Here’s a post from Curatorial Assistant Tanya Wills – Tanya has been working on our project to bring the interior of John’s Cafe in Wingate, a historic ice cream parlour and popular ’50s hangout, to Beamish:
As the warm weather continues, we all love nothing more than an ice cream to cool us down. A little, affordable treat on a day out. Before the nineteenth century ice cream was a luxury in Western Europe, enjoyed mainly in the royal courts. Now we have ice cream parlours and vans in most towns and cities and we have group of entrepreneurial immigrants to thank for that – the Italians.
Nineteenth century rural Italy had a rising population, many unable to find work, food prices were rising and it was unsettled due to attempts at Unification. So with hopes of a better life many families looked further afield.
In 1871 the Census in England and Wales recorded the population of Italian immigrants as 5,063, but by 1911 this had risen to 20,389. I have found many different reasons for Italians settling in Britain. One tale is that unscrupulous boat owners took money with the promise of transport to America, but on arriving in Britain and travelling to ports such as Greenwich for the next leg of their journey, immigrants found that there was no mention of them on passenger list. So, due to lack of money, they settled in Scotland and Northern England.
Another story is of Italians who had already settled sending word back to their native villages, telling them of the money to be made in their town in industrial Britain. This story is backed up by records looking at Immigration patterns which showed multiple families from the same village in Italy all settling within the same county here.The North East had many families from the Ciociaria region (between Rome and Naples). Of course many decided to move over to large cities such as London and then fanned out to the rest of country in search of work.
The North East is well known for welcoming people from all over Europe, at one time moving here to take advantage of the opportunities brought about by coal mining and ship building. It is what shaped the rich culture and language of the North East.
One way the Italians found they could make money was to sell ice cream they produced themselves using methods and recipes from home, initially out of push cart selling dabs of ice cream wrapped in paper or ‘penny licks’. Willing to work long hours, pushing the heavy carts around the town they could earn a small living. The sellers were often called ‘hokeypockey men’ believed to come from their cries of “Gelati, eccounpoco!” (“Ice cream, here’s a little!”)
The treat became popular and as more money came in the carts were often replaced by horse drawn cart or bicycle carts and then eventually shops which sold everything from sundaes to cigarettes, sweets, hot drinks and meals. As profits increased second and third shops were often purchased in neighbouring towns and rented out or sold to workers who showed they could make a profit.
The shops were usually family run with ice cream recipes passed on to the next generations who would eventually go on to run shops. These cafes became parts of people’s lives: a venue where they went while celebrating, meeting friends, dating future spouses or took the family for a treat.
And so, the Italian families who ran (and many still run today) the local ice cream café became family friends and those looking for an escape from economic problems in Italy won over the hearts and taste buds of Britain.