Tina’s Story of Growing up in
“Little Italy”, Clerkenwell, London
“Il Quartiere Italiano” became referred to by the British as “Little Italy”, but it was better known to us Italians as “The Hill”. It was almost like a miniature Italian village, a colourful melting pot of Italian culture and traditions emanating from the tip to the toe of Italy. It was made up of Italians from Como, Lucca, Piacenza, Parma, Tuscany, the Liri and Comino valleys, Naples, Calabria, all the way down to Sicily. This Italian collage was set in the urban environment of London.
The focal point, was of course, St. Peter's Italian Church in Clerkenwell Road which was just a stone’s throw from where we lived. Our Italian district was roughly contained within the boundaries of Clerkenwell Road, Farringdon Road and Rosebery Avenue. It encompassed such streets as Eyre Street Hill, Laystall Street, Back Hill, Warner Street, Bakers Row, Crawford Passage, and Little Saffron Hill, but it also stretched across to Leather Lane and up to Mount Pleasant.
Terroni’s in Summer Street had been established in 1878, but it burned down, with one life lost, in 1903 The new Terroni shop was opened in Clerkenwell Road, next to the St. Peter's. There was Gazzano’s in Farringdon Road which was run previously by Alfredo Mariani. Servini’s was located up by Mount Pleasant. Other Italian provisions shops such as Politi’s, Callendra’s, Caliendo’s, Dondi’s, Di Gesso’s, Petti’s, Azzalli’s, Milano’s, Milordini’s and Danantonionio’s. All were stacked from floor to ceiling with an array of tasty Italian foodstuffs. There were sacks of flour, drawers of coffee beans, dried pasta of all shapes and sizes, pulses, and rice, barrels of wine, huge containers of olives, olive oils, and vinegars. One could find tins of tomatoes and conserva, anchovies, dried tomatoes, mushrooms, nuts, lupini, capers, pickles, and preserves in jars. Hung from hooks in the ceiling were numerous varieties of salami, mortadella, pancetta, prosciutto, guanciale, bresaola, salted bacalà, pannetone, panforte, amaretti, torrone, biscuits, and chocolates.
Shopping was normally done on a daily basis because there was no refrigeration in kitchens back then. I [Tina] can recall the butchers’ shops run by the Cicconi and Santella families. The Notaro’s and Fusco’s ran green grocers’ shops. There was a baker on corner of Eyre Street Hill and Warner Street and another baker, Coulson’s, on the corner of Vine Street. Miller’s bakery was located on the corner of Warner Street, and people would often take a Sunday roast to be baked in the baker’s oven for the cost of a tuppence.
There were local markets at Exmouth Street and Leather Lane, also known as “La del Rana” to many Italians. The huge Smithfield’s Market was just a short distance away.
Some Italians took a special liking to the British favourite: Fish n’ Chips. Fish n’ Chips businesses such as Gigati’s, Borzoni’s Mazzini’s, Falconi’s and Buonomi’s opened up.
Other businesses in the Quartiere included Mr Borzoni’s which sold Italian newspapers such as the weekly Italian newspaper Londra-Roma, La Corriera della Serra and La Domenica. The shop also sold Italian “Cheroots” and cigars. The Roberto family had a tobacconist’s shop in Back Hill.
Capocci, Balsamo, Bruscini, Piemonti, Pisani, Pulisiano, Cirullo, and Famma were all hairdressers and barbershops which utilized “cut-throat” razors in giving shaves. Ladies’ hairdresser, Mrs. Luella, also pierced ears! Tailor shops included Mariani’s, Perdoni, and Rapaccioli, while boot makers included Beltrami, Bergamini, Alessandretti, Morra, and Seghini. Knife grinding was found at Pedarzolli, while the Falco’s had a water factory in Baker’s Row.
Through hard work and determination some families had been able to save enough funds to start their own businesses which served the community well. “Little Italy” had become virtually self-sufficient by the early 1900’s. There were many shops selling Italian provisions, maybe because English fare was viewed suspiciously.
Perella’s in Eyre Street Hill sold items such as soap, salt, vinegar, washing powder and lime. Next toPerella’s was a large room which had been converted into a refrigeration area from which they sold blocks of ice to the ice cream manufacturers. Carlo Gatti and the Ciccone family had ice depots in Clerkenwell. The Roberto’s had a shop that sold all sorts of equipment and paraphernalia for the preparation and vending of ice cream. In the floor of the Roberto shop was a trap door from which you could see the River Fleet flowing underground. The Linosi, Cura and Romano families, among others, worked in the ice cream trade.
A Mr. Cura was known as a “naturalist” as he rant a type of pet shop. There he sold parakeets, budgerigars, white mice, frogs, lizards, snakes, and even monkeys. I seem to remember some talk of another man, by the name of Lebaldi, who imported tortoises and kept them on his roof!
There were numerous cafés in the community which were open all hours. These cafés were run by families such as the Sidoli’s, Conti’s, Calegari’s, Brilli’s, Rossi’s, Malvermi’s and Malangone’s. Next to where we lived, at the lower end of Little Saffron Hill, on the corner of Ray Street was Ted’s Café, which was owned by Geraldo Gasparro. I [Tina] seem to remember he was an ardent Spurs supporter. Ted’s Café was a very popular place, and it served many of the local factories and business. Many of the Bergamini family worked there.
