Part 1 – Introduction, The Welsh-Italians and Immigration

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The Welsh-Italians & Immigration

Migration. What does it mean to you? A traumatic Exodus for those displaced from war-torn countries? Or perhaps a promise of hope and opportunity for those who have lived in dire poverty, an escape from disease and natural disaster? Or something else? Migration is not a recent phenomenon. The movement of people between countries, whether temporarily or permanently, has always been in evidence. The UK is an island littered with harbours and seaports which have provided the perfect backdrop for international trading over the centuries, importing and exporting food, silks, raw grains for flour, minerals for smelting and countless other things, encouraging people from every land to visit our shores.

Yet for me, migration has a much deeper significance. My family arrived here in the UK from Italy in the late1800s to take up permanent residence, after many years of seasonal trading. Initially, the Italians came here in very small numbers, often making ice cream in summer, or offering hot chestnuts and potatoes, or playing the barrel organ, in winter. Some made figurines which they sold. The Italians were met with mixed reactions. Some considered them charmingly exotic and highly entertaining, while others referred to them as ‘dirty ruffians’ and ‘Eye-ties’. Charles Babbage, the mathematician and so-called ‘Father of Computing’, apparently abhorred the musicians, and is said to have thrown open his bedroom window in disgust, before emptying the contents of his overflowing chamber-pot over one poor unsuspecting minstrel who had made the unhappy decision to set up his barrel organ beneath!

The migrants arrived from all over Italy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but those who came to Wales originated predominantly from two distinct areas: Bardi in the northern part of Italy (the Bardigiani), and another often overlooked but significant area Picinisco, a more southerly mountain-top comune, a cluster of hamlets not far from Cassino, in the Mezzogiorno region of Italy. When I say ‘overlooked’ I refer mainly to the complete and continuous lack of mention or recognition  of the Piciniscani group in media reports about the Welsh-Italians, including written articles, television programs and documentaries, as well as in news reports and exhibitions. It is this total failure to acknowledge the group which has given rise to, and perpetuates the myth (to paraphrase Carlo Levi’s ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’) that Italy stops at Bardi. No, it really does not!

Apparently the use of phrases such as ‘almost all’ or ‘mostly’ or ‘the majority’ of  Welsh-Italian came from Bardi absolves the media from failing to conduct or present true and accurate research and information that should encompass all major areas of Italy, and so this fallacy persists. Even our local museums are guilty. Both of them! The same incorrect information is displayed on notice boards and exhibitions, and despite all our attempts over a period of years, it has still not been changed. Those of us whose heritage and hearts lie in Picinisco and other southern areas find this insulting, upsetting and demeaning.

The truth of the matter is, the Bardigiani do indeed form a large and very important group of Italians whose families can still be found in and around Newport, Cardiff and the valleys, and some of whom are my personal friends. My remarks are not a criticism of them in the slightest, but a reflection of the lazy journalism that looks no further than the obvious. They need to travel further West, where a large contingent of Piciniscani and others from the more southern areas of Italy settled, notably Swansea and the surrounding areas. Indeed, one of the most famous Welsh-Italian Piciniscani families in South Wales are the Cascarinis, who founded Joe’s ice cream and still going after 100 years. So let’s not forget that and give them the recognition they deserve. The media can try as much as they like, but they cannot change history!


Picinisco is a small cluster of hamlets with a population of around 1200, nestling timelessly in the mountainous Mezzogiorno region, mid-way between Rome and Naples. It sits right in the centre of the point at which the stunningly beautiful regions of Lazio, Molise and Abruzzo meet. The Piciniscani were mostly impoverished ‘contadini’, or farmers.  There was often hunger, little work except on the land, and a deep desire to improve their lives. They were in general a very handsome people, to the extent that well known artists offered them work abroad as models. In fact, it is said in the family that a distant cousin modelled for the statue of Eros in Piccadilly. They went home with money in their pockets and tales of plenty and wealth in these other places, encouraging others to try their luck. Many walked the journey here, or hitched rides on carts, saving what little money they had for the sea journey. Sometimes, they would even be forced to sleep in barns or under hedges for shelter. Yet these first migrants returned to their homes with more money than they could have dreamt of, again recounting their tales of adventure. Soon, more followed, leaving their hill-top homes to seek their fortune in ‘The Promised Land, where the streets are paved with gold.’ What they all shared in common though, was an indomitable spirit of adventure, and the will and determination to improve their lot. Combine this with inherent entrepreneurship, and you have a very potent combination indeed.

My Arcari grandparents, like many others who later settled in Wales, started out with an ice cream hand-cart on Whitstable Sands, while others opened fish and chip shops, scattering across the whole country. As soon as they could afford to, my grandparents moved to Merthyr for a very short time and then later, to Swansea to be close to their Pompa relatives who had already established a thriving café. Not long after, they opened their own cafe close to the relatives, and a few years later, a larger cafe situated near industry and the railway station in Swansea, opposite a theatre in High Street. This was the birth of one of many Italian ice–cream parlours and cafes in the area that people remembered with nostalgia and fondness, the cafes where everyone was convinced the owners were quarrelling as they yelled at each other, when in fact, they always spoke with the same gusto and spirited animation; where the aroma of coffee beans from a huge silver machine, topped by an eagle, permeated the air, and a shiny hot pipe would deliver a burst of steam into the centre of a meat pie until the gravy bubbled over the sides. This was the time when the nation took the ever-growing Italian population to their hearts. Until war intervened.

In 1940, Churchill’s ‘Collar the lot!’ speech heralded internment, and overnight, the Italians became the enemy – Italians who had lived here for forty or more years, their children who had come here as babies, those who had been born here, and some whose sons were serving in the British Army – all treated as suspect aliens. The rough element of society soon reared its ugly head. Many Italians were verbally and physically abused, their shop windows smashed, the interiors destroyed and their possessions looted. Many Italians were arrested on government orders, often forcibly, and sent to distant internment camps, their families having no idea of their whereabouts. Tragically, almost five hundred Italian internees drowned (over seven hundred on-board in total) in the ‘Arandora Star’ tragedy, after she was torpedoed on her journey to Canada.

Then in the 1950s, change came again.  A recruitment drive by the UK Government encouraged young Italians to come here to work, a fresh influx of much-needed migrant workers. A new cycle of Italian migration began and once again, the cafes thrived.

Written by Anita Arcari, for People’s Collection Wales February 2020


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