This piece was written by Victoria Willey (nee Rebori)
Italian immigrants came from some of the most remote and impoverished villages of northern and southern Italy. from the mountains districts of the Duchy of Palma, from the hills in the area around Chiavari, in the province of Genoa, and the hill villages of the Val-di-Taro. From the south they came from the agricultural towns in isolated Appenine peaks. Many were from the lower Appenines in the Ciociara, especially Picinisco and surrounding hamlets.
Owning very little land the peasants of these towns and hamlets lived by subsistance farming. To maintain a minimum level of subsistance and to pay their taxes they were forced to look elsewhere for ways to supplement their megre incomes. Some of these could be found close to home. Many picked mushrooms and chestnuts and crafted baskets, pots, barrels and cribs to be sold at the local fairs. Others journeyed to Liguria to buy olive oil to re-sell at nearby villages. The most notorious trade of the inhabitants of the Val-di-Taro, the val-taresi, is that of smuggling.
Because their lands were marginal and holdings were small not all members of the family needed to be at home throughout the year, in many cases it was seeding and harvest time which needed everyones presence. Thus immigrants emigrated from their home towns, for a short or more extended times.
Earlier in the century, after the Napoleonic Wars, their passage was not by boat, wagon or train but on foot from the small towns to London and Paris. These were the child street musicians led by their masters (padrone), exhibiting small animals, monkeys and white mice on the streets. later it was organ-grinders and street musicians who, under the patronage of a padrone, hoped for a better life.
From as early as 1850 there was the arrival of working-class Italians immigrants to the area of West Bar in Sheffield, which already housed many Irish immigrants, and they made their homes in the slum dwellings. Seeking refuge from povety and lack of oppertunity in rural and urban Italy, having few skills and resources, they eeked out a living, some entering the cutlery industry, but many were street musicians with barrel-organs as the West Bar area had a profusion of theatres and public houses providing variety of entertainment and as the crowds queued to enter this is where they plyed their wares. Later, as the barrel-organ went out of fashion, hand-made ice cream was sold from push and pony carts.
The poor terraced streets became a social refuge for the immigrants, who knowing no English, would depend on the family network for survival.
The building of St Vincents de Paul Roman Catholic Church in 1852 gave a focus to religious and social life.
Education, for their children, was important to the parents of this area as they themselves had little or no oppertunity to attend school in their native Italy and both Italian and Irish children were tutored by the Sisters of Charity and the Vincentain brothers.
The Early Days
Domenico Rebori, his wife Maria (nee Granelli) and their family.
My grandmother, Maria Granelli, emigrated to Victorian England from a small village, Santa Maria del Taro, near Genoa, Liguria, Italy in 1877. (this date was taken from her obituary in the Rotherham Advertiser, December 1935).
My grandfather, Dominico Rebori's entry into England at present is not known but he can be first found on the 1881 census.
Both were single when entering the country and although they may not have travelled together, it can only be presumed they knew each other as they both settled in the West Bar area of Sheffield, which was home of many Italian immigrants from the same Italian areas, and were taken under the wing of a member of the family or a padrone. My grandfather can be found on the 1881 census living in the house of Antonio Cassinelli, 30 Smithfield, with his younger brother Andreas, whereas my grandmother, on the same census, is living at 19/20 Furnace Hill with her two elders brothers Rocco and Angelo, at the home (it is presumed) of their relation Maria Pessaguino, nee Granelli.
Of interest, to go backfurther, Antonio Cassinelli and his brother Angelo (aged 19 and 16 respectivily) can be found on the 1851 census living in the Millsands area, West Bar, Sheffield, lodgers in a large Italian household. By 1861, Antonio, now 26 years of age, had married in 1854 at St Maries RC Church, Sheffield an english woman Elizabeth, nee Williams, born in Manchester, Lancashire, they were living at 2 Smithfield, West Bar. By now he had a huge household comprising of Italian immigrants, one of whom was my grandmother's relation and her husband and family Domenico Pessaguino, aged 27 years, Maria (nee Granelli) aged 27 years and their daughter Olinda, 10 months old born Sheffield, whereas they were born in Italy.
This confirms the fact that as early as 1851 Italian immigrants were residing in Sheffield and perhaps this gave my grandmother a base to arrive at when she herself made the long voyage in the 1870's.
The Monte dei Paschi bank in Sienna, an intitution so old it helped finance Columbus's first voyage to America (apparently the loan is still outstanding !)
Who financed Maria and Domenico's voyage to England ? Maybe they did as many others and walked all the way through Switzerland and France and earning a living the best way on their way so they could get to England. My father, her yougest child, Giovanni Luigi, born 27th July, 1904, always recollected she came by sea over the English Channel, with her two brothers Rocco and Angleo as work was hard to find in their native homeland.
America was so called "Promised Land" and Americans are constantly surprised that a country like England should also have it's share of Italian immigrants from the 19th Century. In fact their presence in Britain pre dated their arrival in America; records show there was little Italian immigration to the United States before 1870, by which time more than half the immigrants leaving Europe were sailing from the port of Liverpool, only 35 miles from Manchester.
The greatest influx of Italians into Manchester took place between 1865 and the early years of the 20th Century, the same it can be said of the influx into Sheffield.
The Italian immigrants gravitated to the West Bar area of Sheffield, an industrial area of the city. This had been an unhealthy and violent place in the early 19th century, with its foundries, back-to-back houses and high crime rate. When the nuns and priests were sent from Ireland to founder the new Catholic Church, St Vincent's de Paul in Solly Street and it's School in 1855 they found the children unruly, running around like wild indians and were appalled at their poverty.
But in rows of steel and iron workers houses, many of which were a century old even then, they must have found an advancement: these at least had seperate kitchens, living rooms bedrooms and outside privvies.
In 19th century Italy, the farming sector, had only marginally progressed since the middle ages. For many peasants, housing consisted largely of huts, with straw roof and no flooring. The more fortunate shared their home with the animals, where the humans occupied the first floor and the animals the ground. Bread and polenta were the staples, supplemented by beans, oil and a few other vegatables. hygene was non-existant, disease and physical deformity were a commonplace, with Malaria alone killing something like 2,500 people per year.
On the 1881 census Dominico and Maria's official occupation was listed as "musician" or "organ-grinder", but then the 1881 census of England and Wales shows that a third of the immigrants were musicians.
The Itailian colony grew and began to outnumber the English and Irish families on the parish. Making and selling ice cream in the cellars of their homes became a big industry - for some a brief living - for others like the Rebori/Granelli family a way of life.
So, Sheffield's "Little Italy" became the family home and base for an ice cream business proudly bearing our name.