Italian Migrants in the Adelaide Hills

Text and Images: Elisabeth Anderson

Italian migrants and their descendants have lived in the Mt Lofty district for more than a century, stamping a presence through their skilful stonework and market gardens, their orchards and their wine, their coffee and cuisine and an exemplary work ethic. Their migration story can be traced back to three periods in our history – the second half of the 19th century (see The Rossini Family in Our Migrant Heritage), the years of the Great Depression post World War 1 and again after the Second World War.

Some came as single men, sometimes still in their teens, and others left young families behind until they had found security in their new homeland. They retained the Italian traditions that bonded them together.  The places where they settled included the areas of Bridgewater, Basket Range, Uraidla and Summertown as well as other parts of the Hills.

The following stories have been gathered from scattered places and sources with the aim of providing an overview of this Italian presence. They are part of a larger South Australian picture of Italian migration which occurred during this time.

Bridgewater: From the early 1920s Bridgewater became home to a string of Italian family who had all originated from one single place, namely the village of Mello near the Swiss border in the picturesque Italian Alps.

Here they continued their agrarian traditions and would retain a common bond, referring to one another as the paesan, meaning ‘fellow countrymen’, and  gathering to reminisce in their centuries-old Mello dialect about the old country and talk about new opportunities.

They crushed their own grapes in the traditional way to make wine, kept goats to make cheese, made their own salami from beginning to end and served up lashings of home-cooked polenta. They relaxed at bocce and cards games and drank from a keg using a communal cup. An Italian wedding was usually attended by large gatherings, young and old, with abundant food and drink and towards the latter part of the evening the men and women would form a circle and sing traditional Italian songs, led by individuals in turn.

The success of the early migrants led to others also making the journey from the same village. The next wave left Mello in the 1940s and 1950s, escaping another post war depression and drawn by Australian incentive programs. Many brought with them building skills such a stone masonry and carpentry and helped build one another’s homes, using locally quarried stone.

By way of a likely explanation, the historian Desmond O’Connor (“No Need to be Afraid” 1996) writes that “a tight control on the migration of Italians from 1925 via sponsorship had the effect of creating in Australia clearly identified village, town and provincial sub-groups because those already in the country almost always nominated relatives, friends and acquaintances from the same or nearby towns. This meant that as a result of what might have been a, perhaps fortuitous, decision to migrate to Australia taken by an individual from one village, a large number of the residents of that village were subsequently sponsored”. A table of identification of 2,493 Italians arriving in SA between 1927 and 1940 records that 73 migrants came from Mello in that particular period.

Pietro (Peter) Manna arrived in Adelaide from Mello in 1922 at the age of 26, leaving Ernesta, his wife, in Italy. He made his home in the Hills after first working at the opening up of iron deposits in Iron Knob for six and a half years. He cut wood for the Adelaide brickworks, raked clover seed in the Mount Barker district, laboured for a builder and with two others bought a market garden between Carey Gully and Balhannah. Working hard and living frugally, he and Ernesta, who had joined him with their first child in 1930, borrowed £10 to buy a block of land on the corner of Anzac Ridge and Mt Barker Roads. It provided them with security and a place to build a home, grow vegetables and keep a few animals. There were jobs here and there, a day or two at a time. Ernesta picked blackberries to sell to a jam factory in Adelaide. In 1941 Peter began work as a ganger for the Railways. Sunday Mass was a regular part of their faith lives. Initially they walked to the Catholic church in Stirling East and later to St Matthew’s in Bridgewater where, in 1986, they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. Pietro died in his 92nd year in 1988 and Ernesta died in 1991 at the age of 94. Their house is today known as Manna Cottage.

Giovanni and Tersillia Manna

Giovanni Manna, a cousin, came on the “Ormond” in 1924 and began by finding odd jobs wherever he could, carting stone and wood. Eventually he bought an old tip truck and became a cartage contractor and later he worked for the Highways Department. He bought land in Honeysuckle Grove, where he and his wife Tersilia, also from Mello, would make their home and in due course raise a family of eight. They had been married by proxy, a marriage certificate being needed to facilitate her migration. This practice was widespread among Italian migrants until the 1970s and entailed two separate ceremonies in two different countries, sometimes months apart. After her arrival in 1936 Giovanni hosted a party in the Bridgewater Institute to introduce his 22-year-old bride to his friends and the community.

