Little Italy – Quarters of the world for Italian settlers

Italians have been travelling out of Italy for centuries and there is evidence from the Romans in the UK, the medieval ages, the 19th and 20th century to present day. You may know that I am married to an Italian and therefore I have been meaning to share on here all the fascinating and significant endearing stories of Italians who have emigrated from their native countries for centuries to explore, find opportunities and set up life in new and distant lands. They have travelled to places as far as the USA, Canada, Africa, Argentina, Brasil, Australia and other closer parts of Europe. My relatives migrated to Bedford in the 1950s, therefore I have heard first-hand stories and have personal experience of Italian immigrants in Bedford. Italian immigration to Bedford began in 1951 and continued until the end of the 1960s. Currently, Bedford still has the largest Italian community in the United Kingdom. With all these Italian communities scattered across the globe, there are multiple ‘Little Italy’ in quarters where the Italian diaspora and settlers now live.

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There are other communities across the globe and I am happy to feel connected to the diaspora when those opportunities arise.  I am unable to cover everything in this blog post but here are the main points and highlights for the very special Italian immigrant communities I know about personally. There are two distinct phases of Italian immigration to the United Kingdom – the first stage at the turn of the 19th century and the second stage in the years immediately after World War II when the mass immigration started.

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The first set of Italian settled in London and Manchester, and formed the famous communities of ‘Little Italy’, especially around the Clerkenwell, Ancoats and Soho areas. These areas thrived primarily thanks to the catering trade and there is still evidence and influence of that today. It was noted that they had a padrone in Britain to act as a go-between to help them with work, food and accommodation for the first two or three years after arrival. Eventually, they worked up the social classes from organ grinders to street musicians, skilled statuette makers and semi-skilled craftsmen by the mid-1850s. By the 1880s onwards, they were able to move into skilled craftwork catering and their own businesses such as selling ice cream. Some famous names I am aware of are Manze’s for Pie and Mash shops, and Rossi for ice cream. It is reported by the turn of the century they had their own Italian school, the Italian Church of St Peter’s and other Italian landmarks. There is a great article on the Italian diaspora by National Geographic here.

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After World War II, the United Kingdom needed labourers to help rebuild its’ economy and many other areas were in desperate need of new labour. One of the explanations I have read is that Italy was overpopulated and there were high levels of poverty and lack of employment opportunities so there were government policies to actively encourage emigration to new lands for opportunities and a better life. In ‘Hidden Voices – Memories of First Generation Italians in Bedford’, there are real-life stories from first-generation Italians living in Bedford which states: “The south was grossly underdeveloped and overpopulated. This had been aggravated by the fascist laws that curtailed even internal migration, let alone external movement of populations. The Italian Government was at a loss as to how to solve the immediate problem. It was estimated that at least 350000 people per year would have to emigrate for five years to alleviate, at least in part, the situation”. This is covered in some detail in books which I have used for research, and online resources such as ‘Building Italian Communities: caterers, industrial recruits and professionals’ by Our Migration Story.

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It is recorded that “a major inter-governmental initiative had led to an agreement between the British Ministry of Labour and the Italian Government, and a bulk recruitment scheme offering jobs to a large number of Italian men and women had been set up in various industries where shortages have arisen”. There were also a few thousand young Italian women who went to work in the Lancashire cotton mills. Other jobs were offered in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Doncaster and Peterborough. The most significant flow of these migrants arrived in the summer of 1951 and they were allocated to Bedfordshire Brick factories and in particular to the world’s largest Marston Valley Bricks Company in Stewartsby, which had been faced with ‘a grave shortage of English labourers’. The brickworks still now stands as a museum.

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Bedford

After World War II, like my own West Indian ancestors in the Caribbean who were indentured labourers and entrepreneurs, the move to new lands may have only been a temporary arrangement that ended up being for longer. ‘A sociolinguistic insight into the Italian Community in the UK: Workplace language as an identity market’ by Siria Guzzo states that: “the main reason why these people came to Britain was obviously not the weather; they migrated to escape abject poverty in most cases and hoped to make a decent living for themselves and their families’’. There was the chain reaction of the migrant travelling back and forth to see the extended family between Italy and Britain but not often. Most of the immigrants were initially granted four years permission to work: “They signed an agreement to stay for four years with their employer, unless they wished to return to Italy before that. Many didn’t like it here and returned home” (Hidden Voices). I have heard that the work was very heavy duty and some of the conditions were very demanding. The work was not easy for those who had never worked in an industrial environment to adapt. However, there remained an abundance of work after this post-war period and some immigrants were able to move on to other employment if they were not satisfied. The legacy of these working contracts is that thousands of Italians remained.  Bedford is one of the largest and most important Italian communities in the UK, and they make up 28% of the diverse population in Bedford.

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Bedford is also a special place as it was a market town, beautiful river, park with nice countryside that was not far from London and also already had other nationalities settled in the areas such as West Indian, Polish and Irish communities. It was a melting pot for a new post-war Britain and you can still see evidence of that today.

Mainly men came first to work and stayed in lodgings. Later on, the ones who stayed sent for their families to come to Britain. There were cases where there were children left behind for a number of years. When the women came, they too started working to help with the cost of homes. It was not unusual for several families to share homes until they were able to save up for their own homes. “By the late 1950s, however, the hard-working Bedford Italians had saved enough money to begin buying their own property, especially in the areas of Queen’s Park and Castle Road where the terraced houses were situated. By continuing to work tirelessly and never wasting their hard-earned money, they began to settle and finally prosper” (Italians and Italians in Britain: A History).

