La Bella Vita - Italians in Nelson

Contents

The first Italians came to the top of the South Island for different reasons, with the majority escaping poverty and a lack of opportunity in their homeland.

One of the first recorded Italians was Stefano de Filippi, who arrived in Nelson in 1862. He went to the Wakamarina goldfields and there is an unsubstantiated story that, en route, he had a cup of tea with the men who were to become the Maungatapu murderers.  In 1869 he moved to the Lyell goldfields, and by the 1870s had accumulated 360 acres  of grazing land.1

Between 1874 and 1884, Francesco Ercolano farmed more than 13,000 sheep and cattle on D’Urville Island, and he apparently became a fluent speaker of Māori.2 For 40 years, between 1906 and 1946, the Russo and Moleta cousins farmed more than 5000 acres on D’Urville Island.3

Tomato growers with bambiniTomato growers with bambini,  The Nelson Provincial Museum, Geoffrey C. Wood Collection, L9540 fr2
Click image to enlarge

It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that Italian migrants discovered that Nelson was ideal for market gardening. Many came via Wellington and ties have remained strong - the two communities still meet in Nelson or Wellington every Labour Weekend.4 Market gardening began in the opening years of the 1900s, in the Vanguard Street area and the Brook where many new arrivals settled. It then expanded to The Wood, a frost-free area due to the close proximity to the sea. Along with tomatoes, Italians grew other crops unfamiliar to many Nelsonians, including garlic, aubergines, capsicums and many traditional herbs.

At this time, land in The Wood was relatively inexpensive to buy. Several factors contributed. With a concentration of horses in the area, there was a risk of tetanus in the soil from horse excrement; its northern reaches were low-lying and tidal, with twice daily tides flooding estuary-edge properties with saltwater; and the Maitai River could become a raging torrent during periods of high rainfall, flooding the low-lying river plain. With more desirable places to live now further away from the central city, the affordable ‘Wood’ was a drawcard for Italian settlers, which led to the formation of Nelson’s ‘Little Italy’.

In the period between 1905 and the 1930s, Italian migration was characterised by chain migrations from Southern Italy. Chain migration is the progressive calling out of family, encouraging relatives or other villagers to migrate to the same destination.  The Nelson Italians primarily came from villages from the southern end of the Bay of Naples, including Sorrento, Massa Lubrense, S. Agata and Marina di Puolo. Others came from the Potenza region (Basilicata) and the towns of Moliterno and Saponara di Grumento.

Giacomo Persico, who came in 1904, is regarded as being Nelson’s first Italian tomato grower. He was from the fishing village of Massalubrense, near Naples.5 Sponsored by family members, the majority of Nelson’s Italians came from Massalubrense and Potenza in southern Italy, and most lived in a few compact blocks of The Wood. While they retained their cultural identity, the children attended local schools and families joined local Catholic parishes.

Vitetta brother playing the harpVitetta brother playing the harp, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Ellis Dudgeon Collection, 212218/7
Click image to enlarge

Professional musicians, the Vitetta brothers Giuseppe, Vincenzo and Giovanni Battista, came from Wellington in 1915 and performed throughout Nelson. In the 1920s the Vitettas began to grow tomatoes, and Giuseppe was the first grower to use a sterilization plant in his hothouse. He worked with scientists from the Cawthron Institute in experimenting with this new method of soil disinfection.6

Wood NELSON PROVINCIAL MUSEUM NELSON MAIL COLLECTION 5537 Fr5

A sea of glass - The Wood, 1981. Nelson Provincial Museum Nelson Mail collection 5537 Fr5

By the 1950s about 37 acres of land in The Wood were covered with glasshouses, where 40-507 Italian families ran market gardens, growing tomatoes for the local and Wellington markets.8  Growing under glass ensured favourable conditions for the tomatoes, but also brought new challenges, including dealing with pests and diseases which affected the crops. Scientific research by the Cawthron Institute helped improve conditions for Nelson growers.

There were so many Italians in Nelson at this time, that the Italian Government appointed Guilliamo (Bill) Monopoli as the Nelson Italian Consul.  He carried out his official duties from his property at 353 Trafalgar Square for over 30 years -  the Italian Consulate  (and currently the Consulate apartments).

Italian Club 1937Italian Club 1937, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Kingsford Collection 158636/6
Click image to enlarge

Nelson’s Club Italia was established in July 1931 as a place for Italians to preserve their culture and enjoy activities together. The first clubrooms were opened in Trafalgar Street in December 1931.

World War II was a difficult time, as Italians were declared enemy aliens and endured various restrictions and abuse - a fate suffered by Paul Casa, prominent tomato grower, fisherman, language teacher and business man of Nelson.9 The Alien Citizens office ordered Club Italia to cease activities in 1940, and it wasn’t until 1958 that new clubrooms were opened at 9 Trafalgar Street. The Club hosted visiting Italians - priests, ambassadors and rugby players - as well as making generous contributions to local charities.10

Following World War II, another wave of chain migration occurred, with Italians from the north joining those from the south in calling Nelson home.

