Atina in the Val di Comino

Starting A New Life in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy

My parents finally arrived in London in the summer of 1911, after the long and arduous journey from Atina. Maria Grazia (Mamma) and Benedetto, (Papà) and their six month old baby Roberto were warmly greeted by Papà’s brother Carmine and sister Emilia, who had been living in London for several years. Carmine Leonardi had married Concetta. He was a shoemaker and had done well for himself and had opened a shop in Lisle Street in Soho. Emilia had married Antonio Rossi and had travelled around Europe before settling down roots in London. Indeed two of their children were born in Spain.  They then opened a shop in Back Hill, Clerkenwell and had moved on to establish a restaurant at 23 Whitcombe Street, near Leicester Square. From the 1890’s a new group of Italian immigrants had began to congregate and settle around the Soho area, creating a second Little Italy. Many of the Soho Italian residents worked in the hotel and catering trades. Papa was keen to start a new life in the Italian community.

Clerkenwell First Impressions 

It was not long before they found Mamma and Papà a place to call their home, at the bottom end of Little Saffron Hill, in the district of Clerkenwell, right in the beating heart of the Italian quarter.  Little Saffron Hill – What a beautiful sounding name, but long gone were the days when crops of golden saffron were cultivated and harvested here in the gardens of the Palace of the Bishops of Ely.   

Papà had departed Italy with great expectations of a better life, however Mamma’s first impressions of Clerkenwell were not at all favourable, I imagine that there must have been an element of culture shock.  What an alien environment the grey dirty streets of Clerkenwell must have seemed, compared to the Atina they knew and loved so much.  There were beautiful open vistas of the verdant Val di Comino, a valley encircled by mountains with a scenic backdrop of the magnificent Abruzzi mountains beyond.

Little Saffron Hill in the Italian Community of Clerkenwell
Herbal Hill in Clerkenwell

Little Saffron Hill in the Italian Community of Clerkenwell
Junction of Ray Street with Herbal Hill in Clerkenwell

In London all there seemed to be was dirt and grime, the sun hardly shone making the streets so monotone, dismal and uninviting. They found themselves in awe of the many strange unfamiliar things they encountered, it was a world apart from the rural towns and villages they had known.  In London there was constant commotion and a cacophony of noise from the trundling trams, the horses and wagons lumbering along the cobblestone streets, the factory whistles and sirens, the numerous Public Houses.

Mamma felt terribly home-sick, missing her family so, especially their little two year old daughter Rosina. It had been a heart wrenching decision to leave her back in Atina. Mamma begged to go back home, but Papà remained firm saying that they had to knuckle down and stick it out. When she felt low, to console herself she would sit in the peace and tranquillity of the nearby St. Peter’s Italian church, and pray for all her family and that one day soon she would return to her native home town.  Little did she know that this was to be our family home for many years to come.

* Old London Town 

Gradually they began to find their way around the miniature Little Italy and to feel a little more settled in their new surroundings.  Everything was conveniently to hand, Italian provisions shops, butchers, bakers, markets selling fresh produce, everything required to sustain a busy Italian community. Gradually they began to forge new friendships, especially with families who had come from the self same region of Ciociaria or from Naples.  For them language was not a problem. However Italians originating from other regions of Italy spoke in strange dialects that were at times almost incomprehensible. However generally the Italian people stuck together and new folk found it relatively easy to integrate into this new little close-knit community. Things seemed to be going well.

Work As A Parquet Floor Layer

Papà was hardworking and very good with his hands.  He had aspirations of having his own little business and he worked long and hard to try and realise his dream. Papà purchased a supply of wood and began utilising his skills as a wood crafter, making wooden gramophone boxes, these contraptions being reasonably newly invented.

He particularly liked to specialise in items requiring intricate inlaid woodwork known as marquetry.  However he realised he needed regular employment and through contacts found work as a Parquet Floor Layer for a company by the name of Zetta. Here he learned new skills.  It meant getting up at the crack of dawn to meet up with his team of work colleagues. Often he had to work away from home for a week at a time, leaving poor Mamma alone to run the household. 

Parquet Workers

Much of the work was in grand buildings or private houses in the countryside.  Often the floor designs were complex requiring precise measurements of tightly fitting blocks, sometimes using woods of contrasting colour and design. The process was very labour intensive. This included cutting the blocks, setting the individual pieces meticulously in place, then sanding them, waxing and buffing. It was particularly hard going working on one’s knees all day long.

Missing Family Back In Atina

Meanwhile Mamma found she was still missing her family back in Atina.  She would write long letters to family telling them about their new life and experiences in this new environment.  She sent them a photo of Berto that was taken in a local photographic studio.  She would eagerly wait for the replies, however one finally came with devastating news of the sudden death of Mamma’s father Carmine.  He had suffered a massive fatal heart attack whilst assisting to serve Mass in the church of San Marco. He had been making plans to remarry, having entered into a relationship with a school teacher, however tragically he had been struck down in his prime. Even if Mamma was gradually coming to terms with the fact that she was unable to return to Atina,  she became more determined than ever to be reunited with her brothers and sisters by bringing them to live with her in London.

By this time, thankfully Mamma and Papà had managed to scrape enough savings together to send word to my Zia Marietta and Zio Michele, instructing them to make their way to London as soon as possible, and to bring my sister Rosina with them. Mamma was longing to see her little girl, she had been heartbroken when she had had to leave her behind in Italy.  However Rosie hadn’t seen Mamma for such a long period of time that at first she sadly didn’t recognise her as her true mother.  Rosie was shy and withdrawn and would call her Mamma – “La Signora”, and used to take hold of her own little bag, walk to the front door and say that she was going home to Atina.  Initially Mamma was deeply saddened by this, however, soon Rosie and Mamma became close once again and her little darling daughter soon adapted to her new home.  Marietta and Michele moved into the cramped house in Little Saffron Hill with their sister and brother-in-law, and Marietta soon found work as a seamstress, working for a lady’s costumier who was elegantly named “Madame Adele”.

Italian Men From Atina

……….? Michele and Papà

Family From Atina Italy Marietta Michele Berto Rosina

Marietta, Michele, Berto and Rosina

Family From Atina Italy Michele Rosina Marietta

Michele, Marietta and Rosina

Italian boy on a Tricycle


Italian Heart

Images marked * are in the Public Domain

All other photos belong to my family or I have taken myself –  © Louise Shapcott