Tina Leonardi’s Story of Growing up
in “Little Italy”, Clerkenwell, London
In 1883, 20 years after St. Peter's Italian church was consecrated, permission was sought from the local authorities and police force to hold the very first “Italian Procession” in the streets of Clerkenwell. It is said that Queen Victoria gave her special consent to the local police chief of Holborn for it to take place. This was of great significance as this was to be the first outdoor Catholic event held in England since the reformation of King Henry VIII. The procession would celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. From 1896 on, it became a regular event each July, except during the war years when such proceedings were banned.
This was one of the highlights of our year in the Italian community. Everyone young and old, would look forward to this joyous occasion. Before the procession took place there were many long months of preparation, organisation, and co-operation prior to the big day itself. For one day out of the year our grey London streets were transformed into a living, colourful, and vibrant Italian village.
Funds were required to buy flowers, fabric, and decorations. Despite the hardship many Italian households managed to contribute a little something. The nuns would go about to the local factories and businesses asking for donations. Somehow funds were always found. As July approached more money was raised by the selling of programmes detailing that year’s events. Everyone hoped and prayed for the weather to be fine.
The festivities ran for three days beginning on the Friday evening when the North Hyde Band from Mill Hill Orphanage would come and play for us. Afterwards, band members would be rewarded by being warmly welcomed into people’s homes to receive food and hospitality. More music and dancing would follow all this.
The original procession route began at the St. Peter's Italian Church in Clerkenwell Road, and then wound its way down Eyre Street Hill, into Great Bath Street, Bakers Row, and into Farringdon Road. From Farringdon Road the procession travelled as far as Cross Street, passing through Hatton Garden and Leather Lane. It finally arrived back at St. Peter's. (Today’s route is somewhat shorter.)
People who lived in houses along the route would have taken much time and effort in decorating the streets. Italian and British flags, paper lanterns, bunting, streamers, and coloured electric lights, would be festooned along the way. Many people hung lace tablecloths or colourful silk bedspreads from their upstairs windows or created little altars gaily decorated with flowers, votive candles, and statues of the Madonna. The priest would go around and inspect each one in turn and there was a prize for the most impressive design.
On Sunday morning streets stalls were set up selling torrone, sweets, toasted monkey nuts, and, of course, ice cream. Numerous vendors stood on street corners doing roaring trades selling programmes, balloons, streamers, flags, religious pictures, and statues. This remained a deeply religious event despite the carnival-like atmosphere.
Teams of helpers were hives of activity as they finalised their preparations, and completed their floral decorations. In the school hall, next to the church, Sister Margaret oversaw last minute alterations and adjustments to the costumes. Tensions ran high in the creation of the procession.
Then after Sunday lunch, in a mood of anticipation and excitement, it was time for everyone to get dressed in their procession costumes. Along the pavements expectant onlookers assembled. All were dressed in their Sunday finery. Shopkeepers stood by their shop doorways or watched from upstairs shop windows. The procession drew not only Italians, but also the Irish and other Londoners.
At half-past three the church bell rang to signal the start of the procession which wound its way through “Little Italy. The resident saints of St. Peter’s were given an airing. The statues were set on wooden litters and beautifully adorned with fresh flowers. Strong men reverently carried the litters through the streets. Terroni family members always carried the statue of St. Lucia, the patroness of eye problems. The family had donated St. Lucia to the church as one of their family suffered from failing eyesight.
“First communicants” were an integral group of the procession. I can remember being told by Sister Margaret to bring in a shilling to school to pay for a fresh lily to carry in the procession. I wore my First Communion dress and my head was graced with a wreath of fresh flowers. I walked in the procession every year after this occasion.
