Tina’s Story of Growing up in

“Little Italy”,  Clerkenwell, London

Back Home In Atina

My Italian parents were Atinesi, born in the small mountain community of Atina, which at that time was situated in the province of the Caserta in a region known as “Terra di Lavoro”.  Atina is an ancient historic town perched on a hillside with panoramic views of the beautiful verdant valley, the Val di Comino. The River Melfa runs through the valley.  Behind it is the magnificent backdrop of the Meta and Mainarde Mountains which form the edge the Abruzzi Mountain range.  This region is also known as “Ciociaria”, this name is derived from an ancient type of rudimentary footware called “Ciocie” which is typically worn by shepherds and country folk of the area.  I am very proud to be able to call myself a “Ciociara”.

I believe that Giovanni Del Prete, my maternal great-great-grandfather, may have originated from the Frattamaggiore area, just north of Naples; however, at some point he relocated to Atina where he married Maria Giuseppa Pesce.  They had a son, Francesco (my bisnonno) who was born in 1829 who was a blacksmith by trade.  

Francesco fell in love, and, at the age of 26 married a signorina by the name of Giuseppa Di Fiore (my bisnonna).  They set up home at No. 2 Via Grotti in Atina and went on to have several children: Carmine (1857), Raffaele (1865), Giovanna (1858), and Maria Giovanna (1861), and, finally another Giovanna (1870).

Carmine was my Nonno, grandfather. When he was old enough, was sent to work as a labourer at the nearby Paper Factory or La Cartiera  as did a number of the local Atina inhabitants. (See section below).

Nonno Carmine married Rosa Bracciale in 1883.  Their first child, my mother (Maria Grazia) was born in 1885.  Vincenzo (1888) was born next, followed by Marietta (1890), Michelino (1894), Emilia (1898), finally little Annunziata (1901). However, the pregnancy and difficult birth of Annunziata left Rosa weakened, and within a year, she, tragically died at the age of 44.  

Now the weight of responsibility for the family lay heavily on the shoulders of my mother, Maria Grazia, who was just a 16 year old girl.  As the eldest daughter she was forced to take over her mother’s role of caring for her father and her younger siblings, and attending to all their needs. She took it on willingly, although this must have been a daunting responsibility for someone so young.  However life was hard for Maria Grazia with a never- ending round of cooking and cleaning and daily chores. On washday, she and the other women skillfully  balanced large baskets of dirty laundry on their heads and carried them down to the banks of the River Melfa.  By the waterside they began the backbreaking work of dipping the articles into the cold running water and rubbing and scrubbing the dirty clothes with big bars of soap.  Then they would pummel and pound the clothes against large flat stones to help dislodge the dirt. The washing had to be rinsed by swirling it around in the icy flowing current in order to rinse it thoroughly before it was laboriously wrung out by hand.  When the weather was hot they would leave the clothes out in the sun to dry and to bleach.

Close-by to Via Grotti lived the Leonardi family and as my Mamma, blossomed into an attractive young woman, Benedetto (my father to be) began taking a real shine to her, which was a pleasant distraction from the hard toil she had to endure, and it helped to brighten Maria Grazia’s days. They started courting secretly.

It wasn’t long before Nonno Carmine found out.  He did not approve of the relationship.  He considered that Mamma’s place was to look after him and the younger children.  However true love prevailed, Maria Grazia and B. When  they returned home  both sets of parents could do nothing other than accept their union.  Hasty wedding arrangements were made, and Maria Grazia and Benedetto were married in November 1908.  

It was the custom in those times for the new bride to live with her husband’s family.

As the Leonardi’s lived in close proximity to her own family, Mamma was still able to continue many of her duties looking after her brothers and sisters. By this time younger sister Marietta began helping Maria Grazia with some of the daily chores. The Leonardi family, however, did not take to Mamma and treated her harshly and unkindly. Soon Mamma discovered she was pregnant and she gave birth to my sister Maria Rosa Adalgesa (Rosie) on  the 17 December, 1908. My brother Roberto (Berto) arrived a few years later on the 26 February, 1911.

Below are some early photos showing typical street scenes of Atina that the Del Prete and Leonardi family would have known so well.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and the Bishops Palace in Piazza Marconi.

The Cathedral, the Palazzo Ducale, and the Palazzo Marrazza

Piazza Garibaldi, with the Porta dell’ Assunta or  Porta di San Rocco, and the old  Fountain.  

Piazza Garibaldi with  the old Fountain, looking towards the Convent of San Francesco.  Some kind of festival and celebrations in Atina.

Since the mid-1880’s  many people in the Val di Comino area had begun to consider leaving their homeland to escape worsening financial conditions and in the hope of finding better prospects overseas.  Some of the Del Prete family had been successful in finding work as dressmakers in the city of Paris and as artists’ models.

Benedetto’s elder brother, Carmine, and sister, Emilia, had left for London where they did well for themselves. Carmine had established a shoemaker’s business in the affluent area of Lisle Street in Soho. Emilia had married into the Rossi family who now owned a restaurant in the West End.  They sent letters back home with news of attractive prospects in the big city.

Papà began to feel restless, and before long he decided that he too needed to try his luck in London.  Mamma was very reluctant to leave Atina,  her father and siblings, but eventually she was persuaded to accompany Papà and start a new life in a new distant environment. Plans were soon underway – Zio (uncle) Carmine and (aunt) Zia Emilia had sent home money to help pay for their voyage. Mamma and Papà were to take my baby brother Roberto with them, but they decided to leave my sister Rosina behind in Atina in the care of Papà’s mother and his sister Maddalena until the got settled.  They packed their bags and trunks, and prepared for the long and arduous journey ahead. On the day of departure the family kissed and hugged one another, The goodbyes were emotional and many tears were shed.  

For Mamma and Papà this was to be the end of one life and the beginning of another.

Next - More about the Visocchi family and the Cartiera in Atina.

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photo - Archivio Biblioteca di Atina

photo - Archivio Biblioteca di Atina

photos - Archivio Biblioteca di Atina

photos - Archivio Biblioteca di Atina

photos - Archivio Biblioteca di Atina

photo - Archivio Biblioteca di Atina