Manchester's Little Italy at War 1940-45

Enemy Aliens or a Reluctant Foe?


This article was written by Paul di Felice, an expert on the Italian community in Manchester.




The Round-up in Manchester

The wartime experiences of the British Italian community were traumatic: the war affected the whole community, as both Italians and Anglo-Italians suffered internment and also deportation - family businesses were lost, and in terms of identity they were placed outside of the national community, and this hindered the collectivity's post-war development. The process of internment and deportation took no account of the position of the Italian community in Britain. It was fuelled by a marked distrust and suspicion of Italy and the Italians during a time of national crisis. The result being that individual circumstances were not considered and neither was the inter-cultural relationship that had been forged with the host society. It was a measure implemented at a time of national emergency, that had its precedents in the anti-alien legislation of 1914 and 1918. 29


A survey of the Manchester press for the 11 June shows the arbitrary nature of the round-up. It was estimated that the police initially took 300 Italians, but only 200 were kept in custody.30 In the Manchester Evening Chronicle it is noted that: 'as many of the Italians returned from their ice-cream rounds they were met by detectives who escorted them to the headquarters'. The writer indicated that 'many who have been taken into custody will be released later when their friendliness to Britain has been definitely established'.31


It can be estimated that approximately 25 percent of Manchester's Italian population was interned.32 The testimony of members of the community reflects the arbitrary nature of the internment process and the trauma of the experience. John Pessagno a resident of Ancoats and a British subject was interned along with his father, he described the process:


They came round on Monday night to pick up father, then next morning they picked me up. I knew the policeman but they still put me in gaol overnight. My brother was in the army, father was interned on the Isle of Man, and I went to Ascot. I wasn't involved in anything. I was a member of the Conservative Club, but I wasn't interested in politics.33


Albert Salvatore who went into the British army in 1944, described his family's experience:


Dad was interned in 1940 on the Isle of Man. Bernard (brother) was interned as well. He was 16 years old and a British subject, but because he must have got mixed up with the others he was sent to Ascot and interned for 6 weeks. Dad was released at Christmas, he had to go in front of a committee and he told them he had 10 children so they released him.34



A similar pattern was followed throughout the country. In the numerous small towns where Italians had settled and stayed as family groups, they were taken into custody even though they were often known to the local police. This led to a level of leniency when it came to internment. When two members of the Granelli family, who had been resident in Macclesfield since 1894, faced internment the police took one into custody and told the other to wait until they returned.35 In his study of Italians in South Wales C.Hughes found that both Police and Italians were bemused, and internment was carried out with 'sympathy and understanding'.36 In Manchester, the official response was more mixed, John and Rosa Granelli whose family had an ice-cream business and shop in Clayton since the 1920s, and whose father had lived in Ancoats since the 1890s, recalled the trauma of the police arrival in the early morning. The family home was disturbed as their father was taken into custody without explanation, John commented that he could smell alcohol on the breath of the officers, and Rosa feared that the discovery of her trip to Italy in the 1930s and its association with the Ballila would result in her being interned. Their father was interned without explanation, and the family had no contact with him until his arrival some weeks later on the Isle of Man.37


� Before deportation the Italians were kept in holding camps, such as Warth Mill near Bury, where the conditions were poor and where they were held along with other internees. The decision to deport them was taken hastily, and by the 15 June it had been decided to send 2000 Germans, 1900 POW'S and 1500 Fascio Italians to Canada.38 On the 2 July the whole policy was called into question with the sinking of the Arandora Star by a German U Boat. In total, 486 Italians and 175 Germans were drowned, and this tragedy resulted in a change, or rather a reversal, of government policy.39 It was clear that anti-fascists, Jewish refugees, and British subjects had lost their lives. The Italian internees posed no threat and could not be described as dangerous. Terri Colpi found that most of the Italians came from London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester, but over a third came from small towns, which may have contained, one maybe two families.40 C.Hughes, described the disproportionate impact upon the dispersed Italian presence in the Welsh Valleys, where 49 men from the Italian town of Bardi, near to Parma lost their lives.41 In Manchester, individual victims are still remembered: Father Fracassi the parish priest of St Albans, near to New Cross, and Joe Monti a street vendor within Little Italy.42 Lucio Sponza's general comment describing the position of the Italian internees apply's to Manchester. The Italian men on the Arandora Star were long term residents in Britain, from mountainous districts who were 'politically indifferent, but who strongly identified with religious orthodoxy and family values'.43