Next door to our house, on the other side, there was a shed owned by an ice-cream maker. We were awakened early in the mornings by the sounds of him churning his ice cream mixture. The evening before he would have made this by pouring creamy milk into a large pan and then adding egg yolks, sugar and vanilla. This mixture would be brought to the boil gradually on top of a stove. The delicious aroma of warm milky concoction would waft its way through our open doors and windows. The mixture had to be just right, too much sugar would make the ice freeze hard. This was then poured into a large container which was covered with a cloth and left to cool overnight. Next morning our neighbour would go and buy a large block of ice which he would then proceed to crack and crush up into small pieces. Then he would take out his mechanical ice cream maker which consisted of large wooden tub, and a smaller metal container that fitted inside. Each had a lid. There was a handle which could be turned to agitate the contents. The cold creamy custard was then carefully poured into the inner metal bowl, and the space between the two different containers was packed with a mixture of crushed ice and salt.
He then began the laborious task of rotating the handle in order to stir the mixture. To make the work enjoyable he treated us to a plethora of Neapolitan songs. Gradually, whilst the mixture was churned vigorously, it would begin to freeze. After strenuously winding the handle for some period of time, the eventual result would be a mouth-watering ice-cream with an even, smooth consistency. There was another type of refreshing treat known as water-ice using as its ingredients diluted lemon juice, or other fruit juices, sweetened with a little sugar. After making the ice cream he loaded the vat onto his special barrow, a colourfully decorated hand cart, and set off around the streets of London to sell his produce. Like many Italian ice-cream vendors, he was versatile, and would sometimes sell toffee apples; and, in the colder months, he sold hot roasted chestnuts or baked potatoes, and hot drinks.
Opposite our house was a timber yard that was infested with rats. A little further up the hill on the left hand side there had been a pub named the City Arms, run by the Cattini family. Other families I can remember who lived in our street were the Danna’s who owned a shoe shop, the Moletti’s, Petrosoli’s, Borlenghi’s, Falco, and Mancini’s. There was Mrs Day and next to her lived the Finella’s. Old Mrs. Finella ran a little shop. On the left there was Leicester Place, and further up Victoria Dwellings. At the top end of Little Saffron hill, on the opposite side of the road, was St. Peter’s Italian School where I and many of the Italian children went to school.
I remember the jolly milkman from Jones’ Dairy in Farringdon Road. He travelled around the local streets riding a tricycle which had a large brass urn fitted to the front. Hooked on to this urn were two long-handled metal measuring vessels which were used to dole out pint and half pint measures. He would deftly pour out the ladlefuls of milk into the waiting customer’s jug.
I can also remember the “muffin man” who would walk around the streets on a Sunday afternoon ringing his hand bell and calling out his wares. He would carry on his head a large tray of muffins and crumpets which were a delicious treat when toasted and smothered in melted butter.
We would often hear Miserotti the “Coal Man”on his rounds. He would regularly stop his horse-drawn cart outside our house. He used to wear a thick protective canvas hood covering his head, shoulders, and back. His face, hands, and clothes were ingrained with coal dust. He would haul the heavy sacks of coal over his shoulders and carry them into our hall and unload the contents into the coal hole under the stairs. Coal was sold by the hundredweight, or by the pound if you could only afford a smaller quantity from the Day’s Coal Shop.
There was a particularly fishy smelling barrow pushed by one street vendor who specialised in selling shrimps, and cockles, mussels, and winkles, pickled in vinegar, together with jellied eels. Again, these were doled out in pint or half-pint measures. I just loved the salty taste of the sea.
An exotic turbaned gentleman would come around from time to time. From his neck hung a tin contraption and when he cranked the handle it spun a sugar mixture into a colourless type of candy floss. This was served in pieces of newspaper rolled and shaped into cones. We kids called this “Indian Toffee”.
When the “Rag Man” arrived in the neighbourhood pushing his barrow, we children would all dash home excitedly and pester our mothers for any old clothes, rags, or jam jars. Depending how many items our mothers could offer, we would exchange them for little gifts, such as a book, a paper windmill, a cup or saucer, or perhaps a goldfish.
Then there was the “Cat Meat Man” who would carry a large basket containing off-cuts of meat, with all the cats in the neighbourhood sniffing and following in his steps.
Most of the Italians of “Il Quartiere Italiano” were honest and hard-working. Our neighbourhood was full of friendly faces. Everyone knew one other, and there was a strong sense of community and belonging. Most families lived at very close quarters in simple lodgings, renting just a room or two, and often having to share facilities such as kitchens and privies. There was little or no fear of intruders in those days. The doors to homes were often left wide open all day until the family eventually went to bed. Families were large with lots of children and they were welcome to run freely in and out of each other’s houses. It was “open house” for friends and neighbours to pop in for a bit of a chat or to borrow something. Troubles were shared, and people rallied around to support each other in their hour of need. Many lasting friendships were forged in this way. It was almost like belonging to one big family.
A couple of shops, such as Terroni’s, would offer other useful services, such as helping out new arrivals, dealing with their problems, giving advice, translating, and assisting with paperwork and form filling. Many of the immigrants were illiterate and poorly educated. A charitable organisation called the Garibaldi Mazzini club had been formed to provide assistance to the poorest families in the community. In those days people looked after each other as there was no social security to depend on. There were also insurances, loans and saving schemes to help pay for such events as weddings and funerals.