IT WAS an incredible act of kindness that saved the lives of thousands of children.

Hundreds of Hampshire volunteers set up a camp in Eastleigh in 1937 to look after nearly 4,000 young victims of the Spanish civil war.

Now this community effort is to be commemorated with an exhibition at Eastleigh Library, which will be run until May 23.

After the bombing of Guernica in the Basque region of northern Spain in April 1937, churches, cooperatives and members of the Communist Party helped to evacuate children.

Despite the initial opposition of the British government, on May 15, 1937 the Foreign Office authorised temporary residence in Britain for 2,000 refugees.

It was on May 23 that a team of 96 teachers, 118 volunteers, 15 priests and 3,826 children arrived in Southampton on board the SS Habana.

The refugees were taken to a camp at North Stoneham in Eastleigh, where more than 500 tents were set up.

Carmen Kilner, trustee for the Basque Children Association’37 (BCA’37), said: “There was not a penny of support from the government at this or any other time.

"We cannot overstate the effort made by the local people to help and support these children; not only in setting up the camp and helping with food - such as providing bread - and everyday chores such as laundry.”

The camp relied heavily on donations from local farmers, butchers and bakers.

“The locals opened their hearts and their homes to these children who still remember their kindnesses to this day, though most survivors are now in their 90s”, Ms Kilner added.

After a few weeks, organisations such as the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church offered asylum and children left the provisional camp in Eastleigh to go to colonies situated all over the country.

By the middle of September 1937 the camp at North Stoneham was emptied and closed and most of the children returned to Spain.

Although there is a commemorative plaque in Southampton, there is not a permanent memorial in Eastleigh yet.

Now an exhibition with pictures of the camp has been set up at the town library, to mark the 80th anniversary of the event.

Jayne Perkins, library assistant, organised the exhibition with the support of BCA’37.

She said: “Eastleigh is such an important part of the history of the Basque children coming to Britain.

“It’s really important to run this event because it’s a large part of the history of Eastleigh and something that probably not many people know about.

“It’s really good that 80 years ago local people were there to help refugees from the Spanish Civil War. It shows that there was a lot of community spirit.”

At the time the camp was arranged in less than two weeks thanks to the effort of hundreds of volunteers from several associations including scouts, girl guides, students and Rotarians.

“Eastleigh is still a quite strong community.

"We are quite proud of the town of Eastleigh and I think that the town is quite proud of its heritage,” Miss Perkins said.

Many residents have already visited the exhibition, which will run until May 23.

The library will be open from 9am to 5pm from Monday to Friday and from 9.30am to 4pm on Saturday.