Dr Rebecca Gill Pictured with Peter Wilson (right), son of Hudfam founder Elizabeth Wilson, are Huddersfield researchers (l-r) Haaris Mahmood, Frank Grombir and Adam Millar with event organiser and Senior Research Dr Rebecca Gill.

Led by Dr Rebecca Gill, a group of historians have examined Huddersfield’s humanitarian past

HUDDERSFIELD has long been a haven for people fleeing persecution, tyranny and warfare.  Now, a team of historians from the town’s university has investigated varied strands of the district’s humanitarian tradition, including the relief organisation Hudfam, a local equivalent of Oxfam.

The researchers have presented their findings at a public event and they continue to uncover different dimensions of the story.  Also, the University’s History Department is to stage a two-day event – including talks, workshops and films – focussing on the Holocaust.  It takes place on June 15-16.

Senior Lecturer Dr Rebecca Gill specialises in the history of humanitarian organisations and she has researched the experience of  Belgians who came to Huddersfield in World War One.  Individuals who helped the refugees then came together to establish a local branch of the Save the Children Fund 1919.

This was the subject of Dr Gill’s contribution to a Lunchtime Club session titled Huddersfield Humanitarians, taking place at the town’s library.

She was followed by history student Haaris Mahmood, who has researched the role of the town in housing Basque children fleeing the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. 

Then PhD researcher and University of Huddersfield graduate Frank Grombir – who edits the Journal of Huddersfield Local History Society – spoke about arrival of Czech refugees from Nazism in the 1930s.  Hostels were opened and an Anglo-Refugee Friendship Club was established.  Former Mayor and editor of the Huddersfield Examiner Ernest Woodhead became the president of a Czechoslovak-British Friendship Club. 

During WWII, the town also saw the formation of the Huddersfield Famine Relief Committee, which became known as Hudfam, in response to famines in India and Greece.  It operated as a sister branch of Oxfam, had a shop in the town for many years and funded various overseas relief ventures in India and elsewhere. 

The story of Hudfam was covered by Adam Millar, who researched the history of the organisation for his University of Huddersfield MA degree.  In attendance at the public lecture was Peter Wilson, son of Hudfam founder Elizabeth Wilson.

Dr Gill said that there were several explanations for Huddersfield’s humanitarian traditions.  One was the fact that that local paper, the Huddersfield Examiner, took a lead in creating sympathy for refugees and it adopted political stances, such as anti-appeasement of Nazi Germany.  The newspaper’s founding Woodhead family were highly active in various committees, such as that which provided relief to Belgians.

“Also, during both world wars the textile industry round here did require a lot of additional labour because it was producing material for uniforms.  So there wasn’t potential for the difficulties faced elsewhere, where refugees were not always welcome,” said Dr Gill.

With her colleague Dr Rob Ellis, she is now investigating a contrasting strand to the story – Belgian refugees who never became part of the community, but were consigned to mental asylums during World War One.  Also, there is to be further research on the Huddersfield Examiner’srole in fostering local humanitarianism.

  • On Friday 15 June and Saturday 16 June, a free event titled Holocaust, Refugees and Humanitarianism takes place at the University of Huddersfield’s Oastler Building.  Organised by the University’s History Department, it includes talks, workshops and films and there is to be a preview of the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre located at the University and due to open in September.  Further information and free tickets are available online.

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