The Italian Job (part 1)

Our Club21 volunteer, Olivia Tolaini, chose to research Italian student students at the turn of the 20th century. In a four-part blog series, Olivia considers her own family’s immigration to the UK, how Italian immigration has been experienced in Scotland, and features a few of her findings on Italian students from the University of Glasgow’s archives.

To me, walking down Byres road often feels like I’m in Glasgow’s very own ‘Little Italy’. In fact, the Italian café and ice-cream parlor have become such features of Scottish culture that I imagine it’s easy to overlook the longstanding connections between the two. My journey delving into the University’s archive into the lives of Italian students at the turn of the 20th century has uncovered very different experiences to the usual stories of ice creams and fish suppers. Having Italian parentage myself, perhaps I was looking for immigrant experiences that resembled those of my Grandparents’. What emerged instead was a parallel narrative of Italian immigrants and visiting students.

My grandfatherArriving in London in the 1950s, my Grandparents, like many other Italian immigrants to Scotland, found work in the service industry. There was often a lot of hostility and solidarity amongst the local trade unions and craft societies towards Italian immigrants, forcing them to find employment in something distinctive and non-competitive. My Grandfather had trained as a carpenter in Italy eventually he had to follow the well-established tradition of working as a chef in an Italian restaurant. My gradmotherMy Grandmother worked as a seamstress for lots of different fashion houses, ultimately working for the designer Norman Hartnell. Yet, in order to remain in Britain, she had to officially declare that she was working as a domestic servant. Before I familiarized myself with each individual’s story it was quite difficult for me to imagine different lives for them.

Since the 1880s, Glasgow has witnessed large waves of Italian immigrants, mostly from Northern and Central regions of Italy. I noted that the majority of the visiting students fit this same pattern. Many of the earliest migrants actually walked the long and arduous trip to Scotland. For some, Glasgow was merely a stop-over on their journey to America, whereas others chose to stay and exploit the fabled Scottish ‘sweet tooth’. Initially these migrants were selling ice cream out of wheelbarrows along the streets of Glasgow, but many quickly acquired premises of their own. By 1905, there were over 300 cafés and chippies owned by Italian families.

Giannetti’s Fish Restaurant c.1900,

Giannetti’s Fish Restaurant c.1900,

Businesses and communities grew and grew as they sent word back to their families in Italy of the great opportunities in Glasgow of employment and education, which sparked off a phenomenon of chain migration. Whole villages and districts in Northern Italy have particular connections to Glasgow. The small town of Barga for example bizarrely boasts the annual ‘Sagra Delle Pesce e Patate’ (The Fish and Chip Festival), as die-hard Celtic fans as any you’d find in Parkhead, and the musical talents of Paolo Nutini. One of the students I researched, Giuseppe Brucciani, also came over from Barga in 1909.

Trawling through the archive records and the depths of the internet I came across a very varied group of individuals from all over Italy whose lives all took very different paths. Many of them chose to study specialised subjects such as Naval Architecture and Engineering. The majority of them actually returned to Italy after their time at the University. Perhaps they had always intended to go back but maybe they, like my Grandparents, encountered quite a closed system of employment. One engineering student, Pasquale Infante, was refused membership to the UK Mechanical Engineers Association, although on what ground is uncertain.

I became very fond of all of them and of my ritual of going to the archive. I like to imagine that the students I traced found their own ‘Little Italy’. Studying abroad at the turn of the century would have been a very different prospect to what it is now – a lot more daunting I imagine – but with a local Italian café where they could get themselves a proper Italian Cappuccino I’m sure it made them feel more at home. More research into the Italian immigration in Scotland is also being carried out by the University of Edinburgh at The Italo-Scottish Research Cluster , however my series of blog posts will concentrate on students of Glasgow.

I’m very grateful to Kerry McDonald and all the staff at the Archive for all of their help and support and I hope that reading each of these students stories gives as much enjoyment as I had researching them.

By Olivia Tolaini, MA History




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