By the 1990s the Italians found tomato growing increasingly unprofitable, as large supermarket chains squeezed profits and cheaper Australian tomatoes came onto the market.11 In 1995 the De Cesare brothers, Emilio and Nandi, whose property ran between Halifax Street East and Grove Street, became one of the first Italian market gardener families to sell. Their market garden was subdivided into De Cesare Way and Pettit Place. Over a period of 10 years The Wood was cleared of its glasshouses and the land subdivided for residential townhouse development.

While the greenhouses have been replaced by suburbia, Nelson’s Italian connection continues through names such as Monopoli, Romano, Persico and Gargiulo, DeLorenzo, Esposito, Cappiello, Lauria, Perrone, Sannazzaro and DiLeva.  Many of the new streets in the Wood were named after these Italian families. Bella (Bella Grove Way) translates as beautiful in Italian. Rosa Cristina Way was named after the Pessione’s daughter who died aged nine in 1978. In Hardy Street East there is a Garsun Court – Garsun is an abbreviated form of Gargiulo and Sons. The Wood Retirement Village is on the site of the Esposito Gardens.

In the 21st century a surge of interest from third and fourth generation Italians has seen Club Italia experience another revival, with about 200 people attending the 75th Jubilee in 2006.12
2008 (updated July 2020) 

Sources used in this story

  1. Davies, J. & de Filipi, S. (1988). Stefano de Filippi. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 2 (2),35-38.
  2. Elenio, P. (1995). Alla Fine del Mondo - To the Ends of the Earth: A History of Italian Migration to the Wellington Region. Wellington, N.Z.: Petone Settlers Museum.    
  3. Hindmarsh, G. (2004). Angelina: From Stromboli to D’Uriville Island. Nelson, N.Z.: Craig Potton Publishing.
  4. T. Romano, personal communication, September 19, 2008. [Tony Romano's father was a founding member of Club Italia. Tony has been president, secretary and treasurer and continues to be involved with the club.]
  5. Burney, I.H. (1972). From Southern Europe to New Zealand: Greeks and Italians in New Zealand. Kensington, N.S.W.: University of New South Wales Press.   
  6. Tunnicliff, S. Vitetta, John Baptist 1888-1956. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Retrieved September 30, 2008:
    https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3v6/vitetta-john-baptist
  7. T. Romano. op. cit.
  8. Di Leva, F. (2004). The end of an era. Grower, (59)1, 12-18.
  9. Italian immigrant succeeds in lifetime of contribution [Paul Casa] (1998, November 7) Nelson Mail, p.12
  10. Club Italia Nelson (Inc). 50th jubilee: 1931-81 [held NPM]
  11. Manning, D. (1993, January 2). Italian era nears end. Nelson Evening Mail
  12. Romano. op. cit.

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  • My great-great-grandfather, Antonio Bagnato (known as Antonio/Tony Wett) arrived in Nelson in about 1866 and lived there until his death in 1910. He was well known as a local fisherman, in both the Nelson and Collingwood areas. If you want further information, contact me on above email address. Ed. Thankyou - we are planning a fishing story and will be in touch.

    Posted by Graham Whitt, ()

  • I am related to the Cappiello family which resides in Nelson.I would love to hear any stories of interest on the family.Please contact me at sosamma@bigpond.co
    Terry Priest

    Posted by Terry priest, ()

  • Is htere an Italian soc in Nelson ? Do you have tobe Ityalian to join?
    Regrads
    Jeanette
    Hi Jeanette
    There is a Club Italia in Nelson which is similar to a society. Here is their website which gives a contact email http://clubitalia.co.nz/ - I am unsure whether they allow non-Italians to belong. It is worth looking at their newsletter link on the website to find out what activities, meeting etc Regards Ed.

    Posted by Jeanette Garrett, ()

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Further sources - La Bella Vita - Italians in Nelson

Books

Articles

Other

Audiovisual material

  • Burke, V. & De Nave, C. (Directors). (1994). New Zealand, an immigrant nation. The unbroken thread. [Videorecording]. Wellington: Top Shelf Productions.
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/154282028

Unpublished Sources - at Nelson Provincial Museum

  • Carmine, Joseph. Family papers, AG 414 [Joseph Patrick Carmine was the son of Louis Carmine, an Italian immigrant from Locarco, Italy. The family lived in early 20th century at Westport . J P Carmine was living at Takaka by 1948.]
  • Clinton, Maria. Italian community in Nelson, NHS 103 [Oral history].
  • Italian community: Nelson Provincial Museum Subject file
  • Persico, Fred. The Italians in Nelson, NHS 132 [Oral history]
  • Reed, Ted. Notes on various aspects of the Tasman Bay coastline, includes Italian fishermen, UMS 69 [Original manuscript]

Web Resources