A PLAQUE to commemorate a Cumbrian town’s commitment to helping a Basque refugee family will be unveiled this weekend by the family's last surviving member.

At 94, Carmen Eckersley (formally Cid.) will unveil the blue plaque that will later be placed on the home she was welcomed into at the age of seven years old.

The family were caught up in the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, with parents Francisco and Frutosa waving goodbye to their children from their home in Bilbao in order to try and protect them by sending them to the UK to seek refuge.

It was to be years before the family were reunited, but once together the whole family decided to remain in the UK.

News and Star: The family reunitedThe family reunited (Image: Supplied)

On June 18 1937, less than a month after arriving in the United Kingdom, Carmen Cid (born in March 18, 1929) was one of 100 children - 47 boys and 53 girls - from the Basque region of Spain, who arrived at the Brampton Hostel.

She was accompanied by her elder sister, Edurne, 11, and her elder brother Luis, 10.

Aged eight, Carmen was amongst the youngest of the child refugees to board the SS Habana and travel from Bilbao to Southampton...

'Going on holiday...'

Carmen’s parents were Francisco and Frutosa. They were part of the traditional Basque population of Bilbao, rather than more recent immigrants to the area from other parts of Spain.

Frutosa spoke the Basque language Euskera, but the family spoke Spanish at home. Francisco worked in the shipbuilding industry in Bilbao, and Frutosa was a nurse, living in a suburb of Bilbao known as Deusto.

The family, although traditionally Roman Catholic, did not, as a result of the politics of the Spanish Civil War, have any strong religious affiliation.

By 1937, Francisco, like many of his compatriots in the Basque region, was fighting in the Republican army against Franco’s Nationalists.

Guernica was bombed and the war was getting ever closer to Bilbao, and in May 1937, Frutosa learnt through her hospital contacts that a ship, SS Habana, was to sail to Britain, taking some 4,000 children aged between 5 and 15 to safety.

The British government had given authorisation for this evacuation subject to the Basque Children’s Committee of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief (NJCSR) providing a guarantee that the ‘children would not become a public charge and to take responsibility for their maintenance, welfare and eventual repatriation’.

Frutosa decided that the three siblings, Edurne, Luis and Carmen, should be registered to join the evacuation into safety. They were allocated numbers 1607, 1608 and 1609.

On May 21, the three children said goodbye to their parents in the belief that they were going on holiday, and that they would return home before long.

News and Star: Carmen and her dogCarmen and her dog (Image: Supplied)

The children were said to be unaware that the authorities expected the evacuation to last for three months before repatriation would take place.

The vessel, which was never intended to accommodate 4,000 passengers, was extremely crowded with the children, adult supervisors, teachers and priests.

The priority for the three children was to stay together, which they did, despite the rough crossing through the Bay of Biscay and being seasick for much of the voyage.

'A cheerful and pleasant place'

Lady Cecilia Roberts (1868-1947) and her husband Charles had led the project to convert the Brampton workhouse into a hostel.

Work had started around June 1, when 66 people offered to assist in the conversion of the workhouse into a hostel suitable to accommodate 50 children, a figure soon revised to 100 at the request of the NJCSR.

Within a few days the building was transformed from what was described as a ‘rather dirty, uncared-for building’ into one that was ‘cheerful and pleasant’, with volunteers rewiring and decorating the home and with only a limited amount of furniture and one room fitted up as a chapel for religious purposes due to the fact many of the Basque children were Roman Catholic.

News and Star: The Brampton home prior to it's demolition.The Brampton home prior to it's demolition. (Image: Supplied)

The renovation of the former Brampton workhouse by local volunteers was largely done under the guidance of Lady Cecilia Roberts, with the driving force behind the rescue of the children largely being seen as Wilfrid Roberts, MP for North Cumberland, son of Charles Roberts and Lady Cecilia (Howard) Roberts.

Settling in

Carmen has strong and fond memories of Lady Cecilia. She describes her as ‘a lovely person’, small in stature and rather tubby, and aged about 60.

The now 94-year-old has memories of Lady Cecilia visiting the hostel frequently, driven there by her chauffeur who, according to Carmen, kept the children amused by removing his false teeth.

Whilst in Brampton, Carmen slowly began to learn the language, not through school, but informally in conversation with English people.

The language barrier meant that the children had little contact with the Brampton children, either in their school or around the town.

Local people often gave the children coins, and Carmen and her siblings saved these up to buy stamps to send letters to their parents.

A short time after her arrival at Brampton, she left the hostel to be fostered in the home of the Alford family.

A life in Carlisle

Carmen settled well into life within Carlisle as a young girl and remained at the Alford’s except for a few days in August-September 1939 when, at the time of the closure of the Brampton hostel, she accompanied her brother and sister to Scotland, where Edurne was fostered by a Clydebank family, and Luis by a Glasgow family.

She attended Robert Ferguson school in Carlisle, her uniform having been provided free of charge by the Co-op.

News and Star: Norman Alford & CarmenNorman Alford & Carmen (Image: Supplied)

When she left school in 1943, aged 14, she worked at Bucks clothing factory at Denton Holme in Carlisle.

Carmen remained living with the Alford’s until she married a Carlisle businessman, Clifford Eckersley, at St Herbert’s Church, Carlisle in March 1952.

On Saturday, June 17 2023, Carmen (now Eckersley) will unveil a commemorative plaque on behalf of the Basque Children of ‘37 Association as a token of thanks to the people of Brampton and surrounding district at The Howard Arms, Brampton.

The ceremony and plaque unveiling will display the amazing hospitality the people of Cumbria showed to the Basque refugees in their time of need.

Story based on information published by the Basque Children of '37 Association basquechildren.org.