Iberian imports

The history books have forgotten about the large Spanish community in nineteenth century Liverpool, says Antonia Charlesworth

When Micaela Vilarelle Vinas was buried in Liverpool in 1950 she took with her a painting of the Madonna and child by José Vilarelle Vasquez, her father, a religious artist who travelled between his home in Santiago de Compostela and Buenos Aires on commissions for churches. By demanding to be buried with the painting she inadvertently removed the last of her family’s Spanish and Catholic heritage.

Fifty years later her grand-daughter Joan Carmen Smith, who was just ten when her grandmother died, set about trying to trace her Spanish roots.

“My Spanish heritage was very much suppressed,” explains Smith, who has since written a book, Chasing Shadows, about her genealogical journey. “My mother didn’t speak English until the age of five when she started school so she ended up having two different personalities.

“She also married a non-Catholic and was excommunicated so I think that’s why once my grandmother died she ignored her Spanish heritage. It must have been easier for her to just be one and not the other.”

In the past two years Smith has made a further discovery – that her story is not unique. It is just one example in Liverpool’s forgotten Hispanic history.

Joan Carmen Smith's grandparents
Joan Carmen Smith’s grandparents

In the 19th century Liverpool was the second city of the British Empire and the gateway to America, with a vibrant, multicultural society. With shipping routes from Europe to Liverpool and then on to Cuba, the Philippines and America, the city became home to a large Hispanic community, one whose history hasn’t been documented.

After Smith’s mother died all that remained was a few exciting stories that she then felt compelled to record. One such story is set in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north west Spain, in the mid-1800s, when bandits raided the house of a local painter and hatmaker, tying his young daughter, Smith’s grandmother, to a table leg while they searched the house for money.

“At the time the situation for work in Galicia was very poor,” says Smith. “It was mainly a farming region and families which had a little bit of land ended up dividing it into very small portions between their sons, who then found it very difficult to make a living.”

But she doesn’t believe it was poverty that brought her grandmother to Liverpool.

“She came because of a double tragedy. She married and two years later her husband and baby son died within six months of each other. She came from a large family and her mother was 42 at the time and still having babies, so it must have been a way of escape.”

The first address Smith has of her grandmother in Liverpool is 12 Liver Street, a boarding house for Galician sailors where Smith believes she worked. One of the sailors, Jose Vinas Novo – who ran away to sea to escape poverty at age 12 – was to become Vinas’s husband in 1907 and the pair put down roots in Liverpool. Through her travels in northern Spain over the last 15 years Smith has managed to piece together a picture of her Spanish heritage and says that when she visits Santiago de Compostela she feels she has come home.

“There are no physical traces in Liverpool of my Spanish family – apart from St Peter’s, where my mother was baptised. All the houses and all the streets have been demolished. When I go back to Santiago I can see all the houses they lived in – even my great-grandparents’ houses are still there, still inhabited, and they look exactly the same as they did 150 years ago.”

Dr Kirsty Hooper, a historian from Warwick University, is working with descendants of Liverpool’s nineteenth century Hispanic community on a research project to record what is becoming a forgotten chapter in Liverpool’s history.

“Liverpool is quite unique in that it was the only city in the UK outside London that attracted a large, permanent Hispanic community during the nineteenth century,” explains Hooper. “I moved to the city in 2004 to teach Hispanic studies at the university and I was really excited because I thought I’d learn lots about the city’s Hispanic history – but there wasn’t anything recorded.”

Yet although the history books were bereft of information on Hispanic communities, Hooper says what she found was that everyone had a story. Now she is calling on Liverpool residents to come forward and share them. She has set up a website to enable this and is also holding community information events in conjunction with the Liverpool Central Library to help share the story of the Spanish, Basque, Galician, Filipino and Latin American communities who settled in the city.

Spanish sailors coming to Liverpool would gravitate to boarding houses run by families from their region

“It was a really diverse community in terms of social class and also language,” she says. “People tended to come from the port cities, so parts of Spain where people didn’t speak Spanish. They spoke Basque or Galician, Asturian or Catalan, so they didn’t necessarily have a language in common.”

As a result sailors coming to Liverpool would gravitate to boarding houses run by families from their region, usually women. For those women, coming to Liverpool to work in a boarding house appears to have been a rite of passage.

“In 1878 a massive hurricane in Spain killed hundreds of fishermen from the Basque ports so you get a lot of women coming over. There was one family where eight sisters came and at least five of them stayed, so in that sense it was their only option as there were no men to marry.”

Many Spaniards married each other in Liverpool but the lack of a Spanish church in the city meant few opportunities for socialising and a lot of the men met and went on to marry English and Irish women. This integration into the wider community is one reason, believes Hooper, that the Spanish heritage was not preserved. Those who did marry other Spaniards but had children in Liverpool would have been keen to integrate, as suspicion of foreigners heightened during the First World War.

Spanish shop on Park Lane, 1939
Spanish shop on Park Lane, 1939

Last month Hooper held the first of her community meetings in a packed room of 40 people. Among them was 88-year-old Ted Mosquera, who lived in a Galician boarding house that his parents, and grandparents before them, ran at 25 Hurst Street. There, Mosquera met people he hadn’t seen in over 70 years.

His nephew Dominic Semple delivered a talk on his family. Semple, who has been researching his own genealogy, says he got in touch with Hooper after visiting the Museum of Liverpool in February.

“I spotted a ledger from a boarding house on Hurst Street. I know that my family ran a boarding house there from 1901 until the Second World War and I wondered if it had anything to do with them. It didn’t – it was from the Basque boarding house a few doors down, run by the Clemencot Elordieta family, but when I read the accompanying blurb it mentioned my grandparents by name, Joaquin Suarez and his daughter Concha, in relation to the neighbouring boarding house. At this point I nearly fell over and I had to know who this person was that was researching my family.”

Unlike Smith, Semple grew up well aware of his Spanish heritage. His mother, who travelled back and forth to Spain before she had her own family, would tell him stories as a child.

“What I’m trying to do now is put flesh on the bones of her stories,” he explains. “I know that my great grandmother Dominga Mosquera first appears in the 1891 census in Liverpool and then she gets married and the family follow on behind her, but we’re still not entirely sure when and why Dominga came over.”

Semple’s mother married an Englishman and his family became anglicised but his mother’s brother, Ted Mosquera, married a Basque woman. Semple’s aunt came to Liverpool for medical care and would have been in familiar company as many Basques were part of a second influx of Spanish socialists who came to Liverpool in the thirties to escape the fascist threat of the Spanish Civil War.

As part of the Hispanic Liverpool Project Hooper intends to put together a guide to help Liverpudlians trace their Hispanic roots as Smith and Semple have.

“Genealogy in Spain is very different as there’s no central database and most records are held by parishes. The other main problem people will encounter is that Spanish names are hard to trace because they were often mis-spelled,” says Hooper.

“I am so excited to hear the stories that come out of this project. It is easy to see how some of the wealthy families enriched Liverpool, with contributions to hospitals for example, but I am keen to find the people who didn’t leave lasting and visible monuments but contributed to the family networks by taking people in. They fed the men that sailed the ships that brought the goods and therefore the money to Britain.”

To learn more about the Hispanic Liverpool Project, or to contribute, visit go.warwick.ac.uk/hispanicliverpool/ Photos: Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Libraries

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