Carlo Gatti is credited for introducing ice cream to the British as a street food. Throughout the 1850s, he peddled his sweet treats from his brightly painted cart. He and a few other ice cream vendors found such a ready market that they began bringing other Italians over to join them in the venture. These ice cream vendors were largely responsible for the popular take-away food culture that continues to thrive in some of England’s largest cities.

Carlo Gatti, 19th century ice-cream pioneer

Carlo Gatti, 19th century ice-cream pioneer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the economy in Italy took a nosedive, the trickle of Italian emigrants rapidly became a flood. Some went to America, though a large number made their home in Scotland. The established community of Italians began to bring friends and relatives in to work in the family industry. Padrones, or “benefactors”, would send agents back to Italy to recruit cheap labour for their enterprises – primarily the ice cream business. Carlo Giuliani was one of the most successful and well-known of the padrones, and he is credited with laying the foundation for the ice cream industry in Scotland.

Many Italian immigrants arrived with little to nothing, and initially made a living by begging or as itinerant musicians playing hurdy-gurdies on street corners. The hurdy-gurdy men and the beggars realized that they could make more money selling ice cream, and the padrones were all too eager to give them a barrow and take a cut of the profits.

Every morning throughout the warm summer months, the Italians would work their hand-cranks to freeze the ice cream mix they had prepared the night before, and then they would set off on their rounds. Throughout London, Manchester, Glasgow and other big cities, the ice cream vendors could be heard calling, “Gelati, ecco un poco!” This cry quickly earned them the nickname “hokey pokey men”.

While they were making more money, the immigrants were still grossly underpaid and lodged in poor conditions. During the winter months, many had to go back to working as hurdy-gurdy men to earn enough to survive. The Italians spoke little English at first, and many were subjected to mischief and abuse at the hands of local youth.

Photo credit: V & A Museum

Necessity forced the immigrants to persevere, however, and many soon became very successful. In a short 50 years between 1870 and 1920, the ice cream vendors had graduated from rickety hand carts and shabby slum shops to rather luxurious establishments. Ice cream cafes along Sauchiehall Street and in Glasgow’s city centre boasted leather-covered seats, glossy wooden booths and mirror-lined walls.

Carlo Giuliani himself was running three hugely successful cafes in Glasgow by 1890, and customers were pouring in by the thousands. He often had five or more assistants working behind the bar serving out ice cream and drinks like ginger ale.

The hand barrows slowly faded into oblivion as more immigrants moved into shops. Employees often aspired to owning their own establishment, and many would buy into a chain when they could prove their ability to turn a healthy profit. An immigrant could buy into a chain and get stocked up for about £150. Giuliani eventually established a huge network of cafes throughout Glasgow by using this system.

By 1905, there were an estimated 336 ice cream shops in Glasgow and the Italian population had reached nearly 5000. By the 1920s there was a whole new Scottish-born generation serving behind the counters of the family enterprises. At the same time, British Parliament passed the 1920 Aliens Order which required immigrants to gain a work permit before entering the country. The Italian government also passed stiff anti-emigration laws to stem the flow of its citizens. The Scottish-Italian community still thrives today, however, and their food and culture is widely celebrated

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