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When (not) in Rome…

Angela Cobbinah revisits the lives of the ‘Little Italians’ who called a pre-gentrified Clerkenwell home

18 August, 2017 — By Angela Cobbinah

Olive Besagni

ONE was noted for his nifty footwork with the ball, the other for his twirling moustache, yet another for his work with the lost souls of the world. The one thing they had in common was that they all lived in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy.

Footballer Joe Bacuzzi, actor Mario Fabrizi and priest Father Carmelo are among the fascinating characters to feature in Changing Lives, a book documenting the history of an area that had been home to thousands of Italians since the 19th century.

Written by one-time resident Olive Besagni, it is a follow-up to her book A Better Life, and focuses largely on the post-war years of “Il Quartiere”, when the descendants of the original migrants were making their way in the world as Italian Brits.

Like every one of his peers, Joe Bacuzzi attended St Peter’s Italian School in Herbal Hill, one of a patchwork of narrow streets tucked behind Clerkenwell Road, Farringdon Road and Rosebery Avenue, Little Italy’s traditional boundaries.

Mario Fabrizi

Joe’s early prowess as a member of the school football team was soon spotted and in 1935 he was taken on as an amateur by Fulham and went on to make his debut as a professional for the first team two years later at the age of 20. In 1939 he made his first appearance for England and ended up being capped 13 times, playing alongside the legendary Stanley Matthews.

“As you can imagine, Joe was a true local hero,” recalls Olive’s brother-in-law John Besagni, who lived in the same tenement block as the footballer, Victoria Dwellings.

“He was a really wonderful character who always remained true to his roots. We were all very proud of him.”

Joe retired from the game in 1956 just as his son Reno’s career on the pitch was beginning to take off. Playing under the name David Bacuzzi, he made his professional debut for Arsenal before being signed to Manchester City in 1964.

Olive, who died last year aged 91, worked as a film editor and was a good friend of Mario Fabrizi, a Groucho Marx lookalike who became a well-known comic actor in the 1950s.

Joe Bacuzzi

Born in 1924, he appeared in popular TV shows such as Hancock’s Half Hour and The Army Game, as well as a number of films, including The Pink Panther with Peter Sellers, always attracting attention with his luxuriant moustache and big nose.

Unlike the other characters appearing in the book, Father Carmelo Di Giovanni was a late arrival, having been transferred from Rome to the church that lay at the very the heart of the community, St Peter’s. No ordinary priest, he devoted much of his time to helping young Italians who had fallen by the wayside and spent two to three days a week at Pentonville Prison, which he regarded as part of his parish.

But it was his work with drug addicts during the 1980s that got people really talking, mainly because he would invite them to his residence on Back Hill and have his housemaid serve them up home cooking. Some of his parishioners objected to the presence of the “druggies”, several of whom were suffering from Aids, but Fr Carmelo insisted that he was trying to steer them towards a better path.

Father Carmelo Di Giovanni

Although he retired to Rome in 2014, he is still frequently asked to officiate at weddings and funerals at the church.

“Fr Carmelo arrived at a time when Little Italy was coming to an end,” notes John. “The council began demolishing places like Victoria Dwellings in the 1960s and rehoused people out of the area, while others moved of their own accord. It’s still recognisable, but as a community it’s all gone, even the old Coach and Horses pub where my grandfather and father used to drink.”

Indeed, the bustling, tight-knit world Olive so affectionately describes seems impossibly distant in Clerkenwell’s present incarnation as one of London’s super-hip quarters. But every year, it comes back to life during the annual Italian procession through what was once Little Italy. Held earlier this month, it was here that copies of the book sold out within days of its publication.

“Although Italians are no longer born and raised here, they still have a deep affection for the place,” says John. “This is why we thought it was so important that Olive’s second book, which she almost completed just before her death, should be published.”

• Visit www.camdenhistorysociety.org for book details.

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