Victorian London - Populations - Immigrants - Italian

see also Thomson and Smith in Street Life in London - click here (1) 

see also Thomson and Smith in Street Life in London - click here (2) 

see also Richard Rowe in Life in the London streets - click here

see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps - click here

AN interesting light is thrown on the life of the Italians in London by Dr. Hamer, assistant medical officer of health to the London County Council. There are about 11,500 Italians all told in London, and these can be classed into three groups - (1) merchants, traders, professional men, and householders; (2) working class and Holborn district; (3) Soho and West End. The latter is the largest colony, numbering nearly 6,000, whilst about 4,000 are accounted for in the Saffron-hill district. It is computed that among the latter a thousand grind organs for a living, whilst 2,000 are classed as ice cream, potato and chestnut vendors.
    The conditions under which the itinerant vendor's of ice-cream live, in whatever part of London a colony is established, are generally more or less modelled, so far as the local circumstances permit of this, upon those which obtain in the Italian quarter itself. Some description of the chief Italian colony in London may therefore be given.

The Padrones and "Chaps."

    The colony is largely made up of young men. In 1861 the Holborn registration district contained 598 male Italians and only 31 females. At the time of the last census, however, the want of proportion between males and females was less marked, there being 1,069 males and 382 females. The houses in the streets are rented in some instances by "padrones," and are occupied by the padrone, his family, and the "chaps."  The last-named are the young men who, in the ice-cream season, are to be seen presiding over the barrows at street corners in various parts of London. A padrone employs on an average about a dozen "chaps," and his establishment is practically a common lodging-house - unregistered, however, and providing accommodation of an order considerably inferior to that insisted upon in the case of registered houses; the bedrooms occupied by the Italians being overcrowded and the cellar used as a day room, quite unsuited for that purpose. A different form of establishment is that in which an Italian rents a cottage with perhaps three small rooms, one used as a living room, one as a bedroom for the use of the master and his family, while the third room is devoted to the use of three, four, or more barrowmen.

How the Italians Sleep.

    The financial relations existing between the latter and the padrone seem to vary in different cases, In some instances the men are said to pay so much a week - about eighteenpence - for sleeping accommodation, and "something extra" for washing. in other cases the young men are said to enter into an agreement to give their services for a certain period in return for board and lodging and a small allowance of pocket-money. The padrones have so far succeeded in keeping outside the scope of the Common Lodging Houses Acts, and the police magistrates have decided that the police could not deal with the overcrowding in the houses under the Common Lodging houses Acts. The attempt to regulate the houses as "houses let in lodgings" under the Sanitary Act of 1866, or later under section 94 of the Public Health Act of 1891, does not appear to have been made, and thus evils of a serious character have been allowed to remain in the locality practically unchecked. The seasonal fluctuations of the ice-cream trade lead to corresponding variations in the extent of crowding in the Italian colony. The bedrooms almost always contain double beds, and on the supposition that each of these is occupied by two persons, the cubic capacity of the rooms is altogether insufficient in almost all instances for the number of individuals accommodated. During a series of inspections made in April last Dr. Hamer found evidence pointing to the existence of a great deal of overcrowding in the colony, but night inspection during the busy season would alone reveal the extent to which rooms are occupied at that time of year in this neighbourhood.

Italians Cleaner than English Poor

    It is also satisfactory to he assured that the Italians have some regard for cleanliness. Dr. Hamer, as the result of his investigations, says:- The utensils in all instances were being carefully cleansed before use, and we found that the material left over from the preceding day was being thrown down the drain. In the matter of cleanliness, the Italians have, as a rule, a far higher standard than that which obtains among English people of a similar class; and although 1 have seen dirty milk measures from time to time upon registered milk-purveyors' premises in various parts of London. I have not hitherto noted any case in which exception could he taken to the conditions of the utensils used by the Italians at the premises visited in the Italian quarter Again, it was particularly noteworthy that washing or drying operations were almost always found to be in progress in the houses occupied by the Italians. Further, in the beds examined, the linen was found remarkably clean, and evidence of vermin was only exceptionally obtainable, far more exceptionally than is the case in tenements of a somewhat similar class not occupied by ice-cream vendors.

Sensational Charges Disproved.

    It has been asserted that ice-creams are mixed in the same saucepans and cauldrons in which the Italians scald and wash their dirty linen, and statements still more sensational have even been made. The possibility cannot, of course, be absolutely denied. I can only say (adds Dr. Hamer) that all those whom I have met, who have had actual experience of the Italians, are altogether sceptical as to the correctness of charges of this kind, and are quite agreed, on the other hand, in giving the ice-cream men, speaking on the whole, an exceedingly good character in all that pertains to cleanliness.
    Difficulty is no doubt experienced in connection with the glasses in which ice-cream is served by itinerant vendor's. The Italians always assert that the water used for washing-up is changed from time to time during the day; the vendor, it is said, in selecting his pitch, has regard to the possibility of obtaining water for this purpose. Some of the samples of washing-up water which have been analysed, contain, as has been shown on more than one occasion, large numbers of bacteria: on the other hand, I have been assured by an officer who devoted some attention to the subject, that he found it impossible to secure a sample of "really dirty water" for the purposes of analysis.
    In conclusion, Dr. Hamer says "The Italian custard has this great point in its favour, that the material contained in it has been boiled for twenty minutes or half-an-hour, has been, in fact, sterilised; on the other hand, after sterilisation the mixture may have been stored under conditions in which there was liability of contamination, and, in particular, the chances of its having been exposed to the atmosphere of a crowded living and sleeping room are, it would appear, considerable,

Municipal Journal, established as "London", January 26, 1900