This edition of the Miners’ Library blog examines Italian migration into Wales in the twentieth century through the lens of the particular collections held at the library. It focuses on the significance of Italian cafés in the social life of South Wales, their appearance in literary works such as those of Idris Davies and Gwyn Thomas, and on how visual artists of Italian descent have in turn represented life in the mining valleys.
1) Italian migration and the growth of the café trade in Wales
Detailing his extensive walking tour of Wales in 1854, the writer and polyglot George Borrow expresses his delight at encountering a Welsh-speaking Italian in the small village of Cerrigydrudion in North Wales. The unnamed Italian man, hailing from Lake Como, had travelled to Britain to work in the Liverpool shipping industry and had learned Welsh through his ensuing job of selling weather glasses and trinkets throughout the Welsh countryside. But while there were small numbers of Italians living and working in Wales around this time, it was not until the last decades of the nineteenth century that the census data for Italian-born residents in Wales exceeded a few hundred. By the 1921 census, the figure had risen to over 1,500, with the Italian-born population largely concentrated in the counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. These trends are commensurate both with broader patterns of Italian emigration, as millions migrated to the Americas and throughout Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and with broader patterns of immigration into South Wales, whose industries were attracting unprecedented numbers of migrants at the turn of the century. While some Italians in Wales worked in coal mining – enough in one district of Mardy Colliery to earn it the nickname ‘Italy Fach’ [Little Italy] – the majority in the period from 1900 to 1920 came to work in the café and ice-cream trades. It was through these trades in particular that the Italians had an impact on the social life of South Wales far exceeding their relatively modest numbers.
The early pioneers of the café trade – soon-to-be-familiar names like Bracchi, Berni and Rabaiotti – established themselves in Wales around the end of the nineteenth century. The majority came from a relatively concentrated area; the small town of Bardi and its environs in the Ceno Valley, situated in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. In the 1900s they began recruiting boys from their native Bardi, often as young as twelve, who could escape the rural poverty of the area by travelling to Wales to work in the cafés along the lines of the padrone system – a contract whereby boys, in addition to being paid a wage, would be housed and clothed by their employers. The system had the advantage of providing a guaranteed employment status for the new arrivals, in compliance with the strictures of the Aliens Act 1905. The work was demanding, however, and involved long hours and hard graft. As our oral history interview with Will Picton documents, the boys would often have the task of ‘selling ice-cream from carts’ that they would push around for miles a day, sometimes along steep valley streets. But many of these boys would go on to establish cafés of their own, dispersing throughout the Welsh valleys in pursuit of new catchment areas. When they married, it would often be to women from Bardi who travelled over to work alongside them in the cafés, shops, and fish bars, establishing enduring family businesses. Sustained by these successive waves of migration, by the mid-1930s there were over 300 Italian cafés in South Wales generously dotted along its mining valleys and coastal towns. The economic impetus to disperse meant that Italians in Wales never formed the kinds of geographically-concentrated communities witnessed in places like London or Manchester; they had few separate institutions and quickly became enmeshed in their respective communities, sharing local churches, schools, and so on.
Panoramic view of the Castle of Bardi (Photo credit: Filippo Aneli, 2008, Creative Commons).
The word ‘café’ is a convenient short-hand for the Italian establishments. In reality, they varied in size and in the amenities offered. While many referred to themselves as cafés, some styled themselves as confectioners, while others, especially in the larger towns, inclined more towards restaurants. Colloquially they were often referred to as ‘shops’ or, in the Rhondda and Cynon Valleys, ‘Bracchis’ – the latter reflecting the significance of the Bracchi family in pioneering these businesses in the area. But, for the most part, the early cafés would offer the same basic services; selling sweets and tobacco, providing simple refreshments to consume on the premises, and a warm place to sit out of the elements. The product range was largely derived from British companies, whose names would emblazon the shopfronts – hot cups of Bovril and Oxo, Fry’s chocolates, Player’s cigarettes – along with soft-drinks of different flavours from a soda fountain. Crucially, by refraining from selling alcohol, the cafés were able to secure a niche for themselves as an alternative to the public house. In the early decades of the twentieth century, this feature chimed well with the moral tenor of Welsh Nonconformity and many café owners shrewdly advertised their businesses as ‘Temperance Bars’. As Colin Hughes writes,
The shops were called “Temperance Bars” not because the owners held strong views about intoxicating liquor but from a desire to suggest the convivial atmosphere of a public-house while offering a haven to which parents could let their children go, safe in the knowledge that they would not come into contact with alcoholic drinks.
