Fleeing war torn Italy


Post World War II Italian immigration to Nelson

The desire to leave war-torn Europe resulted in a wave of post-World War II Italian immigration to New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s.

Many came to join friends of family already settled in Nelson, including tomato-growing families looking to expand their operations and now in a position to financially assist relatives keen to leave their bankrupted homeland.

Italians Vince Cimminello

Vince Ciminiello in a tomato glasshouse 1962. (Image courtesy Vince Ciminiello)

The majority arriving during the 1950s and into the 1960s were sponsored by relatives already living here, who frequently offered both accommodation and a job. In Nelson several families sponsored the sons of siblings living in Italy. With family to initially stay with and possibly work for, the new arrivals found a ready-made Italian community to help ease their transition.

Despite the claims of the earlier generation of Italian immigrants, that the new immigrants had an easier time when they came to New Zealand, the new arrivals found they still had to work hard to make their own way. The young men brought with them the skills of other trades, including bricklaying and masonry, tailoring, painting, and cobbling but with money to be made in tomatoes, many followed the example of other Italians and became growers.

Cataldo Romano sponsored his brother Frank Romano and nephew Raffaele Buonocore to New Zealand in 1952.  Although both men went into tomato growing, Raffaele initially worked in a shoe shop as a cobbler, the profession he had practised in Italy. However the prospect of making more money growing tomatoes was too good to turn down.

Giuseppe Albano made application in 1950 to sponsor two of his nephews, Pasquale and Giuseppe (Joe) Lagrutta to Nelson. Giuseppe had not seen the sons of his eldest sister Maria Lagrutta, since 1926, when they were very young, Joe only a few months old, but promised authorities that he would pay their way out, provide for them upon arriving and give them employment in his tomato gardens.

Italians Volpicellis on ship

Rosalina, Maria and Raffaele Volpicelli on board the Neptuna en route to New Zealand, 1952. (Image courtesy Lagrutta family)

As it turned out, only Joe emigrated, leaving Naples on the Neptunia in February 1952.  Although he didn’t realise it at the time, he met his future wife on board. Liberata (Maria) Volpicelli and her brother Raffaele and sister Rosalina were on their way to meet their father who was living in Wellington. Joe and Maria married in Wellington in 1957 and later established a home in Nelson.

From Sarconi, the Ciminiello brothers, Dominic and Tony, were nephews of Nelson tomato grower Luigi De Cesare. Dominic immigrated to Nelson in 1952 with the sponsorship of his uncle, and worked in various factories and as a truck driver before entering tomato growing. In 1957 he in turn helped arrange a sponsor for his brother Tony, a tailor.

However, when Tony arrived in January 1958, his sponsor wouldn’t employ him in his Bridge Street menswear shop because of his lack of English and Tony got a job at Kirkpatrick’s factory instead. There he said he had to be “like a parrot – listen and repeat”, in order to learn English. In time he was able to return to his trade as a tailor and established his own business, Continental Tailors.

Maria Esposito (nee Pricolo) was called to Nelson from Grumento Nova by her uncle Frank Pricolo and his wife Carmela in 1951 when she was aged 20. In Nelson Maria got a sewing job and met and married Salvatore Esposito, who helped her learn English.

In 1960 Raffaele Buonocore accompanied his cousin Tony Romano on a visit to Italy. While there he met and became engaged to Lisa Esposito. Tony returned home to Nelson but Raffaele stayed on and married Lisa, before returning with her to Nelson in 1961. She was one of several Italian women who married sons of earlier New Zealand Italian immigrants and arrived in New Zealand as young brides, or who were called out by relatives in Nelson and married in New Zealand. Likewise some of Nelson’s young Italian women accompanied family members on holiday to Italy, where they met Italian men whom they eventually followed out to New Zealand and married in Nelson.

Italians Romano wedding

Tony Romano and his newly arrived Italian bride Gemma Casa on their wedding day in Nelson,1961. (Image courtesy Romano family)

The strangeness of a remote new country was overwhelming for many. Some had heard stories that New Zealand was a land full of cannibals and had no sun. With little known about the small island nation at the bottom of the world, fact blended with fiction.

But in Italy Tony De Lorenzo remembered his Nelson-based uncle’s vivid descriptions of New Zealand. “We were fascinated by this big, expansive, beautiful land with luscious green flat paddocks, beautiful hillsides, lovely trees and beautiful seas where we could go out and catch fish.” When Tony arrived in Nelson in May 1952, “there was this perfect little city with me standing on the [ferry] deck saying, ‘what is this paradise?’”

Once here, there were other challenges to be faced, including food. The relatively bland, English-style food was not always to the taste of the new immigrants and securing traditional dried foods like pasta, and growing their own crops of tomatoes, eggplants, capsicums and garlic became very important to the Italian immigrants.

Another noticeable difference was that Nelson was very quiet. Enjoying a movie, playing soccer, going to church and attending Saturday night dances at the Stoke Memorial Hall were about all some of the young male immigrants could find to occupy themselves during weekends.  Attending dances also provided an opportunity to polish their English skills, which many found difficult to learn while living and working with other Italians. As Tony Ciminiello recalled: “I couldn’t dance but I went. It was a bit tough because girls wouldn’t talk to me and I couldn’t talk to them. But slowly it got better.”

Such activities were not so easily accessible to the Italian community’s young women, who were expected to marry Italians. Used to being surrounded by family, they missed the company of their close knit family members. Young female immigrants tended to keep within their own community. Once married, they generally gave up any paid employment they may have found and kept close to home as attempts were made to maintain traditional values and virtues. Some female immigrants of the post-war period never fully learned to speak English, and got by with help from their husbands and children, who did learn the language through wider exposure to English speakers.

Gemma Casa, who in 1961 was the first Italian to come to Nelson from Italy by air, was married to second generation Nelson Italian Tony Romano a month after her arrival. She had no one of her own family in attendance and did not understand the English spoken service, until a guest got up at the reception and sang a song in Italian. “The tears flowed,” she recalled.

Some never managed to settle into their new country and eventually returned to Italy but many adjusted in time to the challenges and truly made Nelson and New Zealand home, leading to new generations of Nelson Italians.

2016 (updated 2024)

Sources used in this story

  • Interviews with the Italian community in Nelson

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