Exhibitions Guest post Research Series

Nancy Cunard, the Manchester Guardian and the Spanish Civil War

Dr. Sam Hyde discusses the connection between The Manchester Guardian, Nancy Cunard, the writer and civil rights activist and The Spanish Civil War.

Guest Blog by Dr. Sam Hyde (@drshyde)

On 27th October 1938, Nancy Cunard (1896-1965) the writer and civil rights activist, wrote to William Crozier (1879-1944), editor of the Manchester Guardian, stating her desire to write for the paper.[i]

The one-time heiress to the Cunard shipping empire, influential in Parisian artistic circles during the 1920s, had recently arrived in London after working as a freelance reporter of the Spanish Civil War. Cunard’s writing was already familiar to readers of the Guardian, which had published several of her letters to the editor on the war’s civilian victims, and the ‘crime’ of British ‘non-intervention’’ in the Spanish Republic’s ‘hard struggle against international Fascism’.[ii] Crozier met Cunard in Manchester the following month, two days after the Guardian printed her letter detailing how readers could send food parcels to Spain – an appeal the editor endorsed in his leader.[iii] Crozier granted Cunard accreditation to write for the paper on Spanish and Spanish North African subjects (Figure 1).[iv] This association led to more than 30 published articles and editorial letters over the next two decades: a relationship captured in a file of correspondence and related material, 1935-1955, in the Guardian Archive at the John Rylands Institute and Library (Ref: GDN/B/C290A).

Much of Cunard’s work for the Manchester Guardian covered the humanitarian crisis in southern France during 1939, as Spanish refugees and Republican soldiers fled the northward advance of General Franco’s Nationalist forces. On arriving in the city of Perpignan in late January, Cunard was shocked by the plight of the refugees who crossed the border. In a telegram to Crozier she admonished: ‘beseech you open fund immediately in Guardian for possibly much as half million starving Spanish refugees pouring in. Situation catastrophic.’ (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Telegram from Nancy Cunard to W.P. Crozier, c. 31 Jan. 1939, GDN/B/C290a/19. Copyright Guardian News and Media

Much to Crozier’s regret, her appeal was initially refused: ‘I wish we could do what you ask, because obviously the position is horrible’, he replied, ‘but we cannot open another fund so soon after our last [food parcel appeal].’[v] However, as Cunard’s reports revealed the scale of the crisis, Crozier invited her to pen an open letter to the ‘compassionate and generous readers of the Manchester Guardian who may want to help alleviate the indescribable suffering of scores of thousands.’ [vi] The funds were sent to the refugee organisation ‘Centro Espagnol’, who Cunard wrote to Crozier ‘were almost crying with relief.’[vii]

Published at a time when few British journalists remained in the region, Cunard’s first-hand reports gave insight that the syndicated news from the Paris correspondents lacked. Crozier praised the impact of her work: ‘We are printing at present everything that you are sending’, he wrote in early February, ‘Your articles are admirable.’ (Figure 3).             

Figure 3. Copy letter from W. P. Crozier to Nancy Cunard, 7 Feb. 1939, GDN/B/C290a/28. Copyright Guardian News and Media

The manuscript copies of Cunard’s published articles are absent from the Guardian archive, although unpublished reports remain alongside their cover letters. One of the few rejected in February 1939 offered a scathing ‘indictment of the French authorities’, which Crozier felt the Guardian had ‘given a great deal already on that score.’[viii] The French government, who like the British proclaimed neutrality during the conflict, were widely condemned for the squalid conditions in their border camps. The previous week, the paper had featured two reports from Cunard. The first graphically described the ‘misery’ in the ‘huge internment camp’ at Argelés: ‘Something like 60,000 men are living here’, she wrote, ‘on bare ground, without shelter in the cold and the damp’.[ix] In the second, three days later, Cunard reported on the ‘some 300,000 Spanish Republican soldiers being treated as though they were prisoners of a war against France’, separated from their families and ‘dying there every day’.[x]

