After leaving the Cambridge105 radio station where we had earlier recorded a live set for broadcast on Les Ray’s Strummers & Dreamers radio show (see previous blogpost), we drove the very short distance back along Gwydir Street to St Barnabas’ Church on Mill Road, Cambridge and parked next to the St Barnabas Centre where we were performing that evening.
Together, The Cambridge Folk Club and the Mill Road Historical Society had asked us to tell the story of the 4,000 Basque children who were evacuated from the besieged city of Bilbao to the UK in May 1937 at the height of the Spanish Civil War. The evening was to be part lecture and part concert; using words, music and pictures.
This was not the first time the two organisations had joined forces. In April, well known singer songwriter, Louise Jordan, had presented an event called The Hard Way, which charted the rise of working-class suffragette Hannah Mitchell from remote hilltop farm in Derbyshire to a Manchester city magistrate. Certainly, given the size of audience generated for our event, the format of finding topics of joint interest and getting local folk and history societies combining forces, looks a potentially successful one.
We decided to structure our event to move steady from a high level view of the origins and progression of the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades, through to an increasing more specific focus on, first, the evacuation of the Basque Children and their arrival in the UK, then the role played in their welfare by the city of Cambridge and, finally, at its most poignant and personal level to recount the experiences of one specific child refugee, Rob’s father.
Volunteers from the Cambridge Folk Club were already hard at work when we arrived around 4.30pm. As they busied themselves setting up the p.a. system, screen and lights and, together, we were able to resolve some the remaining questions on logistics and room setting reasonably quickly. Rob and I unloaded the gear into a nice little anteroom, which we treated as our ‘green room’, and then went in search of a sandwich or suchlike to sustain us through the evening. Being Cambridge, we of course found a deli still open, serving the most delicious eatables.
It was then time for a soundcheck, working with Folk Club sound tech, Chris, who did a great job. As we did so, the room began to fill up and it was very good to meet with old friends from the Cambridge Folk Club and to talk to members of the Mill Road Historical Society.
The audience, part pre-booked, part having been alerted to the event through social media and posters on railings throughout the city, steadily built until the room was almost at capacity, maybe 80 in all. The scene was set for an emotional evening. Special visitors for the evening were Maria Luisa Martinez Olaizola and her family, who had travelled down to the event from Bolton. Maria, now in her 90s, had been one of 29 Basque children accommodated in two separate properties (known as ‘colonias’) in Cambridge between June 1937 and November 1939.
With a short delay to ensure everybody could be properly accommodated, Rob and I began shortly after 7.30pm. The first half of our lecture/ concert focused on providing a brief history of the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades. This naturally included us singing The Bite and The English Penny, along with a variety of other related works. We both commented afterwards how time seemed to fly by while we were talking and singing.
After the break, we focused our performance exclusively on the initiative to bring the Basque children to safety in the UK, and their experiences in hostels known as ‘colonias’. In the weeks previous to the event, we had researched the excellent archives of the Basque Children’s Association of ’37 and the British Newspaper Archive to gather information on the story of the Cambridge Colonia and the experiences of the children who had lived there. This work helped bring a really local touch to the event. Rob then concluded the formal part of the evening by recounting the experiences of one very special Basque child refugee, his father.
Naturally, in this second half we performed our songs ‘Only For Three Months’ and ‘The Silver Duro’, which, together, tell of the parting and, for some, the eventual reuniting of the Basque children and their parents. However, we also performed other music relevant to the children. Since the volunteers looking after the children never received anything from the British Government, there was always a great focus on fund-raising. Part of that fund-raising was through the children themselves performing concerts of traditional Spanish and Basque music and dance. So, Rob and I managed to incorporate two of the songs from the children’s songbook - the glorious anthem, Asturias, and the beautiful traditional song Las Tres Morillas.
In the question and answer session that concluded the evening both Rob and Maria Luisa responded to questions from audience members about their families and their experiences.
The evening concluded just before 10.00pm and I’m pleased to report the feedback from the audience was tremendous. It seems we managed to mix a good cocktail of songs, lecture and slides that kept the pace and interest up throughout the evening.
Very many thanks to Robin, Marion, Andy and all the team at Cambridge Folk Club, and Emma, Lucy, Simon and all the team at the Mill Road Historical Society for their joint invitation to tell the story of the Basque Children. Many thanks also to Carmen Kilner, chair of the Basque Children’s Association of ’37 for all the Cambridge and other more general materials and assistance she created and provided for the evening, and for travelling such a long distance to join us. Finally, many thanks to Maria Luisa and her family for travelling to the event from the north west of England. Her presence at the event helped make the link with history truly tangible.
The story of what Cambridge did to support a community of vulnerable young children far from home in a time of war is one that it’s City and University can take great pride in and there may be scope to tell the story to an even wider Cambridge audience at some time in the future.