Little Italy London … Gangsters, Gelato and Garibaldi

Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell

What is the first thing you should do when you visit a new city?

Go on a walking tour of course …..

Ok so London is not new to me, I grew up in London, but there is always something new to discover in our beautiful city and walking tours are always a great idea.

Growing up in South London the area I lived in had a large community of Italian families and therefore a lot of kids I went to school with were Italian with many of their parents coming from Sicily. Being invited to a friend’s house after school to play was always exciting fun and involved being fed full with wonderful Mediterranean food such as pasta, pizza and ice cream.

Last month I joined a walking tour of Clerkenwell and the area around Hatton Garden.

The walking tour I was going to participate in was called “Gangsters, Gelato and Garibaldi” organised by Lansdown’s London. On the 90 minute walk we would explore the colourful history of the Italian community in London and the walk vowed to bring to life London’s 19th and 20th century “Little Italy” which had its hub in the steep and narrow streets of Clerkenwell know as “The Hill”.

My instructions were to meet at Chancery Lane tube station, therefore on a sunny but crispy cold Saturday morning together with seven other walkers we met our guides Karen and Jo. We would be walking through two different London boroughs, Islington and Camden. Karen is an official guide for the London Borough of Islington and Jo an official guide for the London Borough of Camden. Karen and Jo have been friends since they met at school and both grew up in Clerkenwell so knew the area very well.

Chiappa Organ Builders, Eyre Hill Street

Italians have been coming to London for hundreds of years. In the first half of the 19th century, there was an influx of political refugees into London. By 1854 London’s first Italian community of about 2000 was formed in Clerkenwell. Many opened businesses in the catering industry, or worked as artisans, street vendors or street musicians. There is still a large Italian community in Clerkenwell to this day and it is also the area of London that has the most original Italian businesses, shops and cafes. Many of the original buildings from the 19th and 20th century have now been knocked down and rebuilt on or made into luxury flats and apartments.

The first immigrants to arrive in London were from northern Italy who were skilled workers and then later the unskilled workers arrived from the south and Sicily.

Gelato …..

Our first stop was outside the gothic style Grade II listed building at number 138 Holborn. This red brick building has a history dating back to the 1870’s. Here once stood the business location of Carlo Gatti. Carlo Gatti first came to London in 1817 from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland and began his business selling refreshments from a stall and built up his business enough to go into partnership with Battista Bolla also from Switzerland. They created a kind of cafe and sold hot chocolate, the type that you only find in Italy and thereafter they began to sell ice cream in the warmer months when ice would be imported from Scandinavia and kept in an ice-well nearby. One of these ice-wells can still be seen in the canal museum along Regents Canal. Queen Victoria fell in love with their hot chocolate machine after seeing it at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Garibaldi …..

St Peters Italian Church (Exterior)

Our next stop was Hatton Garden, where we saw a plaque above a jewellery shop dedicated to Giuseppe Mazzini who was known as the apostle of modern democracy, who inspired young Italians with the idea of the independence of unity and regeneration of Italy. In London he had a strong role in his thinking and in supporting General Garibaldi, the union movement and Republican Italy. He lived in London for decades in several locations and also founded a free school for Italian boys and children of immigrants which was once housed where we stood now.

We made our way down Hatton Garden past the jewellery and diamond merchants that the area is so famous for and stopped outside another shop, Arlington & Co. It was here that the company Negretti and Zambra was founded in 1850 creating scientific and optical instruments and operating a photographic studio. Henry Negretti and Joseph Zambra formed a partnership and eventually were appointed as opticians and scientific instrument makers to her Majesty Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and King Edward VIII, the Royal Observatory and the British Admiralty.

Whilst walking along we nibbled on Garibaldi biscuits courtesy of Karen the perfect fuel for our walk and headed for Saffron Hill. The Garibaldi biscuit was created in dedication to Garibaldi’s visit to England after the unification of Italy. The recipe was inspired by Garibaldi’s Red Coats who, whilst fighting in the battlefields, lived on bread with dried raisins sandwiched in between.

