My Little Italy
Tina’s Story About Growing Up in Little Italy in Clerkenwell London
My Italian Parents Were Born in Atina
My Italian parents were Atinati, born in Atina, a small mountain community in central Italy. Back in those times Atina was located in the province of the Caserta in an ancient region known as Terra di Lavoro. Atina is an ancient little town perched on a hillside with magnificent panoramic views across the green valley of the Val di Comino. The valley is surrounded by mountains and on one side it has the scenic background of the Abruzzi mountain range and the Italian Appenines. In the winter these mountain-tops are often capped in snow.
Del Prete Family
I believe that Giovanni Del Prete, my maternal great-great-grandfather, may have originated from the Frattamaggiore area, just north of Naples; however, at some point it seems that he relocated and settled in Atina. Here he married Maria Giuseppa Pesce. They had a son, Francesco (my bisnonno) who was born in Atina in 1829 and was a blacksmith by trade.
Francesco fell in love, and at the age of 26 married a signorina by the name of Giuseppa Di Fiore (my bisnonna). They set up home at Via Grotti II in Atina and went on to have several children: Carmine (1857), Raffaele (1865), Giovanna (1858), and Maria Giovanna (1861), and, finally another Giovanna (1870).
Carmine was my Nonno, or grandfather. When he was old enough, was sent to work as a labourer at the Paper Factory or La Cartiera in Atina which was owned by the Visocchi family.
Via Grotti II © Mario Massa
Nonno Carmine Del Prete married Rosa Bracciale in 1883. Their first child, my mother (Maria Grazia) was born in 1885.
Vincenzo (1888) was born next, followed by Marietta (1890), Michelino (1894), Emilia (1898), finally little Annunziata (1901). However, the pregnancy and difficult birth of Annunziata left Rosa weakened. Within a year she tragically died at the age of 44.
Now the weight of responsibility for the family lay heavily on the shoulders of my mother, Maria Grazia, who was just a 16 year old girl. As the eldest daughter she was forced to take over her mother’s role of caring for her father and her younger siblings, and attending to all their needs. She took it on willingly, although this must have been a daunting responsibility for someone so young. However life was hard for Maria Grazia with a never-ending round of cooking and cleaning and daily chores. On washday, she and the other women skillfully balanced large baskets of dirty laundry on their heads and carried them down to the banks of the River Melfa. By the waterside they began the backbreaking work of dipping the articles into the ice cold running water and rubbing and scrubbing the dirty clothes with large bars of soap. Then they would pummel and pound the clothes against large flat stones to help dislodge the dirt. The washing had to be rinsed by swirling it around in the freezing flowing current in order to rinse it thoroughly before it was laboriously wrung out by hand. When the weather was hot they would leave the clothes out in the sun to dry and to bleach.
The Leonardi Family
Close-by to Via Grotti lived the Leonardi family. As my Mamma blossomed into an attractive young woman Benedetto (my father-to-be) began taking a real shine to her. For Maria Grazia this must have been a pleasant distraction from the hard toil she had to endure daily. Indeed it helped to brighten her days. They soon started secretly courting.
However it wasn’t long before Nonno Carmine found out. He did not approve of the relationship. He considered that Mamma’s place was to look after him and the younger children. However true love prevailed. Finally wedding arrangements were made and Maria Grazia and Benedetto were married in Atina in November 1908. It was the custom in those times for the new bride to live with her husband’s family. As the Leonardi’s lived in close proximity to her own family, Mamma was still able to continue many of her duties looking after her brothers and sisters. By this time younger sister Marietta began helping Maria Grazia with some of the daily chores. The Leonardi family, however, did not take to Mamma and treated her rather harshly and unkindly. Soon Mamma discovered she was pregnant and she gave birth to my sister Maria Rosa Adalgesa (Rosie) on the 17 December, 1908. My brother Roberto (Berto) arrived a few years later on the 26 February, 1911.
Old Photos of Atina
Below are some early photos showing typical street scenes in Atina that the Del Prete and Leonardi family would have known so well.
Emigration From Atina
Since the mid-1880’s many people in the Val di Comino area had begun to consider leaving their homeland to escape poverty. Many peasants did not own the land on which they worked. They often were forced to work for a landowner under a system known as the mezzadria. The country folk were made to pay half of all they managed to grow or produce to the landlord. This would leave many impoverished families with not enough to eat and sustain themselves. Thus many such families were forced to consider the option of emigration in the hope of finding better prospects overseas.
Some of the Del Prete family had been successful in finding work as dressmakers in the city of Paris and as others as artists’ models.
Benedetto Leonardi’s elder brother, Carmine, and sister, Emilia, had left for London where they did well for themselves. Carmine had established a shoemaker’s business in the affluent area of Lisle Street in Soho. Emilia had married into the Rossi family who now owned a restaurant in the West End. They sent letters back home with news of attractive prospects in the big city.
Papà began to feel restless, and could see no future for himself in Atina. Before long he decided that he also needed to try his luck in London. Mamma was very reluctant to leave her father and siblings in Atina. However eventually she was persuaded to accompany Papà and start a new life in a new distant environment.
Plans were soon underway – zio (uncle) Carmine and zia (aunt) Emilia had sent home money to help pay for their voyage. Mamma and Papà were to take my baby brother Roberto with them, he was just a few months old. Yet, they decided to leave my sister Rosie behind in Atina, in the care of Papà’s mother and his sister Maddalena until they got settled in London. They packed their bags and trunks, and prepared for the long and arduous journey ahead. On the day of departure the family kissed and hugged one another. The goodbyes were emotional and many tears were shed.
For Mamma and Papà this was to be the end of one life and the beginning of another.
Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner.
Photos marked with ● are believed to be in the Public Domain due of their age.