The Beginning by Debbie Langdon-Davies
The beginnings of Plan – told by Debbie Langdon-Davies, daughter of Plan founder John Langdon-Davies
Last July I met a man in his eighties who was one of the first Plan sponsored children, and his sponsor was Eleanor Roosevelt. As a child he had come to the UK in 1937 with his siblings on board a ship called the Habana, carrying 4,000 Basque children, refugees from the Spanish Civil War.
He talked of his experiences in the early Plan colonies in England, of what war had been like, and he wept when he recalled how he and his brothers were separated from their older sister who was like a mother to them. Separation, loss and confusion – a terrible start to his life. But now, nearly 75 years later, surrounded by his family, his wife who was also sponsored through Plan, his children and grandchildren, he can look back on a long life.
Right from the earliest days of Plan, the plan worked. The immediate aim was to save children so that they could live fulfilling lives out of danger and away from war. 75 years on, Plan’s work is very different but children are still at the heart of everything that Plan does. It was my father, John Langdon-Davies, whose idea it was to connect each child with a ‘Foster Parent’, now a sponsor, to create that link that would mean so much to a child. And this model continues to work, and is imitated.
Children suffer the most
In July, Franco launched his military coup, and the Spanish Civil War began. In August, John Langdon-Davies was in a Spain stricken by war, torn apart, bombed – as a war correspondent. He described the war as ‘The Spanish tragedy’, and as a pacifist was deeply upset at ‘the greatest atrocity of all – Civil War’.
He took Aid to Spain, went on speaking tours to drum up funds for Medical Aid to Spain, contacted everyone he could – and he had an amazing address book.
There were thousands of children on the streets of Spanish cities: orphaned, separated, hungry, cold, frightened. When there is conflict, or the earthquake destroys everything, the rains fail, or the floods come – it is the children who suffer most. He could not stand seeing their suffering.
And then in early 1937, John Langdon-Davies came up with the Foster Parents Scheme for Children in Spain. His idea was to set up colonies for the children to be looked after in safety, but always with the idea of a personal relationship between a child and an English Sponsor.
As someone said – my father put down his pen, and picked up the child.
My father’s idea was accepted by the government and two large houses in the Catalan mountains were made available to house as many children as possible. He was joined by Eric Muggeridge who had been an aid worker and now helped to set up the colonies.
Soon they were joined by Esme Odgers, an Australian communist who had come to Spain to help fight fascism, and Nick (Barton) Carter, an American who had come to Spain to drive ambulances.
The colonies were a success – the children were safe, educated and fed. They put on plays and produced magazines. However, the bombs began to fall on the mountains too, and Nick felt that he needed to do more. He joined the International Brigades, and went to fight against Franco. He was lost within weeks – John and Eric went to look for his body, but were unsuccessful.
More and more colonies were set up, and then when Franco won the Civil War, colonies were set up in France. Some of the Spanish children were led across the Pyrennees on foot to escape. They thought they could find safety in France, but soon France was to be occupied.
Many other children left Spain, like Kerman, and went to the colonies set up in the UK. Meanwhile Plan was being established in America too, and much of the fundraising and organization came from there, with an extraordinarily dedicated woman called Edna Blue pushing Plan’s work.
As World War II became inevitable, Europe witnessed a great wave of refugees. Plan was not now just dealing with Spanish children, but children from all over Europe, and it continued its work in Europe through the 50’s.
And so it goes on, - Asia, Africa, an end to work in Europe.
What would John say now?
75 years of other people coming forward, as volunteers, as staff, as sponsors to join in this great Plan. Children at the center of everything we do. An organization that we can all feel immense pride in.
I am often asked what he would think about Plan today. He would be amazed – and touched that Plan continues to honor him in its history; sad that there is still such a need for Plan’s work. He would love how Plan works and its focus on the child, particularly education. How he would enjoy seeing the focus on journalism and young people.
Right from those early colonies in the mountains of northern Spain, the same values have been at the heart of what Plan is all about – nurture the child, expand their future through education, safeguard them, and celebrate their talents.
So he would have loved to be at the 75th celebrations alongside all of you.
Above all, he would want to say ‘THANK YOU’ to all of you and your colleagues, your predecessors and those to come in the next 75 years. So this is my chance to say thank you on his behalf.
Join us in celebrating 75 years of helping children: Sponsor a child today.