The Italian Connection

The first Italian immigration to Britain took place about 150 years ago, although there have always been Italians resident in the country. In Perth, for example, Italian names appear in the baptismal register of 1831. In the Perth area, the Italian families came from the North of Italy, the Parma (Emilia) Region in particular. The people from this Region initially came to the London area to blast the tunnels for the London Underground, as they had already been doing this work in their own area of Italy. When their work was completed, they sent home to Italy for sack-loads of chestnuts from the countless forests in the Parma area and progressed to selling roast chestnuts in the streets in the winter months and selling ice-cream from freezers attached to bicycles in the summer.

Italians are very family orientated, so it was only natural to them that they should send home to their village for help from their brothers and sisters or their sons, daughters and more distant relatives or friends. The first male member of a family to come to Britain was known as “Padroni” and he would be assisted by “garzoni”, a North-Italian dialect word for the boys who were sent for later. Most of the Italians who arrived at this time came initially to London as “garzoni”, but eventually branched out on their own by going to other towns and opening their own shops and businesses. The Italians have always been noted as good cooks, so they adapted their catering skills to new types of food. Although the “Fish & Chip” concept came from London where this was already an accepted “fast food”, the ice cream association came directly from Italy. Even today, many Italians are still in the catering trade, others, however, have moved on to other trades and professions.

In the Perth area, most of the First Immigration Italians arrived around 1860 – 1896. Most of these immigrants were men who went back to their towns and villages in North Italy such as Borgotaro, Albareto, Rovinaglia, Valdena, and Sarzara, to bring back their childhood sweethearts as their brides. Others, such as my grand-parents Severino Giulianotti and Assunta Corvi, who were married in St John’s church, Perth, on 6th July 1908, chose to have their weddings in Scotland. Their descendants are now third or fourth generation Scots and are fully integrated into the community, notwithstanding the rather unpleasant experience of internment during the last war.

The Second Immigration occurred between 1947 and 1952. Most of these immigrants were young girls who came from the South of Italy on government-assisted grants, and who ended up marrying Scots. Whereas the first immigrants tended to concentrate on integrating into the local community, the second wave tended to form social clubs. The Perth Italian Club started in a little upstairs room in the old High Street round about 1972. It has been functioning in its present form, with the addition of Scots of Italian descent, in St John’s Church Hall since 2003.

Many of the Italian customs have been brought to Scotland by the immigrants. For instance, all Italian children are given their “holy medal” at birth. The girls receive a gold medal and chain of Our Lady, and the boys, one of Our Lord with the inscription “Dio Ti Protega” (May God Protect You) on the reverse. Most Scots-Italians eat “Italian” at home. They keep connection with their roots, often retaining their family home, and tend to holiday in Italy with their family or extended family.

Their Catholic religion and their Church is very important to them. The name of the Italian Club attached to St John’s is Circolo Italiano Religioso, or the Italian Religious Circle. It undertakes a pilgrimage every year, one year in Scotland, and the next abroad. Its patron saint is St. Anthony of Padua, one of Italy’s most popular holy men. In 2007, the pilgrimage was to Assisi. Integration has always been a prime feature of the Association; all their events, which include the aforementioned pilgrimages, the annual trip to the Mass celebrated by Archbishop Mario Conti and Bishop Philip Tartaglia on 2nd November for the dead of the Italian Community, Christmas dinner-dance and so on, are open to all members of the parish community.

There has been a Third Immigration of Italians to Britain. They did not have to walk from the North of Italy like the first influx, nor did they come from the South on government-assisted passage like the second group. They are part of the new Europe which allows its citizens to move freely from country to country within the European Union. In the Catholic Church in Scotland today we have several Scots-Italian priests, notably Archbishop Mario Conti and Bishop Philip Tartaglia, an indication of just how much the Italian immigrants have altered the make-up of the Catholic community in the country. It is worth reflecting that in 1861 there were only 119 Italian-born persons in Scotland, and that their number had risen to over 4,500 by 1911. Numbers have continued to rise ever since, bringing valuable skills and abilities with them.

One final note: the Scots-Italians now have their own tartan which has been registered with The Tartan Society and is worn with pride on formal and sporting occasions.

Norma Giulianotti