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Langdon© Arxiu Municipal de Sant Feliu de Guixols. Fons John Langdon-Davies (Autor desconegut)
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Langdon2Courtesy Reportage Press
The human sense of mortality can drive some people to do all they can to make their mark on the world while alive, with varying degrees of success. Oft times, however, really extraordinary individuals are not those grabbing the headlines or whose names are recorded with the most emphasis in the history books. They leave their long-lasting legacy, motivated not by accolades or recognition, but purely by the need to help, explore and explain. John Langdon-Davies was just such a person.
A British author and journalist who enjoyed a special relationship with Catalunya for much of his life, Langdon-Davies’s achievements run the full gamut of the social, political and cultural. He co-founded a child sponsorship organisation during the Spanish Civil War, which has grown into one of the largest such international charities operating today.
He had a key role in the creation of the Home Guard (a civil defence organisation to assist the military) in Britain during World War Two, and advised the government there on what to do in the face of air raids, a result of first-hand experience of this form of attack while in Spain. Langdon-Davies’s desire to broadcast the truth about what was going on in conflict zones made him into a well-regarded war correspondent for the newspaper News Chronicle in the Thirties and Forties. He later went on to write a number of books, as well as create a special series of documentation, with reprints of original papers, as a means to teach history. And he was a recognised expert on the Catalan sardana dance. Truly, this was a man of many talents.
John Langdon-Davies was born in Zululand in 1897, although he was raised in the south-east of England. In the Twenties, he moved with his first wife and two children to Ripoll in northern Catalunya, the start of his long fascination with the region. His third wife, Patricia Langdon-Davies, who moved to Sant Feliu de Guixols with her husband in 1950 and still lives there, explained why Catalunya drew him: “Curiosity. He always felt that on the other side of the Pyrenees there was something mysterious and different.” On that first move to Ripoll, she said, “he met the writers and the nationalists of the day, became more and more fond of the place and always from then on wanted to ‘get back to Catalunya’.”
During his second period of living here, in Sant Feliu de Guixols between 1926 and 1929, Langdon-Davies wrote the seminal work on sardanes, Dancing Catalans (1929). In recognition of his efforts regarding this aspect of local culture, the renowned cobla (sardana orchestra), the Principal de la Bisbal, included Langdon-Davies in a series of CDs they created in 2002. These were dedicated to people prominent in their field and with a deep interest in the dance. Once the cobla found out that the Langdon-Davies family still lived here (as well as Mrs Langdon-Davies, there are sons in Barcelona, Castelldefels and Castell d’Aro), a Homage to John Langdon-Davies was held last year in the Sant Feliu theatre and a new sardana was dedicated to him.
Langdon-Davies’s affection and compassion for Catalunya outweighed all else when he came to live here under the Franco dictatorship in 1950, including the fact that he had witnessed at first-hand the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. In August 1936, he travelled through Spain by motorcycle, accompanied by his 16-year-old son. What Langdon-Davies saw, heard and felt, including eyewitness accounts of the fighting from the Republican perspective, was written up in a book in just five weeks, entitled Behind the Spanish Barricades (1936). His account, a call for intervention to support the democratically-elected government against Franco, has just been republished in the UK.
Editor Rosie Whitehouse explained how she came to hear of Langdon-Davies’s book so long after its original publication. “The road to the re-publication of Behind the Spanish Barricades leads from Warsaw, through Sarajevo and Kosovo.” Whitehouse was given a book manuscript by a Polish friend of her husband (Tim Judah, who is himself a war reporter), which was a history of Europe in the 20th century seen through different cities.
“The 1930s chapter was set in Barcelona,” said Whitehouse. “In it, he made reference to Behind the Spanish Barricades and said that although now all but forgotten it was a far better account of the Spanish Civil War than George Orwell’s. I couldn’t resist it and eventually tracked down the original book.”
And why is now a good time to re-issue a book that has not been published since 1936? According to Whitehouse, “It is quite fashionable to argue that Franco was a good thing for Spain and Europe in the long run, as the alternative would have been a Stalinist Spain controlled from Moscow. History is not that simple and I feel that eyewitness accounts like John Langdon-Davies’s help to provide a deeper, more informed view of what was actually happening in Spain at the time.”
But Langdon-Davies was not only concerned with the political aspects of what was going on in Spain during the Civil War—he was also moved by the plight of its victims, in particular children. He returned to Spain in 1937 to bring relief aid and during his trip visited a refugee camp. There he met a five-year-old boy who had been found with a note that said, “This is José. I know that I shall be killed when they capture Santander and I beg that whoever reads this will take care of my child for my sake.”