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In the 1960s, there was a focal point with raising money for a Roman Catholic Church in Bedford for the Italian Citizens. And it was not until recently I found out that the church of Santa Francesca Cabrini in Bedford was specifically named after Saint Francesca Cabrini as she is the patron Saint of Immigrants. Mother Francesca as she is known in the USA is revered for her work in New Orleans and New York with Italian immigrants, children and the churches. She was the first American canonised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. She also has a unique perspective for her time in her letters written from her travels and collaboration between Italy and the USA.

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In Bedford, the Fathers Scalabrini was instrumental in organising and getting donations for the building of the church. Like the St Peter’s Church in London, the building of the church was major event which involved all of the Italians in Bedford. It is recalled: “Considering that these Italian Immigrants came from many different parts of Southern Italy, some from rural areas of Calabria, some from towns near Naples or from Sicily, all speaking different dialects, with various traditions and ways of life – that was quite an achievement.  But religion and the building of their own church was important to all.  Everyone contributed to raise funds to build the church.  The church was seen by all the Italians in Bedford as theirs and a very important centre for the community.  It was consecrated on March 28th 1965 ” (Hidden Voices).

Over the years, I have also been in the church for regular service, at religious festivals but also for christenings, weddings and funerals. It is definitely a focal point and an important part of the Italian community. The Italians also have their own Italian Embassy/Consulate in Bedford due to the sheer numbers of the diaspora in the town.

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It was also a linguistic phenomenal to have various dialects and cultural traits as the immigrants were from other regions in Italy who had all congregated in one location in this strange land. This is not dissimilar to the various Windrush islanders who came from the West Indies meeting in Britain with their own dialects and accents.  For the older generation, some went along to English language classes or picked it up after a number of years in what is termed as ‘survival English’.  They are also known to switch in between two languages plus their dialects. It is a family joke when some of the phrases in Italian are mixed with English. From the early days, the workers also received newspapers or reading materials in Italian. The families with younger generations obviously became bilingual as the main language was Italian in the home and English in school.

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There were instances of prejudice, racial abuse and biases that was more rampant in the 1950s and 1960s than in the later years. Over time, the Italians integrated into British society and there is community cohesion…but also hung on to their rich traditions and culture. It was also possible for them to travel to Italy to keep those connections unlike, for example, Italian diaspora in further lands like Argentina or the USA. My husband grew up in Bedford in the 1960s and 1970s with all the swinging British popular culture and subcultures that were making the UK a vibrant place at the time. However, he also has the benefit of being exposed to authentic Italian culture and relatives when the family went on summer holiday trips to Italy.

The Italians have also built various Italian clubs which they still use for events and social activities such as New Year’s Eve and their ever-important football matches by the Italian Football teams. My own relatives also organised and took part in a football team that played other regional Bedfordshire teams. There are many articles written about Italian football fans in Bedford who understandably will always support the Azzurris. The World Cup wins in 1982 and 2006 have both been major events when the Italians have gathered en masse with patriotic flags and celebration in the town square. I think these were other defining events for the community as would be expected for any expat or migrant community supporting their nation’s sporting heritage. They also host an Italian festival in the town square to celebrate everything Italian.

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A lot of the Italians in all of the phases have been entrepreneurial in their outlook and making it work here in the UK. The Italians set up craft shops, bars, entertainment venues and other businesses. Food is a massive part of any Italian’s life and so some of the obvious businesses and entrepreneurial trait were to go into the catering business. “It is believed that the ability shown in running successful ethnic restaurants, coffee shops and ice-cream bars is thanks to family cohesion. Italian families in Bedford are bound together by kinship networks and their community represents a sort of extended family”. It is very easy to get Italian food stock now but it was not always as easy in the past. My relatives couldn’t even find olive oil, fresh Italian vegetables (e.g. aubergines, peppers, artichokes) and other supplies in the shops when they first moved to the UK. It is a million times better now for food supplies (but you honestly still get the best ingredients in sunny Italy). Food is still central to family gatherings and social events but the Italians in Bedford probably would try other world cuisines due to multicultural influences as compared to Italians who live in Italy. The Italians have been entrepreneurial in the various corners of the world and the ubiquitous pizza is a great metaphor for their food culture. There is a great article on the Europeana website on pizza.

There is so much to tell and so little time on here as there are decades of stories and adaption to cover in a few lines.  I am grateful, respectful and proud of the Italian heritage that is now part of my own story and life.

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This is the perpetual story of immigrants and also the need for those wishing, hoping, trying and fulfilling the dreams and opportunities that they have when they leave their own countries to a ‘better land’. I have heard these real-life stories many many times and I never get bored with them as I find them adventurous and heart-warming.  They are also part of my heritage  – Italian, Indian, West Indian and British. It also reminds me deeply and on another level to my own West Indian heritage and ancestors. Human Migration is not a new phenomenon and there seem to be so many political, social and cultural factors on its’ prevalence in the past, and will in years to come. Most migrants actually contribute to the lands they move to and the Italians in Bedford had created a very special part of Britain that will always have strong and enriched links to Italy and Europe. Since the 1950s the Italian spirit, close-knit community and way of life live on in each generation…hopefully in the future too. The community have also integrated to a very acceptable level and are able to enjoy the best of both worlds.

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