Birmingham Quakers and the Spanish Civil War

Promise of donation to the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee appeal for funds, n.d.[ c. 1936-9] [SF/2/1/1/3/12/2/1]

This month is the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) when the right-wing Nationalists led by General Franco attempted to overthrow the left-wing democratically elected Republican government. The war caused much suffering and a million deaths, and resulted in the Nationalists taking power. General Franco’s dictatorship lasted until his death in 1975.

In Birmingham in November 1936, Horace G. Alexander, a member of staff at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and a member of Cotteridge Preparative Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends drew Friends’ attention to the plight of children on both sides of the war in Spain, and the need for relief work. Work to establish what relief was needed had already been undertaken by the US born British Quaker, Alfred Jacob in Spain and an agreement had been made between the Friends Service Council (1919-1927), and the Save the Children Fund to launch an appeal for funding.

In response, on 10th November 1936, Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends established the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee to organise an appeal locally, but it was also to work with the London-based Friends Service Council. Initial members included Horace G. Alexander, Evelyn Sturge, John S. Hoyland, and Ethel M. Barrow, with other members such as George Cadbury, Florence M. Barrow, Margaret Backhouse, Helena Graham, Catharine Albright and Francesca Wilson and others being invited to join at a later date.

Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting copy minute 156, 10 November 1936, establishing the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee  [SF/2/1/1/3/12/1/1]

Over the next three years, the Committee took part in a variety of activities. They focused on raising awareness of the campaign amongst Friends as well as the wider public and they also appealed for people to go to Spain to help carry out relief work in the areas that most needed it. Appeals for funds were regularly made at local and monthly Quaker meetings, with updates on the situation in Spain. Ethel M. Barrow reported to the Monthly Meeting in March 1937 that £1600 had been collected for the Spanish Children’s Relief Fund and that more was needed. The Committee minutes record that,

‘The Committee feel that the dire need of the Spanish people is not sufficiently realised by Friends and it is hoped that a much greater effort be made to collect money and clothing for the relief of this great mass of suffering’

(SF/2/1/1/1/1/33 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting, minute 223)

Handbills were distributed to members of the Adult Schools, a film of the situation in Madrid was shown at Bournville Works Meeting, and a pamphlet to issue to the general public was put together by Helena Graham and Evelyn Sturge about the relief work already being carried out. The Committee purchased 2000 copies of the appeal in the Times to distribute, photographs of Spanish child refugees were sourced to send to the Birmingham Post and Gazette, along with letters to these papers from Horace G. Alexander and Edith Adams, and appeals were sent out to city councillors, magistrates, the university and churches.

Other publicity activities involved arranging for returning relief workers such as Francesca Wilson, a history teacher from Edgbaston Church of England College, to give first-hand accounts of the relief work in Spain at Friends’ Meetings, public meetings, or in newspaper articles and leaflets. In the case of Francesca Wilson, who organised feeding programmes, the running of a children’s hospital, and established occupational workshops for adults and two educational colonies for children in Murcia, they also asked her to familiarise herself with all aspects of the relief work across Spain so that she could train other local speakers give talks about it.

Invitation to a talk by Francesca Wilson about her work in Spain, 1938 [SF/2/1/1/2/1/10]

Another area of work the Committee was involved with was collecting provisions. Supplies were collected at Bull St. Meeting House Library where they were packaged up and sent to Spain and included powdered milk, Bournville Cocoa, cod-liver oil and barley sugar. Margaret Backhouse organised the distribution of wool and patterns so that clothes could be made and sent on to Spain. By December 1936, Selly Oak and Bournville Preparative Meetings were reported to be making clothes and 10 packages and 3 chests of clothes had been sent out, but it was not just Quaker meetings which were making donations. On January 21st 1937, the Committee reported receiving,

‘…clothing from 4-5 secondary schools, a troop of Boy Scouts, collections from Girl Guides and many individuals, many from many of the really poor in the city. As far as possible, groups are providing their own materials but many can only give their time. Since Christmas, 80lbs of wool have been distributed for knitting, 200 yards of material cut out for making’.

