Showing posts with label Multicultural Hamilton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Multicultural Hamilton. Show all posts

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A community finds its place - the Lettesi story

‘Why did we leave? Why wouldn’t we leave? We had lost everything.’

In the Hamilton home of Tony (Antonio) and Pina D’Accione, I am listening to Ralph (Raffaele) Della Grotta with his wife Maria tell of their experiences as a member of the Lettesi community in Newcastle.

The Lettesi [1] are part of a unique community of extended family members of some 145 households where one or both partners were born in the Abruzzo village of Lettopalena in Italy, and who settled in Newcastle between 1950 and 1956. [2] Two similar Lettesi communities are located in America and Argentina. [3]

I first wanted to write about the unique system of support that emerged to sustain this community as they forged new lives. As I began, I quickly realized that it would be impossible to do so without trying to communicate something of the larger context of the Lettesi story. Because – like the Lettesi themselves – it is all connected.

The pioneers

The Australian story of the Lettesi begins in 1925 with the arrival in Brisbane of Giacomo (Jim) De Vitis. In 1927, he was joined by his brother in law Arcangelo Rossetti. Arcangelo’s sons followed - Antonio in 1929 and Giacomo (Jim) in 1931. [4] The men settled around Proserpine, in north Queensland, and found work in the cane fields. By 1938, Antonio and Giacomo Rossetti had purchased their own farms in the area. These farms enabled the brothers to sponsor others from their home village.

So began a chain migration process, initiated in particular by Antonio Rossetti. With the prospect of work on the cane farms, many men from Lettopalena emigrated, first to cut cane, then sometimes moving elsewhere to find jobs that suited them better. Decades later, Tony and Ralph would be among them. [5]

Making music on the Rossetti cane farm, Proserpine, Queensland early 1950s
Music provided a welcome distraction from the tough working conditions
Photograph courtesy of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

The industrial city of Newcastle in NSW held the promise of a wide range of job opportunities and it was inevitable that some would find their way there. One man was a key link in the movement of Italian migrants between Proserpine and Newcastle – Giovanni De Vitis.

Giovanni (John) followed his father Giacomo De Vitis to Australia in 1932, aged 17. He moved to Newcastle in 1947 and found permanent work in the dockyards.  For six months of the year, in the cane-cutting off season, men from Proserpine came to Newcastle; John helped them find work and accommodation. Today, he would be known as 'the fixer.' Over time, many settled permanently in Newcastle. Initially, suburbs like Mayfield, Tighes Hill and Islington were popular as they were cheap, and located close to industries.

Giovanni De Vitis with daughters Rosa (left) and Franca (right), late 1950s. 
Photograph courtesy of Franca Ridewood, née De Vitis

Ralph Della Grotta arrived in Australia in 1953 aged 17; Tony D’Accione in 1956 aged 18; their first jobs were cutting cane near Proserpine. Soon, however, both young men moved south to Newcastle, gaining a variety of experience in different jobs. Eventually, Ralph took up barbering, and in 1973 opened his own business in Beaumont Street, Hamilton. Tony and Pina became well known as owners of the continental delicatessen Pina Deli between 1980 and 1991. 

It was not unusual for fit and able men from subsistence agricultural villages like Lettopalena to work abroad, so as to better support their families. But what had happened to transform what had begun as an emigration trickle to Australia in the 1920s into a flow in the 1950s?

The story is one of devastation and terror, and it is in danger of disappearing.

Caught in the cross fire – a village destroyed

In the terrible winter of 1943, during World War II, the village of Lettopalena became caught between the Allied forces moving north from southern Italy, and the German army trying to hold them back.

Picture Lettopalena, perched on a narrow ledge, backed against the wall of the great Maiella mountain range, overlooking a ravine of the Aventino River. Some 780 people [6] lived in this town, with a heritage stretching back to the 12th century.

Since many men were away at the war, mainly women, children and the elderly remained.

The German command decided that this locality was critical to their defence strategy. For their own protection and to clear the space for battle, the residents would be forced to leave their homes, and prevented from returning.

