Italians on the Northern Beaches 1920-70s

by John MacRitchie, Silvana Toia and Gina Polito

The Italian migration to Australia began with the First Fleet 1. Since then the number of migrants grew. Many have settled on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. Some came during the gold rush in the mid-1800s. They arrived in increasing numbers after World War One, some fleeing political persecution. Some were brought out during World War Two as prisoners of war and returned after their repatriation. A further wave of immigration occurred in the 1950s and 60s, spurred by rural poverty. Many came from the south of Italy where it was hard to make a living from the land, and they longed for the chance to make something better of their lives.

The peak of immigration from Italy to Australia took place in the decade following World War Two. Australia was short of man power, because of its war time casualties, and also because of its declining birth-rate, and needed immigrants to work in the factories and on large scale industrial projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. The Australian Government’s ‘Populate or Perish’ immigration program began, and Arthur Calwell was made the first Minister for Immigration in 1945. The Australian Government helped to pay some of the fare for ‘assisted migrants’. In 1951, under a migration agreement, Australia pledged to accept up to 20,000 Italian migrants every year for 5 years 2. From 1945 to 1972, 373,966 Italians came to live in Australia – the Italians were the second largest group of migrants after the British.

The result of the immigration program was a doubling of Australia’s population to 14 million by 1975. In 1973 the Australian Government officially recognised the contribution made by all Australia’s different cultures. There are now more than a million people in Australia who can claim an Italian background, and more than 400,000 Australians speak Italian.

Much of the migration from Italy was ‘chain migration’. When someone became successfully established in Australia they would nominate other family members of their hometown to come out. This is sometimes known as ‘migration without tears’, since the established migrants are able to help the new arrivals to settle.

The Catholic Church, in particular its migrant association ICLE, was a valuable force in assisting new arrivals to migrate to Australia. The role of the Church was of great support and of central importance to the Italian immigrants. Many of the Northern Beaches Italian community celebrated mass at St Augustine’s Church at Brookvale. The local community raised the money, through an envelope collection, to have St Augustine’s hall converted into a Church. The 10. 30 3 mass at St Augustine’s was celebrated in Italian, and confessions were heard in Italian when requested. The parish priest at that time Father Pat Fahey recalled “At Brookvale I celebrated my first Italian mass and first preached in Italian. I had to be coached a great deal before I could do that, but the Italian people were always kind to any of the priests who did their best! 4” St Augustine’s Church featured beautiful statues of San Rocco (St. Rocco) patron saint of Cirella, Calabria and San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist) patron saint of Gizzeria in Calabria. Special events such as Christmas, Easter, Stations of the Cross, Palm Sundays, weddings and funerals brought the community together.

1920s and 30s

Those who came to Australia in the 1920s and 30s could face a stormy welcome. Some new arrivals faced hostile demonstrations by dockside workers, who feared the migrants would take their jobs. Once they had arrived, the Italians often chose to work in market gardening. It could take several years before a market garden succeeded, as the migrants learned about which crops suited the local conditions. Farms were family concerns, and everyone in the family had to work extremely hard.

The first Italian market gardens were in Dee Why and Beacon Hill. There was one in the area where Beacon Hill Public School is now situated. Later there were market gardens along the valley in Old Pittwater Road; around where the present Brookvale Bus Depot is; at the present site of Manly Boys’ High; and at Keirle Park. Brookvale was sparsely inhabited in the 1930s. “The place was so deserted that from Frenchs Forest to Dee Why to Roseville, there was not a single house, there was just an orchard, where the Frenchs Forest Public School is today 5.” There were as yet few Italians around; by 1939 there were the Bombardier (formally Bombardiere) family, the Carnovale family, Nick Tomaino, the Curulli brothers, the Simonetta family Giuseppe Vescio, Frank Vumbaca, Antonio and Sebastiano Lentini and Rocco Ferraro.

The market gardeners grew beans, peas, cabbages, cauliflowers, lettuce, and early potatoes. Beacon Hill, being elevated, was well-known for producing early crops, and producers there could beat the market by two or three weeks, which was where a profit could be made. They kept poultry, and supplied local shops with eggs, and flowers and strawberries, depending on demand.

In 1939 Diego and Maria Arena established the first Italian owned fruit shop in Manly. However, because of anti-Italian feeling during WWII it soon had to be closed. The owner knew of many people of Italian descent who were interned during the war, although he himself was naturalised and avoided that experience.

