The history of the Bracchi
He didn’t know it at the time, but Giacomo Bracchi would go down in the annals of Welsh history as a pioneer.
The Italian cafe owner would lend his surname to describe these Italians who settled in Wales and set up cafes, ice cream parlors and fish and chips shops.
Most Italian immigrants to Wales took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries and Bracchi was the first to start a coffee business in Wales, in the Rhondda Valley.
Arrived in London in 1881, he first made a living as organ rector, a popular Italian vocation.
Bracchi, 20, hid enough money to travel to Wales between 1881 and 1893. Then in the 1890s, after perhaps working in a coal mine for a short time, he opened the first Italian cafe and ice cream shop in the country.
Guiseppi Bracchi built a small empire. At its peak, it operated a chain of nine stores. Its fame was such that Italian cafes were often called “Bracchis”. According to world food blog Gastronomic passages his example was contagious as clusters of shops started by other enterprising families sprang up in the South Wales Valley.
They were part of a wave of Italian immigrants who flocked to South Wales in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, opening cafes and selling ice cream in industrialized valley towns and communities. coastal areas of the region.
Immigrants to Wales came from all over Italy. But, in particular, they are from the northern Apennine region of the country, many of them from the city of Bardi. The names of these new arrivals have since been etched in Welsh and Italian folklore. These were the Sidolis, the Bracchis and the Antoniazzis, peoples soon to be famous throughout their adopted country.
It was a classic example of what has come to be known as chain migration, where close connections are made between different parts of the world.
And in this case, a number of the first successful cafes were created and the word was sent back to Italy that help was needed.
The number of Italian cafes in Wales exceeded 300 before World War II, giving rise to well-known businesses.
Brothers Frank and Aldo Berni, who started in business at Merthyr Tydfil, went on to found the Berni Inn chain.
However, World War II was a perilous time for Italian immigrants to Wales. Write a BBC Wales Blog about Italians in Wales, writer and historian Phil Carradice detailed how those who did not have British citizenship were declared enemy aliens and a number were interned on the Isle of Man or in Canada. 53 Welsh Italians were killed in the sinking of the liner Arandora Star in 1940. A memorial was placed in Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral in 2010 to commemorate the tragedy. A memorial chapel is located in the cemetery of Bardi.
Piece of history
In the years following the war there was a new wave of Italian immigration. Now they have come to fill the gaps in British industry. They worked in industries such as mining, tinning, and agriculture. Of course, they continued to run cafes, establishments that were as in demand then as they had been in pre-war times.
Most sources refer to the Bracchis, Bernis and Rabaiottis as the first Italians of South Wales at the turn of the 19th century. There were Italians before, but they were the first Italians to open refreshment and confectionery stores in the region. About 80% of them were from Bardi. The remaining 20% came from southern Italy, especially Picinisco and Atina.
They escaped the very poor conditions of their farmland. They heard stories that workers in Wales were paid in gold. Although it is undoubtedly the “black gold” of the coal mining boom. News of the South Wales industrial boom reached Bardi by sea.
There was a time when every small town and community in Wales had an Italian cafe and ice cream parlor. Although many of them have now disappeared, dispossessed and replaced by giant multinational chains, the memories remain, not only of the cafes, but also of the people who ran them and provided a unique service to the men, women and children of the Land of Wales.
In these cafes, adults could sit and discuss the issues of the day. Kids could enthusiastically melt on the ice cream cones and wafers. And, in the background, the huge silver coffee machine hissed and rumbled like a spaceship ready to take off.
Italians have made an important and significant contribution to Welsh life. They added to the culture and brought color and sometimes luxury to a people who badly needed it. They are quite simply part of Wales.
Stepping into these cafes that still exist is like stepping into a piece of history.
In many cases, they are a great legacy of Wales’ industrial past.
But they are also living and thriving businesses that have become part of the fabric of the communities they have served for generations.
They are us, and we are them.
When Italy faces England in the Euro 2020 final, many in Wales will need no persuasion to decide who to support.
All we’ll say is… Forza Italia!
Notable Welsh Italians:
Boxer Joe Calzaghe
MP for Gower, Tonia Antoniazzi
Actor Victor Spinetti
Boxer Enzo Maccarinelli
Musician Pino Palladino
Footballers David D’Auria and Donato Nardiello
Rugby players Robert and Peter Sidoli
Artist Andrew Vicari
Chefs Michael Bonacini and Michele Chiappa
Restaurateur Giovanni Malacrino
The project to photograph the last Italian cafes in South Wales
Photographer Huw Meredydd Roberts has spent the last few years documenting the characters who frequent some of the last Italian cafes for an ongoing project.
“From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, hundreds of individuals and families from Italy traveled to the bustling valleys of South Wales,” said Huw.
“Italians were greeted warmly when they opened cafes across the country. Long before Costa, Starbucks and Nero, the names of Sidoli, Gambarini, Conti and Bracchi were well known in Wales, and it is estimated that around 300 Italian cafes once served the avid population of the industrial south.
“Today, however, only a few of the original coffees remain. These photographs document some of the few remaining – a reminder of a proud heritage that refuses to die.
“Witnesses to a creeping homogenization of city centers, these original Italian coffee shops represent the bastions of a unique tradition. They share a sense of familiarity, drawn from a common history, and they remain a family business run by second, third and fourth generation Welsh Italians.
“I hope this project sheds light on some of the places and people who carry on this glorious tradition in South Wales.”
See more photographs of Huw HERE