Penny Feiwel: Last survivor of the British women who served with the International Brigades in Spain

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Penny Feiwel was the last of the British women who served as volunteers on the side of the Spanish Republic during the civil war of 1936-39.

She was one of about 75 women from Britain who joined the International Brigades following the military coup launched by Francisco Franco and other generals with backing from Hitler and Mussolini. Like Feiwel, known in Spain by her maiden name of Phelps, most of them were nurses and worked in makeshift frontline hospitals in conditions of great hardship and danger. Phelps herself suffered serious injuries in a bombing raid that put an end to her service in Spain.

Born into a working class family of nine brothers and sisters in Tottenham, she left school at 13 to go into domestic service, but hated it. She then tried factory work before deciding at the age of 18 to train as a nurse, working in several London hospitals, including Homerton and Charing Cross.

By her mid-20s she was eager to overcome her lack of school education, so spent 1934 studying English, history, economics and psychology at Hillcroft College, Surbiton, Surrey, which specialised in teaching working women from less privileged backgrounds. There, she began moving in more politically aware circles. Through college principal Mabel Ashby she found work for two years in the Welwyn Garden City household of the clothes designer and socialist Tom Heron, owner of Cresta Silks. Among her four charges was the eldest child Patrick, who as a teenager was already showing signs of being a gifted artist. "I was accepted into the family and they had a great influence on me," she recalled later in life. "I even went to Italy with them many years later. They educated me, really."...

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