Authors: Annie Groves
To all those who lived through WW2
– and to all those who did not.
Part One: June 1940
Part Two: October 1940
Part Three: February 1941
Part Four: Summer 1941
About the Author
By the same Author
About the Publisher
‘’Ere, Rosie, you live down in Little Italy with the Eyeties, don’t you? Only it’s just bin on the wireless that that Mussolini of theirs has only gone and sided with ruddy ’Itler, just like it’s bin saying in the papers ’e would. I heard about it when I took Mrs V.’s parcels to the post office for ’er.’ Nancy, rushing into the small sewing room at the back of Elegant Modes, announced the news with malicious relish. ‘Fascists, that’s what they all are, living over here, spying on us. If you ask me, the whole lot of them want locking up.’
‘That’s not fair, Nancy,’ Rosie Price objected, her brown eyes brilliant with emotion, and her cheeks flushing as she put down the dress she was holding and determinedly faced the other girl. ‘Most of the Italians in Liverpool have been here for years, and I know for a fact that a lot of the boys from the families near us were amongst the first to join up when war was announced.’
Nancy tossed her head and eyed Rosie resentfully.
Until Rosie had started working at the dress shop on Bold Street just after Christmas,
had been the prettiest girl there and had grown used to the other girls both admiring and envying her. Mrs Verey, who owned Elegant Modes, had even asked Nancy to model the dresses now and then if a customer couldn’t quite make up her mind.
Mrs Verey bought her stock with her regular customers in mind. For daytime there were smart tweed suits for the winter with neat little fur collars, to be worn with pretty knitted twinsets, and blouses trimmed with lace; for the summer, short-sleeved cotton and silk dresses and good navy-blue lightweight coats. She also carried a range of truly beautiful evening frocks, in silks and satins, with full panelled skirts flaring out from tightly fitted bodices. Most of the frocks came with matching wraps and pretty little evening bags. These dresses, like the wedding dresses she also sold, were kept in special glass-fronted wardrobes in their own special ‘salon’. And since Rosie, with her tiny waist and her curves, her thick, naturally curly dark hair, and the dimples that softened her cheeks when her mouth curved into a smile, had come to work at the salon, it was she who Mrs Verey chose and whose inherent style the other girls were now trying to copy.
Rosie loved the expensive fabrics of the clothes Mrs Verey sold and searched the stalls in St John’s market for offcuts and bargains – pretty pieces of lace and unusual buttons with which to dress up her own clothes. She favoured neat, simple styles
rather than frills and ruffles, preferring to buy plain things she could put her own stamp on with some pretty trimmings: a lace collar, or a contrasting belt. Mrs Verey had said approvingly, ‘You’ve got a proper sense of style, Rosie, and no mistake. That’s something that can never be bought.’
might be all pally with them, Rosie, but there’s a lot of folk in Liverpool who are a bit more patriotic,’ Nancy announced sharply. ‘My dad was saying only the other night as ’ow we don’t need the likes of Eyeties and Fascists over here eating our rations and that.’
Rosie had no idea why Nancy kept picking on her the way she did. From her very first day at the shop, Nancy had gone out of her way to be unkind to her and get her into trouble. Rosie could still remember how, on her first morning, Nancy had told Rosie to iron a fragile satin dress satin side up, which would have ruined the garment completely if one of the other girls hadn’t stopped her just in time. When Rosie had said innocently that she was following Nancy’s instructions Nancy had claimed that Rosie must have misunderstood her. But it hadn’t been until later in the week when Ruth, one of the girls, had overheard Nancy telling Rosie that Mrs Verey wanted her and that she was to go down to the showroom right away, that Rosie realised that it wasn’t kindness that was motivating Nancy to take an interest in her but quite the opposite.
‘Rosie, you just tek no notice of anything Nancy tells yer to do, wi’out checking wi’ one of us first,’
Ruth had warned her. ‘We all know that Mrs Verey doesn’t allow us girls to go down into the showroom in our workroom clothes, and looking untidy. I reckon Nancy has a mind to get you into trouble so that Mrs Verey decides to get rid of you. She’s allus bin a bit like that, has Nancy. She’s got a real nasty streak to her, if you ask me.’
