Following on from the previous posts focusing on the Spanish Civil War, in this one we find out how a South Shields man was involved.
Firstly, an important note, if relatives of Norman Leathley Ramsey can add any information to this post, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
So who was Norman ?
He was born in South Shields in 1894 and at 6 year old lived at 175 South Frederick Street in the Tyne Dock area of the town. His father Thomas was a coal trimmer, his mother Isabella, had four more children. A few year later the family moved to 49 Eleanor Street, although Norman wasn’t registered at this address as he had started his career at sea.
After the First World War Norman was awarded a Mercantile Marine British Medal, was married to Minnie Legross and the couple were living at 51 Broughton Road, South Shields. By 1922 he was employed as a ship’s butcher at 154 Laygate Lane.
With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the local library I have been unable to search for Norman in South Shields after 1922, but his name did pop up 15 years later in a story printed in the Hartlepool Mail on April 22nd 1937 about the Spanish Civil War.
Blockade Runners Challenged: Bilbao Position:
‘General Franco has taken up the challenge of the British vessels who are awaiting opportunities to run the blockade of the insurgent warships to Bilbao and other Basque Government ports. His Government at Burgos has announced over the wireless to foreign Governments that the Nationalists in future will lay mines in front of all the ports in Government hands’, reports Reuter.
A St Jean de Lux message says that a ‘Mr Norman Leatherly Ramsey of South Shields, says he is representing the owners of a British cargo steamer, is willing to run the insurgent blockade if the Basque Government will guarantee the value of the vessel’.
This was the statement he made after he had been detained by local police yesterday on the instructions of a Belgian control officer, taken to the police station and charged with not having proper papers. On the production of his passport, which was in order, he was released.
The report went on to say… ‘Shore batteries have shelled three insurgent trawlers which attempted to seize a number of fishing vessels anchored off Lequeitio, North East of Bilbao’.
For some background to the story, in 1936 Spain elected a government committed to change. The army under General Franco rebelled and what followed were three years of a Civil War. Franco was helped by the Italian dictator Mussolini and Hitler in Germany.
This led to a food shortage in the Republican Basque region of Northern Spain, as the Nationalists had set up a blockade and threatened to sink British food aid ships who approached ports.
George Orwell, in his book Homage to Catalonia, gave an account of his personal experiences and observations in the war.… ‘Bread was scarce and the cheaper sorts were being adulterated with rice. Milk and sugar were very scarce and tobacco almost non-existent. The queues of women waiting to buy olive oil were controlled by mounted Civil Guards’.
Further research from various sources revealed that the Newcastle steamer ship, Hamsterley, was at the head of a small convoy of three British food aid ships who made a run on the blockade. On board the Hamsterley, was our man Norman Ramsey, a Merchant Seaman from South Shields.
He gave the North Mail newspaper a dramatic account of how the British flagship Hood and destroyer Firedrake went into action to protect the convoy against the Nationalist cruiser, Almirante Cervera and the armed trawler Galerna….
‘The Almirante Cervera signalled to us to stop. When we failed to do so, she showed her disapproval by sending a shell across our bows. Firedrake darted in between us and the Nationalist cruiser.
We carried on again towards Bilbao and were at the head of the convoy when another shell burst in the sea. Firedrake swung out her torpedo tubes and Hood cleared her decks for action. Her mighty guns looked terrifying. Firedrake signalled to the trawler Galerna that she must not meddle with British ships.
The trawler tried to get in between us and the three-mile limit but Firedrake headed her off until we had passed inside the limit. Then the Galerna tried to reach us again, but the shore batteries at Bilbao opened fire’.
On April 23rd 1937 the three British food aid ships docked at Bilbao. 35 km’s away was the ancient city of Guernica, where late in the afternoon of the 26th April German aircraft appeared above the city. In support of the Nationalists, the Nazi’s dropped their bombs on purely a civilian target. The destruction swung British public opinion towards the Republican cause.
The authorities took the opportunity to show the British crews the devastation, this photograph (above) of refugees on the road from Guernica was taken by Norman Ramsey shortly after the city was bombed.
Ramsey also photographed the ruins at the centre of the city. His pictures were published in the North Mail and Newcastle Chronicle after he returned home in May.
On it’s next voyage to Bilbao carrying coal, the Hamsterley took part in evacuating refugees to French ports, along with the Newcastle steamer Backworth. Like other North East ships trading with Bilbao, the Hamsterley brought back iron ore, arriving with its cargo at Tyne Dock.
Where did Norman go next ?
On the 1939 Second World War register Norman was employed as a Water Clerk living with his family at 118 & 120 Broughton Road, South Shields. His wife Minnie, worked in the Off Licence at 120. The family lived here until 1962 before moving to another house in the town.
After living a full life, Norman sadly passed away in 1967, but the story of his work in helping the Spanish people in 1937 and the powerful photographs he took in Guernica, will live on.
If you have any information about the North East men and women who were in any way involved in the Spanish Civil War please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Research: Ancestry, The Word, South Shields, Discovery Museum and
Local Studies collection, Newcastle City Library.
Gary Alikivi April 2020.