The sinking of the Arandora Star did bring a change in Government policy, by the end of July no more deportation was permitted, and in August a Government White Paper outlined the rules for the release of internees. Sir Percy Lorraine, former Italian ambassador in Rome was given responsibility for assessing whether internees should be released, through an tribunal process. �During the Tribunals, the key issue for the internees was whether membership of the local fascio was an indication of fascist loyalties. For the security services it was evidence of active support, but given that a membership card was necessary to visit and work in Italy and was needed to participate in social activities it cannot be viewed as representative of fascist sympathies. Nevertheless the Italians were still held in suspicion, and it was commented that 'membership of the fascio would automatically classify an Italian as dangerous', as such, most of the Italians remained interned until after September 1943, and many until 1945.44 However, a number of Italians in Manchester and the surrounding area secured their release. John Granelli of Clayton explained that his father was released a year after being interned, due to the intervention of his three brothers, who were serving in the British Army. The Granelli brothers complained to their commanding officers, and he was subsequently released.45



Popular Responses to "Enemy Aliens"


Throughout the country the Italian declaration of war was met with a significant level of official and unofficial hostility. In some areas there were outbreaks of violence characterised as anti-Italian riots. In cities such as Liverpool and Edinburgh the intensity of the rioting was so severe during the 10 to the 11 June, that it had a damaging effect upon the Italian communities. Incidents and disturbances also occurred in Middlesborough, Sunderland and Newcastle, as well as in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea and in Glasgow, Clydebank and Edinburgh during which Italian property was openly damaged.46 The Manchester Evening Chronicle carried the following report: 'Many Italian owned shops and Cafes all over the country are literally wrecked. Plate glass windows have been smashed to fragments. Goods including the families ice-cream wafer biscuits, littered many streets today'.47


There was an open demonstration of anti-Italian feeling in Liverpool. The Manchester Guardian reported:

As soon as the news of Italy's entry into the war became known, angry crowds gathered outside the shops run by Italians in Great Homer St and Stanley Rd. Extra police were sent to the district, but bricks and missiles were hurled into the shops. Every time a missile struck its objective, there were loud cheers. Thousands of people flocked the streets, and several constables narrowly escaped injury from missiles thrown over the heads of the crowd. In one or two cases, the owners of the premises had to be smuggled from the shops.48


The fear and uncertainty of the riots is graphically revealed in the experience of Aurelia Raffo, resident in Liverpool in 1940. Aurelia had a small Generale Alimentari shop which she owned with her husband who had been arrested, then at 6.00 pm her shop was put in:


my windows were going and there was a crowd outside, the police were there but there was nothing they could do. They were worse than Manchester people, because they were all mixed. The priest arrived, he said why don't you go away, they've taken her husband, she was born in England. They listened to him. I had the police at my home for a week. The shop was smashed up, but many Italian shops were smashed. (sic)49



In Newport, Cardiff and Swansea the police had to intervene with baton charges to limit the damage to the shops: 'the crowd of about two hundred reacted violently, when police tried to arrest one of their number'.50  In London there are conflicting reports concerning the level of violence: Sponza noted that in one case, an Italian was pushed to the ground by 'half a dozen hooligans who kicked his face brutally', but overall Sponza found that the press 'exaggerated the degree of damage and violence'.51 In Manchester the response of the local population towards the Italians of Ancoats as recorded in the local press was generally one of sympathy, and there appear to have been no disturbances on the scale experienced elsewhere. The Manchester Evening News on the 11 June reported that it was 'business as usual' in Little Italy, and commented on the vulnerability of the Italians: 'Italy's entry into the war had dumbfounded the Italian Colony and brought anxiety to many homes from which Italian father's have been taken overnight by detectives'.52   The MEN described how 'some women wept because their husbands had been arrested...some of the sons of men arrested today are serving with the British Army, and are expected home after fighting at Dunkirk...over 60 Italian youths from Manchester are fighting with the allies'.53 The Italians reacted with an outward demonstration of their loyalty, and this was the pattern throughout Britain. In Manchester and Salford, 'They hung Union Jacks from their windows and painted them on their ice-cream carts to express sympathies in the present conflict', one Italian women described as having 'five sons in the forces' commented, 'All our boys have gone to fight for England gladly'.54 The papers carried profiles of those interned, this appears to be an attempt to establish the extent of their 'friendliness': Carlo Frezza, 62, 'known to 1000s of children in the district as 'Carlo', the ice-cream man's hopes are high that he will be released'.55 Giovanni Pessagno, who had lived in Manchester for 45 years, and had one son in the army; Paul Protano, a resident of Manchester for 36 years, commented, 'I lost a finger fighting in France and I have received a pension of 10s per week ever since'. In fact, the commitment of Manchester's Italians was not left in doubt: Pasquale Patriarco 41 years in Manchester, declared his loyalty to Britain 'if I were a younger man I would go myself to help destroy Mussolini'.56 Most significantly is the case of Father Fracassi, and who came to represent the plight of the Italians in Manchester - the MEN 11 June reported:


