Tina’s Story of Growing up in
“Little Italy”, Clerkenwell, London
We lived at the end of the street at No. 1 Little Saffron Hill the dwelling was far from special, being in a very dilapidated state and in need of repair. This was probably why the rent was relatively cheap, and was how we could afford to live there. It was made of bricks, blackened by the soot of the local environment. It consisted of three floors, with four rooms upstairs. There was no basement. The downstairs part of the house had been used as a shop at one time, but this had later been converted into an additional room. The only source of heating was from open coal grates in each of the rooms, which were only lit in very cold weather, or if someone in the family was poorly in bed.
The house was generally very cold and draughty due to the ill-fitting windows and doors, and in addition it suffered badly from damp. The heart of the house was the kitchen, which was sited on the first floor, and this is where our family spent most of our time, in this the warmest room. In the colder months a welcoming fire always glowed in the basket of the fireplace. Early each morning the ashes from the previous day’s fire had to be gathered up using a small long handled shovel, and gently sifted into an old galvanised bucket, taking great care not to create clouds of dust around the fireplace.
There was a coal hole below the stairs from which the scuttle had to be refilled. If the last few coals of the fire had not survived the night, a new fire was then laid using old newspapers and broken up wooden boxes used as tinder, which were lit with a match and coaxed to glow.
Sometimes Papà would cut thick, crusty slices of bread, which he would spike onto the prongs of a long handled fork and hold up to the glowing coals, making us the most delicious toast you could ever taste. In the depth of winter Papà would also roast chestnuts to cheer us.
Mamma was a good housekeeper, and although we were poor she took pride in keeping things clean and tidy. There was an old iron stove, which ran on coal gas, providing us with cooking facilities, and hot water. It seemed that there was always something with a deliciously appetising aroma, baking in the oven or simmering away on the hob in a huge saucepan. The old black kettle steamed away on top, ready to make a lovely cup of refreshing tea. The stove was black leaded and it took a great deal of elbow grease to make it clean and shiny. As I grew older I used to love to help Mamma apply the black lead paste to the cooker surfaces, getting myself delightfully dirty in the process. The layer of polish was buffed first with a brush, and then with a soft cloth to produce a finish with a beautiful sheen, like that of a Guardsman’s boots.
There was a standpipe in the yard and all our water had to be carried inside for drinking and cooking purposes. In the kitchen there was a white enamel bucket with a lid on the top which was for fresh clean water. For hot water, a large kettle or a galvanised bath had to be filled and then heated up on the gas rings.
Back home in Atina, even though it was a very small provincial town, there had been electricity supplied to many of the houses since 1906. Yet, in our house in London there was no such modern system, for here the lighting still ran on coal gas. Inside these lamps was placed an incandescent mantle, made from a type of cotton mesh, impregnated with certain chemicals, which made the hissing gas glow with a bright greenish-white flame. The mantles were extremely fragile and could easily be broken, so the gas flame and the mantle were enclosed in a glass tube. However, I do recall many times when Mamma had to cook by candlelight. There were no gas lamps on the stairs, as this would have been far too dangerous, as a sudden draught from under the front door could have very easily have extinguished the flame. So, we used to carry candles upstairs to go to bed. The street lights also ran on gas, and a lamplighter would walk around the district carrying his long pole, turning the lamps on and off at appropriate times of day or night. In the winter our bedrooms seemed to be as icy cold as the North Pole.
We always hoped to get a good night’s sleep, however I feel a little ashamed to say, that the house was plagued by “Bed Bugs”, however in those times it was a common occurrence for old houses to be infested. These nasty irritating pests used to scurry around in the cracks and crevices in the wall and behind loose pieces of wallpaper, emerging at night to feed on us as we slept, causing us to constantly itch and scratch. Sometimes we youngsters would try to catch these little reddish brown creatures and burn them in the flame of a candle. Mamma would regularly strip the beds and air the bedding, and then clean the bedsteads, using very hot water, strong disinfectant or paraffin oil in an effort to get rid of them. Sometimes she would try lighting a sulphur candle to smoke them out.
