Italian Diaspora: From Como to Clonmel

Since discovering Clerkenwell, I have become increasingly fascinated by the area’s Italian community, and particularly the Italians that settled here in the 19th century. These brave migrants, many of them poor and unskilled, came to London in search of a more prosperous life. They were the victims of the grave economic conditions following the Napolionic wars, which also caused much political unrest among the Italian people, and divided Italy up into many subjugated states. During this period of impoverishment, migrants came to England on foot, tramping their way across Europe and stopping for periods in various cities and villages along the way. Once in London many made their money as organ-grinders or artisans, crafting picture frames and plaster statues. Others, invariably those from the South of Italy, sold gelato on street corners and became known to locals as “hokey pokey men” owing to their familiar cry of ecco un poco, meaning “here’s a little (taste)”. It was a gruelling life for these Italians, though they were on the whole extremely hard working, and adapted quickly to their new surroundings. In Clerkenwell they built an entire community for themselves. They called it Il Quartiere Italiano—the Italian Quarter. The English called it Little Italy.

Traces of this once vibrant community can still be found today, particularly on Sundays when Italians from all over London gather outside St. Peter’s, the Basilica-style church on Clerkenwell Road. Since 1863 this has been the heart of Il Quartiere, and even now, though most Italians and descendants of those early immigrants no longer live in the area, it remains an important location to meet and socialise. Beside it, not far from the plaque honouring Giuseppe Mazzini, is another important remnant from the area’s past: the little delicatessen of Terroni & Sons, which in recent years has begun to operate as café, serving pasta and sweet treats such as sfogliatelle and cannoli. The original premises, located on Summer Street, was opened in 1878 by Luigi Terroni, a native of Veserada, Lunigiana, who walked to London after first stopping in Paris where he likely worked for a short period. According to its present owners, Terroni is London’s first Italian delicatessen. It is most certainly the oldest open today at any rate, having delighted customers with its range of fine produce for well over a hundred years, including during WWII when sanctions imposed on Italian imports meant that similar products from Spain and Argentina had to be imported instead.

My heart sinks for Italians like Luigi Terroni who, in the face of having to risk their lives crossing perilous terrain, had to cope with the pain of leaving behind their friends and loved ones. Yet this story is not uncommon among the early migrants that settled in Il Quartiere. My girlfriend’s great-great grandfather, Giovanni, also made an arduous trip from Italy to London in the mid part of the 19th century. From what I understand, he left his home in Como not only for financial reasons, but to escape the Austrian army, into whose ranks many northern Italians were forced at that time. There is also reason to believe that he travelled with two Swiss-Italians by the names of Arigho and Ceppi, whom he presumably met along the way, and probably kept in touch with while in London.

The journey taken by these young men is almost inconceivable to anybody who knows only the modern convenience of air travel and high-speed trains. At the time the most logical route from Lake Como to England involved crossing a 16th century stone bridge, known rather discouragingly as the Devil’s Bridge. This uncertain-looking structure, suspended over a formidable drop into the crashing River Reuss, still exists today, though it has since been superseded by a larger, less precarious bridge located directly above the old one. Turner’s painting of the original bridge (as seen below) gives us some idea of what Giovanni, and many others before and after him, had to contend with on their search for prosperity. For those that made it, the trip would have taken them past the Swiss lakes, into France and, after many stopovers in various cities along the way, to the coast where they would catch the ferry to England. One of the most frustrating parts of the journey must have been the final leg, from Dover to London, which until the building of the railway in 1844 most migrants made by foot.

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The Teufelsbrücke, Switzerland. Painting by J.M.W. Turner c. 1803.

I was unable to find much about Giovanni’s life in London, and no mention at all of him living in Il Quartiere, though it seems more than likely that he would have had some contact with the Italian community there. Clerkenwell was for many Italian immigrants a stopping ground where they could go to find work or reconnect with family members. Even the Italians who eventually moved elsewhere tended to pass through it, stopping for a period in dank, overcrowded dwellings that, by contrast with the breath-taking natural beauty they had left behind in Italy, must have seemed very squalid indeed. It was partly owing to these conditions that some Londoners came to regard the Italian community with deep suspicion. Here was a peculiar group of people who spoke an incomprehensible tongue, ate exotic foods and loitered about on street corners; whose many children, ragged and filthy, ran barefooted through the streets. For the faint of heart, there must have been few experiences more unnerving than a late-night walk though Il Quartiere, where there were no street lamps and Italians yammered back and forth in alarming animation.

Brick Lane in East London was another popular spot for immigrants in the 19th century. Although most of its inhabitants were Jewish or Irish, a census from 1861 reveals that it was here that Giovanni lived along with several other Italians, all of them cabinet makers working for an unnamed employer. As far as I can tell, Giovanni spent no more than 10 years here before his marriage to a young Irish lady, a Margaret Downey, resulted in his moving to Ireland. Marriage between Irish and Italian immigrants in those days was not uncommon: not only did both parties tend to share the same quarters and practice the same faith, but in many cases they had also experienced the same hardships. It is broadly true that Irish and Italians came to England for more or less the same reason—i.e. to escape the poor economic conditions offered to them by their homelands. Yet neither group came with the intention of staying in England forever. For most immigrants the plan was always to return home once they had made some money, either with the design of buying some land or starting their own business. This was possibly what Giovanni had planned to do before marriage, or perhaps some other circumstance, sent his life tumbling in an entirely unexpected direction.

