Italians in Nelson
This story was written by Joy Stephens for www.theprow.org.nz
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.
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 Maori. For 40 years, between 1906 and 1946, the Russo and Moleta cousins farmed more than 5000 acres on D’Urville Island.
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.
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. 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.
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.
By the 1950s about 37 acres of land in The Wood were covered with glasshouses, where 40-50 Italian families ran market gardens, growing tomatoes for the local and Wellington markets. There were so many Italians in Nelson 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).
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 2 was a difficult time, as Italians were declared enemy aliens and endured various restrictions and abuse. 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.
By the 1990s the Italians found tomato growing increasingly unprofitable, as large supermarket chains squeezed profits and cheaper Australian tomatoes came onto the market. 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.
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.