Now Rosie tried to avoid Nancy and not get drawn into arguments with her. She didn’t want to risk losing her job, not whilst she was still only a trainee assistant, to give her job its proper name. Rosie’s working day was filled with a variety of jobs that included making sure the floors were kept free of dust, especially in the workroom, learning how to press the delicate fabrics, making sure that clothes that had been tried on by customers were put back properly in the correct place, and just occasionally, under the stern eye of one of the more senior girls, being allowed into the shop to serve those customers who had come in for some small item such as a pair of stockings or some handkerchiefs. But now she couldn’t just stand there and let Nancy get away with saying what she had.
‘That’s not fair,’ Rosie repeated. ‘Some of the families, like the Volantes, the D’Annunzios, the Santangellis and the Chiappes, have been in Liverpool for fifty years and more.’ Although she wasn’t Italian, Rosie had grown up amongst the immigrant Italian families who inhabited that part of the city known as ‘Little Italy’, the heart of the
Italian community in Liverpool. Rosie knew how proud Liverpool’s Italians were, both of their roots in the Picinisco area of Italy, poor farming country between Naples and Rome, and of their English home from home. The first immigrants, men in the main, driven out of their home country by poverty, to look for work to support their families wherever they could find it, had worked hard, saving what they could to send home, and returning there in the summer to help tend the family farms. As soon as they were able to do so, they had brought to Liverpool their wives and children, and a tradition had built up of the Italians marrying within their own community and adhering as much as they could to the ways of the old country.
The Italian immigrants had always been made welcome and were able to find work because they possessed wonderful artistic talents. Rosie had been told how in the early days of their arrival, in Lionel Street, a number of Italian families had converted their cellars into little workshops where they made beautiful and intricate figurines and statues, sometimes working in marble. These skills were passed down from one generation to the next. Those unskilled men amongst the earlier immigrants had been prepared to undertake almost any type of work to support their families. One of their occupations was knife sharpening, and Rosie had often heard how proud the Gianelli and the Sartorri families were of the fact that from humble beginnings they had developed commercial businesses
within the city, offering their knife-sharpening services to hotels and restaurants.
As new immigrants arrived from Italy, those who were already established welcomed them, taking them in as lodgers and helping them to establish themselves in turn, so that a closely knit community began to develop. Ever watchful for an opportunity to earn a living, one man, Vincenzo Volante, set up in business hiring out handcarts and larger carts for transporting barrel organs. Vincenzo could speak several languages and so he took on the responsibility of helping the newcomers who could not speak English.
As la Nonna, the grandmother of Rosie’s best friend, Bella, had told Rosie with great pride, the Italians coming from the homeland were extremely gifted artistically and musically, and soon the streets of Little Italy were warmed by the songs of the old country and the laughter of its people.
Those who pushed their barrel organs around the city entertaining the public, quickly realised that there was a market for the ice cream they had enjoyed at home in Italy, and so certain families set up small businesses in their homes making ice cream. Raphael Santangelli in particular was famous for his ice-cream business, starting from humble beginnings in Gerard Street, and selling his ice cream first from handcarts pushed around the streets, and then, as the business became more successful and he could afford them, via three-wheeler ice-cream carts. Now the Santangellis were well known and respected,
and their motorised ice-cream vans were seen everywhere in the city. La Nonna was very proud of her own family’s distant connection to the Santangellis, to whom she was a cousin several times removed. She had boasted to Rosie, though, that her own recipe for ice cream was just that little bit better than that of the Santangellis, owing to a ‘secret’ extra special ingredient she had learned at her own grandmother’s knee and which she only intended to pass on to her daughters on her deathbed.
The Chiappe family was also famous for its ice-cream business. They had a well-known ice-cream shop near the Gaiety Cinema in Scotland Road, and another branch at 8 Feather Road, owned by Angelo Chiappe, who was a great friend of Bella’s father. In the winter, when no one wanted to buy ice cream, the sellers sold roasted chestnuts instead.
Many Italian men found work in the catering trade in Liverpool’s hotels, and in 1939, when Romeo Imundi had retired from Romeo’s, the grocery store owned and run by the Imundi family on Springfield Street, the whole community had turned out to wave him off back to Picinisco.
