Nearly 70 years ago, a boatload of children arrived in Southampton from the Basque region of Spain, rescued from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War by a humanitarian army of volunteers, led by a handful of MPs and other dignitaries.

After undergoing medical checks, the children were dispersed to various safe havens known as colonies throughout the country. Thirty of them found refuge at the former children's home of St Joseph's (now Westfield House) in Aston, near Witney.

In 2003, the plight of these children, and the selfless devotion of those who volunteered their time to care for them, was celebrated by the unveiling of a Blue Plaque.

One man spearheading the campaign for the plaque was Woodstock town councillor Colin Carritt, whose father and uncle both fought with the International Brigade the volunteer force set up to challenge General Franco, who in 1936 had led the overthrow of the newly-elected democratic government.

On April 26, 1937, Franco's army launched an aerial attack on the tiny, defenceless town of Guernica, resulting in the deaths of over 1000 civilians.

Colin takes up the story: "This was the first war where aerial bombardment was used, and it shocked the world. People in the Basque country were not particularly well educated, so to suddenly have this war thrust upon them must have been absolutely terrifying."

Despite the non-interventionist stance adopted by the main Western powers, the British government agreed to the evacuation of some 4,000 Basque children, on the condition that their selection was not based on political or religious grounds.

The Labour MP, Leah Manning, who was in Spain at the time of the crisis, led the relief effort, and was instrumental in setting up the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, which comprised organisations such as the TUC, the Society of Friends, Save the Children, Spanish Medical Aid and the Catholic Church.

And so, on May 23, 1937, the Habana docked at Southampton, carrying 3,861 children, 95 women teachers and 15 priests.

Some of the children were brought to Oxfordshire, to Buscot Park, Thame, Shipton-under-Wychwood or Aston.

The Witney Gazette of June 25, 1937, recorded the children's arrival at St Joseph's: "A large crowd gave the little visitors a good welcome: there were 25 girls and 15 young lads who seemed little disturbed by their journey from Southampton or by their new surroundings "Many articles are still urgently needed for some of the little refugees have only their clothes, and have to keep in underwear, the boys being particularly ill-clad.

"The children appear very happy and the work for them appears all the more worthwhile when their sincere appreciation is clearly evident."

Locals rallied round to help the young refugees, whose ages ranged from six to 16. Many contributed clothing, while the Early family, famous for their Witney blankets, gave generous financial support and provided each child with a scarlet blanket. Another local man, Mr Tidy, who ran a bicycle shop, loaned bicycles to children needing to get to school in Witney.

So far, this has been a tale of extraordinary compassion and generosity, and remarkable resilience. But there is romance in this story, too.

At St Hilda's College in Oxford was a young undergraduate by the name of Cora Blyth, who felt that her studies in modern languages would enable her to help the children with their English. She devoted every weekend to the children, becoming a trusted companion and friend as well as teacher.

It was there that she met Luis Portillo, one of several leading intellectuals sent over by the Spanish government to ensure that the children were being properly cared for. Before long, Cora Blyth had become Cora Portillo.

The couple had five children, one of whom is the former Conservative minister, Michael.

It was Cora Portillo who inspired Colin to campaign for a Blue Plaque at Westfield House, after he heard her speaking about the Basque children at a meeting of the Finstock History Society.

Some time later, he had a chance meeting with the secretary of the Basque Children of '37: UK Association, Natalia Benjamin, whose mother had been one of the teachers on the Habana. Together, he and Natalia began turning his dream into reality.

"I did most of the arrangements in talking to the owners of the property and current tenants," recalls Colin. "It is currently used as a nursery, which is nice, because there's a connection with children in those days and children now. Hilary Fenton, who runs the Nursery, was very enthusiastic.

"Natalia's contribution, which was critical, was to get together as many as of the children as possible, who had been at this home and other homes, to come to the opening."

Finally, on 17th July 2003, Cora Portillo unveiled the blue plaque at Westfield House, witnessed by about 50 invited guests, including representatives from local parish councils, the county council and the Basque Children of '37 Association:UK, as well as three of Cora's sons (including Michael) and, of course, the Basque "children" themselves now in their 70s and 80s.

"There were about eight or nine of them, some of whom had actually been at Aston, who came to the opening ceremony. It was lovely that really made it.

"The weather wasn't terribly good on the day, but it was okay. Natalia did a wonderful display of photographs and old archive material about the plight of the Basque children."

Raising awareness about the Basque children is an ongoing concern. Since the erection of the plaque at Aston, further plaques have been erected at former homes in Cambridge and Caerleon in South Wales. Next year, to mark the 70th anniversary of their arrival in Britain, there will be a Day School at Rewley House. "Details have yet to be finalised," says Colin, "but we hope that there will be a Q&A session with a panel composed of some of the children."

For more information about the Basque refugees, visit