2) The Italian café in Idris Davies and Gwyn Thomas
In an interview held at the Miners’ Library, recorded as part of the Maerdy Community Study, Octavius Morgan describes how the local ‘Bracchi’ shops played a significant part in his childhood around the time of the First World War. He recalls spending the wages from his paper-round at his local shop in Maerdy, and being impressed by how well the owner, Peter Gambarini – who had ‘come over as a youngster’ – was able to guess the weight of sweets as he placed them on the scale. He also recalls the Italians’ cultural differences conjuring fascination among young people in the area; recounting that some Italians were living in a basement apartment under a shop on Maerdy Road and
‘Christmas time the old concertina would be going and the vino would be there, and everybody would be up top listening to them’.
In his long poem, The Angry Summer (1943), set at the time of the 1926 General Strike, Idris Davies draws on the image of the ‘Italian shop’ and its relation to childhood experience. It is one of many passages in which Davies evokes the perspective of a small-businesses-owning class during the strike, gesturing towards the bonds and tensions that can exist between such businesses and the striking communities with which they are economically and socially intertwined. But here the ‘Italian shop’ largely provides a suitable backdrop for capturing something of the bravado of its young clientele during the heated political climate; their vivid political solutions and effervescent speech merging figuratively with their colourful fizzy pop, as both gas away in the Italian café.
The cafés did not merely provide a hub for young people, however, and Octavius Morgan goes on to describe their attractions for older customers. His local café
‘would open first thing in the morning and close around midnight, people could sit by the warm stove, have a drink, but you didn’t have to buy anything’.
Many of the cafés were entering densely-terraced mining communities with relatively few civic amenities, and so were providing valuable places for people to socialise away from the home; for friends to gather or courting couples to meet. The lack of an obligation to buy any articles would have been especially welcome during times of hardship, particularly throughout the inter-war years. Colin Hughes describes the atmosphere in one Tonypandy café, for example, during the 1926 strike. Although times were likewise difficult for the café owners during this period,
the striking miners were still welcome to sit around the stove even if they had no money. A cigarette was given to anyone who would start a song, and this was handed around as others joined in.
This reference to singing around the warm stove resonates with another significant literary reference. The Miners’ Library is home to the Gwyn Thomas Collection and it is notable that the author situates much of his celebrated novella, The Dark Philosophers (1946), in an Italian café around the 1930s. The story is told from the perspective of a group of friends, residents of ‘the Terraces’ in an unnamed Welsh valley, who withdraw to the back room of their local Italian café to muse over and discuss, with Thomas’s distinctive dark humour, the events of the day.
Our new meeting place in the evenings was the refreshment and confectionary shop of Idomeneo Faracci, an Italian, whose shop was on the third Terrace, not far from the Library and Institute…[The back room] was cosy and cheerful, having sawdust on the floor and a large stove in the middle, which had a complicated system of airshafts that made the layout of the ordinary man or woman look simple…Besides the stove there were also some tables of various sizes on which the customers could drink hot cordials and eat sandwiches that Idomeneo served, and we always praised the hot cordials of Idomeneo for being prepared with deep skill and great heat. Our own drink was tea and we drank a lot of it. We had taken a vow to get our stomachs as dark as our philosophy before we finished, and every time we ordered a fresh round of cups Idomeneo always put an extra pinch in the pot as a tribute to the fine brooding quality of our spirits.
In keeping with the oral history testimonies, Idomeneo’s policy is to welcome people into the café irrespective of whether they purchase any wares, reasoning that ‘it was a very poor voter who went through life without ever buying anything’. A reference to the ‘beat of Idomeneo’s tired fingers on the counter’, like Idris Davies’s allusion to Maria yawning at the end of another long shift, signals the incredibly long hours that the proprietors and employees of the cafés had to work in reality. The early cafés would be open seven days a week, in defiance of Sunday trading laws (this being one of the most profitable days of the week), and would often be open every day of the year apart from Christmas morning.
