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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Norwich‘s Italian Community

The Norwich Italian Community

Norwich has long benefited from inward migration: for instance there was a time in the middle ages when it is said a third of the population of the city had its origin in the Low Countries.  The effect of the Flemish Weavers was quite profound, they revived and widened the scope of an industry in danger of becoming moribund.  There is a long history of people from foreign lands coming to Norwich, making their home here and becoming an accepted part of the city‘s social and commercial life. Norwich had a large Jewry, indeed one of the largest to be found in provincial England. Even in quite recent times it was to Norwich that people from a very wide area looked if in need of a synagogue or a Rabbi.

Little Italy in Ber Street

An inward migration near to our own times is that of the Italians of which little appears to have been written.  R.H. Mottram does write of Ber Street in the nineteenth century saying it was here "...that a colony of Italian emigrants established themselves.  Coming from their overcrowded poverty-stricken land, I suppose Ber Street seemed to them paved with gold....."  Mottram reminds us that as late as 1929, the old "Blood and Guts" street had twenty-two public houses that were not mere beer counters but each with a yard and some form of stabling. It was into that street with its undoubted privations but also with its colour and its characters that the newcomers found their home.

Between the two World Wars Norwich changed greatly, with a shift of population from the overcrowded yards and tenements of the inner city to the newly-constructed estates outside the city walls.  Clearance of what was considered slum property did much to change the city‘s feel but, even in 1940, one could still sense in Ber Street something of an earlier time.  Walking from Orford Place through Timberhill and into Ber Street, one was still conscious of an air of difference, with a dark-haired girl sitting by an ice-cream hand cart.  The young lady was plying a trade typical of the Italians in Norwich at that time.   Mottram clothes the early days of the Italian community with romance, writing of the women, ".....their abundant hair bound with richly coloured scarves, trundled piano organs, with a baby slung across the shafts, into the better residential districts, and turned the crank-handle".   He later speaks of the latter days when Ber Street had changed dramatically, of the Italians ".....grown miraculously rich..." opening restaurants.    What is beyond argument is that the Carreras, the Valoris, the Marcantonios, the Peruzzis and their compatriots, were very hard working and soon established a place in the Norwich business community, a presence still in place today.

Siro Valori

Siro Valori and his wife Neva  are typical of the people of Italian origin, who through their industry and their good business sense found a niche in an old English city.   They speak of the ‘push factor‘ that made the Italians seek their fortune in a foreign land.  It was poverty, a hard an unrewarding life.  Siro and Neva tell of a family going to the docks and hoping to reach America, telling the ship‘s officers they would work their passage to the New World.  They were accepted on board only to find their destination was not the United States but Scotland!  Their own success was to be found in the fish trade with a shop and restaurant in Timberhill, employing thirty staff and the restaurant seating two hundred people.  The first members of the Valori family had come to Norwich in 1904, a group of brothers from Pistoia near Florence, who at first made their home in Botolph Street before moving to Ber Street.  Pistoia may well have been the place of origin of the word ‘pistol‘.  The earliest occupation of the family in Norwich was the making of alabaster figurines and photographs possessed by Siro and Neva show artistry as well as industry was a family characteristic.

Armando and Arturo Valori went into partnership and had six fish shops.  John Marcantonio had a fish shop at the top of Grapes Hill, Toni of the same family one in Mountergate and Joe Marcantonio his near the top of Ber Street.  Nor was it only the fish trade where the Italians prospered, the Peruzzi family operated a large scrap-metal business in Derby Street and David Rossi became a silversmith on Guildhall Hill and his brother an architect..

The coming of the Second World War brought tensions to the community.   Some were regarded with suspicion as aliens and a few were briefly interned under Regulation 18B.   This was not a fate that befell Armando and Arturo who had become British Citizens in 1935.  Siro‘s identification with the British State, like many others, was shown by his service in an Armoured Division in Normandy after ‘D‘ Day.

Black Anna

One lady, very much of the community, who has left her mark on the city, is Anna Hannant, formerly Carrera, the wife of Jack Hannant, the keeper of the Jolly Butchers, Public and Lodging House, in Ber Street.  Known to all as "Black Anna", because of her abundant black hair, she was a jazz and ‘blues‘ singer of distinction, known far beyond the bounds of Ber Street or indeed the city.   Anna , like her husband, has passed on but her fame is remembered by a plaque on the building in Ber Street that she made such a colourful venue.

Artistry of a different kind are the landscape paintings of Felix Bernasconi, who pictures of Norfolk are in 2008 receiving new acclaim in book and exhibition.  Born in 1911,  he was the grandson of a man who arrived from Italy in the 1800s , and it is said "...opened several shops in Norwich....".

Modern links

New links between Italy and Norwich continue to be forged:  Nina Vanacore is a member of the staff at the Dunston Hall Hotel and lives in the city.  Nina came to Norwich from the Sorrento area of Italy in 2003, via Positano and the hotel trade.  There she found she needed to improve her English and she was encouraged to go to England to do so.   Nina is these days studying English at the City College.  Travel is very different these days from those when emigrants sought to work their passage on ships and Nina is able to go home to her family regularly, flying from Stansted to Naples from where she is only a hours trip from her home.   Nina Vanacore thinks one day she will return to Italy to live.  Perhaps so, but until then she takes her place in the long line of welcome visitors to our old City from the sunny climes of Italy.

For those seeking a good general picture of Italian emigration to this country, the beauty and privation of Italian rural life, the adventure of coming to Britain, and the tensions that War brought to Italians living in this country, Mary Contini‘s A Letter To Olivia is an excellent guide.   Although not particular to the Norwich experience, it surely has much in common with the Italian people who made their way to this city, and it gives a dramatic account of MI5 officials and police taking a man into custody under the Emergency Powers Defence Act, 1939, section 18b.  It was a time of strange contrasts with many members of the Italian community later serving with distinction in the Armed Services.  Mary Contini‘s book‘s subtitle perhaps sums up the adventure for so many: An Italian Journey of Love and Courage.

Sources/Further Reading

  • Mary Contini  "A Letter to Olivia"   Canongate, Edinburgh, 2006.
  • R.H. Mottram  " If Stones Could Speak"   Museum Press, Ltd., London, 1953.

 Andy Anderson

December 2008