They went to fight, or write, in Spanish war

William Holt, with Trigger, about to set out for Europe in 1964
William Holt, with Trigger, about to set out for Europe in 1964

A MOVING personal experience led local artist Simon Manfield to begin a search for the Calder Valley people who in the 1930s went to Spain to fight for the democratically elected Spanish Republic against rebel General Franco’s army.

As he explained to members and friends of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society, he had joined a group in Spain who were excavating the site of a mass grave from the time of the Spanish Civil War, and helped uncover the story of the murders of hospital workers in a village in the north of Spain.

As a documentary illustrator, Simon made detailed drawings to record what was uncovered, and was inspired to search out the stories of those who had gone from Britain to help resist the tide of fascism.

The search proved more difficult than he had imagined.

There were names of volunteers from other parts of Yorkshire, and from nearby Lancashire towns, often men active in trades unions, but only two names from the Calder Valley, neither of whom fitted the description of “local volunteers”.

One was Todmorden man William Holt, a man of many parts, who offered his services as a war correspondent to the Daily Dispatch.

He reported on many of the battles and was a brave and adventurous man, but was not in Spain to fight for a cause.

He didn’t fit Simon’s idea of a Calder Valley volunteer fired by political or humanitarian beliefs.

Ralph Fox, whose name is remembered on a plaque in the Piece Hall, certainly was such a man. He was from Halifax, and having studied languages at Oxford was a well respected writer and politician.

He was a passionate believer in socialism and an early member of the Communist party of Great Britain.

He joined the International Brigades which were fighting for the Republic against Franco’s nationalists, and was inspired by the first genuinely international army “to fight for peace and freedom”.

He died in action near Cordoba.

Despite his Halifax origins and undoubted altruistic motives, Simon felt that he could not be classed as a Calder Valley volunteer, since he had left the valley to study and finally to work in London and it was from there that he left to fight and die in Spain.

Simon did find supporters for the cause of the anti-fascists in Spain, but not in the names of volunteers who went to fight.

It seems that there were strong pacifist beliefs in the area, which Simon believes may have deterred people from joining an army, especially when memories of the First World War were still so strong.

Equally, there may have been local people who went to fight in Spain before the International Brigades were set up, and their names may simply have been lost.

However, there were strong feelings about fascism and the attack on trades unionists.

A fund for the assistance of workers in Spain was set up at a meeting of Hebden Bridge Labour Party and money sent to the Spanish Workers’ Relief Fund.

In the end, Simon believes that the people of the Calder Valley did offer generous solidarity and support to those who resisted the rise of fascism, whether or not they were able to take up arms.

The current series of talks at the Hebden Bridge Local History Society continues until the end of March. Meetings are at the Methodist Hall on February 22, March 14 and March 28, starting at 7.30pm.

Details are available on the website www.hebdenbridgehistory.org.uk