During one discussion, a member of the group of ‘dark philosophers’ – echoing Bertolt Brecht’s adage ‘grub first, then ethics’ – suggests that ‘the need for beauty comes a long way after the need for food and warmth’, and Thomas makes use of the café setting to dramatize this relationship. Their warmth and sustenance catered for, the members of the group are able to engage their interest in music in the back room of the café. Idomeneo has a gramophone and a stack of choral and operatic records, which the group listens to for hours
‘with Willie bursting out with his own version sometimes if there was a tenor on, and Idomeneo giving him strong support in a baritone voice’.
Within the context of the story, the elevating qualities of this music becomes allied with the group’s socialist and humanistic aspirations, juxtaposed with the degradations of life in the depression-era Terraces and, by serving as a means for the group to bond with Idomeneo, emblematic of common ties that transcend national differences. Idomeneo, we learn, is no better off than the casually-employed members of the group, with much of his income from the café going to creditors. The group’s joint-commitment to communal material and cultural advancement contrasts with the conduct of their central antagonist in the story; a local Reverend who sacrifices his once-radical ethical convictions in exchange for a life of material comfort, and who now preaches a message, ideologically useful to his mine-owning benefactors, of spiritual betterment abstracted from any commitment to collective material advancement. Thomas’ use of the Italian café – his considered emphasis on the warm stove, the gramophone, and the common feeling between Idomeneo and the group – is not incidental therefore; it forms a crucial part of his wider philosophical staging of the relationship between material needs, ethical or aesthetic sensibilities, and the politics of solidarity.
The café also becomes a setting for Thomas to introduce some of the key international dimensions shaping the inter-war political climate of the Terraces. In one memorable scenario, a symbol on the café’s hot water cistern seizes the group’s attention.
The cistern had been made in Italy, and just above the name of the manufacturer, which was stamped on a chrome plate, there was engraved a bundle of rods and an axe.
This is of course a reference to the emblem of Italy’s National Fascist Party, and the group warns Idomeneo that this is ‘no very healthy sign to be showing in a place like the Terraces’. He explains, however, that it is not there by choice but owing to an Italian in London who was ‘partial to the party behind the rods’ and who had loaned him the money for the cistern.
Idomeneo…said he knew all about this symbol and that he liked it no better than we did. He added that even then he had two brothers in Italian jails because they happened to be in Italy when they said they did not like this symbol either. As far as politics went, said Idomeneo in a whisper, he was with us to the end…He meant that he was for all the common people, as we were, being of them.
3) The Italian community during the Second World War
Within Thomas’s fictionalised account, the group does not doubt Idomeneo’s antipathy towards the fascism ascendant in his former homeland, and this response would doubtless have been a common one in reality; given the years, often decades, of familiarity and friendships established between Italians in Wales and their respective local communities. However, the rise of fascism in Italy, and Italy’s entry into the Second World War in June 1940, did lead to a heightened atmosphere of paranoia directed at the Italian communities from certain quarters. As Neil Evans documents,
In Swansea, on the night that Italy entered the conflict, large crowds roamed the streets and damaged the property of Italian café owners. A café owner living at Aberdare later remembered having had a window broken during the war and there were also some incidents at Tonypandy…In Swansea, a suspicion that Italians had been involved in fascist movements and were sympathetic to Mussolini’s regime may have contributed to the outbreak.
But it was state rather than extra-state actions which had the most profound effect on the Italian community. Under the threat of imminent invasion, and fearing possible fifth columnists, the UK government made the decision to arrest and intern all men of Italian nationality in Britain between the ages of 16 and 70. In many instances in South Wales, police had the unenviable task of detaining café owners they knew well and who they could not have imagined to be any realistic security threat, though some accounts of more heavy-handed treatment also emerge. Andrew Rossi recounts how two police officers came to arrest his grandfather, Giovanni Cavalli, in Swansea:
‘As well as arresting my grandfather in front of his sixteen-year-old daughter, they went through the shop basically like men possessed turning out drawers…taking out letters, binoculars, even the radio, took everything which they thought could help Italians and Germans during wartime’.
The internees were initially held at temporary camps throughout the country, before the decision was taken to detain some on the Isle of Man and deport all those deemed by MI5 to be ‘dangerous characters’ to Canada and Australia. While there were some fascist supporters among the Italians, the process for selecting ‘dangerous characters’ was later found to have been deeply flawed. Many Italians were affiliated with the Fascist Party by default rather than by design, through their involvement with other institutions. As Percy Loraine, head of a Home Office Advisory Committee on the Isle of Man, wrote: ‘a man who belonged in the pre-Fascist era to an Italian benevolent, social or sporting club, of which the Fascist authority ultimately obtained control, is only technically, indeed barely technically, a member of the Fascio’. Owing to the rush to gather prisoners for deportation, some errors were also made in distinguishing between individuals who shared the same name.