(SF/2/1/1/3/12/1/1 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Spanish Children’s Relief Committee minute book, 1936 – 39)

From the summer of 1937, a new strand of work was developed. Supervised by Alfred Jacobs in Spain, a Birmingham Catalonian Colony was established at Rubi, near Barcelona, providing housing for 50 children from July 1937. John Hoyland travelled to Rubi with a group of young volunteers to help in the initial months of opening. A further Birmingham Colony for 85 children was set up in Caldes-de-Maravella near Gerona in North East Catalonia in October 1937. Both were financed and equipped by donations made to the Committee’s appeal and included school, sewing and workshop facilities to educate and usefully occupy the children. Local Quaker meetings were asked to contribute on a regular basis, and at Stirchley Preparative Meeting, it was decided that it would support a child in one of these colonies at the cost of £1.00 a month.

The Committee’s work was supported by several organisations in the city including the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Harold Roberts (1884-1950). In summer 1937, he launched the Lord Mayor’s Spanish Refugee Children’s Fund, and offered to give 25% of the total raised to the Friends’ Committee for their work for Spanish child refugees in Spain, with the remainder going to Spanish children in the Midlands. From July-August 1937, the Lord Mayor’s Fund donated £1065 to the Friends’ Committee which went to the Colonies in Spain and further funds were received over the next year via street collections, two flag days and a subscription ball held on 22nd October 1937. The Lord Mayor of Sutton Coldfield decided to hold a flag day on 2nd October 1937 to match that of Lord Mayor Roberts in Birmingham on the same day. Both were highly successful. Following the evacuation of 4000 children from Spain to Britain in March 1937, three children’s homes were set up in the Midlands. One of these was Elford Hall which belonged to the City Council  and housed 54 children. The others were at Avoncroft, near Bromsgrove and Aldridge, Walsall.

Funds raised by the Committee from donations across the city were used to finance relief workers in Spain such as Francesca Wilson, to support the Birmingham Colonies for Child Refugees in Spain and Birmingham’s Basque Children’s Home at Elford Hall and for general relief activities, as can be seen by the promise of donation form at the top of this post, and by the accounts for  1938-39 shown below:

Accounts of the Committee for the Relief of Spanish Children Fund for 1938-1939 [SF/2/1/1/3/12/1/1]

The Friends Committee for the Relief of Spanish Children was laid down in 1939, having raised £8037 over 3 years as well as collecting large quantities of clothing, school material and food for Spanish children in Spain and in Birmingham.

Eleanor, Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)


SF/2/1/1/1/1/33 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book, 1936-9

SF/2/1/1/2/1/10 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting of Women Friends, 1935 – 60

SF/2/1/1/3/12/1/1 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Spanish Children’s Relief Committee minute book, 1936 – 39

SF/2/1/1/3/12/2/2 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Spanish Children’s Relief Committee donations register, 1937 – 39

SF/3/14/1/7 Moseley Road Preparative Meeting minute book, 1934 – 1938

SF/3/20/1/2 Stirchely Preparative Meeting minute book, 1930 – 1946

SF/3/23/1/2 Sutton Coldfield Preparative Meeting minute book, 1933 – 1941

BCC/10/MAYOR/2/5/3  Papers of the Lord Mayor’s Spanish Refugee Children’s Fund, 1937 – 1939

‘Needs of Spanish Children’, by Horace G. Alexander, 29 December 1936, Birmingham Post

2 thoughts on “Birmingham Quakers and the Spanish Civil War”

  1. Thanks. It’s often overlooked the amount of volunteers from Birmingham actually went to Spain to against Franco’s & Hitler’s troops. History forgets the actual amount of German troops were there during the civil war. Keep up the good work. You must have a trove of artifacts in the Library

  2. This is fascinating. In Spain there was also a couple that helped carring children across the border to France, that later became quakers, Domingo and Margarita Ricart. In their later years the moved to Boulder Colorado and then to Las Cruces New Mexico, where Domingo taught at the Universit of New Mexico. There are records of this booth in Spain and in the archives of AFSC in the USA.
    Mexican Friends also were invovled in receiving Spanish refugees under the guidance of the late president Lazaro Cardenas, in Mexico. There is also a docotoral thesis that gives account of all the relief work carried on by AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) during the war.(I do not have the complete information at hand, sorr about that!).

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