From my childhood and to this very day I still have a terrible phobia of rodents. To the rear of our house there was no garden, just a pokey little yard which was plagued with rats and mice that thrived in the old timber yard that was close to our dwelling. We kept a cat that tried his best to keep down the mouse population. The yard also contained a very basic “privy” in a crude brick outhouse.
Mamma would pre-warm the sheets by using an cylindrical earthenware hot water bottle, and if it was very cold weather we’d throw coats and other clothing over the meagre layer of blankets to help keep us warm. Huddling under the covers we would read our books by candlelight before finally settling down for the night.
The toilet had a large wooden seat with a hole in the middle, and a big black iron cistern hung above on the wall, laced with cobwebs housing their predatory spiders. There was no soft toilet tissue for us, just torn up pieces of newspaper threaded on to an old piece of string, to be used for this purpose. The rusty old cistern used to leak, so when Papà went to pay a “long visit” on the “throne” it was his habit to take his umbrella with him to protect himself from the drips, whilst reading the newspaper.
Whenever anyone had to make a visit to the said toilet, the routine prior to entering the outhouse was to loudly bang and shake the door in order to frighten off any lurking rodents, in the hope that they would scurry away. I normally made my visits to the toilet as brief as humanly possible, but one day whilst sitting there I remember glancing up at the cistern and seeing a rats tail dangling down. I screamed uncontrollably, frozen to the toilet seat with terror, until eventually someone came to rescue me!
To avoid night time visits to the outside toilet, my sister and I used to squat on an enamel chamber pot or “guzunder”, which was kept under the bed, and had to be emptied each morning. There was no bathroom, and in fact the only water in the house was icy cold, and drawn from a tap outside in the yard. Perhaps once a week, if we were lucky, we children were bathed one at a time in the same water, in a small tin bath in front of the fire. Otherwise a scrub down with a flannel in the scullery would have to suffice. To my knowledge we never frequented any of the Public Baths.
Every Monday was “Washday”; this was a particularly long and arduous day for Mamma and always began with an early start. Firstly the old copper tub in the back yard had to be filled with buckets of cold water drawn from the outdoor tap, and then Mamma would lay a fire underneath using newspaper and sticks of wood as kindling. She would strike a match and set this alight and carefully tend the fire until it was glowing red. The heat from the fire would gradually build up and would eventually bring the water in the old copper to the boil. Meanwhile the washing had to be sorted into piles of whites; coloureds; and delicate types of fabric. Mamma would then work hard at scrubbing some of the more soiled items up and down the ridges of a washboard with a bar of “Sunlight Soap”, to help loosen any ingrained dirt, often inadvertently scraping the skin off her knuckles in the process.
The first load of clothes to be washed would be the “whites”. Shavings of Sunlight soap were added the hot water in the copper, and the load of white washing was then pushed into the steaming mixture with a boiler stick. The clothes were then agitated in the water using a long handled wooden “dolly”. When the clothes were clean the garments had to be carefully lifted out of the scalding water with a pair of wooden tongs into another tub. Then everything had to be rinsed out under freezing cold water. Sometimes Mamma would colour the rinsing water a little with a “Blue Bag”, which made the whites seem even whiter. The wet washing was then wrung out by hand, as we couldn’t afford a mangle. No wonder Mammas hands were always red raw, and that in later years she suffered so badly with rheumatism in her fingers. Next the second load was plunged into the wash tub, and the above procedures were repeated again and again, leaving the darkest colours until last, until the washing was complete. Nothing went to waste, any hot water left over was used to scrub clean the floors and doorstep.
The cramped little yard was not even big enough to hang the washing outside, besides the walls were far too grimy with soot from the London air. So in the house, Papà had strung some washing lines from the top of the stairs, which were operated by a system of pulleys, and the wet washing was thus pegged up inside to dry. Everything had to be spotlessly clean, and collars and aprons were carefully starched.
Mixing the right solution of starch to suit the various types of clothes was quite an art. If you added too much clothes could become very stiff and uncomfortable to wear.