Scrutiny of these procedures became more acute following a tragedy in early July 1940, when the Arandora Star, an ex-passenger liner requisitioned to transport Italian and German internees, was torpedoed by a German U-boat while en route to Canada. Over 800 people were killed in the incident, including 470 Italians; of whom 53 were from Wales. The tragedy compounded what was already an excessive detention and deportation regime imposed on Italian-born civilians, even when considered in light of wartime pressures. As Colin Hughes suggests,
It is…inconceivable that the small café owners in Wales, many of them resident in the country for decades, and with their roots sunk deep, would have engaged in any desperate deeds of sabotage or treachery…The internment and deportation of these largely innocent people, was a sad episode in British history.
4) The post-war years and the significance of Welsh-Italian visual artists
The Italian cafés that managed to weather the effects of internment and deportation enjoyed an increase in trade during the war years, with fish and chip shops doing particularly well – this being one of the few foods to remain unrationed throughout this time. The decade that followed the war saw a revival of the Welsh economy, buoyed by government investment in coal and steel, and heralded a corresponding period of prosperity for the cafés. It was during these early post-war years that Ernest Zobole, the son of southern Italian immigrants, began his training at Cardiff College of Art and started producing his extraordinary paintings depicting his native Ystrad Rhondda and its environs. Zobole grew up in a small ‘Bracchi’ shop that his parents kept in the village, and ‘the shop’s almost incessant ebb and flow of all sorts of people and goods’, the art historian Ceri Thomas speculates, ‘must have provided him with repeated opportunities for observation and the imprinting of these varied elements upon his formative, artistic mind and visual memory’. Moreover, as the artist Gwyn Evans recalls, Zobole and other painters associated with the Rhondda Group would depict scenes in different parts of the valley on a Saturday before meeting in ‘Dom’s’ Italian café in Treorchy to share and discuss their work. Their paintings reflected something of the working-class confidence of the era, capturing the landscapes and townscapes of the Valleys in some of the styles and colour-palettes of European modernism.
Zobole would go on to invest the familiar forms and forces of the Rhondda Valley with a lucent otherworldliness, prompting Meic Stephens to write – borrowing a line from an Idris Davies poem – that Zobole rendered the mining valleys ‘more beautiful than we ever saw them with our eyes’. Zobole is testament to the commonly-made observation that, in the visual arts in South Wales, it has often been first- or second-generation immigrants who have excelled at capturing its landscape and people; and not only does his work open a new perspective onto the world of the Valleys, it uses this world to give form to the mutability of perspective as such.
Labour shortages in certain South Wales industries during the late 1940s and early 1950s led to another wave of immigration from Italy, with some recruits remaining in Wales and joining the café trade after this work had ceased. Our collections bare the trace of this post-war migration in the form of an interview with Tony Ciano, Cynheidre NUM Lodge Chairman during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, whose parents emigrated from Naples to Wales after the war; his father having a position at the steelworks in Briton Ferry. But a combination of economic and cultural factors contributed to the dwindling away of the Italian cafés in the latter half of the century. Declining coal output from the mid-1950s, with colliery consolidations and closures accelerating in the ensuing decades, had significant knock-on effects for local businesses, while the growth of television and live entertainment at clubs made further dents in the evening trade of the cafés. While some Italian cafés endure to this day, sustained through successive generations of Welsh-Italians, many of the latter have left the catering industry over the years to pursue other vocations. Wales is still home to thousands of descendants of Italian migrants, however, and many continue to get together to celebrate their unique cultural heritage, with festive gatherings in Wales at the annual Scampagnata and in Bardi’s Festa dell’emigrante.
The shifting social fabric of South Wales over the last six decades or so – which, amongst other things, has entailed the dwindling away of the Italian cafés – has been captured by another prominent artist of Italian heritage. David Carpanini, born in the Afan Valley in 1946 of Italian and Welsh decent, and whose relatives worked in the café trade, has become one of Wales’ most well-known artists. Speaking at the launch of a major retrospective of his artwork, Hywel Francis commented that ‘everyone in the Valleys can understand clearly what they see and can connect to his work’.