 It was typical for the families to be self-sufficient, which meant having large vegetable gardens and Giovanni and Tersilia shared generously from theirs. Giovanni also developed a bocce rink and friends would gather there for Sunday games, as well as to enjoy the home-made wine, salami and cheese and the companionship of their fellow countrymen. Giovanni died in 1982 and Tersilia died in 1995, aged 81.

The Manna family: at the rear are Giovanni with young Laurie and in front left to right with their mother Tersilia are Adele, John, Lena and Elda. Three more children, born later, were Gloria, Peter and Stephen.

Gabriele and Ernesta Della-Torre, both also of Mello origin, lived in Honeysuckle Grove too and and had seven children. They had initially met at bocce, a popular pastime among the Italian migrants, and were married in 1951. Ernesta had migrated to South Australia with her mother Massima in 1948, joining her father Ernesto and settling in Payneham. The Della-Torres always welcomed visitors with generous hospitality in their Bridgewater home.  Ernesta also spent many hours working in her garden and, on the lighter side, enjoyed dancing to her Italian music and watching football. Gabriele died in July 1984 and Ernesta died on October 20th 2014, aged 89 at which time she was ‘nonna’ to nine grandchildren and ‘great nonna’ to four. Ildo Della-Torre of Osterley Avenue, and Ricardo Della Torre of Kangarilla were Gabriele’s brothers.  Another Della Torre family, unrelated, also lived in Bridgewater.

For Giovanni Tarca and his 17-year-old son Les home was a tent when they first lived in Balhannah in 1936. He worked on a dairy farm in Macclesfield while Les was cutting wattle for the Mt Barker tannery.  Giovanni’s wife Maria, two other sons, Emilio and Erminio and a daughter, Maria, migrated in 1949. 

Les Tarca soon began working with stone, building walls and houses, and became well known for his masonry. He and his Italian-born wife Lena were married in 1946, made their home in Bridgewater and had two sons and two daughters. Their first-born, John, was the first arrival in the new maternity wing at the Stirling Hospital in 1947. At one time Les owned the German Arms Hotel in Hahndorf and combined his life as a builder and mason with that of a publican, making his own salami and smallgoods in his spare time.

A well-known example of his stone masonry was a blue stone wall at ‘Birksgate’ on Mount Barker Road in Glen Osmond, built in 1956 with a team of workers, including his brothers. The wall stood for more than 40 years at the entrance of what would become the South Eastern Freeway, until it was demolished to make way for road widening. Les’s son John built a new and equally impressive 431-metre wall in its place in 1999, using Carey Gully, Kanmantoo and Basket Range stone. Les died in 2006.

Les and Lena’s son John, who attended school at St Catherine’s and Oakbank Area and then studied as an apprentice motor mechanic, followed in his father’s footsteps as a stonemason. As well as being responsible for the new ‘Birksgate’ wall at Glen Osmond, he left his professional mark on numerous location on the Plains and in the Hills, including projects at Adelaide University, St Peter’s College, Bonython Park, Semaphore’s Palais, the Henley and Grange waterfront and restaurants locally.

Erminio and Maria Tarca were the parents of two sons and two daughters. Maria joined her husband with their first two children in 1950, the year after his arrival. Initially they lived at Jibilla and then, in stages as finances permitted, Erminio built a family home in Christie Street, Bridgewater. Like many of his compatriots, Erminio loved working with stone and he often joined forces with his brother Emilio in the building trade. Erminio died in 1999, aged 82, and Maria died in 2006, aged 83. One of the special memories she would leave behind was of the tasty Italian dishes she cooked up in her kitchen and especially her lasagne which family and friends enjoyed over the years. At the time of her passing there were nine grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren.

