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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.

Most commentators at that time thought that the increase in migration would be short-term phenomena. The North of Italy had started the process of industrialization, which was supposed to absorb people from the land when times got hard. Others sought different explanations as the conditions of the rural population steadily deteriorated throughout the nineteenth century.

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.

Landowners responded in two ways to these developments. In rural areas working and tenure conditions became harsher as some landlords, increasing output, "squeezed" the peasants to take advantage of the expanded market in the North. Others made “unholy alliances with tiny small holders and labourers” in an attempt to delay the enforcement of legislation to increase production. Both actions increased migration. The first as the only way the peasants could improve their lives. The second was subtler in that the "defensive action" taken by these landowners carried on underpinning the traditional system of seasonal and permanent migration, which was part and parcel of the very insecure existence of the peasants from the mountainous regions of Italy. The second action was the main factor for the "emigration to Britain."


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.

From the 1820s to 1851, there were 4000 Italian immigrants in Britain, with 50% of them living in London. The regional origins of most were the valleys around Como, and Lucca. The people from Como were skilled artisans, making barometers and other precision instruments. People from Lucca specialized in plaster figure making.

By the 1870s the main regional origins of Italian emigration to Britain were the valleys of Parma in the north, and the Liri valley, half way between Rome and Naples. A railway network had been started by this time and this helped the people from the Liri valley to migrate to the North of Italy, and then on to Britain. The people from Parma were predominately organ grinders, while the Neapolitans from the Liri valley (now under Lazio) made ice cream. The occupational structure of the immigrants, up to the 1870s, remained "substantially the same." After this date all itinerant employment crossed regional demarcations.

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.

Why Wales?

"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 Sidoli

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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