A fascinating British Pathé film clip entitled:
Other participant groups portrayed biblical scenes. Jesus carrying the cross and escorted by Roman soldiers is a scene repeated every year. Marchers in the procession included women and children in Italian regional costume, tiny tots dressed as angels with female marshalls walking alongside them, as well as old ladies draped in mantillas and clutching rosaries in their hands. Other participant groups portrayed biblical scenes. Jesus carrying the cross and escorted by Roman soldiers is a scene repeated every year. Marchers in the procession included women and children in Italian regional costume, tiny tots dressed as angels with female marshalls walking alongside them, as well as old ladies draped in mantillas and clutching rosaries in their hands. Girls dressed in white wearing floral wreaths on their heads, carried baskets of rose petals, strewing them along the way as they walked. I recall one year it rained, which dampened people’s spirits in more way than one. Some of the children were wearing coloured crepe paper sashes which began disintegrating with the rain, and staining their beautiful clothing.
The married women of the “Consorelle of the Sacred Heart” were each dressed in black and each wore a gold medal suspended from a red ribbon. Men comprised the “Confratelli of the Blessed Sacrament”. Each man wore a white vestment and a red cape. “Daughters of Mary” (“Figli di Maria”) each wore a white robe, a blue veil, and blue sash. Other groups walking in the procession were the “Legion of Mary”, and the “Kings of St. Colomba”. Each group carried its own embroidered silk banner.
Interspersed within the parade were bands such as kilted Scottish and Irish Pipers and Drummers, the green-uniformed North Hyde Boys Band, the British Legion Band, Willesden Silver Band, and the Fulham Borough band. As the procession passed by the onlookers, men with buckets ran alongside it, darting in and out of the crowds, in order to collect donations for St. Peter’s.
An interesting article from Spitalfields Life regarding the 126th Italian Parade in Clerkenwell in 2011 - Photos by Colin O’Brien
Parish priests wearing vestments which billowed like sails, other church dignitaries, accompanied by the altar boys, marched along. An older boy carried the cross, while other altar boys carried smoking censers that swung with each pace. A small boy carried a silver container of Holy Water.
At a certain mark in the road Our Lady and the procession paused for several moments. At this mark a large wicker basket was suspended from a cord that stretched across the street.
At the crowd’s shouts of “Tirra!” a string was pulled that released from the wicker basket fluttering doves into the sky, and a cascade of flower petals upon the crowds below.
Following the Madonna were the faithful reverently carrying candles and paying her homage. Their devotions include devout recitation of prayers, and the singing of hymns, such as “Ave Maria”, “Faith of our Fathers”, and “Hail, Queen of Heaven”.
The procession and celebration so filled with joy, animation, and vitality seemed as if it were endless; nevertheless, it would eventually wind its way back into St. Peter’s and culminate in Benediction. For those outside the church, unable to fit inside, Benediction was piped outside through speakers. Finally, the priests came out onto the church steps to bless the people waiting.
People left their house doors wide open so that friends and relatives, who wandered from house to house, could enter to eat and socialize. Evening saw general merry-making and the free flow of wine.
Musicians played the zampogna, the old Italian bagpipes, and other instruments such as accordions, violins, mandolins, and mouth organs. The much-loved traditional songs were sung with gusto. Men and women, young and old, whirled around dancing the Tarantella.
We Italians felt we were back in the old country. it was a celebration of our cultural traditions
which would last into the wee hours of the morning.
The feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel falls on the 16th July
and the procession was always held on the first weekend following this date.
The Procession still takes place today - Click here to see photos of some of the more recent Processions
The procession’s piece de resistance was the litter bearing the statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. She was wreathed in a bower of fresh roses and lilies.
The July Procession in Clerkenwell
"Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. 2,000 Italians in procession through gaily decorated streets of London's little Italy." Year: 1927.
Description: A procession, as it makes its way through the streets, which are decorated with bunting. There are large crowds on both sides. The statue of Our Lady being carried aloft, with people watching from houses in the background. . The procession includes girls in white dresses and veils. Further shots show the statue decorated with garlands carried through the crowded streets. Mounted policemen follow. Please click here to view