Knowing what she did about the length of time the Italian families had been established in Liverpool, and just how much they had contributed to the city in different ways, and how much they cared about it and about one another, it shocked and disgusted Rosie to hear Nancy speaking so nastily about them, and she was fully prepared to say so. Nancy, though, wasn’t prepared to listen.
‘They’re still Eyeties, though, aren’t they?’ she insisted.
‘Don’t pay no mind to Nancy, Rosie,’ Ruth said quietly as Rosie carefully hung up the dress, ready to start work on it in the morning. ‘I dare say Nancy’s had her fair share of Gonnelli’s ice cream and Podestra’s chips in her time.’
Rosie managed a small smile, more out of politeness than anything else. It made her so angry when she knew how hard the Italians worked to hear them being run down so unfairly.
‘Nancy’s being so unkind, Ruth,’ she replied fiercely. ‘You should have seen how proud the Italian folk in our street were when their boys joined up. St Joseph’s Boxing Club was practically empty, so many of the boys who go there had enlisted. The Fuscos a few doors down from us lost their only son at Dunkirk,’ she added quietly. Her eyes clouded at the thought.
The whole country was still in shock over the dreadful news they had all heard about the British Expeditionary Force, the very best of the country’s experienced soldiers. Trapped when Hitler had swept into Belgium and then France, the British soldiers had been forced to retreat to the French beaches of Dunkirk. Thousands of them had died there and thousands upon thousands more would also have perished or been taken prisoner had it not been for the brave men who had risked their own lives over and over again to sail across the Channel to bring their fellow countrymen safely home.
Rosie had seen the newsreels, showing that valiant rescue operation. She had seen too the heart-wrenching celluloid images of the haggard, grey-faced men in their uniforms, heads bent in shame and defeat. Mr Churchill’s stirring words, though, had raised everyone’s spirits and given the fighting men of Great Britain back their pride, as he had turned defeat into pride that so many brave men had been saved. But the terrible events of Dunkirk had left a shadow over the whole country, along with the fear of Hitler’s threatened invasion.
Just thinking about the war made Rosie feel so afraid. And not just for herself. Her father was a merchant seaman, sailing under the ‘Red Duster’, as the Red Ensign was nicknamed. All through the winter, merchant ships had made their way across the Atlantic in convoys, bringing much-needed supplies to the country, but the loss of life and shipping had been severe, and Rosie could never relax when her father was at sea.
Although the dress shop closed at five o’clock, the girls in the sewing room were expected to work on until six. Normally Rosie, who as a trainee was mainly working on alterations to start with, loved her work, adjusting pretty clothes in beautiful material, coming up with interesting trimmings and using her skill as a seamstress to excellent effect, but tonight she was anxious to leave so that she could hurry home and find out more about the news Nancy had referred to. Their Italian neighbours had been reluctant to talk about
the likelihood of Mussolini joining Hitler. All of them still had family back in Italy, and Rosie, knowing how close-knit Italian families were, could only imagine how anxious they must be feeling.
The shock of being at war, and most especially the Dunkirk evacuation, was at the forefront of everyone’s mind and had brought a sombreness to people, but it had also brought a resoluteness, Rosie recognised, as she stepped out into the early evening sunshine and headed for home. Rosie’s parents rented a small house in Gerard Street. Like the children of their Italian neighbours, Rosie had attended Holy Cross school and worshipped at Holy Cross itself.
It wouldn’t take her very long to walk home, and although her stomach growled hungrily as she drew level with her favourite chippy, she refused to give in to the temptation to go in, telling herself as she turned into Springfield Street that she’d come back later after she’d seen Bella and get herself a tuppenny dinner. It wasn’t likely there’d be dinner on the table, after all. Her mother, Christine, wasn’t the domesticated sort, and Rosie had learned from a young age that when her father was at sea she had to look after herself. Rosie expected that right now Christine would be round at the Grenellis’, smoking and laughing with the men, whilst Maria bustled around her kitchen making dinner for everyone. Sometimes Rosie found it hard to understand what her undomesticated, often hard to please mother had in common with gentle, homely Maria, and why Maria
put up with a friend who was as difficult and selfish as Rosie knew her mother to be. As a little girl she had often wished secretly that Maria was her mother, loving the way she would sweep her up onto her lap and cuddle her, something Christine never did.