Tina Leonardi’s Story of Growing up
in “Little Italy”, Clerkenwell, London
Our normal school finished at 4p.m, however, Italian children were sent back to the school at 5.3 p.m. for another 2 hours. This was the “Scuola Serale” or Evening School. Our parents had been persuaded that is was of great importance for us youngsters to be well educated and to read and write in Italian, and to know Italian culture, history, and geography. Again, we were divided into girls and boys. The boys were taught by Maestri Ferrari, Persighetti, Balestri, Bisoni. The girls were taught by Signorine Balestrieri, Belli, and Nizzoli. Sometimes we would play games, hold parties, or be taken on outings which we much enjoyed. Everything seemed just fine, and we were blissfully unaware of what was happing.
Life in Italy had been changing rapidly over the years. In October 1922, Benito Mussolini became the Italian Prime Minister when his National Fascist Party seized power. During the following years Mussolini consolidated his power by using any means to eliminate any opposition. Elections were rigged and adversaries were eliminated. By November 1926, all rival political parties and opposition newspapers were banned in Italy. Thus, Italy was now a dictatorship under the rule of Mussolini.
This was to be a reign of terror. If you dared to protest and speak out, or if you didn’t tow the party line, the “Black Shirts”, the harsh and heavy-handed military force and secret police, taught you a lesson. They broke bones, gave ferocious beatings, tortured, and, if deemed necessary, executed. The Black Shirts motto was "Me ne frego" (I don’t give a damn"). People were required to carry a card, “una tessera”, to show membership of the party. All teachers in schools and universities had to swear an oath to defend the Fascist regime.
Mussolini likened himself to a Roman Emperor and his imperial dream was to create a new Empire. Through the clever use of media propaganda, he portrayed himself as a magnificent leader, potent and virile. He held huge rallies. There were numerous newsreels and radio broadcasts in which he gave stirring speeches about the rebirth of the nation. Il Duce proclaimed his love of his people and encouraged a sense of national pride and patriotism.
Mussolini also established several youth movements of the National Fascist Party for “the physical and moral training of the young”. Children under eight years joined the “Figli e figlie della Lupa” (which refers to the Roman myth of “Romulus and Remus” and the founding of Rome.
Boys between eight and 14 joined the “Balilla”, and the “Piccole Italiane” was the club for the girls of the same age group. Boys between 15 and 18 joined the “Avanguardisti”. Mussolini declared: "I am preparing the young to a fight for life, but also for the nation."
The “Fascisti all'Estero” (Facists Abroad) was formed. It enabled Mussolini to reach out to Italians overseas. Fascist clubs were created in London, Cardiff, Swansea, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Greenock, Newcastle upon Tyne, Leeds, Birmingham, Southampton, Belfast, Dublin, and Londonderry.
Once again, with the cunning use of propaganda Italians abroad were enticed to remain loyal to their native country and to revive their patriotic identity. Propaganda stirred a renewed sense of belonging, allegiance, and solidarity in many members of our community. Adults were attracted to forming clubs, like “Doppo Lavoro”, because they hosted social gatherings, sports activities, and charabanc outings.
Subtly, little by little, some Italians, especially restaurant and café owners in the Soho area, were successfully lured to declare an allegiance to the Fascist state by possessing a “Tessera” membership card. However, not all Italians in Britain warmed to this. Others simply felt, understandably, patriotic and nostalgic about their homeland. Perhaps, some were just naïve; they did not fully understand the situation and its consequences.
At our Italian evening school things started to change direction. Children were encouraged by their parents to join new youth organisations, similar to those established in Italy, which unknowingly to us were funded by the Fascist Party. Unwittingly, we were being indoctrinated.
The young boys in the photograph are holding real guns. The weapon was known as the Moschetto Balilla
We were issued uniforms to wear. As I recall, the boys wore black shirts, a strange black hat called a “fez”, and grey-green trousers. My younger cousins Giovanni and Nino had been enlisted in the Balilla movement. We girls wore a white blouse, dark skirt, a black cape, and black berets on our heads.
We were taught to obey and not to question. We sang lots of patriotic songs such as the Fascist hymn “La Giovinezza”. The teacher would call out “A chi la vittoria?” to which we were taught to respond “A noi!” whilst giving the Fascist salute in front of a poster of Mussolini and the Italian flag. We were taught to chant: "I believe in Rome, the Eternal, the mother of my country……I believe in the genius of Mussolini…and in the resurrection of the Empire."
We were drilled in marching and parading, and the boys carried wooden replicas of guns. I secretly felt rather uncomfortable about it all, but very soon I was due to leave school at the age of 14, so it didn’t affect me so much. Some children were sent to Italy, to summer camps where they underwent further indoctrination and military style training.
A Balilla Boy
Some of them were selected to perform in front of “Il Duce” at one of his rallies.
Here is a video clip showing
Other children, including my cousins Lino and Lina, were sent on holiday to the seaside to a house called “Villa Italia” a summer colony in Felixstowe run by the Fascists. There was a second camp at Maidenhead. All of this was funded by the Italian government.
Mussolini dreamed of creating a second Roman Empire. For example, in 1935 during the Italian Invasion of Abyssinia, now better known as Ethiopia, Mussolini declared “La Giornata di Fede” to aid the Italian war effort. I can remember, one day after Mass in St. Peter’s, my Mamma and many other married women walking up to the altar and placing their golden wedding rings in a basket as a “gift” to “Il Duce”. In return, they received rings made of a dull metal with the date inscribed inside. It seemed that even the Italian Church had given their approval of support to the Fascists.
All of this was to have deep repercussions for Italians who had settled in Britain. After the invasion of Abyssinia, it was not very easy being Italian or having an Italian name. The threat of war was a worrying time for our Italian community. In the newspapers there was a growing campaign of hostility directed at Italians living in Britain; therefore, some families decided to anglicise their names.
Other Italian families decided to return to Italy and to take their chances back there, which is what my Aunty Marietta Uncle Giovanni and family did. Mamma, too, wanted to return to Atina, but Rosie, Berto, and I pleaded with her not to go; England was our home and all we knew. However, the life we knew was soon to be put into turmoil.
Fascism took its name from the fasces (fa-sheez), a bundle of wooden sticks tied together around an axe. The fasces was a symbol of power in Ancient Rome.