Southampton’s Spanish Cousin


A strong link which has gone relatively undocumented is that which Southampton shares with the Spanish city of Bilbao in Northern Spain. British steel and shipyard workers in the early 20th century- particularly from Portsmouth and Southampton- mark a starting point in a developing English presence and involvement in the Basque Country, from football to economics. Here are the top 5 links between the two regions:

1.) Athletic Bilbao:

Dockyard workers from Southampton and Portsmouth seem to have played a key role in the foundation of the club in 1898. In fact it is believed that the club gets the colours it wears from those of Southampton and also Sunderland (red and white stripes) where dock workers from Britain were from. The club has had eight British managers since its foundation many of which have been a success; many Englishmen played for the club in its formative years, chief among whom was vice-captain in the early twentieth century Alfred ‘Alfrédo’ Mills, who typified English presence in Bilbao with his flat cap. The first four managers were English, and four Englishmen have managed them since. Perhaps the greatest of those, Fred Pentland, was adored so enormously by the fans that he became affectionately known as ‘el Bombín’ i.e. the Bowler Hat, and now lends his name to the supporters’ club. These hats still feature heavily in goal celebrations for Bilbao fans even today. Even the turf on the pitch was imported from England, as was material for the stadium’s construction. Finally, the club has remained loyal to its British routes by keeping its name as ‘Athletic’ rather than ‘Atletico’ like many others. In fact, under Franco the club was forced to change its name to ‘Atletico’ but changed it back to ‘Athletic’ once Franco was gone.

2.) The North Stoneham Camp:

When the Spanish Civil war broke out in 1936, Britain took an official stance of non-intervention on the war. However, many volunteers – particularly in Southampton- outraged at what they were seeing such as with the bombing of Guernica, stepped up to create a number of refugee camps for children during the war. Over 4,000 children arrived aboard The Habana ship to Southampton. One of the largest camps was located at North-Stoneham in Eastleigh where children camped under rented army tents on straw bedding. Many of the children remained in the UK following the end of the Civil war and the end of WW2.

3.) Economics and Business:

The presence of British steel and dockyard workers from Southampton in the Basque region marked the start of an economic relationship between the two regions that flourishes to this day. Today, focus has shifted from the more traditional mining routes and now Anglo-Basque trade centres upon technology, energy and the service sectors. For example, British energy giant Scottish Power is owned by the Bilbao based energy giant Iberdrola.

4.) An English imprint on Basque culture:

In the early 20th century, the wealthy Basque educated classes travelled to Britain to complete their studies in civil engineering and commerce, mostly in order to take over the family business of steel mining in the mineral rich areas of Bilbao. However, they returned very much with an education but with an interest not only in the game of football but with a number of other British sports. This led to the introduction of a number of British-like sports clubs such as tennis, cycling and, of course, football, being founded in Bilbao and other areas of the Basque country. Parallel to these a number of women’s clubs were also formed – something for which Bilbao was seen as a pioneering city not only in Spain but also in Europe. In addition, the presence of English dockworkers, particularly from Southampton, further permeated British culture: a number of English pubs, schools, a cemetery and other institutions were formed in the early twentieth century. Note the names: St George’s and The Lion’s Tavern.

5.) Nationalism:

Although this link is much more wide-spread rather than specifically between Southampton and Bilbao, there is a strong link between the UK and the Basque nationalist party. Similarly to what can be seen in the English county of Cornwall and the Spanish region of Catalonia, citizens of the Basque country tend to distance themselves from the rest of Spain; seeing themselves as Basque; not Spanish.The ‘Euskadi Ta Askatasuna’, meaning Basque Homeland and Freedom, abbreviated to ‘ETA’, is the extreme left nationalist group of the Basque country, which has instigated terror in the region for decades. Their popular slogan – “You’re in the Basque Country, not in Spain” encapsulates the message they’re trying to spread. Many members of the ETA were particularly keen to see an independent Scotland in last years referendum, hoping that they could use its potential success to spark a similar movement in Spain.


Jack Pethick. Sport Editor 2014-2016. Third-Year History student. Mainly write for the Sport section but dabble in writing News and Features. General Armchair pundit and lover of all things Sport. #WouldDoABetterJobThanCarragher

Discussion1 Comment

  1. avatar

    I’ve been doing my Year Abroad here in the Basque Country, living in Bilbao. I’ve found links everywhere.

    It’s a small point but locally, the football team is known simply as Athletic Club or Athletic Club de Bilbao; only in the English-speaking world is it known as Athletic Bilbao

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