How football helped 50 Spanish child refugees who came to Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 10:39 20 April 2020 | UPDATED: 10:44 20 April 2020

The Basque children who were looked after in Hoxne and Rollesby from 1937   Picture: Used with kind permission of the University of Southampton Special Collections.

The Basque children who were looked after in Hoxne and Rollesby from 1937 Picture: Used with kind permission of the University of Southampton Special Collections.

University of Southampton Special Collections

Children fleeing war in Spain were cared for in Norfolk. Now researchers are racing against time to tell their stories

More than 80 years ago a group of children fleeing civil war in Spain arrived in Norfolk. They came from the mountainous Basque country and were given sanctuary in Rollesby, near Yarmouth.

This month the generosity of the people who sheltered them, and the people who continue to help refugees fleeing war and seeking safety in Norfolk, will be celebrated with a football match.

It will echo two 1937 matches at Yarmouth’s Wellesley Ground – still the home of Great Yarmouth Town Football Club – between boys from Yarmouth and from the Basque country. The Spanish boys won 8-2 and then 9-0. Indeed, such was the talent of some of the refugee boys that one grew up to play for Norwich City, while his brother played for Cambridge. Brothers José (Joe) and Antonio (Tony) Gallego came to Britain as refugees after their father was killed during the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Tony, who died five years ago, played as a Norwich City goalkeeper in the 1946/47 season.

Rollesby Village Sign. The Green Room hairdressers in Rollesby has become home to the village Post Office.  Picture: James BassRollesby Village Sign. The Green Room hairdressers in Rollesby has become home to the village Post Office. Picture: James Bass

He was among almost 4,000 children evacuated by ship to Britain in 1937 and looked after in buildings lent by churches, political and humanitarian groups, businesses and individuals sympathetic to their parents’ fight for democracy.

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Around 50 boys arrived in Rollesby in autumn 1937. They had already been housed at Hoxne, in the Waveney valley, and then moved to Oxfordshire.

“We are interested in the story of the 20 boys who returned to Rollesby for Christmas 1937,” said Dr Jeannette Baxter, of Anglia Ruskin University, who is leading the Havens East project. “They obviously made some strong connections.”

The project has a £54,600 National Lottery Heritage Fund grant and its volunteer researchers include schoolchildren and 21st century refugees and asylum seekers. They will help uncover almost-forgotten history. Jeannette said: “The Norfolk and Suffolk Basque child refugee story has not been told at all.” They will also look at other ways Norfolk people helped the doomed fight for democracy, with local initiatives including sending a food ship to Spain.

The Wellesley recreation ground home to Great Yarmouth Town Football Club
The grandstand

Picture: James BassThe Wellesley recreation ground home to Great Yarmouth Town Football Club The grandstand Picture: James Bass

The role of football in helping refugees feel at home will be marked at a commemorative match on April 21 at Norwich’s UEA Sportspark. A Great Yarmouth Town youth team will play a team of a young refugees and asylum seekers as part of Amnesty’s national Football Welcomes Refugees programme.

More activities will take place in Norfolk during Refugee Week in June, including an exhibition, and an event at Norwich Playhouse.

If you or a family member helped to look after Basque refugees during the 1930s, please email Jeannette.Baxter@anglia.ac.uk

[NB: This article was published before the outbreak of COVID-19, so unfortunately the football match has had to be cancelled. Keep an eye on the website for updated events.]

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