San Ferdinando, Reggio Calabria, Italy
Messina, Italy in February 1955
Melbourne on 22 March 1955
Farmhouse at Corbie Hill, Leeton, Riverina region, NSW.
Seasonal worker at the Letona cannery, Leeton.
Own farm businesses in Leeton area.
I came from San Ferdinando, Reggio Calabria, Italy. I left by ship, the Oceania, from the port of Messina at the end of February in 1955. The journey took 25 days and I arrived in Melbourne, Victoria on 22nd March. I was 26 years old and travelling with my two children Teresa, who was seven, and Josephina (Pina), who was four and half, and also my younger sister, Geradina, who was 14 years old.
I came to meet my husband Pasquale (Pat) who had been in Australia since 1950. He had family living here already, his Uncle Dionisio in Leeton. Pat’s brother Frank came first and then Frank made the application for Pat. Pina was only one month old when he left. He had come to make a better life for us here in Leeton because he could not find enough work in San Ferdinando to make money. In Leeton, Pat was able to find work on the rice farms where he would cut the rice and stay a month on a farm. The farmers would feed [him] and wash [his clothes]. He made good money because it did not cost him rent or food. He would send me money and saved enough to send us the fare to come and meet him.
I remember saying to my aunty in Italy that when I go to Australia I will work hard and make money. She asked me why I should work but I just knew I would have to work to make money. I would not have a house when we got there and I wanted to make [a future] for the kids. In Italy, only the man could work because there was not enough work for two. But when two people could work, it is better. One wage you can pay the bills and one wage you can eat. I just knew I had to do something.
When I packed the trunk to come to Australia I put in it sheets, quilts, clothes, kitchen things like an aluminium sculla pasta (colander) and a big aluminium saucepan which I bought especially to bring to Australia for 100 lire. I wanted a large one because I thought I would need it to cook a lot of pasta for a large family. One hundred lire was a lot of money in those days. I remember my father-in-law screamed at me, “Why did you buy this saucepan to take to Australia? They have a lot of meat there. You won’t need to cook spaghetti all the time.” It turned out I used it a lot and sometimes more than just cooking pasta. It [was] the best thing I could have bought.
The ship I came on was beautiful but I spent 25 days with seasickness. I was sick every day. I could not go once to dinner in the dining room. My sister would take the kids to eat and bring me back an apple or something. Pina was only sick for one day but she was alright after that. My sister was well and would take the girls upstairs [on deck] to sit on the chairs and take them [to] breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was just too sick to go anywhere. There was a lady from our home town who had some pane tosto (hard bread), sardines, cheese and olives and I was able to eat some of these sometimes. It was a shame because the ship had dancing and lots of things to do.
When we arrived in Melbourne, Pat and his nonna (grandmother), Carmela Pantano, who was 80 years old, came to meet us. They were given a lift by truck to Melbourne and we were going to catch the train to Leeton. We stayed two nights at the motel owned by Mr Gravina near the port of Melbourne. This gave me time to recover from the ship. He made pasta for us the day we arrived. Mr Gravina’s son lived in Leeton – Pat arranged the room with him.
When the girls first saw their father, it was so lovely. Teresa, she remembered her father and she was very happy to see him again, but she had to explain to Pina that he was the man in the photograph that they looked at [in Italy].
I remember the train was an old coal powered one and it was so slow Nonna Carmela joked that she could walk faster! I had dressed the girls in pretty pink dresses and by the time we got to Leeton they were black. It turned out to be a longer trip then we thought because none of us could read, write or understand English and we missed getting off at Junee to change trains to go to Leeton. We stayed on and went all the way to Sydney Central station. I was so glad when the people in Sydney were so kind and they got someone to interpret for us and told us to change trains at Junee. They put us on the next train to Junee (free of charge); it was a long 24 hours.
In Leeton we went straight to the house Pat rented, owned by Frank Iannelli, in Corbie Hill, on a farm seven kilometres from Leeton. I thought Melbourne was beautiful because there were a lot of people around me but when I got to the farm it was a lot quieter and [no] neighbours right next door. Being that seven kilometres from town was very hard.
The house didn’t have electricity, a bathroom or hot running water. I had to wash the dishes outside because there was not a sink inside. We had channel water and [a] rainwater tank for drinking water. I used the big saucepan from Italy to boil water for hot water to bath the kids. We [used] wood to make a fire so I could boil the water and I would have the saucepan on the fire all the time.
I [also] used the saucepan to make preserves; I would use it every day. I lost the handles because I used it so much and because it is aluminium, you can’t weld anything on it, so I found some wire and made some handles myself.
I thought the farm was nice. I took the kids for a walk around and saw all the trees of fruit and the vegetables that were growing. The kids were happy. If we had to come to town we had to go by pushbike or horse and cart. At first it was hard and the girls didn’t like the farm, but after a little while they got used to it.
