Memories of Girton House – Javier Martinez Castillo
‘I arrived in England with my two brothers, José Maria and Tirso. We came from a very poor family in Bilbao. We came to England on a ship, the ‘Habana’, with 4,000 other Spanish boys and girls. I don’t remember the trip very well as I was only ten at the time and very frightened, but it was a rough voyage and when we reached England, we were taken to a massive camp full of tents. I don’t remember much of the camp either, but I do recall that one day, when I was inside the tent resting my head against the canvas, somebody hit me with a mallet and I was taken to the ‘hospital’ in the camp!
From Southampton we were taken to a colony called Bray Court in Maidenhead. From there, in 1938, we moved to another colony in Brighton. (This was Girton House).’
Brother José Maria has more vivid memories of their arrival, which he recounts in a stream-of-consciousness style.
1937 – North Stoneham Camp, Eastleigh
‘Concentration of 4,000 children plus medics and boy scouts in an encampment forest of tents….protected by a mesh wire barrier enclosing this vast open field camp which during the best part of our stay was pelting with rain consequently forming flood water inundating our tents habitation with mattresses becoming rafts under our bodies reminding me of the Atlantic Ocean crossing from Santurce to Southampton in that overcrowded ‘Habana’ liner epic voyage rough passage sea sickness and tears through the Bay of Biscay on hungry stomachs lamenting the departure from the bomb stricken homeland.
1938 – Girton House Brighton
‘Down from Maidenhead to Sussex seaside once again linking ocean waters to memories floating from Spanish soil….at this home by the sea ozone pungent invigorating air we went swimming often or laid on the pebbles sunbathing and sometimes Padre Don Cirilo would treat us to tea at Lyons Corner House across the main seafront thoroughfare.
‘Eventually the home closed down and we three brothers separated Tirso went to live with Dick Polling active organiser of Girton House – altogether he fostered five Basque children – and my foster father Charles Gildersleve took me to live with his family at Hove Poplar Avenue. Javier sent north to Coventry….my gratitude abounds for the generosity of Mr. Gildersleve (inventor engineer) his wife and daughter for it was while living with them that I attended Hove Grammar School.’
(With thanks to The Basque Children of ‘37 Association, for use of the extracts, which are taken from: ‘Recuerdos – Basque Children Refugees in Great Britain’ edited by Natalia Benjamin and published by Mousehold Press in 2007.)
Note from Pauline Fraser
Pauline Fraser outside Girton House on 18 September 2021
My late mother, Connie Fraser, researching the Basque children from copies of the ‘Brighton Gazette’ for 1938, compiled a list of the names of eleven boys at Girton House, including José Maria. They may have attended a children’s party that Connie refers to. Or perhaps they were the team that took part in a football match against Brighton boys as a photo of them appears on page 31 of 9th April 1938 edition of the paper. The result was a draw.
A letter from J H Maccullum-Scott appears on 23rd July edition of the ‘Gazette’ in answer to one critical of the Basque boys.
‘The Basque Children’s Committee is non-Party, and non-sectarian, the officers and the members being drawn from all political parties, united together on this occasion in order to carry out humanitarian work.
‘4000 children were brought to this country when it was feared that Bilbao would suffer the same fate as Guernica. 2000 of them have now been happily reunited with their parent, but some 2000 of them still remain with us because their parents are unable to receive them, being either missing political prisoners or refugees themselves.
‘Great Britain is by no means alone in carrying out this work. Seven other countries have given hospitality to these unfortunate little refugees.
‘Even though we are in difficult straits ourselves, surely we can spare something for these victims of the cruellest war of modern times. Their own country cannot help them. What are they to do?’