has mentioned that the escorts must have been suffering seasickness too, as they tried to do their job. New research has shown that women are nearly twice as likely as men to be seasick.

So these escorts were labouring under additional difficulties. But their main role was trying to figure out how to handle the unknown children, who were all too often unhelpfully reserved about their agonies, which were instead expressed through bed-wetting.

Such seafaring escorts still accompany children travelling alone today. Some are employed by the Universal Aunts agency, which was founded by Gertrude Maclean, who escorted her nieces and nephews from far parts of the empire to boarding school before WW1. The ship in the image makes clear the lure of travel. (

Others were/are paid employees of shipping lines. Usually stewardesses and children’s hostesses, they were seconded for this function.

And sometimes, although they initially fancied a ‘free voyage,’ as well as wanting to support a worthy cause, escorts must have been very glad when the ship reached its destination. Many such ‘aunties’ continued to maintain contact with those they escorted.

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