Growing up in the tribes of Little Italy

As you park your car or walk through the Cox Lane car park, in the Ipswich town centre, it is difficult to imagine the hundreds of families who lived in tiny packed streets, which were demolished in the 1930s as families were moved from poor housing to the new council houses built on the outskirts of town.

David Kindred

As you park your car or walk through the Cox Lane car park, in the Ipswich town centre, it is difficult to imagine the hundreds of families who lived in tiny packed streets, which were demolished in the 1930s as families were moved from poor housing to the new council houses built on the outskirts of town.

Those who lived there had very little.

Even a child passing an exam to go to Northgate Grammar School became a financial worry as they could not afford the uniform. Just surviving meant living off hand outs for many of the families there.

Recently in Kindred Spirits Des Drew, who now lives at Stutton, recalled how he found his first job at Sainsbury's Tavern Street shop after growing up in this poor part of town.

The little glimpse of life he gave us of his childhood in what was known as “Little Italy” because of the large number of Italian immigrant families who lived there was fascinating.

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I asked Des to tell us more about life around Cox Lane in the 1920s and 30s.

Des said “The area was from Carr Street to Orwell Place. An old map of Ipswich shows the area around Cox Lane was once orchards, now all the houses built there have gone too.

“Everything has been razed to the ground. I was born at 6, Permit Office Street, in 1926. The house was owned by the Catholic Church.

“Around 1885 people started to arrive in Ipswich from Italy. Number 10 Permit Office Street became the home of Rosa Marcantonio a musician.

“Vittorio Coppocci a street musician lived with his wife and daughter at number 5. At number 7 was Antorio Tartaglia with his wife, three children and his brother Pictio another street musician. All of these houses were just two rooms up and two down.

“As street musicians they played wind up barrel organs in the main streets with a monkey on top of the organ to attract passers by. This would earn them a few pennies. My grandmother was from one of the Italian families. In 1909 my grandfather Giovanni Marcantonio moved to 17 Upper Barclay Street.

“He had a shop in his front room selling items from a table in the open sash window. He also traded from Reeves Yard in Upper Orwell Street. The yard is still there today.

“Living at 14 Permit Office Street was Mrs Carri Matronie where she kept her costermongers barrow. Every Saturday she sold vegetables from the barrow at Majors Corner.”

“In 1926 when I was born, my grandfather and Mrs Carri Matronie were the only two Italian families left. It was the time of the General Strike and many men didn't know what to do, they had families to support.

If they carried on working they were “Black Legged” by their neighbours and the name would stick to them for ever more and would not be easily forgotten.”

When I was three a lady took my photograph outside my home in Permit Office Street. I remember even at that age standing there holding the only toy I had, a teddy bear with no arms or legs.

I wore a jersey with one sleeve longer than the other, a pair of shorts and shoes with a strap across; that I believe was given to my mother from my aunt next door. They belonged to her youngest daughter who had grown out of them. As the shorter sleeve frayed my mother would bite the hanging strand of wool off with her teeth.”

“At that young age I didn't really know if my father had a job of work. I have found a photo of him at work building the Sproughton Sugar Beet Factory and I think he worked on the railways painting signals, like his father Mark Drew.

''As children we played in the street that we were born in. I never played far from my own front door. The gutter outside home was 'yours'. A glass marble lost by children playing further up the street, which rolled along the gutter or was washed along by the rain to outside your house, was claimed as your own.

“The people living around there hadn't got much, but they did take pride in the houses they lived in. You would often see a woman scrubbing her front door step. People were a bit particular who their children played with. Children kept to their own streets as did their parents. We played the usual children's games of conkers when we could get them from Christchurch Park. We would chase an iron hoop around the streets with a stick. We would play for hours with cigarette cards. One boy would compete with another. Cards were stood up against a house wall, you then “flicked” your card at them and if you knocked one down it was yours.