Father Fracassi, had lived in England for over 40 years, and had been a priest at St Albans for 18 years. In the last war he volunteered for the British Army and was accepted a few days before the Armistice was signed. He volunteered again a few weeks ago, but was rejected because of his age.57


In a report on the 12 June, both the importance of father Fracassi's role in the community and the continuity of the Italian presence in Manchester are conveyed; 'The church has been served by Italian priests for scores of years and Father Fracassi succeeded Father Popodaelo 18 years ago'.58


Explaining Host Reactions

Lucio Sponza argues that there are at least two common features to the violence against the Italian community: firstly the violence was mainly against property; secondly the protagonists were mostly young men, though in some cases participation of young women and children was marked. Was the violence therefore less an expression of anti-Italian feeling, than an outbreak of economically motivated attacks on property and a section of the small business community.59



Within this context the Italians were generally perceived as being relatively prosperous. Colpi even goes as far as to label the 1930s as a 'Golden Age' whereby she argues Italian small businesses thrived, with cafes/shop owners and, the ice-cream traders all enjoying a significant level of prosperity.60 Since, in the main it was the Italian business community that was attacked in June 1940, it could be argued that the anti-Italian riots were the result of economic jealousy.


In comparing Manchester and Liverpool the host response was clearly conditioned by the cultural traditions of the two cities, and relatedly the place of the migrant communities within the host society. In 1938, the Italians in Merseyside numbered 159 amounting to 5 percent of the total alien population of 3,113 (these figures do not include the second generation). The main area of settlement was Great Homer St, where in 1936 according to the Guida Generale Degli Italiani in Gran Bretagna, 42 percent of Italians in the city resided there, and as reported by the Manchester Guardian this was one of the main areas of the riots.61 The Italians although small in number were relatively concentrated in the city centre and that, combined with their street vending occupations, meant they had a visible presence. The type and form of occupational activity resulted in a high level of contact and visibility within the host society, thus one might conclude that the Liverpool Italians ethnicity was clear. They had been in residence since the 1880s and the Italians had their own Consulate and fascio in the city centre.62 This level of visibility, combined with the small size of the settlement, may be reasons why the Italians became the focus of violence.


Manchester's Italians, like their counterparts in Liverpool, had daily contact with the host society, but if anything the Ancoats Italians were more prominent than those in Liverpool. They did not face attack and this was due to certain key differences both in the settlement and the context of each city. Liverpool had a stronger tradition of sectarian violence, and Sponza identifies a sectarian motivation to the anti-Italian violence in Edinburgh. It could be that the obvious economic motives of the rioters were linked to existing religious bigotry and the racial tensions of the city.63 The Italian shopkeepers were also more thinly spread around the Liverpool city centre than in Manchester, and it would seem providing vulnerable targets to the rioters. In Manchester, the size of the community and the fact that the Italians formed a part of a larger immigrant area with the Irish, may have deterred would-be violent attacks and given the Italians a stronger base, as they were part of an established immigrant and Catholic community. The Italians shared schools with the Irish and also attended the same churches; Italian priests ministered to both parts of the same congregation. There were even second generation Italian immigrant teachers, for example, in St Michaels school, who taught Irish and Italian children. Overall, Ancoats was in essence a large immigrant community of which the Italians formed part. The Italians in Liverpool were more vulnerable as they were fewer in number, and there may well have been a stronger perception of them as an outgroup.