1940s and 1950s

While World War Two brought the prospect of internment for some, those farmers who were not interned enjoyed a steady demand for fruit and vegetables from the Army. Throughout the 1940s, there was some work available for the men, but not so much for the women, so they used to grow vegetables in their front and back gardens to eke out their living. Local farmers exhibited produce and competed at the long-established annual Brookvale Show. There are still many Italian residences around Sydney which continue the tradition of a vegetable patch in the garden.

The tram service had ceased in the late 1930s, and newly arrived immigrants were employed to pull up tram rails all over Manly and Brookvale. Subsequently, the area became more industrialised, and several factories such as the Mynor cordial factory, and the Bond’s clothing factory, employed many local Italian women workers. Men also worked in the Beacon Hill and Brookvale brickworks.

Vincenzo Tomaino joined his father in 1948. He had a market garden in Brookvale where he grew vegetables for the Army. Vincenzo recalls that it was quite commonplace for recently arrived migrants to stay together. Established families helped them with food, a place to stay and some money until they found their feet. In turn, they would then sponsor other Italians to come over.

One of the first passenger planes to fly migrants to Australia was a former air ambulance DC3 Qantas had purchased. It left Rome on 8th January 1948 and landed in Darwin on 12th February 1948. It made stops at Iraq, Palestine and Malaysia en route. Some of the passengers on this flight who subsequently settled on the Northern Beaches were Francesco and Giuseppe Curulli and their cousin Eugenia Pisto nee Mediati with her daughter Maria Carmela. Their plane broke down in transit and their voyage took 22 days, about the same time as a sea voyage!

Not every migrant was happy when they first arrived. Violanda Sauro in Gallo remembered arriving in 1954 to rejoin her husband, who had migrated two years earlier: “If I had been able to go back home I would have. With my sister-in-law Concetta, we would sit at the table and cry, lamenting how silly we had been for having left Italy. Over there we had sold our house and land to pay for the trip over. Here we had nothing, we had to rent. But after 18 months we bought a house, with a loan of £500… When I had the house I was happier.”

Housing was not easy to come by, due in part to the post-war shortage of building materials. Concetta Mastroianni in Gallo recalled living out of a garage in the industrial part of Brookvale, for three years, before finally being able to buy a house (in Mitchell Road, Brookvale).

After the war, in 1950 there were opportunities for business. Sam Bombadier built a service station at the corner of Pittwater Road and Roger Street, branched out into selling cars, and doing up buildings, and later moved into the real estate business. He is quoted as saying, “The immigrants were successful because they came from the school of hard knocks and were able to put their money together, buy things, buy property which eventually
appreciated.” 6

However, it wasn’t all work – for entertainment families would gather at one another’s houses playing cards and bocce. There was also swimming, soccer and the cinemas at Brookvale and Manly on a Saturday night, or the dance halls at Pittwater Road Dee Why and Manly.

1960s and 1970s

For some post-war migrants, Australia was a new life. “My years in Italy had been very difficult. It was war time, we had nothing, worked for a landlord or share farming, and as my father was in Australia, life was very difficult for us all. Australia, for me, was out of this world. I saw and owned my first soccer ball! We had plenty to eat. The people and the country welcomed us with open arms and open heart. This place for me was the best in the whole world.”(Vincenzo Tomaino).

As religion and festivals were an integral part of Italian life, many new settlers wanted to create an environment similar to their homeland.

Around 1960, several Italians, mostly from Gizzeria in Calabria, gathered at the home of Vitaliano Mauro in Dale Street, Brookvale to form the Association of St John the Baptist. Antonio Caputo 7 was the founding president. Funds were collected by door knocking – some of those who helped with the fund-raising were Arnaldo Milani, Carmelo Gallo, Joseph Mauro, Battista Vescio, Vittorio Gigliotti, Vincenzo Parisi, Giovanni Russo and many others. Finally they acquired the money needed, and the festival got off the ground. The festival organisers brought over from Gizzeria in Calabria the statue of San Giovanni (St. John the Baptist). The Association was registered as a charity with the mission of providing religious, social and educational activities within the Italian community and to help integration with Australian society at large.

Many of the migrants recalled with great pleasure the annual Festival of St Giovanni Battista, which really brought all the Italian community together. The event became extremely popular and attracted thousands of people. At the Festival of San Giovanni, the whole community got involved. Many people met their future husbands and wives when they socialised at the different events.

