Often neglected from the histories of Manchester are the stories of its founding communities: the tales of those that inhabited and powered the bustling industrial centre. Among these were the Italians of Ancoats, their ‘hidden history’ a tale of cultural significance, yet also of hardship and rejection. After the slum clearances of the 1960s, the Italian community became dispersed across Greater Manchester, making it crucial that we uncover the cultural significance of Italians in our early history.

Italians began arriving in Manchester from 1865, which was the time of Italy’s unification into a nation-state. This unification had created more problems than it solved, with cultural and linguistic incompatibility between previously divided regions, limited economic prosperity, and the remnants of feudalism. Passion for this cause was thus limited among the masses for its failure to bring a national ‘resurgence’, summarised by d’Azeglio’s famous quote: ‘we have made Italy, now we must make Italians’. This prompted mass emigration – figures were reaching as high as 200,000 annually – many of whom came to Britain. Those who settled in Manchester largely settled in Ancoats and over time, the Italian population became dominant in this area, with a community of 2000 people gaining the title ‘Little Italy’.

The Italians of Manchester had a distinct cultural identity, and the streets of Ancoats were transformed by a new, close-knit community. Religion remained important to many of those families, and under the parish of St Michaels, the Manchester Italian Association was established in 1888 to represent the Catholic faith. The Italian community became a key pillar of the ‘Whit walks’, parades which still take place every year notable for the ornate crucifix and brass band. 

The primary achievement of Mancunian Italians however, was the modern ice cream trade of Britain. My great granddad Boggiano established ‘Peter Burgon’s’, one of many family ice cream businesses that enlivened the streets of Manchester. In 1901, it was Antonio Valvona, a resident of Little Italy, that invented the wafer tub as an alternative to the reusable glass ‘penny licks’. Fears of cholera made public health authorities wary of the ‘penny lick’ ice cream trade, and so Valvona’s invention emerged as a saving grace, allowing the ice cream trade to become what it is today. Italians were therefore a culturally significant group in Mancunian history, their innovations in ice cream becoming an integrated part of everyday life.

However, Italy’s entry into the Second World War in 1940 birthed anti-Italian sentiment across Britain. Mussolini’s fascist forces, alongside the British Fascist movement, created a stigma of suspicion around British Italians, who were viewed as undermining the war effort from within. My family experienced this directly, as a mob tried to attack the Peter Burgon’s stall in Manchester. This was despite the fact that Boggiano had served in the British army in both the First and Second World Wars, having fought against the very fascist forces they were suspected of aiding. What’s more, the British government’s policy of internment almost became a state-sponsored legitimation of anti-Italian sentiment. Individuals deemed ‘enemy aliens’ could be interned and kept in camps at the will of the state, a policy so misguided that even escapees of the Holocaust were imprisoned. This directly hit innocent Italians in Manchester who had lived, worked and raised families in Britain. Families were torn apart, with no knowledge as to what would happen to them, and with limited legal protection. 

The sinking of the Arandora Star was a consequence of this. The Arandora Star was a cruise liner, repurposed as a prisoner transport during the war. It set sail from Liverpool on the 2nd of July 1940 with an extremely overloaded cargo of over 1600 prisoners and crew. People were drawn from all over England, and among these were the Italian fathers, brothers and husbands of Ancoats’ ‘Little Italy’. Without clear identification as a transport of innocent people and painted the grey of a merchant ship, it became a target for German forces. On the morning of the 3rd of July, the German U-47 struck the Arandora Star with a torpedo. In total 446 Italian men, among hundreds of other prisoners and crew, lost their lives. Those who survived were then returned to internment camps, without sympathy for the horrors they had faced. Public perception turned against internment at this time, as its reactionary hostility to immigrant communities was laid bare. Yet, the damage had been done, and innocent members of Manchester’s community had died, suffered, or been imprisoned for their origins alone.

Today, the distinct nature of ‘Little Italy’ has dissipated, and it is easy for the history of Mancunian Italians to become lost in a past as rich as that of Manchesters’. We must remember the innovative ice cream families, and the cultural vibrancy that our immigrant communities imported. Yet, just as easily forgotten is the prejudice of the past. The blasé, punitive nature of internment was a great injustice to the Italians of Manchester who dedicated their lives to the future of Britain, and its consequence in the Arandora Star was a true humanitarian disaster. It took 68 years for an official British recognition of the events that took place, and many have still never heard the stories of Italians in Manchester. Just beneath the surface of the history of Manchester lie tales just like these, and to understand and reconcile with our past, we must do our best to search them out.