FROM ITALY TO LIVERPOOL
During the 19th century immigrants from diverse origins began to settle in Liverpool, the main motivation for their arrival was work. Liverpool had become a principal port with substantial dockland that was receiving products from all over the world such as tobacco, cotton and sugar.
Liverpool’s prosperity continued to develop throughout this halcyon period, industry grew and so employment was plentiful. The immigrants settled in the areas, which were in the immediate vicinity of their work, and so the network of tiny streets became home and the ghetto phenomena was born.
Liverpool was known as the ‘gateway’ to the new world and a stopping off point en-route to America. Some settled here in Liverpool finding work with the intention of saving enough money to continue with the journey.The immigrants were well recieved and it was said in a local newspaper at the time of the influx...It was very rare to find anywhere they had settled evidence of a single offence committed by them.
The community continued to prosper throughout the 20th century the Italians had made Liverpool their home, even present day Liverpool has a substantial Italian presence that can be attributed to the pioneering immigrants.
Garibaldi’s unification of Italy was the main cause of mass migration throughout the 19th century. The standard of living in the countryside had gradually worsened making disease and starvation widespread. The Italian family could no longer keep up with the rising cost of living. The agricultural system was antiquated and only parts of Italy were covered by the railroad system making it impossible for some farmers to sell their produce there was no other alternative but to leave Italy making Britain one of the largest single recipients of Italian immigrants.
The migration period can be categorized into four distinctive patterns throughout the 19th Century, skilled craftsmen, political expatriates, unskilled immigrants and traveling craftsmen.
The skilled craftsmen left Italy independently and did not follow any sort of migration trend. They were mainly from Northern Italy from areas such as Coma and Lucca and all specialized in specific fields, for example the people from Coma were expert engravers and precision instrument makers, whilst the people from Lucca made intricate plaster figurines. They married English women, and it can be assumed they did not become part of any Italian community here but rather merged into British society, nevertheless they placed the foundations for future Italians.
Political expatriates found refuge in Britain because of rebellion throughout Europe during the early quarter of the 19th century. Many
were dependent on British support both financially and ethically,
although the more artistic of them found employment in teaching music, painting and Italian language lessons. They were staunch supporters of the unification of Italy and set about forming the ‘Nationalist Movement’ in Britain.
Unskilled migrants almost all of whom walked here during the middle of the 19th century, were mainly from the mountain regions of Northern Italy, they had been land workers and farmers until extreme poverty forced them to leave. They found work on a daily basis as they travelled through numerous towns in Europe and Britain.Once here their employment was chiefly in the form of entertaining in the streets. They arrived in the spring in order to find seasonal work, with the intention of returning to Italy with enough money to ensure their family was adequately provided for during the winter months.
Traveling craftsmen or chain migrants initiated the development of the
Little Italy phenomena, throughout the latter quarter of the 19th century; many of them left Italy in groups from the same village, as in the case of
Liverpool’s Little Italy numerous immigrants originated from Atina and
Picinisco. Within the community the earliest Italians created a support group in the form of a welcoming house or Padronismo, this meant that entire families could be re-established here in Liverpool.
The Italian immigrants headed for the Little Italy area where that were welcomed with a simple meal called Poor Man’s Cuisine, which was a traditional pasta dish consisting of olive oil, vegetables and accompanied with a little wine. They were offered accommodation and employment, which was usually in the form of mosaic and terrazzo laying or entertainment. They soon prospered enabling them
to buy property and establish family businesses.
By the latter quarter of the 19th century traveling across the Atlantic had improved immensely, and by the time some of the Italian immigrants disembarked in America they had been traveling for several months and many of the older Italians were in a poor state of health, this began to concern the American government which resulted in the building of Ellis Island in 1906. Along with the returned deportees came stories
of separation and chaos thus the nickname of ‘Isle of Tears’ became a common association with Ellis Island and probably the reason a large number of Italians remained in Liverpool.
In Liverpool the Italians maintained the traditional way of life as they would back in Italy and Italian shops and other businesses were soon commonplace. The Little Italy area became a complex network of integrated prospering Italian families, who had begun to build their own empires based on time-honoured Italian crafts and the making of ice cream became the principle venture. The process was identical to the practice they brought from their native land. From somewhat modest beginnings selling from handcarts being pushed around neighbouring streets grew huge family businesses that became famous throughout Liverpool such as the Chiappes, Capaldis, Fuscos, Podestas Santangeli and Valerios families.
