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18 June 2014
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Immigration and Emigration
Workers at the Meltis factory
© Hidden Voices, Carmela Semeraro and Bedford Creative Arts
Bedford's Italian question

Money troubles

Bedford’s Italian community dates back to the post-war period of reconstruction, when economic necessities on both sides triggered migration from impoverished villages in southern Italy - known as the "Mezzogiorno" - to England.

The post-war building boom created a shortage of labour in the Bedford brickworks industry, which Englishmen were reluctant to fill - heavy manual labour was not seen as the most attractive of jobs. Struggling to meet demand, the brick companies began to look overseas for workers, and found the Italians more than willing.

Nilda Paolone and Liberato Iaciofano, Busso 1952
Nilda Paolone and Liberato Iaciofano in an engagement photo, Busso 1952.
© Carmela Semeraro
Conditions in the Mezzogiorno after World War II were extremely difficult. Unemployment was high, standards of living lagged far behind the prosperous north, and many villagers began to see emigration as the best solution. Even the Italian government favoured this option, their attempts at reducing the gap in living standards between north and south having had only limited success.

Many southern Italians could not even afford the costs of emigration, and so “paid passage” schemes like the Bedford brick contracts were a strong magnet – a ticket to a better life.

On the move

In 1951, the Marston Valley Brick Company established an office in Naples, sending two employees to recruit 250 men, and this was just the start.

Between 1951 and the 1960s over 7,500 Italians were recruited. The movement of the workers was organised by the brick companies, with the co-operation of both English and Italian governments. They went first to Milan, where they had a medical check up, before continuing to Bedford.

Felice Facchiano loading bricks, 1955
Felice Facchiano loading bricks from the kiln onto a lorry, 1955.
© Carmela Semeraro
At first it was mainly single men who travelled to Bedford, under the brickworks’ “bulk recruitment schemes”. They intended to return once they had earned enough to give their families at home a brighter future, and undoubtedly many did (over 60% of the first arrivals returned within 4 years). But some stayed, and in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, families making the journey to rejoin their loved ones kept up a steady flow of Italians to the area. By 1958 around 85% of new arrivals were married women joining their husbands.

When they first arrived the Italians stayed in hostels organised by the brick companies, some of which were former prisoner of war camps. Many struggled to adjust to their new surroundings – they missed their families terribly, and disliked the English hostel food. When they could afford it, they moved into shared housing instead, and Midland Road, which led to the railway station, became Bedford’s “Via Roma”.

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