Hurdy-Gurdies and Hokey-Pokey Men

Italians in The West Midlands

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Italian merchants were established in London in medieval times, but Italian settlement in the West Midlands is much more recent.

Initially, craftsmen who specialised in the making of optical and scientific instruments and looking glasses travelled between Midlands’ towns, staying only as long as their skills were needed, and then returning to Italy. The latter half of the nineteenth century was when an Italian presence became visible and audible on the streets of West Midland towns.

Brightly painted ice cream carts were pushed to the cries of “Gelati! Ecco un poco” (‘taste a little’), which earned them the title of ‘Hokey-Pokey Men’, whilst the music of the barrel organs (hurdy-gurdies) attracted the crowds – or was it perhaps their handsome young operators?

Italian-run lodging houses in Birmingham provided accommodation for seasonal workers who came in the hope of earning enough to tide them over the winter, and by 1861, John Spinetto had a dozen Italian-born lodgers, all of whom were shown as musicians on the census return. Communal living seemed to be the norm amongst Italian and other European immigrants in all towns. In 1879, a Birmingham newspaper described a lodging house as “…where the children of the sunny South cling together in musical expatriation”.

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