Words by Pat Eggleton
Meet Jean and Gino Magnone, who moved to Ragusa [Sicily] from Yorkshire sixteen years ago. They tell us how it happened and how Gino found members of his Italian family…
Gino, can you tell us when your Italian antecedents emigrated to England?
My maternal grandfather left Sora, Frosinone [Lazio] in the late nineteenth century. My grandmother was from Piscinisco in Frosinone and she left Italy with her family at around the same time. The menfolk in her family found work in the Newcastle shipyards. My grandparents met in Newcastle and in the 1901 census they are listed as a married couple, living with my grandmother’s widowed mother and siblings. Her brother Domenico Picitto [my great uncle] is listed as the head of the household. My grandfather’s surname was Di Carlo.
Did your grandfather find work in England?
Yes, he worked in the steel industry and then became an ice cream vendor.
Were you born in England?
No, I was born in Italy, like my two brothers and my sister. My grandparents had six children and the whole family returned to Italy after World War 1. They had two more children in Italy, one of whom was my Uncle Luigi. My mother got married in Italy. With some money he had saved from his job as an ice cream vendor, my grandfather was able to buy property and land in Italy. The neighbours thought he was very rich and called him “mezzo milione” [“half a million”]. The name stuck and whenever I returned to the area, I was called “the grandson of mezzo milione.”
So when did you go to England?
After World War II anyone born in Britain but living in Italy was given the opportunity to return by the British government. My mother took me back with my sister and brothers – the youngest was only two - without my father when I was twelve. My grandmother was allowed to return too, as she had got married in England. I remember that a cousin of hers met us at Victoria Station and took us to King’s Cross to get the train for the north. We had some one-pound notes with us because you could buy them on the black market in Italy and my mother had sewn them into the shoulder pads of our clothes.
Where did the family settle?
At first we stayed with relatives in Gateshead. I had an uncle in England and he took me to Middlesborough in Yorkshire. My uncle had a job with Grego Brothers. These were two brothers from Arpino [Frosinone] and they made biscuits for ice cream. Later my mother also got a job with Grego Brothers and we found a house to rent in Middlesborough. My mum worked hard and I helped out by doing odd jobs after school and at weekends. There were no state benefits to help us in those days.
Did your father join you?
Yes, he came over three or four years later. He got a job in the steel industry, making rail tracks. He hated it. In Italy he had worked in a distillery.
Did you all settle easily?
My mother did. It was hard for me as all my Italian schooling was useless in England. I had to start working at a young age. My father never really settled. He used to go to Middlesborough Docks to look for Italian new arrivals and he’d invite them home to offer them hospitality. My mother was five years older than my dad and they thought she would die first. The plan was that when this happened, my dad would go back to Italy. But he died first and he never went back there to live.
Did you speak Italian at home?
We spoke dialect.
What is your connection with Sicily?
Going through my mother’s effects after she died, I found some information about my family. I discovered that my Uncle Luigi had been stationed in Ragusa [Sicily] in World War 11 and I decided to try to find him. I had an idea that he lived in Siracusa and I got the phone numbers of all the people called Di Carlo there from Directory Enquiries. I called them all, with no result. Then one day, by chance, I was speaking to another member of the family and he said he thought my uncle lived in Ragusa. I traced him and we went to Ragusa to meet him in 1989.
How did that feel?
Oh, it was very emotional, meeting him and my cousins after 45 years! His wife, my aunt, was from Ragusa. She was a very elegant woman and the family from northern Italy thought she was “flighty”! As it happened, my uncle died just two months after I went to see him.
And you were impressed with Ragusa during that first trip?
We were amazed that everyone owns two houses here and at the standard of living in general. With our daughter and her husband we bought an apartment in Santa Barbara [Marina di Ragusa] as a holiday home.
When did you move to Ragusa permanently?
By 1994, we had both taken early retirement and our children had left home. We sold up in England and came here for good. After searching for several months we purchased the villa where we live now. We are in the countryside but within easy reach of the sea. We eventually sold the apartment and achieved our dream of having a swimming pool built.
And you brought your mother with you, didn’t you, Jean?
Yes, when we asked her what she thought about moving to Italy with us she was all for it. In fact, she had her suitcases packed before we did! I honestly think that the climate, the fresh food and the relaxed lifestyle here prolonged her life. She became a sort of “honorary grandmother” to the children of other British ex-pats in the area.
Are you happy with the choice you made?
We’re very happy in Italy, though we could do with less bureaucracy! We’ve made lots of friends and people are very kind. We love our home and our garden. Friends and family, including our grandchildren, come out for holidays. We’ve got “a little bit of England in Italy”.
Finally, Gino, which team are you going to support in the World Cup?
We’ll be flying the English flag at the more prominent end of our property and the Italian flag at the other.
Very diplomatic! Jean and Gino, thank you for talking to Italy Magazine.