My earliest memory was together with my mother and father waving to my grandmother, grandfather and family in Italy. We left my grandparents, my great grandmother, my Aunt Nerina, Aunt Oride and Uncle Enzo. My grandmother had made me a small white fur coat for the journey. My mother and father would have been twenty-four years of age and I was three at the time. It must have been a difficult decision for my mother as she was travelling into the unknown, to a foreign country, but she followed her heart. I do not remember the journey in 1949, but remember living in a house with my mother, father and a man called Mr Tom. Apparently, the arrangement was that in return for our keep, my mother would cook and clean for the household. It was a quiet house with my dad having arrived with tuberculosis contracted, while he was serving in the British army. He was very often ill and bed bound and had to have several visits from a doctor and was in and out of hospital.
Neither my mother nor myself could speak English, but my father was multilingual and somehow we managed to live there for a couple of years. It was decided that the quickest way for me to learn the language was to send me to school. They contacted the church and I was sent to St Peter and Paul’s Roman Catholic school in Cricket Green Mitcham. It was over a mile away and there was a kindly dinner lady called Mrs Mills who would collect me every morning and we would walk to school together and after school would collect me again to walk back home.
The first few weeks were very traumatic and not a happy time. As well as being taken away from my mother, I was put in a classroom with strangers – children and a teacher who had to lock the door to keep me in. I couldn’t understand a word being spoken but eventually settled in.One of the hardest changes was eating school dinners. In those days, because my father was ill and not working, I was entitled along with many other children to have free school dinners. These were cooked on the premises and very often consisted of mincemeat and cabbage and usually a pudding with custard. Looking back, the whole country was on ration books and we were lucky to have food. I did find it very hard to enjoy these dinners and very often came home and was sick. It was totally different to any food I had in Italy. Any free time would be spent playing outside on the bomb struck houses in the street with the other children. These were interesting places to investigate for a child. Sometimes you could make out the rooms and only imagine who had lived there. There were no parks nearby. My father had three sisters who were also in the Army and had also emigrated to live in England.
When I was 5 years of age, my mother became pregnant and this was to be the end of our time with Mr Tom. I later found out that he would not let us stay in the house with a new baby on the way. We were homeless. We are now in 1951, five years after the Second World War. Housing was desperately short. The councils had built lots of estates of Nissen huts and prefabricated bungalows.
We moved into a Nissen hut with absolutely nothing. I can remember the kindness of strangers coming into our little hut with blankets and cushions and for the first few nights we slept on the floor together. Life carried on with hope and love and somehow my parents managed to get beds, a table and chairs. My sister Melinda was born and unfortunately, she was very ill with eczema for a lot of her early childhood. I can remember playing with the other children on the estate, we had trees to climb, played IT dabs, hide and seek and ran everywhere. The doors to each other’s homes were always open. We were all in the same situation and everyone helped each other. Another year passed and we were all moved to another Nissen hut in Ivy Gardens, which was across the road as the estate we were on was going to be flattened to make way for a school. My sister was in and out of hospital with treatments for eczema but in time, my father made a good recovery and was able to work. He found a job working for a wine merchant in London.
During our time in Ivy Gardens, my brother John arrived and he was a bonny little boy. We lived next door to an Irish lady who had seven boys and on the other side an Austrian lady who had two girls. We all played well together and although all of us were poor, our neighbours and my parents and were happy. All the huts were identical with one living area, one kitchen, one coal fire in the middle and two bedrooms with an outside coal store and toilet, not forgetting the tin bath that hung on a hook outside. It was very cold in the winter time and many children including myself suffered from chilblains. One of my best memories from Ivy Gardens was the opening of the public library, this was a great source of delight as I could walk more often run there by myself collect some lovely books and reading became a favourite pastime, as it is today. My favourite book was Little Women by Louisa M Alcott.
I am very grateful to have emigrated to the UK during that time and I wonder if it happened today whether we would have had the same outcome.