The War Time Experience of the Italian Community in Manchester


The impact of the war upon Britain's Italian community cannot be underestimated. For Italians and cultural Italians alike, the experience was one of mistrust and occasional hostility from the hosts, economic hardship and the dislocation of family life. Within Ancoats families were forcibly separated, business had come to an abrupt end and both Italian nationals and cultural Italians had to reconcile conflicting emotions and loyalties. They or their relatives may have been in the British forces, or equally have been the victims of internment. Moreover, as Britain and Italy were belligerents, their loyalties were called into question. Interestingly, despite the vulnerability of their status as 'Enemy Aliens' there is little evidence of violence against the Italians within Ancoats - there were incidents of violence but only on an individual basis in the pubs around Ancoats, where occasionally anti-Italian feeling would emerge - particularly during the allied Italian campaign in early 1943.64



Hilda McDonald whose father originally came to Britain in 1924 experienced at first hand the internment of her father and illustrates the impact this had upon the family and their ice-cream business. In 1940 the family were living in Gorton, central Manchester where they had established their business:


Italy entered the war, it came in the 6.00pm news and straight after somebody passing the front gate insulted father. He went to the police station to find out what might happen and they told him not to worry. At 12.00 am he was counting the money when the detectives arrived, two outside and two inside. They said he had to go with them. They asked where do you keep your private papers? Are you a member of the fascisti? He was never a member. He was taken into custody and then he was sent to Scotland.



The whole time the family did not know where their father was being kept. Meanwhile Hilda's mother lost her nationality, her radio was confiscated and she was not allowed to travel any further than a distance of ten miles from home. The family business, which had some twenty ice-cream carts, was so adversely affected that a number of employees left due to their anti-Italian prejudices, and also in response to insults on the usual ice-cream rounds. In an attempt at de-Italianisation Hilda's mother painted signs on the side of her carts which proclaimed 'this business is owned by a British subject'. Hilda commented that although her father restarted the business after the war, it never recovered the position it held in 1940.


Hilda's father was to be deported, although the family knew nothing of this until they heard news that he was on the Arandora Star and travelling to Canada. After the sinking the family travelled to Liverpool where they failed to make contact with him, although they did find out that he had survived. Unfortunately, he was then sent to Australia for internment and he remained there until 1945.65



Internment and Family Life


The disruption and dislocation of family life was enormous and the women of Little Italy were hardest hit. After the roundup the families were faced with the emotional trauma as well as the loss of income to the household. For many the husband or father was an integral part of the family business and consequently once they had gone, the women had to continue trading in many instances alone, though quite often with the help of other family members, and eventually, the wartime restrictions on the sale of ice-cream brought an end to street trading, and some families simply closed their businesses. Aurelia Raffo as already noted, returned from Liverpool to Manchester after her husband was interned and her shop attacked, and found casual employment before restarting her business after the war. With the suspension of ice cream trading there was a need to seek alternative employment in the war industries, and, although anti-Italian prejudice was evident amongst potential employers, most Italians found some employment.66


For the children of Little Italy the war resulted in evacuation, which along with the enforced absence of family members served to heighten feelings of displacement. For some of the evacuees there were incidents that had been encouraged by the events of June 1940. Serafino Di Felice who was evacuated to Lytham St Anne's along with his classmates from St Michael's School Ancoats describes how their teacher singled out the Italian boys to be ridiculed. The older Italian boys, aged 10-11 were lined up on the stage in front of the school and their headteacher stated, 'we all know you have learned Giovenizza at St Alban's. So you can do a chorus of Giovenizza in view of Mussolini's entry into the war'. The boys refused to sing and were punished. Overall in Ancoats Serafino Di Felice stated that:


In Ancoats there was not a lot of bitterness towards the 'indigenous Italians' and my  family had been there since 1878. There was sympathy and sorrow for those whose families had been lost. There was concern about some Italians who had spoken out about Mussolini. They were quite rightly locked away, but some shouldn't have been locked away. The English people who knew Mr Frezza, who knew Mr Marre, who knew Mr Meleranghi they were in sympathy. They knew the simplicity of the men who died and had been locked up. They were also aware of the right wing in the camp. Yet it never reached the colony it was more or less the well to do ones who were in the fascisti.