David Carpanini and Hywel Francis with some of the artist’s work – on the occasion of The Richard Burton Annual Lecture, which Prof. Carpanini delivered in 2017. (Photo credit: South Wales Miners’ Library, Swansea University).
A distinctive feature of this work involves a dialogue between figure and landscape; as characters gather in the communal space of the street, often before built environments that recall Gwyn Thomas’s ‘Terraces’. But these backdrops are also stylised, they contain few indications of life – there are no vehicles or television aerials, shopfront signs are blank; their windows veiled or showing only a reflection of the outside. It gives the impression both of an austere landscape and one simplified in memory. This contrasts with the emotionally expressive faces in the foreground, rich in characterisation. Taken together, these scenes raise questions about the extent to which people, their personalities and relationships, are shaped by a given environment and history, but – through various estrangement techniques, such as the elusiveness of titles or the propensity for figures to break the ‘fourth wall’ and stare directly at the viewer – they also open a space for other questions, about the way we memorialise history and the extent to which certain experiences transcend the particularity of their given contexts. As David Carpanini explains, such characters are ‘survivors, they are very resilient people’,
‘I hope this comes across in some of my paintings, they’re not just about South Wales, they are about a broader perspective of human experience where anyone in difficult circumstances has found a way to survive’.
J. Davies, South Wales Miners’ Library
Professor Carpanini gave The Richard Burton Annual Lecture at Swansea University in 2017; the university holds a collection of his work as well as work by Ernest Zobole. The oral history interviews mentioned in the blog are held at The South Wales Miners’ Library, Swansea University, and are available on request. All secondary sources referenced are available in our lending library to view/borrow (subject to borrowing entitlements). If you would like to learn more about Italian migration to Wales, Colin Hughes’s Lime, Lemon and Sarsaparilla (1991) and Bruna Chezzi’s Italians in Wales and their Cultural Representations, 1920s-2010s (2015) contain a wealth of additional information and analysis, while other useful resources, including personal testimonies from within the Welsh-Italian community, can be found at http://www.welshitalians.com.
A previous blog post looking at the history of Spanish migration to South Wales can be found here.
 Interview of Will Picton, SWML AUD/193.
 Colin Hughes, Lime, Lemon & Sarsaparilla, Bridgend 1991, p.11, pp.114-5.
 Ibid. pp.47-8, pp.56-7.
 Interview of Octavius Morgan, SWML AUD/191.
 Colin Hughes, Lime, Lemon & Sarsaparilla, p.74.
 Gwyn Thomas, The Dark Philosophers, Cardigan 2006, pp.117-9.
 Ibid. p.150.
 Ibid. p.124; Colin Hughes, Lime, Lemon & Sarsaparilla, pp.54-58, pp.62-3.
 Gwyn Thomas, The Dark Philosophers, p.123.
 Ibid. p.119.
 Ibid. p.120.
 Neil Evans, ‘Immigrants and Minorities in Wales, 1840-1990: A Comparative Perspective’, in Charlotte Williams et al. (eds.), A Tolerant Nation?, Cardiff 2015, p.31. Evans also documents other instances of antagonism faced by Italian migrants in Wales in different contexts. See, pp.27-31.
 Andrew Rossi quoted in Bruna Chezzi, Italians in Wales and their Cultural Representations, 1920s-2010s, Newcastle 2015, p.64.
 Percy Loraine quoted in Colin Hughes, Lime, Lemon & Sarsaparilla, p.106.
 Colin Hughes, Lime, Lemon & Sarsaparilla, p.107.
 Ceri Thomas, Ernest Zobole: a life in art, Bridgend 2007, p.21.
 Gwyn Evans interviewed on the BBC documentary Visions of the Valleys, 2015.
 Meic Stephens, ‘Obituary: Ernest Zobole’ in The Independent, 7 December 1999, available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-ernest-zobole-1130792.html.
 Interview of Tony Ciano, SWML AUD/513.
 Hywel Francis, ‘David Carpanini: 1969, “The Cape” and the Last Smiling Shift’, in Stories of Solidarity, Ceredigion 2018, p.213.
 David Carpanini interviewed on the BBC documentary Visions of the Valleys, 2015.