Emilio Tarca and his wife Rina, who had originally met in Italy and were reunited two years after Emilio’s arrival in Australia,were married in the Italian Church of St Francis in Campbelltown in 1954 and made their home in Driffield Road, Bridgewater. They had three children. Apart from his stone masonry work, one of Emilio’s enterprises was to grow potatoes for the Army, while Rina’s jobs included apple picking, cleaning and working as a housekeeper whilst also caring for her family. Emilio died in 1977 and Rina died in 2010 leaving behind nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren.  

Three Scamoni brothers, Getzemani, Angelo and Amadio, came to Australia from Mello on the “Sebastiano Caboto”, docking in Port Melbourne on 7th July 1949 and they settled in Bridgewater. Their name would become well known in the building trade.

Angelo and Assunta Scamoni: Angelo was born in 1918. Times were tough after the First World War but he was able to attend five years of schooling, after which he found work in a local restaurant until he was called up for National Service. He served in the Italian Army, was posted to France, Egypt and Tobruk in World War 2 and taken to India as a prisoner-of-war. After returning to Mello he and Assunta were married, in 1948.  Work was scarce and, having learnt the trade of stone masonry and building in France, Angelo migrated to Australia with two of his four brothers the following year.  Assunta and baby Angela joined him once he had settled in Bridgewater. He took on work with great determination and it was not uncommon to see him pushing a wheelbarrow of tools from his home to the Bridgewater Railway Station where he caught the train to his jobs, sometimes as far away as Salisbury. He took great pride in his work which earned him the respect of peers and clients. Most of his work was for the Public Buildings Department.

Assunta Scamoni, photographed in 2009. She was the last surviving member of Bridgewater’s early Italian contingent and died in 2020.  (Photo by Brett Hartwig for the Adelaide Hills Magazine)

The family first lived in a three-room shack which was often filled with family and friends. In his spare time he built a family home over many years and it was not unusual to see his children helping with tasks such as cleaning the second hand bricks. In his retirement Angelo often returned to Italy and loved hiking in the mountains where he had grown up. Locally he enjoyed watching football at Bridgewater Oval and was a member of the local Dart Club. He died in the Hahndorf Nursing Home on 8th May 2004. To coincide with his funeral Mass in St Matthew’s Catholic Church in Bridgewater, the bells were rung at the San Fedele Church in Mello where he had been baptised 85 years earlier and where he and Assunta had married. Assunta died on 13th February 2020, aged 97. She was the last surviving member of the early Mello migrant contingent.

Getzemani and Amabile Scamoni:  Getzemani, also known as George, first obtained employment at the General Motors Holden Woodville factory, enabling him to repay his passage to Australia, buy land and build a house and to bring his wife Amabile and their four children over from Mello. Two more children were born in Australia. Getzemani began a successful business utilizing his stone masonry and building skills and examples of his work can be seen in Adelaide along the River Torrens and Veale Gardens. Fittingly, he and Amabile are commemorated on a paver in Settlement Square at the Migration Museum in Kintore Avenue. He died on 22 July 1985, aged 70 years and Amabile died in 1992, aged 71.

Amadio and Maria Scamoni and their first two children began the Australian chapter of their lives together in a tin shed in ‘the bush’ as was later recalled by their family. They had married in Italy in 1947 and Maria had remained behind with her children and Amadio’s mother when he migrated to Australia in 1949. Together they built their family home which within a few years needed to be extended with the arrival of four more children. They worked hard and maintained their Italian traditions and their large vegetable garden and fruit trees kept everyone fed. Amadio passed away suddenly in 2000. A decade later Maria grieved the loss of a daughter, Rosemary, and Maria herself died in 2017.

The De Simoni family: Emilio and Olimpio De Simoni were also from Mello in the Italian Alps. Their father, who was already in Australia, sent for them after their mother had died from a long illness and they docked in Australia on the ship “Romulus” just a month before the start of World War 2.