Pat leased some land and we grew beans, cabbage, lettuce and tomatoes while he worked at the rice mill. On Saturdays and Sundays, Pat would go out pruning as well.
I stayed two months at the house at Corbie Hill and I wanted somewhere closer in town so that I could work because there was only work for Pat on the farm. I needed to be close to the local cannery to get work.
We found a flat on Mr Valensizi’s farm on Karri Road, which was in town. The flat had two bedrooms, a kitchen inside and verandah. I closed in part of the veranda with chaff bags and kept a copper there. Every day I would put on the copper for heating water for baths. I had to go to the channel to wash the clothes about 200 metres away [and] would use one cake of soap every day. I would then carry the clothes to the clothes line back at the house. We [also] had to buy drinking water – there was no rainwater tank there.
I settled well into life in Leeton because there were a lot of people from my hometown. We had Pat’s family around us and the girls had their nonna and made friends [at] school.
After a couple of months I did get a job at the local Letona cannery. They wanted women to work the season. Pat had to take me by pushbike every morning, about a kilometre. You had to stand at the gate every morning at six and wait if you wanted a start. After a week, Mr Ross gave me a job.
There were a lot of Italian women who worked at the cannery which was great. The season would start in March [and] I would work three to four months of the year. The girls were at school and my sister would help the girls get ready and the bus would pick them up at the gate. My sister would work the night shift and I would do the day. I was very happy to work. Everyone was happy to be working.
At the cannery I was on the peach machine. The machine would cut the peach in half and take out the stone. I would have to put the peach straight onto a special knife on the machine, because, if you didn’t, it would not cut the peach correctly. We could cut 21,000 peaches in a day.
The shift would start at 7am and the machine would stop at 9.30am to have a cup of coffee and I would have a pie or pastie. I loved the pasties from there; they cooked beautiful food at the canteen.
After a while we had our son, Fred, in 1956. My sister married in 1958 and in 1959 we had Lucy, our fourth child. When Fred was due to be born, I was feeling sick for about an hour and then I told Pat that I should probably go to the hospital. So Pat called Tony Ciccia, who had a car, at quarter to eleven and eleven o’clock I had Fred! I stayed eight days in hospital. Then, I couldn’t speak any English, but I communicated with the nurses and other patients with sign language. I would look at the other ladies and I would do what they do. I would smile at the other ladies. They were all nice.
We then bought a house with two acres of land, on the Yanco Road, Yanco about five kilometres from Leeton. I used to catch a bus to work. I was lucky that there were two sisters who worked with me on the peach line who would be on the bus too. We became great friends.
It was great to go to work and people would say “hello”. It was difficult sometimes. I would not speak all day at first because I couldn’t speak English, but I wanted to learn and I remember asking a man from our hometown, “How do I say what time is it?” And he taught me, “Seven o’clock, quarter past seven, half past seven, quarter to eight”.
I worked at the cannery for 15 years. I started to work night shift, which would start at 5pm ’til 2am. During the summer I would sleep from 2am to 5am. I would get up and get the kids ready for school and would be in [our] farm picking peaches by 7am. We would also have pears and oranges. In the winter we would grow lettuce and peas and sell these to the cannery to make money.
From Yanco we bought our current farm, [in] Leeton. It would take a month to get the peaches at the right time. From the time they started to ripen, you would go around the trees three or four times. We would put them in lug boxes, which were a flat wooden box, on the trailer on the back of the tractor. We didn’t have a truck, so Pat would drive the tractor with the trailer to the cannery, which was about two kilometres from the farm. We would have 200-300 cases on the trailer.
In the first year we could not afford to put anyone on to help us pick the peaches, but we had to get help. So I would pick during the day with the men and go to the cannery at night to pay for men to come and pick. I did this for four years in the season.
I learnt my English at the cannery and when the kids went to school, they would speak English between themselves. I would learn a few words from them too. The children learnt English quickly once they went to school. They went to St. Joseph’s Primary School in Leeton and the nuns were good but you always have one or two who didn’t treat them well. Sometimes they would get the girls to hang out clothes or cleaning instead of doing schoolwork. Teresa came back home one day with bruised hands from getting the cane – I don’t know why – and I remember telling Pina to tell the nun that if she touches Teresa again, I will come and do the same to her. Teresa was not touched again.
We would try and go to the movies at the local theatre when we could. All the children finished school up to Year 10 and got jobs after. They are all married now and I have ten grandchildren.
I still use the saucepan today when I make the peeled tomatoes and it and the sculla pasta are the only things I have left from Italy. The house burned down and [fortunately] I kept these in the shed.
I did go back to Italy with my husband about 22 years ago. It was good to see everything again and things had gotten better there too, but I was very happy to come back to Leeton. We were able to come here with nothing and make a future for our family and us.