No one really explained this to the people of Lettopalena. Instead, on 18 November 1943 forty armed soldiers drove them out, across the river to Colle delle Mandre, where the animal stables and sheep pens were located. Confused and frightened, some sheltered in the stables, while others went to Abbey of Santa Maria di Monteplanizio or a nearby church for the night.

Early next morning, 19 November, 1943 over in the town, the soldiers were busy. Preparations were being made for something the people sensed was deeply ominous. Everyone gathered near the stables to watch.

The first blast went off at 9.30 am. It was a deafening, harsh sound…the house of Vincenzo Martinelli, the miller, was the first to shake, then in an instant was ripped apart by powerful explosives…dust and smoke engulfed the site of the former building. The miller’s father …sobbed as he lowered his head in his hands.’ [7]

Systematically, the soldiers went from house to house, blowing up a building every two or three minutes with precision timing.

Six year old Tony D’Accione was in the crowd; Ralph Della Grotta too, just a little older.

Maria Della Grotta vividly remembers watching the fires. Just three years old at the time, she may not have understood the significance of the tragedy, but her small body would surely have absorbed the howls of anguish [8] that rose from the crowd.

By 4 pm that day, Lettopalena no longer existed. Dust, rubble and debris were everywhere.

Ruins of the Church of Saint Nicholas, once the heart of Lettopalena
Photograph courtesy of Carlo Finocchietti [9]

Next morning, the soldiers marshalled the people out of the stables and nearby buildings. As they left, the stores of hay were torched. Roofs collapsed, leaving the buildings derelict and dangerous.

As the full force of winter set in, months of suffering, fear and uncertainty followed. Tony remembers returning with his father to what was left of their house in the ruins to salvage tiles for makeshift repairs to the stable roof.

Crops had been trampled, livestock stolen or scattered. Flour was like gold. The women concealed small supplies in their garments. Foraging in the fields to find something – anything - to feed the family was a daily challenge.

Late in January, 1944 the Germans began to put into effect the plan of transferring the population out of the strategic buffer zone. Rounded up at rifle point, frightened and weakened by hunger, the people were forced to trek through the snow to Palena, the next town.

Tony D’Accione endured this terrible forced march. From Palena they were to go up and over the 300m Forchetta gap, to an unknown destination.  

‘A death sentence could not have provoked greater alarm…in the darkness, during a snowstorm…How could they do it with small children, elderly people, women weakened by days and weeks of hardship, the sick?’ [10]

Fifteen died on this journey which, it transpired, was to Pescocostanzo and on to Rocca Pia. The first to die were the children – their deaths often not noticed as they were carried in their mother’s arms. [11]

The epic stories of many who survived this period of forced wandering and many who did not, are well documented. [12] Separated from their homes and livelihoods, some managed, like homing pigeons, to find their way back, only to be chased out again. There were accidents on the treacherous tracks; frostbite, injuries and deaths in the deep snow; escapes and sabotage; even a child was born on the way.

And those who were children or young adults, like my hosts, carried their memories with them to new lives, in Newcastle.

An artist at work recreating Lettopalena, based on a rare original photograph
The Commune of the new town of Lettapalena commissioned an artist to paint a memorial wall in the new  town, 2012
Photograph courtesy of Mayor Carolina De Vitis, Lettopalena

Taking care of one’s own

It is no wonder, then, that having endured such trauma, the Lettesi would cluster together, and support one another. Newcastle researcher Dr Judith Galvin has studied this community, travelled to the new town of Lettapalena, and walked in the ruins of the old. She has described the interconnected kinship system that not only drove the emigration process to Australia but also generated the system of support that sustained the community during resettlement. [13]

From the early 1950s, when the Lettesi network helped community members find jobs and homes in Newcastle, an informal system to support those encountering hard times also operated. Judith Galvin explains:

‘If a breadwinner was injured or a family member died, leaders would emerge, arrange what they could, do the rounds of the community, collecting money to assist the family’[14]

Over 80 donations were collected for widow Orsina De Vitis, then living near Proserpine, when husband Giovanni died suddenly in 1969, aged 54. 
Silvana and Frank De Vitis, with daughters Enza and Rosa, drove from Newcastle to Proserpine to deliver the donations, worth about $1500 in today's currency.
Documents courtesy of Franca Ridewood née De Vitis.