The information we have is mainly about Emilio, thanks to the neatly hand-written eulogy his wife Gladys had prepared at the time of his death in 2007. In this she relates that Emilio was not quite 17 when he arrived in Australia and would live with foster parents in North Adelaide, helping with their wood and ice round. He also worked with a terrazzo firm, at a sandpit, a salt mine and in Blanchetown making charcoal.  And he was called up by the Allied Works Council (founded in 1942 to oversee and organise military construction works) to cut wood in Barmera until the end of the War. Eventually he followed the building tradition of his fellow Italian migrants, learning most aspects of the trade while working with a Housing Trust contractor. He joined forces with other Italian-born builders on a number of well-known Adelaide land marks that included the restoration of the Constitutional Museum.

Emilio and his brother Olimpio, who was by then married to Carla, jointly built a home in Blackwood and whilst there he was in constant demand for retaining walls and constructed several houses.

Health problems forced Emilio to retire from building at 58 and he and Gladys moved to Longwood in 1968 to grow strawberries and vegetables and breed Poll Hereford cattle. Their property was severely burnt in the Ash Wednesday fires.

Emilio made friends easily and was a life member of the Bridgewater Inn Social Club. He played darts and eight ball, owned his own eight-ball table and also played lawn and indoor bowls in Hahndorf.  He was in the Hahndorf Nursing Home for more than four years until his death on 27th October 2007, just one day after his 85th birthday.

Ernesto and Maria Baraglia, also Mello-born, lived in Littlehampton and Nairne.  Ernesto came to Australia in 1924, at the age of 18, was naturalised in 1935 and served for Australia during World War 2. He died on 4th March 2008 at the age of 101 and his grave is in the Mt Barker Catholic Cemetery. Maria died in Mt Barker on 17th April 2018 aged 96, survived by three daughters, a son plus two further generations of children. In her death notice her family recalled the passion with which she had worked on the land during her life.

Giuseppe Mercorella came from Italy in the 1930s and worked in the market gardens of the Adelaide Hills. In 1949 he was joined by his wife Antonia and sons Georgio, Nazzareno and Francesco, from La Molara north-east of Naples. They bought land in Uraidla and grew potatoes, onions, cabbages, lettuces and leeks and would become one of the oldest market gardening families in the Adelaide Hills. Giuseppe died in 1987.

Giorgio Mercorella was Giuseppe’s oldest son and in due course became the patriarch of this market gardening family. In 1962 he bought his own property in Piccadilly and moved there with his wife Reparata and their two daughters. Georgio was well known at the Adelaide Markets where he was a frequent presence. He had also been there on the morning of a fatal day in December 2007 when, by then 80 years of age and still farming, he was tragically killed in a tractor accident whilst working on his Piccadilly Road property.

The Virgara family, market gardeners,were the public face of Stirling’s main street fruit and vegetable trade for 30 years until Tom and Vickie Virgara sold up in 2013. Tom’s parents had initially settled in Uraidla in 1953 and from the age of 17 he had worked with them in their market gardens.

Antonio Ceravolo Snr, whose name is today associated with the expansive and well-known  Ceravolo Orchards and juicing business,came to the Adelaide Hills from Calabria in 1950. He rented a house in Uraidla and began working in the Nicols family orchard.  A few years later he was joined by his wife Maria, and their four children with six more children born in Australia after their arrival.

L-R: Joyce Ceravolo, Tony Ceravolo, Sandra Ceravolo, Josephine Ceravolo, Elvira Capogreco, Ralph Ceravolo Jr, Raffaele Ceravolo, Vince Capogreco, Bruno Capogreco, Mary Capogreco (nee Ceravolo), Anna Ceravolo, Joe Ceravolo.

The family enterprise began with the purchase of a property in Ashton, initially known as Valle di Sant’Antonio, where they grew potatoes, onions, cauliflowers and cabbages and also planted their first apple trees. In 1978 Antonio’s first son, Ralph, and his wife, Josephine, bought a property down the road from the first family farm and soon after took over the reins of the families operations.