Giovanni settled with his new wife in Clonmel, Tipperary, where for a period in the 1840s an Italian named Charles Bianconi had served as mayor. Although Bianconi was several decades older than Giovanni, it would be unlikely if the two men had never crossed paths, since they were both from the Lombardy region of Italy, and will no doubt have wanted to discuss the plights of their homeland. Indeed, even if they had not actively sought each other’s company, it seems probable that, in a town as small as Clonmel, they would have come into contact with one another. Bianconi was well known throughout the whole of Ireland; he had established regular horse-drawn carriage services in the period preceding the railways, and in doing so became the founder of Irish public transport. Giovanni will have been aware of this, and might have even travelled to Clonmel on one of Bianconi’s coaches.

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Charles “Carlo” Bianconi (24 September 1786 – 22 September 1875)

Although I have discovered two stories regarding Giovanni’s interactions with Bianconi, I reproduce both with hesitation, for neither can be confirmed as true. The first and least plausible is that Giovanni, along with his two travelling companions, Arigho and Ceppi, actually came to Ireland with Bianconi, yet I have found no passenger records to support this, nor any mention of Arigho, Ceppi or Giovanni in Bianconi’s autobiography. The other story suggests that Giovanni, this time with just Arigho, sought out Bianconi after arriving in Ireland, but was informed by his housekeeper that he didn’t wish to see them. This was apparently because he suspected that they were after a hand out of some sort. The story then tells that years later, after Giovanni had established his own furniture business in Clonmel, he was informed by an employee that Bianconi had entered the shop and requested to speak to him. Without pausing, Giovanni so say responded by returning the gesture that Bianconi had given him years earlier, and asked the employee to tell Bianconi that he was engaged in important business.

If there is any truth to either of these stories—and of course only one of them can be true—it indicates that Arigho, Ceppi and Giovanni must, for whatever reason, have decided to come to Ireland together, as a unit. Records from the later part of the 19th century prove, if nothing else, that Arigho and Ceppi did go to Ireland. However, neither man appears to have any connection with Clonmel. As a partnership, they made picture frames and looking glasses at 8 Wellington Quay, Dublin, and also specialised in religious statues, much like the ones sold in Il Quartiere. So established in Dublin were these that James Joyce wrote in Ulysses of “Ceppi’s virgins, bright of their oils”.

References to Giovanni’s furniture business in Clonmel are harder to come by, though a shop bearing his surname still exists in the town. This was opened in the 1930s by his son, a child from his second marriage to Bridget, whom he met sometime after his first wife passed away. Bridget seldom conversed in English. As an Irish speaker, she had proclivity for adopting her native tongue whenever she could, especially while at home. This must have led to frequent miscommunications between her and her husband, for Giovanni spoke no Irish at all and, like his wife, was also prone to conversing in his native tongue. Despite this, he was far from dismissive of Irish culture. In the latter part of the 19th century, he even changed his name to John, possibly in the belief that this would make him appear like less of an outsider.

In Britain during this period, it was quite commonplace for Italian immigrants to anglicise their names, particularly once they had settled somewhere, and had rejected all designs of ever returning to Italy. Immigrants like Giovanni, who had spent the majority of their lives abroad, might well have felt closer to the customs of their adopted country than to the one in which they were born. No doubt it was different for the residents of Il Quartiere, where they were more or less free to relish their Italian heritage without fear of prejudice. There, safe among the ice cream sellers and organ grinders, they ate Italian foods, read Italian newspapers and generally took pleasure in the culture that they had known back in Italy. At St Peter’s school, children were educated on the subjects of Italian history, geography and culture, and learnt to speak both English and their parents’ tongue. The whole area was alive with the exuberant spirit of Italy.

Although this may no longer be true, the few Italian institutions that do remain—Terroni and Gazzanos, the Mazzini-Garibaldi Club, the Coach & Horses, the Brick Layers Arms, Chiappa Ltd.—are all enduring monuments to what was once there, and what continues to survive in spite of London’s senseless commercial developments. On weekends, I often walk down Clerkenwell Road, sometimes cutting down Hatton Garden to see where Giuseppe Mazzini lived during his years of exile. The old houses round there have changed little since the days when barefooted children played in the streets and the sound of barrel organs filled the air. A century-and-a-half ago, when Giovanni first came to London, he possibly would have known these uncertain streets and the many characters that lived on them. I wonder what he thought of the place, and whether he ever regretted making his long trip across Europe to this vast slum of tumbledown buildings. He and his fellow immigrants were dauntless in their search for prosperity. They risked everything to start a new life for themselves—a better life far away from home.

Their boundless determination is, I think, best exemplified by the story of one hapless immigrant who, after stepping off the boat at the London Docks, fell to his knees and kissed the ground. “Dio grazie!” he said. “I have arrived in America.”

 


 

“When you look up, the eye loses itself in a reddish, bell-shaped vault, which always gives me, I don’t know why, an idea of the phosphorescent light of the Inferno. The whole city seems under a kind of spell, and reminds me of the Witches’ Scene in Macbeth or the Brocksberg or the Witch of Endor. The passers-by look like ghosts—one feels almost a ghost oneself.”

– Giuseppe Mazzini on London


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