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Category: Interviews »

Subject: Early History »

Laura Mecca on early Italian immigration to Victoria

Laura Mecca and Mara Moustafine.

Historian Laura Mecca describes early Italian immigration, including the Gold Rush period and the wider settlement of Italians in rural Victoria and Melbourne, including regional origins.



Date Added:

26 March 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

13.9 MB




Victoria, the first thing was definitely the Gold Rush; it was very important but it wasn’t a migration, you can’t consider that a migration. Many of them settled here but it was more like an adventure, seeking fortune. It was a coincidence of various factors in Italy. Italy was under the Austrians, almost to be unified with the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia which wanted to unify the country and build a nation and an army.  This also involved compulsory nationalist service, three years of national service.  I mean Italians and the law and the government never got on together very much. So you know, "let’s get out". [Laughs]
What’s quite interesting, a lot of them couldn’t get out because they were avoiding the national service so they used their cousin’s name or whatever who were deemed unfit for national service. And that’s why today you get this mess in the family history, so really it was Giovanni and not Pietro who arrived, they say: “Look I know it was Giovanni but I’m sure he used Pietro’s documents.”
So there’s quite a lot of that. But the principle has always been to get away, leave your country and try to find money, more than a settlement at that stage. The real gold of course, was not the metal itself, it was the land. And a number of them settled in Hepburn Springs, and around the Ballarat district.
And then, news of gold came from California, “Zoosh!” They went to California or came here. News of gold came from New Zealand, 1870s. “Voosh!” They went to New Zealand. So their mobility is amazing, you know – or Kalgoorlie, or the Hunter Valley, or up in North Queensland, you know, they – on the Palmer River, they went everywhere, it didn’t really matter. Yet a very few of them found riches here. But those who stayed, established themselves in Victoria, in Daylesford, and Hepburn Springs, Bendigo, Eagle Hawke, they are all the towns where today their  presence in the cemeteries is quite amazing. Along with the Swiss-Italians, the Italian-speaking Swiss, they had a lot in common, the language, the food. They had to marry with Irish or German women most of them Catholic, because religion dictated all that.
 They started establishing themselves, you see, but a lot of them went back, because Italy has always been a migrant country. A lot of them then went to Russia. They were multi-skilled, coming from the mountains, where every little square metre of land was their gold, you know. They were multi-skilled, they grew grapes and potatoes and they were good carpenters, excellent bricklayers, excellent stone masons. They went everywhere around the world, they were very adaptable to any jobs. They made their own tools here. I suppose every migrant has done that at an early stage. But the Italians loved their land and they knew what to extract from the land, that’s why they’ve always been very skilled as  agriculturalists. Not as much as graziers and so on, but you know, the land has to produce something.
... the musicians, the musicians came from Viggiano and they settled in Melbourne and in Sydney, they got a number of them, the street musicians, they came from the Basilicata region. And they established themselves in Little Lonsdale Street, which was then a slum, with the Chinese, of course, poor suburbs, poor people, it didn’t matter what you looked like, you know, just get together and that’s it. After that they were kicked out towards the end of 1899 and they settled; they came to Carlton, many of them.
Others, a number, went down to Balaclava Road in St Kilda where today, still many of the descendents are still there. Then the Aeolian Island people came, again, same period. And opened their fruit shops, Melbourne and Sydney were the main towns, again. You know, although they didn’t have a trade, this wasn’t their trade at home, the Aeolian Island people grew capers and were in the navy and so on. And the islanders were specialise in making vin santo which is the wine that is served during the Mass, very special . The Filossera [disease of the vines]  was a major tragedy in Italy so there’s always been a combination of hardship in their own country whether it was political or economical and in Australia they had the opportunity to settle here.
End transcript