The Association not only organised the Italian Festival at Brookvale but also established the first Italian language classes for children, around 1965 taught by Joseph Mauro. The classes were held on Saturday mornings at St Augustine’s College near Brookvale Oval. Later there were Italian classes for adults two nights a week at the Narrabeen Evening College. These popular classes helped bring Italians and Australians closer together. This legacy has continued with the insertion of Italian classes into primary schools to the present day by CO.AS.IT (Comitato Assistenza Italiana) The Committee for Assistance to Italians.

Since the 1960’s many other festivals such as San Rocco (Saint Rocco) the patron saint of Cirella; Madonna Assunta (Our Lady of the Assumption); Sant’ Antonio di Padova (Saint Anthony of Padua) the patron saint of Fabrizia; Maria Santissima Della Quercia di Visora (Our Lady of the Oak) the patroness of Conflenti; Maria Mamma Nostra (Mary Our Mother) patroness of Bivongi; Madonna Di Fatima (Our Lady of Fatima); and Santissimo Salvatore (Our Saviour) all from Calabria have been celebrated with a mass and procession.

These religious festivals were a unifying force in the community and continue to be an integral part of the lives of many in the Italian community.

Many Italian businesses became established. The Caputo family set up the first Italian travel agency, called Brookvale Travel, and the first Italian real estate agency on the Northern Beaches, Caputo Real Estate, was established in 1967/68. The 2 businesses are still operating from their original addresses today. The first Italian delicatessens were in Brookvale. They were the ‘Varacalli Deli’ situated where Mimmo’s Pizzeria is now located and the “Milani Deli’. Traveling vans sold traditional Italian food.

This was the decade that saw the arrival of Italian tertiary educated and qualified professionals on the Northern Beaches. It saw the arrival of Michael Toia, the first Italian land surveyor, Raffaele Palermo an accountant, Beatrice Boccardi Pennino, Sara Monteleone Ianni and Lucia Romeo all teachers.

Immigrants who arrived in the 1970s were less driven by economic necessity. An increasing num-ber arrived by airplane rather than by liner. By comparison with the immediate post-war period, work and housing were easier to find. Brookvale particularly became home to many immigrants from Calabria and Sicily. Italian footballing excellence found an outlet in the powerful Brookvale FC side a tradition which continues to this day.

In the 1970s there were increased opportunities to remain in touch with Italy: radio 2SM and later 2CH broadcast some programs in Italian as did Radio Ethnic Australia from 1975; there were the Italian newspapers La Fiamma and Il Corriere. Franca Arena was an Italian broadcaster on Radio Ethnic Australia, who went on to become a community leader as a member of the New South Wales Parliament; to this day she continues to live in the Manly area.

Although inevitably some migrants were homesick, most embraced the Australian lifestyle, enjoying the freedom and opportunities offered here.


Were the immigrants from Italy welcome in Australia? On arrival they faced common difficulties in acquiring a new language, adjusting to a looser social environment, and making new friends. Children could face taunts and blows in the schoolyard; adults could find it difficult to find and hold down a job because of prejudice, spoken or unspoken. During World War Two, many Italians were interned, and families were separated, and although this was not the case with any of those interviewed for this book, they were well aware of others who were not so lucky. However, as their reputation as hard workers spread, many earned the respect of their neighbors, a respect they were undoubtedly due. Also, of course, what was seen as their superior European style and glamour proved to be a great attraction to the local young men and women.

For more than eighty years, Italians who have settled on the Northern Beaches have made a wonderful contribution to the development of the area.

The book can be purchased through Powerhouse Publishing.
» Buy the book


1. 18-year old Giuseppe Tuso was the only Italian on the First Fleet.
He became a constable in the New South Wales Police Force.
2. Grassby, A and Hill, M, Italian Australians p34.
3. Quoted in St Augustine’s Church Hall, Brookvale, 1955-2004.
4. Op cit., p15.
5. Nero, Silvana, Interview with Salvatore Bombardier, February 25,
6. Ibid.
7. In 1975 Antonio Caputo was conferred the title of Cavaliere in the order of Merit of the Italian Republic for his many services to the Italian community of Sydney, by the Italian President. He was also awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the 2009 Honors List. In 1987, his son John, was elected a Councilor of Warringah Shire. He was Shire President from 1988–1989. In 1988 he was also conferred the title of Cavaliere in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.