Part of the London Borough of Camden, Saffron Hill was so named from the fact that it was at one time part of an estate on which saffron grew. During the time of the arrival of Italian immigrants the neighbourhood was described as squalid and the home of paupers, thieves and pick pockets. Jo read us an excerpt by Charles Dickens where he had used the narrow, muddy and filthy street in his 1837 novel Oliver Twist. He used Saffron Hill as his inspiration for Fagin’s den, including The One Tun pub (formerly The Golden Anchor) that still stands now at the southern end of the street. Properties there at this time would have had many immigrants living in one room with up to eight young boys sleeping in one bed and they would spend all day out on the streets pick pocketing.

The next part of the tour took us to Leather Lane. Leather Lane is a street one block west of Hatton Garden. It is home to a well used weekday market which specialises in clothing, footwear and fruit and veg. In the times of the first Italian immigrants it would have been full of stall holders selling exotic food and produce, fortune tellers with canaries in cages and the air would be filled with the music from organ grinders with little monkeys sitting on top.

From Leather Lane we reached Laystall Street where we saw another location for Giuseppe Manzini’s free school. Further down Clerkenwell Road we walked down Eyre Street Hill.

St Peters Italian Church (Interior)

This street was once well known as the area where Italian street organ builders were located. Organ grinders were musical novelty street performers and refers to the operator of a street or barrel organ. Period literature often represents the grinder as a gentleman of ill repute or as an unfortunate representative of the lower classes. Most organ grinders in London would have rented their instrument in return for free food and lodgings, but their earnings would be taken from the owners of the organ. So in fact they earned nothing. In Eyre Street Hill we saw the factory of Chiappa Ltd who were one of the last surviving organ builders. Also in this area was based an Italian ice cream factory where vendors would come to obtain ice cream to sell from their carts on the streets of London in a small reusable cup which would only be washed in a bowl of cold water after each use.

Gangsters …..

Clerkenwell was also the hunting ground of the gangster Charles “Darby” Sabini and his organisation “The Italian Mob”.

Charles Sabini was born in Saffron Hill in 1888, the illegitimate child of an Italian immigrant and an Englishwoman. As leader of the Sabinis and “king of the racecourse gangs”, he dominated the London underworld and racecourses throughout the South of England for much of the early twentieth century. Although his organisation gained the core of its income from racecourse protection rackets operated against bookmakers, it was also involved in a range of criminal activities including extortion, theft, as well as operating several nightclubs. The organisation estimated 100 members, and is said to have included imported Sicilian gunmen, although the Sabinis originated in central Italy. The members were also notorious for razor attacks. At its peak, Sabini had extensive police and political connections including judges, politicians and senior police officials. Conflicts with competing gangs the Birmingham Boys (of Peaky Blinders UK TV fame), Elephant and Castle Mob, Cortesi brothers, the Yiddishers and the White family were common. In 1922 Sabini was involved in a vicious gunfight with the Cortesi brothers.

The scene of this gunfight was located in the Fratellanza Social Club on Eyre Street Hill where we now stood. The club was knocked down long ago and rebuilt on. In the fight Darby’s brother Harry got shot in the stomach. After recovering from his wound Harry took over from Darby when he retired.

During the reign of Darby Sabini a teenager named Bert Rossi became close to Darby acting as his driver. His nickname was to become “Battles” Rossi and he was known in London as the General of Clerkenwell. The life story of Britain’s oldest gangster ranges from playing dominoes with Hollywood legend Telly Savalas to allegations of criminal corruption at the heart of the Harold Wilson government. Bert was close to 1950s London crime boss Billy Hill and to New York Gambino Mafia family, helping the Mob “invade” the UK in the 1960s when they brought casinos to London, but he will always be better known as mentor to the notorious Kray Twins after meeting Ronnie Kray in prison.

Bertie “Battles” Rossi died in 2017 aged 94 and was the last remaining link to a time when Clerkenwell was controlled by mobsters brandishing cut throat razors. His funeral was a grand affair held at St Peters Italian church our last stop on our walking tour.