That year, in 1969, the structure was formalized with the establishment of an elected committee, the Lettesi Committee. The Lettesi Health Fund was administered by the Committee. Later, the Committee became known as the Lettopalena Association of Newcastle Inc.

Community members who wished to participate paid a weekly or annual membership fee, thus financing benefits for eligible members in need. Modest though the scheme was, it must have been like having a health fund and unemployment benefit, rolled into one.

The Foundation President of the Lettesi Committee was Nicolino De Vitis. Nic was one of twelve Lettesi whose immigration had been sponsored by the Australian government. A caring and respected community leader, Nic went on to hold various Committee positions continuously from 1969 until 1982.

Six of twelve men from Lettopalena sponsored by the Australian government 
Bonegilla Migrant Camp, Victoria, 1952
 (L-R) Benito Di Paolo, Berardino D’Amico, Nicolino De Vitis, Concezio Tarantini, Emidio Rossetti, Paolo Palmieri
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

Antonio (Tony) Della Grotta, brother to Ralph, followed Nic De Vitis as President. Judith Galvin explained to me the immeasurable contribution that Tony Della Grotta made in the early years of Lettesi settlement in Newcastle.

‘He was everybody’s social worker,’ she said. ‘He gave his heart and soul, and whole energy to helping others in every way imaginable.’

Among the twelve sponsored by the Australian government, Tony Della Grotta was six times President of the Committee, once Vice President and five times Secretary. Tony Della Grotta and later, Tony D’Accione became the longest serving Presidents. Tony D’Accione was a member of the Committee from 1970 to 1986, serving as President from 1976 to 1986, once as Vice President and four times as Treasurer. The community leadership  provided by Tony D’Accione is widely appreciated and acknowledged.

Ralph Della Grotta, like his brother Antonio, also served his community on the Committee. He was Vice President once and Secretary on six occasions. Others who made important contributions included Jimmy Gizzi, Frank De Vitis, John Palmieri, Giovanni Di Claudio and Domenico Palmieri.

Over time, as the community became more self sufficient, and other national safety nets were put in place, the role of the Lettopalena Association changed.

Social and recreational activities became more important, providing a chance for Lettesi to gather together, renew their bonds of friendship, and enjoy themselves. As their families became established, and their children grew up, it may have become possible for some to leave memories of past hardships behind.

Picnics were a popular, easily organized social activity for members of the Lettesi community, 
late 1950s
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

Dances were held four times a year, associated with festivals at Easter and Christmas/New Year, as well in August and October.

Before they were married – at a Lettopalena Association dance, Ralph Della Grotta 
and Maria née Martinelli, late 1950s
Photograph courtesy of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

A local hall would be hired and taken over for the occasion. The men cleaned and set up the space; the women moved in and cooked for the whole day, usually serving a substantial meal of pasta, main course and cakes. After midnight, when it was all over, the men disposed of bottles and other rubbish, and the women tackled the piles of dishes. As always, a small, core group of families provided most of the volunteer labour.

‘We’d be so tired,’ Tony says, ‘but then we’d recover and in a few months, do it all over again.’

‘What did you like best about those times?’ I ask.

‘It was the togetherness,’ responds Maria. ‘Our kids grew up together. We shared everything, and had such fun.’

Dances were events for the whole family – three Nonnas watch the action
(L-R) Marie De Vitis, Maria Di Claudio, Anna (Rosa) Martinelli
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

The community could be readily mobilised for special events.