Such a heart-felt plea had its effect on Langdon-Davies, who worried about who would provide the resources necessary to support children such as José, whose parents had been lost, or had had to send their children away because of their own political sympathies. The idea he came up with, along with friend and social worker Eric Muggeridge, was one of fostering through sponsorship, whereby public donations would be given for the welfare of the children, with a donor sponsoring a specific child. Originally named Foster Parents’ Plan for Spanish Children, the organisation, now called Plan International, continues its work today and has just celebrated its 70th anniversary.
Andy Shipley, of Plan UK, explained how the fostering scheme first worked: “Initially funding was secured from sponsors in the UK and the US. These were often dignitaries and well-connected members of society, as John Langdon-Davies gave talks and wrote articles about the plight of children in Spain.” Members of the aristocracy joined the campaign in the UK, while high-profile figures in the United States, such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, helped raise awareness of the scheme in that country. After this, as Shipley noted, “More and more ordinary sponsors were recruited.”
Nowadays, Plan International focuses on long-term schemes in developing countries, with the money donated going to help the whole community rather than an individual child. Plan works in almost 50 countries with direct sponsorship of 1.5 million children, which benefits another nine million people.
Asked if her late husband would have imagined that Plan would be necessary so long after it was created, Patricia Langdon-Davies said, “I think he was always very conscious of the special needs of children who found themselves without family as a result of war and other disasters. So perhaps he would not be surprised at the continuing need for something like his original Foster Parent’s scheme.”
John Langdon-Davies died in England in 1971. He’d spent the previous 30 years keeping as busy as ever: he ran a hotel in Sant Feliu de Guixols with Patricia while bringing up their family and continuing to publish books and articles. And 37 years after his passing, as a new generation has the chance to read and learn from one of his keys works, John Langdon-Davies’s legacy continues to be felt in all corners of the world.
An ideal plan—a child’s experience of sponsorship
The oldest of three brothers loaded onto the ship Habana, taking 4,000 Spanish children to Britain, José Maria Martinez Castillo had a crushing responsibility hanging on his 11-year-old shoulders. “Before we left, my father’s last words to me were: ‘England is a wonderful country and you will be safe.’ I was upset and angry that I was separated from my family but I was the oldest and had to look after my brothers. I was upset at the war itself and at my parents for sending me away. Departing and the journey itself was very difficult, there was a lot of crying on the boat and sickness. We were all so hungry and had been living off scraps while being under siege for a year. As we left the harbour we were escorted by the British fleet and were being bombarded from the air.”
José was born in the town of Navarra, but his family moved to Bilbao shortly before Franco’s troops surrounded the town in 1936. A happy childhood playing with his brothers in the mountains was punctured by daily bombing raids and a strangling year-long siege. “The militia took over the school and there was constant machine gun fire,” said José. “I remember walking past and hearing the constant cracking sound of the guns. They were firing and firing inside. Political prisoners were being assassinated – it was a terrible thing.”
José’s father, Tirso, was a Republican sympathiser who used his job as a dock-worker as cover for transporting arms to the frontline. As such, he was a marked man and knew he needed to protect his family. Through his gun-running, Tirso heard of the Habana’s voyage to Southampton and secured a place on the vessel for his three eldest sons.
Once arrived in Southampton, however, the boat’s passengers found that the British authorities were unsure what to do with them. “It was the worst part of it all,” said José. “We were taken to Stoneham Camp, a forest of tents in a field surrounded by mesh wire.”
As the authorities struggled with the humanitarian role they had unwittingly found themselves in, individuals took it upon themselves to help. At their forefront was British journalist John Langdon-Davies, who co-founded Foster Parents’ Plan with aid worker Eric Muggeridge. Part of its work was the founding of communal homes, or ‘colonies’, for orphans or children separated from their parents. Among them was the Culvers in Carshalton, Surrey, and José found himself there in 1940. The Culvers was an idyllic setting for any childhood and for José and his friends, the Culvers was the next best thing to a family.
“Daily life in Carshalton was wonderful,” recalled José. “We used to go on outings in a bus. We would go to Windsor a lot for high tea because it was near. We also used to go to Brighton to the beach, to Kew Gardens and swimming in a pool at nearby Ashstead. It was such a happy time.”
Despite his surroundings, his parents were never far from José’s mind. It was not until 1946 that he and his brothers learned their parents were living in southern France. Another seven years would pass before the family were reunited, which was the first time José met his sister Olga, born in France.
Now aged 81, José still lives near London. He meets up annually with other survivors of the 250 Basque children who remained in Britain. “It’s hard to believe that it’s 70 years on,” said José. “Imagine that, we’re historical monuments.”
This is an abbreviated version of an article by Andy Shipley, originally published by Plan—for more info see www.plan-uk.org
Behind the Spanish Barricades is available to purchase from Reportage Press; www.reportagepress.com