The Vulliamy sisters and refugees
Chloe (middle) and Poppy (right) Vulliamy with their brother, David, 1922 (thanks to Daniel Vulliamy). Chloe and Poppy worked with refugees from the Spanish Civil War. David married Lisel Kürschner, a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazism.
Daughters of the Ipswich coroner, Chloe (1905-1980) and Hope (Poppy) Vulliamy (1906-1992) played central roles in the care of children who were evacuated to England from Bilbao in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. They spent an important part of their lives caring for these young refugees and promoting their cause.
Chloe, like many women in her family before her, attended Ipswich High School for Girls. She then went on to Oxford to study English. Both women were sympathetic to the Republican government and especially interested in the reforms in education which had been recently implemented. They knew Spain and spoke Spanish, living on the Costa Brava when the Civil War started.
The war forced the sisters to return to safety in England. Their aunt, Grace Vulliamy, already an experienced refugee worker, was involved with making arrangements for evacuating children from Spain. Meanwhile, Chloe and Poppy worked to make sure there were facilities ready for those who came to Britain. Chloe became the organising secretary of the Ipswich & District Committee for Spanish Refugee Children which established a ‘colony’ for child refugees at Wherstead Hall. In June 1937, Poppy brought 100 of them to Ipswich railway station where they were greeted by thousands of Ipswich people. Private cars lined up to take them to their new home. The Committee, supported by the local Co-operative Society, had wasted no time collecting charitable donations to support the children as no public money could be used. This was the condition on which a very reluctant British government allowed the children entry.
About 4,000 niños arrived in Southampton on board the Habana in May 1937. All were fleeing the war. Most, but not all, were from Republican Basque families. They were accompanied by teachers, helpers and Catholic priests, although not by their parents. (Photo from the Daily Mail)
The children were not always the sweet, compliant, little things that many of the public had been expecting. Having had been through such a difficult time, they could be difficult to manage. Poppy took one party of particularly ‘challenging’ boys to camp in Hoxne over a summer. Apparently, the boys were a quite a hit with local girls but not liked by the local lads. There were reports of fighting.
The children were highly politicised which could bring difficulties for them in the world outside the colony. Some went to a May Day rally in Norwich, for example, and addressed the crowd on the evils of fascism. Newspapers such as the Conservative Daily Mail gave them a hostile press and made sure that they reported whenever these traumatised children 'misbehaved' in public.
Gradually the children were either repatriated or dispersed elsewhere in the UK. Chloe retained her commitment, though, and sent parcels to support the families of political prisoners in Franco’s Spain.
The Vulliamy sisters seem to have recognised and respected the spirit and individuality of the children and were popular with them. An article in the Basque Children’s newsletter recalls Chloe with affection:
‘Chloe was striking-looking, quite Spanish in her polka dot dresses, her hair parted in the middle, pulled back behind the ears and twisted into a bun. She was rarely seen without a cigarette and the niños thought her daring. She organised parties for the older girls in the colony, inviting pupils from nearby schools, allowing them to stay until midnight and playing the piano for them to dance to.’
More will be known about these remarkable women - particularly Poppy - when Dr Ed Packard publishes his article on the colony she ran at Oakley Park near Hoxne in north Suffolk.
Dr Ed Packard, University of Suffolk, lecture and personal discussions
Invaders by Chloe Vulliamy (a slim volume of poetry with a biographical foreward by Sheila Hardy), Ipswich, 1986
Daniel Vulliamy, letter to the Guardian published 22 May 2017