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How Islington fought fascism in Spanish Civil War – but paid price for bravery

PUBLISHED: 13:37 10 May 2017 | UPDATED: 18:03 10 May 2017

The British Anti-Tank Battery, 1937. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

The British Anti-Tank Battery, 1937. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

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Some 30 people left Islington to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The Gazette visits Islington Museum to hear their stories.

Banners at Islington Museum from the Spanish Civil War. Picture: Em Fitzgerald Banners at Islington Museum from the Spanish Civil War. Picture: Em Fitzgerald

The Spanish Civil War touched the lives of Islington men and women more than 80 years ago – and a new exhibition at the Islington Museum hopes to tell their story.

Banners for Spain opened on Friday. It centres on six newly-restored banners once paraded across London by “Aid Spain” activists in support of anti-fascist forces during the conflict.

The banners were recently rediscovered inside archives at the Marx Memorial Library, which has collaborated with the Islington Council heritage team to put the extensive display together.

“It has been quite an ambitious exhibition,” says curator Roz Currie.

“The banners were in a terrible state, so being part of the process from poor, forlorn flaps of cloth to the amazing, vibrant pieces on display in the museum today has been a great story.”

The exhibition also features other items including money collection tins, flyers, and posters used both to raise food and medical supplies for refugees, and to fund republican fighters opposing General Franco’s right-wing forces.

Medals and letters from people who left Islington to serve in the war are also on display, along with photos of soldiers on the frontline.

A banner for the Tom Mann Centuria - a group of Brit volunteers living in Barcelona when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Picture: Islington Local History Centre A banner for the Tom Mann Centuria - a group of Brit volunteers living in Barcelona when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

At least 30 people from Islington fought for the International Brigade – a 35,000-strong volunteer army set up in response to the decision by western powers, including Britain, not to intervene in the conflict that would go on to claim 500,000 lives.

Among these volunteers from Islington, at least 19 were killed.

One such volunteer was David Guest, who died at the Battle of Ebro aged just 26.

David taught maths before leaving for Spain and in a letter – on display at the exhibition – he wrote to his mother that “it has required an incredible effort to concentrate on pure mathematics when the world seems on fire”.

The exhibition also highlights the struggle of former Islington East MP Leah Manning, who travelled to Spain to organise the evacuation of almost 4,000 Spanish refugee children to Britain.

“What happened in Islington was a microcosm of what happened all over Britain,” says Roz.

“People volunteered to fight, served as nurses and doctors, raised funds for food, milk and Spanish refugees and held meetings in support of Spain.

Banners at Islington Museum from the Spanish Civil War. Picture: Em Fitzgerald Banners at Islington Museum from the Spanish Civil War. Picture: Em Fitzgerald

“People from across the political spectrum in Islington supported the cause – from the sewage works department to rich individual donors.”

In addition to the exhibition, Islington Museum and the Marx Memorial Library are hosting free film screenings, guided walks and workshops on the conflict.

The museum and Marx Memorial Library also plan to commission a new protest banner to represent the contribution of Islington to the Spanish civil war.

“It shows what people can achieve when they really believe in a cause,” says Roz.

“Local action, cooperation and participation led to a mass movement for Spain for people they had never met or previously known anything about.”

Banners for Spain runs at Islington Museum in St John Street until July 8.

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