Cunard’s ongoing prospects at the Guardian were limited by the Second World War, as the paper was ‘very much reduced in size’ with ‘little space except for the essential news.’[xi] Nonetheless, Crozier sent her credentials for Mexico and South America to report on the Spanish ‘refugees who have gone from France and about whom you know so much’ (Figure 4). The trip in 1941 yielded one article and a request from the editor for another.[xii]

Figure 4. Copy letter from W. P. Crozier to Nancy Cunard,  11 June 1939, GDN/B/C290a/66. Copyright Guardian News and Media

At the end of the war, Cunard returned to France to find her Normandy house had been looted. Writing to Alfred Wadsworth (1891-1956) – Crozier’s successor as the Guardian’s editor from his death in 1944 – she enquired whether the paper would like reports from ‘near the Spanish border’ in the aftermath of the Vichy regime (Figure 5).[xiii]

Figure 5. Letter from N. Cunard to W.P. Wadsworth, 20 July 1945, GDN/B/C290A/106. Copyright Guardian News and Media

Wadsworth welcomed Cunard’s approach and published her subsequent pieces on the estimated 50,000 Spanish exiles still living in southern France, and ‘guerrilla activity’ against Franco in Spain during 1945.[xiv] Yet, her request ‘to consider myself the correspondent of the Manchester Guardian in Spain if and when events should warrant such a possibility’ was promptly rejected.[xv] Unperturbed, Cunard continued to write to the Guardian in support of the displaced Spaniards into the 1950s.[xvi]

If you wish to find out more about the Guardian Archive, you can access the online version of our bicentenary exhibition ‘Manchester’s Guardian: 200 years of the Guardian newspaper’ here or come and visit the John Rylands Research Institute and Library to see the physical exhibition this summer. Check our events and exhibition page for details on current opening hours.


[i] Letter from N. Cunard to W.P. Crozier, 27 Oct. 1938, GDN/B/C290a/6.

[ii] For example, N. Cunard, ‘Letters to the Editor: Barcelona Air Raids: An Eye-Witness Account’, The Manchester Guardian, 28 Sept. 1938, 18.

[iii] N. Cunard, ‘Letters to the Editor: How to Send Parcels of Food’, The Manchester Guardian, 26 Nov. 1938, 9.

[iv] Copy letter from W.P. Crozier to Nancy Cunard, 17 Nov. 1938, GDN/B/C290a/8.

[v] Copy letter from W.P. Crozier to Nancy Cunard, 31 Jan. 1939, GDN/B/C290A/21.

[vi] N. Cunard, ‘Letters To The Editor: The Refugees At Perpignan – Miss Cunard’s Appeal’, The Manchester Guardian, 8th Feb. 1939, 18.

[vii] Letter from Nancy Cunard to W.P. Crozier, 12 Feb. 1939, GDN/B/C290A/35.

[viii] Copy letter from W.P. Crozier to N. Cunard, 17 Feb. 1939, GDN/B/C290A/40.

[ix] N. Cunard, ‘The Camp at Argeles: Thousands of Refugees with No Shelter’, The Manchester Guardian, 14 Feb. 1939, 6.

[x] N. Cunard, ‘Misery In The French Refugee Camps’, The Manchester Guardian, 17 Feb. 1939, 15.

[xi] Copy letter from W.P. Crozier to N. Cunard, 29 Aug. 1939, GDN/B/C290a/73.

[xii] Copy letter from W.P. Crozier to N. Cunard, 17 Nov. 1941, GDN/B/C290A/81; N. Cunard, ‘Mexican Opinion on the War’, The Manchester Guardian, 17 Nov. 1941, 4.

[xiii] Letter from N. Cunard to W.P. Wadsworth, 20 July 1945, GDN/B/C290A/106

[xiv] Copy letter from A.P. Wadsworth to N. Cunard, 31 July 1945, GDN/B/C290A/107; N. Cunard, ‘Spanish Exiles in France: Republican Prospects’, The Manchester Guardian, 18 Sept. 1945, 6.

[xv] Copy letter from J.M.D. Pringle to N. Cunard, 23 July 1946, GDN/B/C290a/119.

[xvi] N. Cunard, ‘Letters to the Editor: Spanish Refugees’, The Manchester Guardian, 10 May 1951, 4.

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