CITY'S OWN LITTLE PIECE OF ITALY; Rachael Tinniswood on Why Many 19th Century Italians Found a New Home in Liverpool

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Byline: Rachael Tinniswood

ITALIANS, like many other Europeans at the turn of the last century, left their homes in search of a better life in America. But not all of them made it to the New World.

A large number only got as far as Liverpool and stayed to create their own Little Italy in the city.

And now their influence and contribution to Liverpool life is recorded in a new book by local historian Terry Cooke.

Italian families arrived in the city during the 1800s and early 1900s as they escaped the grinding poverty of their own country.

Terry says: ``Many were so determined to get here, they walked a great deal of the way, entertaining with their music and selling their wares, including hand-made figurines made to finance a very long journey.

``It is probable that the great expense of an intended passage from Liverpool across the Atlantic was the deciding factor in many Italian immigrants' decision to remain in Liverpool.''

He explains that Liverpool's prosperity and commercial expansion at that time was renowned and attracted people from all over the world.

``Among the multiplicity of nationalities seeking new opportunity and settling in the north end of Liverpool were enclaves of Irish, Italian, German, Jewish, Welsh and Lithuanian,'' he says.

Local records show that the main body of the Italian settlers came from Picinisco, a small mountain village between Rome and Naples.

``It was said that a number of impoverished immigrants arrived in London from Italy, then walked the 300 miles to Liverpool.

``At this time, there was a vast migration of Europeans seeking a better life in the New World and Liverpool was generally recognised as the gateway to America.

``Although many of the immigrants subsequently continued on to the United States, a substantial number remained here in Liverpool, intensifying the overcrowding in the courts and cellars and establishing a distinct Italian region in one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.''

This region was near the Scotland Road area and comprised Circus Street, Gerard Street, Hunter Street, Lionel Street, Whale Street and parts of Christian Street, Clare Street and Springfield Street.

There was very much a family feel to Little Italy with existing settlers organising accommodation and employment for their fellow immigrants.

It wasn't long before the community was flourishing and families would turn their cellars into workshops, where they would make intricate statues or earn a living as knifesharpeners, wheeling around a crude frame on wheels which incorporated agrindstone.

OneItalian to establish a successful business was Vincenzo Volante, who set up a cart-hire venture in a former pub, the California Vaults, in Gerard Street.

His wife, Maria (formerly D'Annunzio) was related to the notable Italian sculptor, Michael D'Annunzio, whose work can still be seen outside the Walker art gallery in William Brown Street.

The Italian community grew over the years and Terry says: ``There were many marriages between local families and those from Pic-inisco and, on the occasion of such weddings, there were a number oftraditional customs observed. ``The marriage ceremony was usually held in either St Joseph's Church or Holy Cross Church, in the heart of the community.

`The colourful celebrations which took place afterwards were normally held in the cobbled streets, which were gaily decorated with coloured lights and bunting.''

But the streets were not just used for parties. Gambling, despite being illegal, was rife in the backstreets of the working-class neighbourhoods.

Street-bookies would stand in the back-entries, taking bets, often for as little as `sixpence each way' scribbled on a grubby scrap of paper.

On Sunday afternoons there were several discreetly organised `card-schools' in the locality, the most well-known being at the top of Gerard Street. …