Italian Migration to Nineteenth Century Britain: Why and Where?
"The movement of labouring people both within the Italian peninsula and abroad (be it seasonal, temporary or permanent) had been a traditional mode of life for many Italians from time immemorial." -Lucio Sponza
The reasons for the change from this traditional mode of migration to what Sponza describes as a structural phenomenon starts in the mid-eighteenth century, when Italian rural society went through major changes. These were a growth in rural population outstripping resources, rising food prices and by the turn of the century the impact on the "stagnant rural life" of the occupation forces of Napoleon’s revolutionary armies. The result was that many more people were forced to resort to the old tradition of ‘seasonal and vagrant migration’ with small numbers ending up in Britain who became the founders of the Italian Colony in London.
In Italy a deal was struck between the landed aristocracy, who were monarchists, and the urban lower middle class, who were radical republicans. This deal allowed the Northern capitalists to expand their markets. But they were not strong enough to open up all of the rest of Italy to their reforms. Semi-feudal Southern Italy survived with its traditional rural society intact “Indeed, the agrarian capitalists and businessmen met half-way making concessions to each other.” The result was an agreement to support the status quo which strengthened the “surviving archaic society” in the South. At the same time industrialization in the North was failing to alleviate the worsening conditions. In Sponza’s opinion, these factors facilitated the collapse of the economy and the mass migration which occurred in the last part of the 19th Century.
In the early 19th century most of the migration would have been on foot from the North of Italy to Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany and a few ending up in Britain.
As numbers increased and competition grew fiercer, so Italians spread to the north of England, Wales and Scotland. They were never in great numbers in the northern cities. There tended to be no more than 600 Italians in one city.
Of the 1000 or so Italians in Wales at the end of the 19th century a third of them worked as seamen on British ships, a third worked in jobs that serviced shipping, such as ships chandlers, seamen's lodgings etc., and most of the rest worked in the coal mines.
"The Welsh are the Italians in the rain", said journalist Rene Cutforth. But just how did the Italians get to Wales?
The Welsh and the Italians had opposing attitudes towards religion, with the Roman Catholic Italians having a very different approach from the Welsh noncomformist one. There were to be clashes over the issue of the Italian cafes opening on Sundays.
Pietro was the last Italian man to sell ice cream from a horse and cart in Wales. Today he and his sons own ice cream parlours and cafes in Porthcawl. A story of how one man's life was enriched by two different cultures.
"I see the world through two windows - I see the sunshine of Italy and the storms of this country. But you can learn from storms and you can learn from sunshine and you put the two together and make an effort to make a better world."
Italian Migration to South Wales in the early years of the Twentieth Century
In winter during the 20 th century there were approximately 4000 Italians living in South Wales alone, but in summer the figure rose and peaked in August when spoken English, heavily accented, mingled with dialect Italian in the square. Cars with GB plates were everywhere. Their owners were not ordinary tourists but people of Bardi descent returning to the land their forebears left, two, three, or four generations ago.
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