“Just before I was four-years-old my father made me a cart, it was every boys dream to own a one. Mine was made from a plywood tea chest and was mounted onto an axle with two pram wheels and a wooden shaft was nailed on each side.

“It was also time for me to start at St Pancras School in Cox Lane. On my first morning I was dragged into the school cloakroom complete with my cart. Miss O'Rorke met us and told my mother that the cart couldn't come into the school. The very thought of being parted from my cart was too much to bear. I told Miss O'Rorke that if my cart couldn't come in, neither would I.

“In the end it was agreed that the cart could stand in the cloakroom passage way and that she would sit me at a desk where I could look up the passage and keep an eye on it. That cart was the most important thing in the world to me. I hadn't got anything else!

“Later if you passed exams you went to the Northgate Grammar School. Those children who did pass put a burden onto their parents. They couldn't afford to buy the uniforms. It was decided that I might be able to go to art school. I went for one day and the teacher gave me a letter to take home to my mother. She read the letter out to me:

'Dear Mrs Drew having seen your sons work at the art school today I have come to the conclusion that he has no artistic value and would not gain anything by attending any further lessons.'

“Once a year there was the 'Poor Children's Outing'. Many firms and private car owners decked their vehicles out and paraded on the recreation ground in Alderman Road. Children were selected and given a card with their name on. Both my sister Hilda and I got one.

''We thought we had won something, but you hadn't, you were just 'Poor' children. We were all given a lorry or car to get into and the whole convoy would leave for the journey to a private park at Yoxford, we would be singing all the way.

''The owners of the huge house on the estate came out to welcome us and hoped that we would all have a lovely day in the grounds of their house. The grounds were wonderful, a lot different from our own small back yards. We had food and drink, and watched sheep dogs at work.

“At Christmas some of us were lucky enough to get a ticket to go to the Regent Theatre to meet Father Christmas who would give us a piece of fruit and some boiled sweets. We would then go in to watch a film; it was usually Shirley Temple in Curly Top in which she first sang Animal Crackers in My Soup.

''At home I got the usual Christmas stocking with a game of Ludo and perhaps Snakes and Ladders. At the time you didn't think that you were poor, you were the same as all the other children in the street. The Ipswich Borough Police Force used to organise a Christmas meal at the Public Hall in Westgate Street for hundreds of poor local children.

“Eventually the Catholic church decided that they wanted the house that we lived in back. We found a house in Union Street. I never went back to Permit Office Street again; I had in effect left the tribe. About this time my unwell father became more and more confined to his bed. He had no job, so my mother used to take both me and my younger sister up to the Cornhill in the hope of seeing policeman Sgt Sutcliffe. If she was lucky he would be standing in Lloyds Avenue, she would then ask him about the Australian food parcels that the people living there would send to the poor people of Ipswich. Sgt Sutcliffe would say: “I'll put your name down Rosa, but I can't promise anything.” Eventually a box full of groceries would arrive, how lucky we were.

“Providence Cheques were given to the poor, after an inspection by someone from The Assistance Board. My mother wanted a pair of boots for me and shoes for my sister, we went to Prices Shoe Shop at the corner of Tacket Street and Lower Brook Street. My mother was told 'You could not use the cheque for any kind of pleasure'.

“One evening after tea my father who hadn't much to live for went to the Co-op to buy ten Woodbine cigarettes, they were four pence a packet. I wanted to go to Pools Picture House in Tower Street, which was another four pence. My mother said that she hadn't got any money and to go and ask father.

''I went up to the Co-op and saw a crowd of people all looking down at the floor. I squeezed through the people to see my father lying on his back on the floor. The Co-op told me to go home and get my mother. I stayed with my sister until she came back to tell us that our father had just died with a heart attack. He was just 42-years-old. I was 13 and my sister ten. It was 1938. ''The next year we were moved to Whitton Estate into a nice new council house, with a big garden, but my poor dad never lived long enough to see it.''