It can be assumed that the area around Gerard Street became home to so many Italians during the middle of the 19th century because of its locality to Liverpool’s most prestigious street, William Brown Street. The redevelopment of the previous Shaw’s Brow created work for the residents of Liverpool’s little Italy. The buildings that replaced the
old windmills and limekilns became Liverpool’s finest examples of Italian and Greek classical architecture. The buildings were adorned with travertine wall cladding, the floors were inlaid with intricate mosaic tiles and the great domes were decorated with fantastic frescos, glass and plasterwork.
Only the finest craftsmen were hired to create the complex intricate mosaic floors that adorn Liverpool’s civic buildings.The mosaic men spent long periods in cramped conditions with constant cuts and grazes to the hands and knees, the work was difficult and took great skill and patience; the art of mosaic laying was often handed down from father to son along with several well-kept secrets.
Liverpool’s finest example of mosaic work can be found in the County
Sessions House in William Brown Street, the flooring is exquisite and depicts the Rose of Lancashire. Liverpool’s churches can also boast some fine examples of mosaic work such as St Mary of the Angels (Friary) and St Francis Xaviers (SFX) Everton. The 1901 census showed that over 130 men living in the area known as Little Italy were employed as either Terrazzo or Mosaic craftsmen. One of the leading mosaic employers in Liverpool during the 19th and 20th century were Diespeker, they often employed whole families.
The Little Italy area of Liverpool was located at the top end of Scotland Road towards the city centre. Theprincipal roads of the vicinity were Christian Street, Circus Street, Gerard Street, Governor Street, Hunter Street and Lionel Street with many smaller streets branching off. The influx of immigrants created several business opportunities within the area, several lodging houses were established, firms hiring musical instruments and hand carts and cook houses became common place, this was largely due to the vast amount of unmarried Italian males arriving.
Religion played a massive role in the lives of the Italians and traditional
values were considered paramount, it became an expression of unity among people sharing the same faith. Its role helped to integrate the different cultures that were living alongside one another and also encouraged the participation of traditions and customs within the Italian and Irish community of Liverpool.Liverpool’s little Italy’s Catholic church was host to magnificent outdoor processions that would passed through the streets of the neighbourhood that had been beautifully decorated with buntings and flowers hanging from houses, the preparation of which had begun many months earlier. The church embodied the spirit of the community and was the epitome of hope for its congregation. The church symbolised the character of the hard-working Italian immigrant of its parish. Religion has always offered comfort and solace to the immigrants of Liverpool. The social aspect of religion brought together many different cultural elements and strengthened their alliance and identities as with the Italian and Irish communities. The church became a social point and the hub of communal life, it was a place for the younger people to meet and form relationships outside their own culture, which resulted in a large number of Irish/Italian marriages.
Music was not merely a form of entertainment it was a way of earning a decent and regular wage, Little Italy was well known for its entertainers and especially its street musicians. The 1881 census shows that
nearly a third of the Italian immigrants were musicians or street entertainers. The instruments of choice being the accordion and the barrel organ or hurdy gurdies. Numerous establishments in the Italian community manufactured the musical instruments for both sale and hire.
One sport that was very favourable in the Italian community was boxing, and several families became renowned for producing excellent young school boy fighters, some of which went on to become world famous. The local Pudsey Street Stadium was host to magnificent contests between greats such as Dominic Volante, Nel Tarleton, Dom
Vairo, Tony Butcher (Baccino) and Louis Silvano. The young Italian boys were encouraged to become fighters not for the glamour and recognition but because the game offered regular work and income.