When Serafino returned to Ancoats he found that the structure of the community had been disturbed:


My family was not affected in Manchester or Birmingham. When I got back from evacuation, I realised that some of the Italians had gone away. The children who remained were disorganised and mentally abused, families were in rebellion one way or another-children were staying away from school and sons were deserting from the army. My mother hid two conscripts in our home as the MP's were looking for them.(sic)67


The second generation men in the armed forces had to face the trauma of relatives being interned. Added to this was the fact that a number of Italians from Manchester were on the Arandora Star, it is thus hardly suprising that there was opposition to military service. Within the armed forces Clarence Meschia recalled how, upon entering the army he encountered fellow 'Italian' conscripts who refused to cooperate with their officers in protest at the treatment of their families. The other second and third generation Italians remained in the forces throughout the war, despite their opposition to internment as they saw the conflict as a struggle against fascism.68 There were also examples of Italian families mainly first generation sending their children back to Italy, although this appears not to have been directly related to the war, as children were sent to stay with relatives whilst their families worked to establish themselves in Britain, and remained in Italy once war had broken out. Under war time conditions, there is some evidence of prejudice towards such children. L.Sivori, who returned to Italy and the family village in Chiaveri, was aged 10 just prior to the outbreak of war. With the declaration of war his parents decided that Louis should stay for the duration with his relatives. Louis' recollections show the disruption of being placed in what was effectively a foreign environment. Being second generation, he had attended his local school in Gorton, central Manchester and spoke English as his first language, although he also spoke some Italian. In the village he was cut off from his family and was seen as British by the local villagers. He describes his experiences: 'It was very hard. I couldn't speak a word of Italian and had to start my schooling again. To the Italians you were foreign. The teacher was a strong Fascist, every day I had to stand up and tell the class where I was from.' After the war once Louis and his sister had returned to Manchester, they then had to go through a further process of readjustment as they had adapted to Italian village life over the previous five years. They now had to settle back into Manchester and take a role in the family business. Thus their parents sent them to attend private English lessons.69


During the war the Italians became cast as an out group, and their erstwhile loyalties were put under strain, since even a declaration of loyalty such as service in the armed forces failed to assuage the anger and bitterness of some of the host society. For those who had to face the forcible internment of family and friends, (the experience of all Italians in Ancoats) they had to attempt to make sense of such intolerance: they were now definitely seen as an outgroup - some came to justify internment as a necessary act in wartime, others saw it as an unacceptable act of intolerance.





29 P. Panayi, The Lancashire Anti-German riots of May 1915', MRHR, n (1988/89).

30 Manchester Evening News [MEN}, 11 June 1940.

31 Manchester Evening Chronicle [MEC], 11 June 1940.

32 Estimated from entries for Manchester in Guida Generate, p. 254.

33 Interview with John Passagno, August, 1994.

34 Interview with Albert Salvatore, February, 1994.

35 Interview with Peter Devoti, August, 1997.

36 C. Hughes, Lime, Lemon and Sarsparilla. The Italian Community in South Wales 1881-194 (Bridgend, 1991), p. 94.

37 Interviews with Granellis.

38 Holmes, John Bull's Island, p. 190.

39 Sponza, I&M, 11, 127.

40 Colpi, I&M, 11, 179.

41 Hughes, Lime and Lemon, p. 100.

42 In all my interviews with members of the Manchester Italian community, Joe Monti and Father Fracassi were remembered as victims of the sinking of the Arandora Star.

43 Sponza, I&M, 11, 127.

44 Ibid., p. 134.

45 Interviews with Granellis.

46 Colpi, I&M, 11, 172.

47 MEC, 11 June 1940.

48 Manchester Guardian, 11 June 1940.

49 Interview with Aurelia Raffo, July 1993.

50 Sponza, in Panayi, Racial Violence, p. 132.

51 Ibid., p. 131.

52 MEN, 11 June 1940.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid.

55 MEC, 13 June 1940.

56 MEN, 12 June 1940.

57 Ibid.. 11 June 1940.

58 Ibid., 12 June 1940.

59 Sponza, in Panayi, Racial Violence, p. 131.

60 Colpi, I&M, 11, 168.

61 Guida Generale, p. 154

62 Ibid., p. 261.

63 Sponza, in Panayi, Racial Violence, p. 131.

64 Interview with Mena Callan, August 1997.

65 Interview with Hilda MacDonald, August 1994.

66 Interview with Aurelia Raffo, July 1993.

67 Interview with Serafino Di Felice, April 1997.

68 Interview with Clarence Meschia, April 1998.

69 Interview with Louis Sivori, January 1995.