- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Angelina Dobson
- Location of story:
- Co Durham
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 October 2005
I am one of four children born to Italian parents living in Sunderland at the time the Second World War began. My father, Francesco, was born in Italy, near Monte Casino, but came to England before the First World War and lived in Sunderland. He was called back to Italy for military service during the First World War, was a prisoner of war for a time, but escaped. He met my mother, whom he married after four months. My eldest sister was born the following year and, when she was one month old, my father returned to England. The family lived in Sunderland and had three more children, a brother, a sister and myself.
Neither of my parents went to school and they were unable to read or write. I did not know this until I was about 8 year’s old because they had, nevertheless, been able to set up and run a successful ice cream business. My father wheeled a barrow selling ice cream in cornets and wafers - he would walk between Sunderland and Seaham pushing the cart which held the ice cream drums. The drums were stainless steel and were surrounded by ice and salt to keep the ice cream from melting. My parents later took a shop in Sunderland and a second shop in Seaham, both offering ice cream. My father brought my mother’s brother to England to take charge of the second shop. When I was a year old the family moved to Seaham. It was during the time of the miner’s strike. When I was 7 year’s old my father rented a third shop which the family took turns in running. The trade was seasonal of course. My father later acquired a horse and cart which made life easier. Eventually, he used a van, which was easier still. I found learning at school rather difficult and discovered that I was dyslexic. I never told my parents as I thought they would feel both embarrassed and guilty that they could not help me because of their own illiteracy. However, I had other skills and worked in the family business.
My father was very well known and well liked, and he had many professional friends who were more than willing to help him with correspondence and accounting. Another shop was opened in Skegness and was run by my sister. As is common in Italian Catholic families, we were a close knit and very loving family, and life seemed
very good during those years.
Then, when I was 14 and still at school, Italy came into the war and our world fell apart. Although my father had lived in England for so many years, and regarded himself as British, he was classed as an Alien because he had never applied for British citizenship, although he loved England. He did a great deal to encourage scouting and regularly supported the local groups; we got to know the young men well.
One night, when he was in Skegness, the police came to the door at 2 am and arrested him, he, and my sister who was with him, were totally shocked; he was not even allowed privacy to get dressed. He was taken away and interned in a detention camp on the Isle of Man. The family was distraught, but worse was to come.
My mother and eldest sister, then aged about 16, were made to move to Darlington as they also were regarded as aliens. Aliens were not allowed to live near the coast, especially this coast, for the coal which was vital for the war effort came from four mines in the area and was transported by collier from Seaham to where it was needed, for example to fuel the ships, both war and merchant. The shop at Skegness had to be closed. My brother was in the army (the Durham Light Infantry, I think), but was not sent overseas, and I was left alone in Seaham to look after the shops at 15 years old. Most people in Seaham remained friendly, but one man in particular used to come into the shop and hurl abuse at me because of my Italian background: it was awful, but I tried not to let it affect me. At times like this I turned to my Faith, I truly believed and still do, in the power of prayer. The scouts that my father had supported were very protective of me and would regularly pop in to check how I was. I had to grow up quickly and managed to keep the shop going by myself.
Special tribunals were set up to consider the background of the interned Italians. One man was found to have 7 sons in the British army! If the internees were found not to be members of any proscribed organisations, for example Nazi or Fascist, or have the wrong attitude, their release from detention was considered. So, after 6 months, my father came home to great rejoicing, although he was not allowed to travel more than 5 miles from home without a permit. Our joy was greatly increased when my mother and sister were allowed to return to Seaham about the same time. My father’s anxiety in the camp was the greater because he was unable to write a letter home and he had heard that Seaham had been bombed more than once. My father found that some of the British troops guarding the camp were very biased against the Italians, yet, surprisingly, he never seemed resentful. No doubt his Faith helped him through, as it did for the rest of the family.
The rationing of sugar during the war affected the ice cream business (it was called New Cream then), It was essential to the product so the Government granted limited allocations, but, even so, trade was much lower because much of the population was in the forces. To supplement our income, my mother opened a restaurant, serving three course meals at the back of the shop. The restaurant was patronised by office workers in Seaham. While my mother and sister were living in Darlington, my sister became ill and died of cancer. My father was so affected by this that, having closed the Skegness shop, and having his ration of sugar to sell for a considerable sum, he gave it away.
After the war, the family visited my father’s home village in Italy. We used to go quite regularly, especially if there was a wedding or another family event. On one visit in 1960’s, after a fortnight there, my father became ill and died, but he had arranged to have his body brought ‘home’ to England and buried beside his beloved daughter in Seaham.
On these visits we learned that the Italian population had an even poorer life than usual while the German army occupied their country. There was a great shortage of the necessities of life. A number of the inhabitants of my father’s village near Monte Casino were transported to Rome, and anyone who fell by the wayside through exhaustion was shot. I do not know the reason for their removal. We also learned that the German soldiers encamped nearby took some of the village girls to their camp and raped them. A man in the village was so incensed that he went out and shot two of the soldiers. In retaliation, the Germans took 30 hostages from the village, made them dig their own graves, and prepared to shoot them. Pleading by the village priest secured their release, but, to this day, the Germans are hated in that area, and the village people have never forgiven Mussolini for drawing them into the war. After the rapes, the girls in the village were urged not to make themselves attractive to men, especially German men.
When I was 32 I married a Seaham man. Before the war he worked for the Estate of Lord Londonderry who owned mines and the ships which transported the coal from Seaham. He applied to join the RAF but the authorities would not release him from his work as he was exempt from the Services because of the nature of his job, it being essential to the war effort. When he was eventually released, the authorities offered only the army, which he declined, and chose instead to work in the mines as a Bevin Boy, joining many of his friends below ground. This lasted about 8 months, after which he returned to the Londonderry Estate. While working there he trained as a Journalist working on the local newspaper in Sunderland. Eventually the newspaper was taken over by ‘The Northern Echo’, my husband rose to the position of chief reporter.
Although Anderson shelters were issued by the Local Authorities, we did not receive one as we had no garden in which to put it. Raids on the Seaham area were fairly frequent but we escaped unharmed.
When I look back it was a very difficult time for me and my family; however I did not let it hamper me in my future life. Going through this unhappy period made me appreciate what I had; a strong faith and a loving supportive family - I am sure it moulded me into the person I am today; I always look at the ‘positives’ and not the ‘negatives’ in life and count my blessings each and every day.
Angelina (Angie) Dobson.
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