Fundraising dance for victims of the Friuli earthquake, attended by over 300 Lettesi, 
Transport Hall Hamilton, 1976
We were squeezed in like sardines’
Photograph from the collection of Antonio and Pina D’Accione

Those who were once the driving force behind the Lettopalena Association are now ageing. Still, the committee continues, served loyally by Croce Di Stefano, Angelo Thodas, Sergio Pigliacampo, Angelo Rossetti, Tony D’Accione and Ralph Della Grotta.

Large self-catered events are a thing of the past – it’s easier to meet friends in a local coffee shop, pub or club.

Gathering for bocce at the Highfields Azzurri Club, early 2000s
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

The women continue to celebrate important milestones by going out to lunch. And this year, 2015, Association members will come together for a Christmas lunch in a local restaurant.

Celebrating the 50th birthday of Maria della Grotta (centre), Hamilton 1990
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

A community reclaimed

Judith Galvin described the Lettesi as ‘a community in search of place.’ [15]

By 1976, when she conducted a year of in depth interviews for her research, Galvin found that Hamilton had become the focus of Lettesi identity. She noted that from as early as 1957, the community had begun to show a preference for Hamilton over nearby suburbs, and this preference continued. [16] Known as ‘Little Italy’ and Little Lettopalena’ [17] Hamilton had become the preferred place to live for a majority of Lettesi. There were shops where people felt at home; friends and relatives lived nearby and Beaumont Street was where you’d bump into people you knew.

Many Lettesi in Newcastle still remember being driven from their homes, and the desperate efforts of their families to find their way back – regardless of what they would find when they arrived.

Yet some things defied destruction - shared values and beliefs, kinship networks, their care for one another, and their sense of identity.

And many of them brought all this, finally, to Hamilton, where ‘a village within a village’ has taken root and grown.

The Lettesi had found their place.

Over time, new generations of Lettesi have taken their families to other Newcastle suburbs, to other Australian cities and even overseas. Still, something unique remains in Hamilton.

Leafing through the pages of Judith Galvin’s study of the Lettesi, my eye is caught by a quote from an unnamed interviewee:

‘It’s the places you’ve been to, the places you live – like a bird comes back to where it’s been – to the places that are familiar.’ [18]

Because this group of people once lost everything, and had to begin all over again, the best elements of their lives have been transposed from Lettopalena. Hamilton has been changed irrevocably. That is their legacy.

At home, Hamilton, 2015
(L-R) Maria and Ralph Della Grotta, Tony and Pina D’Accione

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


Thank you to Tony and Pina D’Accione, and Ralph and Maria Della Grotta for sharing their stories, photographs and resources.

The Lettopalena Association would like to thank everyone who has volunteered their time and effort over the years in support of the community.

If any reader would like to share further information or photographs, please email

Memorial mass held in the ruins of the church, where the village 
of Lettopalena once stood, 2006
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

[1] ‘Lettesi’ is the way people of Lettopalena are described – like Australians say ‘Sydneysiders’ or ‘Melbournians’. 
[2] Judith Galvin completed her PhD thesis in 1983 on ‘The Lettesi in Newcastle: A study of
ethnic community formation, consolidation and integration. ' It is online at A short version is also on this site, and is titled ‘The Lettesi Story - A Community in Search of Place.'
[3] Two similar Lettesi communities are located in Turtle Creek, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA and in Caseros, near Buenos Aires, Argentina.
[4]  Judith Galvin, 1983 ‘The Lettesi Story - A Community in Search of Place.' Online at p.19.
[5] Arcangelo Rossetti was Tony D’Accione’s uncle and also Maria Della Grotta’s grandfather.

[6]  Matteo Cosenza 1996, Lettopalena A Town, a History, translated by Guy Rossetti. Carsa Edition, Pescara, p.66.
[7] Matteo Cosenza 1996, p.26.
[8] Matteo Cosenza 1996, p.26.
[10]  Matteo Cosenza 1996, p. 52.
[11]  Matteo Cosenza 1996 p. 55
[12]  Matteo Cosenza 1996.
[13] Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 25.
[14] Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 25.

[15]  Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 7.
[16]  Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 32.
[17]  Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 27.
[18] Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 40.