Terroni’s of Clerkenwell

Before reaching the church on Clerkenwell Road we walked up Herbal Hill. It was here that St Peters School was located. The school was well known for its fantastic football team known as “The Ice Cream Boys”. Today it is home to another form of fancy footwork and is the London Central School of Ballet.

With its beautiful bell tower, St Peters Italian Church opened amid great celebration on 16th April 1863. At that time it was the only church in Britain designed in the Roman basilica style. The Irish architect John Miller Bryon worked from plans drawn by Francesco Gualandi of Bologna which had been modelled on the Basilica of San Crisogono in Trastevere in Rome. The church has been the main gathering and reunion venue for the “Little Italy” community of Clerkenwell, and is a central feature of the annual procession held in mid-July in honour of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whose statue is kept inside the church. From the outside the church appears very small but inside it is very large and once inside it reminded me so much of our beautifully adorned churches in Sicily. The church boasts stunning paintings, statues and an organ built in 1886 thought to be the finest in England.

Masses are still held today in Italian and St Peters is very popular for marriages, baptisms, confirmations and first holy communions, also its Christmas carol service is not to be missed.

Outside the church on the wall there is a memorial commemorating the ship Arandora Star which was sunk during World War II on 2nd July 1940.

The SS Arandora Star was a British passenger ship of the Blue Star Line. The ship was built in 1927 as an ocean liner and refrigerated cargo ship and was converted in 1929 into a cruise ship. It was requisitioned as a troop ship in World War II. At the end of June 1940 she was assigned the task of transporting Italian and German internees and prisoners of war to Canada. On 2nd July 1940 she was sunk in controversial circumstances by a German U-boat with a large loss of life. Each Italian sole that lost their life is named on the memorial which was erected in November 1960.

The end of our walk finished at Terroni’s of Clerkenwell.

Cannoli Love

Terroni’s is the oldest deli in England established in 1878. Luigi Terroni established his Italian delicatessen in the heart of London’s Italian district, and offered a wide range of Italian foods and provisions, including speciality wines and cured meats. The prime location of the delicatessen, next to the Italian church, made it a popular place to visit, and it became synonymous with the Italian population of London. You would be hard pressed to find an Italian living in London who has not heard of or visited the Terroni’s.

After the end of our delightful walk I decided to rest my feet and stay for a bite to eat in Terroni’s. I ordered a platter of mixed Italian cheeses, meats and olives and a trio of bruschetta topped with delicious Italian tomatoes and olive paste all washed down with a crisp glass of Sicilian white wine and of course I could not leave without buying some tempting cannoli to take home.

The Gangsters, Gelato and Garibaldi Walking Tour was a fun and informative experience and I would highly recommend this tour.

Karen and Jo were the perfect guides and amazed us with their knowledge of the local area. They created an ambience in a modern day London where you could close your eyes and imagine just how life would have been for the Italian immigrants of the 19th and 20th century, bringing to life the sounds, smells and colourful atmosphere of “Little Italy”.

Lansdown London also create many other interesting walking tours of the City of London, private tours can also be arranged for special occasions.

For more information visit their website

Sarah Kearney
Sarah Kearney
I was born in London UK and spent fifteen years in the banking industry before making a move into the world of weddings and events. Fifteen years ago I visited Sicily for the first time after reading an article in a magazine and was immediately seduced by this magical island and its people. Two years later my husband and I bought our Sicilian home in Giardini Naxos, got adopted by many Sicilian families, acquired a Sicilian big brother, made an amazing network of ex-pat friends and became addicted to cannoli. My love for Sicily inspired me to write a Blog called White Almond Sicily sharing travel advice, food tips and living life “The Sicilian Way” writing in a fun and visual way using my own photos to encourage more visitors to the island. I now divide my time between London and Sicily with my husband and our rescue dog Daisy, who embarks on a UK to Sicily road trip twice a year. Daisy loves her Sicilian life and has explored Mount Etna in a defender Jeep, enjoys wine tasting trips, been on the set of Inspector Montalbano, had her photo taken with the character Caterella and is quite the celebrity in Taormina.

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