A boxing club in Little Italy offered tuition to any young boys showing an interest in the sport, the local Italian residents had set it up and proved very succesful. The matches were staged between the local boys every Saturday night with all proceeds going towards boxing equipment etc. St Joseph's Boxing Club taught discipline and respect in order for the young fighters to achieve so much. One local man in
particular went on to become a Liverpool boxing legend Dominic (Dom) Volante. Born to Vincenzo Volante and Maria Grazia D'Annunzio, he attended Holy Cross school and became Featherweight professional in 1922 after giving an outstanding performance against Britain’s most impressive boxer at the time, Billy Coleburn. The fight at the Pudsey Street stadium went the full distance and the two lads had to be separated at the end. Dom had given such an impressive display of
ability it was without a doubt he was now destined for a life as a professional boxer. His career took him on a tour of the United States of America often fighting twice nightly and felt quite at home in the Italian quarter of New York. Dom had quite a substantial following on both sides of the Atlantic especially amongst the seafaring community. His penultimate contest was the night he topped the bill at Madison Square Garden where he fought against Harry Carleton and watched by nearly twenty thousand.
The Italian community continued to thrive with second generations now having mixed marriages particularly with their Irish counterparts and although both Italian and Irish residents of the area were happily living alongside each other as they had for more than fifty years the old property in the Little Italy area was considered slum by the City Planning Department and was being demolished in a mass clearance project as part of the city’s Homes for the Workers scheme. The replacements were contemporary flats housed indoor toilets, bathrooms, electricity, gas and safe areas for children to play.
The residents still living in the old neighbourhood were hesitant about the grand plans at first. They had lived alongside each other for many years, for some of the older residents it was their only family home since leaving Italy. Domestic businesses had been established from cellars and backyards and numerous shops would be demolished as part of the clearance. Gerard Gardens soon became home to its new
residents and many extended families were scattered within the complex. However no sooner had the tenements become home 1939 saw the threat of war looming and so Liverpool began preparing for war, gas masks, identity cards and ration books were issued, air raid shelters were erected in the neighbourhood and the children were being evacuated, this created public unease.After the Second World War Britain began to rebuild on a grand scale, however the government
struggled to meet demands and so an agreement was set up with Italian officials and local companies in Britain to employ Italian labourers. This created a second incursion of immigrants, which was to last for the next twenty years. At the time the standard of living in Italy was very poor and the opportunity of regular long-term employment was the best solution. Even though the initial objective was to return to Italy with enough money to establish a better lifestyle many of the Italians stayed here creating new lives for themselves and their families.
Work was advertised in many villages across the, poorer areas of southern Italy, thousands came to work in many different industries one
of which was the coal mining industry in Wales, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire. Arriving in a new country that was still in the turmoil of
regeneration after the devastation World War Two had left was no easy task. They were faced with a language barrier, harsh winters and traditions that were alien to them. In order for the new wave of immigrants to settle in societies and organizations, such as The Italian Catholic Mission, were set up to recreate a similar lifestyle they had led back home in Italy.
The heart of the Italian Culture is of course food and this was something the first pioneering Italian men struggled to cope with whilst living in British bed and breakfast hostels. Back home in Italy even in the post war years the woman took on the traditional role of homemaker and therefore would be the provider of every meal throughout the day. As a result the men decided to make their new surroundings more familiar by hosting regular gatherings centered around food and
storytelling of back home. Also at the heart of Italian culture is the family
nothing compares to it’s importance consequently it was not long before the rest of the family traveled to Britain to be reunited with their loved ones.
The catering industry thrived in the post war years, famous chip shops and ice cream parlours were loved by the people of Liverpool, most had their own favourite emporium whether it was Gianelli’s on Christian Street, Santangelli’s on Gerard Street or Chiappes on Scotland road. The Italian proprietors were characters and played an extremely important part in the community. One such man was Vincenzo Imundi known locally as Jimmy Romeo who owned a his famous deli in
Springfield Street. As well as being a remarkable musician he often entertained his customers by showing his unbelievable strength and would lift huge quantities of bagged food with only his ears. This was just one of his extraordinary talents.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Liverpool’s Italian neighbourhood and surrounding areas became victim to several developments, people were relocated in towns lying on the periphery of Liverpool and they
hardly ever returned to the city and eventually the 1980s drew what was left of the Italian neighbourhood ever closer to the bulldozer. The area today is in dire contrast to the Little Italy of the 19th century, however Liverpool’s Italian community remains passionate about their heritage. The Little Italy phenomena was only as good as the foundations it was built upon, the Italian Community created support for their fellow piasano in the form of food, shelter and work. determined to make better lives for themselves in a country that was alien to their own traditions and lifestyles they immediately set about providing a home from home, though not an easy task and inspite of the hardships
they faced their history lives on in the generations that have followed.