Granny Smith apples in the Ceravolo orchard

By 1982 a third generation of Ceravolo’s had entered the family business and in 2013 and 2018 the fourth generation also began to work alongside their parents and grandparents. Today their orchards are spread over eight properties, mostly in the Adelaide Hills, producing a variety of fruits and juices.

The quality of their products has gained the family multiple awards.

Francesco (Frank) De’Angelo was born in Casacanditella in Abruzzo, Central Italy, in 1930, one of five siblings. His family was forced to leave their house early in the Second World War to shelter in a farmer’s barn for the duration.Tragically, two of his siblings died during this period. He resumed school after the War but, because of family poverty, left at the end of his fifth grade. After working at home and on the family’s land he was an agricultural labourer in Switzerland for three years. There he met his wife to be, Vilma, and they were married in 1955. Frank migrated to Australia that year and was joined by Vilma in 1957. Already fluent in Italian and French, Frank rapidly acquired his third language at English classes and found a position at John Martin’s, where he remained for 18 years and became an expert in the area of carports and verandahs.

He moved his family to Summertown in 1977, establishing a vegetable, fruit and nut producing property in tandem with his day job in town. He also grew grapes and had an olive grove from which he produced olive oil. Frank remained quietly proud of his Italian heritage and he and Vilma were regulars in the Italian social clubs. He spent his final year in a retirement village in McLaren Vale to be close to family and died in May 2017. His funeral was held in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Stirling East, and he was laid to rest in the Summertown Cemetery.

Evasio (Wally) and Ada Viezzi were from Udine in northern Italy. Wally came in 1949 and was contracted as a rural worker to a farmer in Coonalpyn. Ada followed a year later and they were married on the day that she had disembarked in Adelaide. They moved to Stirling when their son Gary was about one year old, with Wally building their first home. A master stonemason and cement maker, he became well known for his trade and much sought after by locals, building the frontages of many free-stone houses around the district and the eastern suburbs, including the imposing stone pillars at Seymour College. Wally would work laboriously at home to hand-chisel the huge stones to manageable sizes. In later years he was also in demand as a landscaper and incorporated his talents into stone features in many Hills gardens. From their own much-loved garden he and Ada supplied family and friends with fresh vegetables for many years. Wally and Ada had one son Gary and a daughter, Dely. Wally died in 2003.

Peter Bellosguardo first came to Australia as a *prisoner of war in World War 2 and during that time he worked on a farm in Mylor. He returned to Italy at the end of the War but returned in 1951 with his wife Paola and their first-born child, Sebastian. Five more children were born to them after their migration. Peter was a noted stonemason and his work can be seen in many places around Adelaide and the Hills. Their home was in Milan Terrace Stirling until 1989 when they moved to the Plains. Peter died in 1992. Some of their family continue to live in the Adelaide Hills.

*When Italy entered the Second World War in 1940 Italian prisoners of war who were captured in northern Africa were sent to Australia and some of these were assigned to farms in South Australia. They generally formed a good relationship with the Australian farmers and some Italian POWs chose to return to South Australia as migrants after the war.

Pastoral care: The Italians traditionally belonged to the Catholic faith and when the Catholic Parish of Stirling was established in 1957 one of the concerns of the Parish Priest, Father Gavan Kennare, was the spiritual wellbeing of these and all people in the market gardening community, who walked considerable distances for their Sunday worship in Stirling or Bridgewater. In the late 1950s the Summertown Institute and from 1968 till 1975 Uraidla’s Anglican church were used for places of worship and for about two years an Italian Mass was celebrated monthly at Uraidla. The Italian Vice Consul and his wife and staff were present on one such occasion. A visiting Italian-speaking Scalabrini priest from Seaton spent a week in the Hills in 1986. He visited 64 families and found that about 43 percent of them had retained Italian as their first language.

Sources:  SA History Hub, Adelaide Hills Magazine 2009, Laurie Manna, “The Courier” Newspaper, the Migration Museum Newsletter (2008), “The Bridge” Catholic Monthly,  https// history, “Views from the Hills” (Mt Lofty Districts Historical Society).

Read about other migrant families in the Adelaide Hills

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