After 22 months of enquiries a plaque was erected in December of 2021, officially recognised Ancoats as ‘Little Italy’, a “community integral to Manchester’s economic and cultural heritage since the late Nineteenth Century”. Manchester’s Italian community is described by third-generation Anglo-Italian Anthony Rea, as having provided an “exemplar for immigrant behaviour,” having “brought such character to this grim part of Manchester” with their “music, food and customs bringing so much colour to this area”.
The late Eighteenth-Century saw Manchester’s first wave of Italian immigrants, the majority from northern Italy’s highly skilled, professional class. However, in the aftermath of the Italian unification in 1861 swathes of Italy’s ‘contadini’, or rather farming class, sought refuge in Manchester’s New Cross district of Ancoats. Immigration peaked in the period between 1891-1901, and by the late Nineteenth-Century, 24,382 Italians lived in Britain and 1200 in Manchester. Italy’s overwhelmingly agrarian economy struggled to compete with Western Europe’s increasingly advanced industrial society following its unification. Italy’s GDP comprises roughly half that of Britain and about 25% of that of France and Germany. Manchester’s bustling industrial metropolis, therefore, offered an attractive, promising and opportunistic refuge for Italy’s contadini that were reaping little benefit from Italy’s stunted economy.
The Italian community settled in Ancoats’ Parish of St Michael’s, home to many of Manchester’s mills, and soon began to outnumber the area’s initial English and Irish communities. They resided in industrial Britain’s typical modest terrace housing, whose separate kitchens, living spaces and outside privy proved luxurious in comparison to their previous homes in Italy. Upon realising the need for a society to uphold the cultural needs of Ancoats’ Italian community, Father Tynan formed Manchester’s Italian Catholic Society in 1888. This society truly instilled a sense of community amongst the Italian immigrants and was pejoratively considered well-integrated, prosperous and highly respected members of British Society. The society instigated language classes, social events and organised the ‘Festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel’ which constituted the carrying of the blessed virgin through the city of Manchester. The procession still leads every year from St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church.
The 1881 census reveals that the dominant occupation of those living in the Ancoats area was that of a vendor or street musician, often referred to by Mancunions as ‘herdy-gerdy players’. However, most excitement can be sought in the Italian community’s pioneering of Nineteenth-Century Britain’s ice cream industry, a skill yet to have crossed the British channel. A multitude of families, all with their own secret recipe, embarked on the mass production of ice cream to sell in the streets of Manchester on push and pony carts. Vibrant, beautiful paintings of native Italian designs and countryside scenery were characteristic of these carts, described as having filled the streets of dreary industrial Manchester with an unfounded life of colour. To make ice cream, milk was boiled in large metal tubs, before various secret ingredients and flavourings were added. These tubs were often left to cool in the basement of houses, allowing for the delicious smell of cooling warm, sweet milk to pervade the streets of Ancoats. The freezing of milk was aided by the Blossom Street Ice Company – now a Co-operative – and the milk was churned by hand in buckets engulfed in ice and salt. This manual freezing process would often take multiple days, and proved arduous, unsurprisingly freezing work. In the Nineteenth-Century, today’s wafers and waffle cones didn’t exist and instead, ice cream was served in ‘licking glass’. These were washed and reused by the following customer and were unsurprisingly deemed an extreme health hazard. It can be argued that the invention of biscuits- served with ice cream- in 1904 saved the industry in negating the ’licking glasses’ cross-contamination problems. Ancoat’s families not only contributed substantially to the pioneering of Britain’s still thriving ice cream industry, but they still exist in some capacity today. Examples include Vincenzo Schiavo’s Vincent’s Ices and Boggiano’s Peter Burgon’s.
Unfortunately, this highly established Italian community encountered an epoch of anti-Italian feeling in Britain throughout the Second World War, even though the formation of Anglo-Italian identity resulted in a failure in elitist attempts to impose identification with the fascist state. Despite this, for fear of fascist sympathisers, 25% of Manchester’s Italian population were interned in British labour camps and many were deported to Canada often for unfounded, unsubstantiated reasons. The war’s traumatic impact left the community still believing in their status as ‘enemy aliens’ post-war. The British authority’s unwillingness to acknowledge their own mistakes cost the Italian community many lives; most critically those of 446 men who drowned in the torpedoing of internee ship, the Andorra Star. An acknowledgement of this tragedy came 68 years later, in 2008, with the unveiling of a plaque of remembrance in the Parish Church of Our Lady and St Nicholas, Liverpool.
Sadly, Britain’s decline in manufacturing throughout the 1970s saw the end of the Ancoats ‘Little Italy’ community. Many of the Anglo-Italians emigrated back to Italy’s more prosperous economy, and Manchester City Council cleared Ancoats of its slums, moving all remaining residents to another area. Since then, Ancoats has undergone a major renaissance and is now arguably one of Manchester’s coolest neighbourhoods, housing some of the city’s most exciting restaurants and bars. Ancoats’ community today mirrors that of ‘Little Italy’ in its thriving individualism, remaining home to countless independent success stories.