The next day, if dry, the clothes to be ironed were sprinkled with water and rolled up. Ironing was done with a traditional flat iron, which was heated up on the gas hob, and a pad was used to grasp the hot handle. It also took great skill to get the temperature of the iron correct for the different types of fabric, if it was too hot you could scorch the garment, if it was too cold the iron would not press properly. Finally the dried washing was aired before being put away.
Although our home was very plain and simple Mamma, like many Italian women, would take great pride in the cleanliness of their houses. Women in the Italian community would often have to work, in order to supplement the family’s meagre income, by labouring as domestic servants, taking in laundry, providing board and lodgings. All of this, was of course, in addition to looking after their own family’s needs. Life was hard for many of us Italian families with so many mouths to feel. For our parents life was a struggle requiring never ending hard work, determination and perseverance.
In the kitchen there was no refrigerator as you would find today, just a simple unglazed terracotta cooler, to keep milk fresh. For other perishable food stuffs we also had a special cabinet, or meat safe, with a wire mesh door and sides which allowed air to circulate. This was kept in a cool place, not in our kitchen, but on the landing I seem to remember.
Sometimes the “Iceman” would come to our street in his horse and cart to deliver blocks of ice to our neighbours who were ice cream makers. The big blocks would be lifted up by a giant claw, and sometimes pieces would fall onto the pavement below. As young children we would rush out to pick up any broken shards. We would suck on a bit of ice ourselves, and take the rest back home to Mamma. The ice was especially useful to help keep any butter and milk fresh in the warmer weather. Otherwise a jug of milk stood on a stone or marble slab, and draped over the top was a cover weighted down with beads.
I can remember that some of the elderly women folk who were illiterate would come to Mamma and ask her to write letters for them, and instead of repaying her in return with a few coppers they would just bring a few odd pieces of fruit or vegetables. I recall in particular, one toothless, hairy chinned old lady, all dressed in black, would call in from time to time. She would compliment my mother saying how beautiful I was, “Che Bella!” she said while she sharply pinching my cheek with her gnarled fingers, inflicting me with an excruciating jaw ache. Every time I saw her, I would make myself scarce, in case she felt the urge to nip me again!
In the home my family always spoke in Italian, well not proper Italian, mainly in the “Atinese” dialect. However, my brother, sister and I and many other Italian children attended the nearby school, where we easily learned English. Mamma was always asking me to run errands for her and even when I was quite small I was given the job of translator, as Mamma could not speak English. The only phrase that my Mamma managed to master in broken English was: “Mee-noh-speeka-da-Inglisha. Pleeza-cuma- bac-a-sevan-aclocka”. There was really no need for many immigrants to learn English as all the local shop keepers spoke Italian.
In order to help out with the finances Mamma decided to take in some lodgers, and let one room out to a Mr. and Mrs. Paradiso, and their sons Berto and Nano, and another room to an English couple called Mr. & Mrs. Little who used to spend most of their time down the pub, and to Mamma’s great displeasure would pilfer our coal from under the stairs.
Indeed, many of the older Italian women would rarely venture outside of the Italian quarter, however sometimes they would make a visit to the cemetery in Kensal Green to pay their respects to their loved ones who had passed away. On one occasion, a dear friend of Mamma’s, Mariuccia, managed to get on the wrong bus, and found herself totally lost. The bus conductor couldn’t understand what this strange madly gesticulating Italian lady was saying: “Pleeza, I-wanna-go-a-chichaman-grossa”. With a great deal of patience and some assistance from a friendly passing policeman they eventually managed to fathom out that she wanted to go to Kings Cross!
Mamma would also spend quite a considerable amount of time darning, mending our clothes and generally “making do”. Indeed, she was very skilled with a needle and had great patience. She especially enjoyed doing delicate fine work, and back in Atina she had done some particularly intricate embroidery work, such as decorating altar clothes and veils. She was also skilled at tatting, a type of crochet creating the finest of handmade lace. She would endeavour to teach me some of these skills, some I eventually mastered, as I went on to become a seamstress, however I could never match her beautiful lace work.