Culture and heritage

Heritage of NSW

Hidden Italian heritage

As part of a pilot project for its Ethnic Communities Consultation Program the Heritage Office is working to unveil hidden Italian heritage items in NSW. At the moment the State Heritage Inventory of more than 17,600 items contains only one that clearly relates to the Italian community - the Italian community hall in Crystal Street, Broken Hill. Yet Italians played an important role in the history of the State. Although Australia did not attract large numbers of Italian immigrants until the 1950s, Italian contacts with Australia date back much further.

At the turn of the century Italian settlers pose in front of a homestead at New Italy, an early Italian settlement in NSW. Photograph by Joseph Check, courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

At the turn of the century Italian settlers pose in front of a homestead at New Italy, an early Italian settlement in NSW. Photograph by Joseph Check, courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Antonio Ponto, a Venetian, sailed with Cook on the Endeavour and reached Australia in 1770. Later in the century, when settlement began in the new penal colony, some of the early convicts and free settlers were Italian. Some of the priests, nuns and missionaries associated with the rise of Catholicism during the 19th century were also of Italian descent.

One of the most important landmarks in the history of Italians in Australia was the establishment of the New Italy settlement near Woodburn, south of Lismore. 317 migrants from the Friuli and Veneto regions were accepted by the NSW government as refugees after the failure of an earlier attempt to settle an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. After a period of separation and service, the Italian settlers made their way to the North Coast where they established their own settlement at New Italy in 1885. There the settlers built houses, a church, school and community hall in traditional regional styles and organised work programs and social activities. They sent silk products to the Milan Trade Fair in 1906, winning the First Prize.

A report prepared for the NSW government by F. C. Clifford in 1889 states that:

"A barren forest gave way to a comfortable looking settlement, with clean and tidy dwellings, good and substantial fences and out-buildings... splendidly-tilled and cared for gardens, orchards and vineyards... the little settlement has gradually grown and flourished, until the Colony of New Italy has become an accomplished fact, worthy of emulation."

The report noted that the Italian colonists fenced small fields which they cultivated for wine-growing and horticulture, in contrast to the larger holdings of other settlers. Such first-hand evidence suggests that a distinctive type of cultural landscape was produced by the New Italy settlement. This in turn points to an area where further investigation may reveal surviving physical evidence of this early period of Italian settlement in NSW.

In the early 1900s Sicilian fishermen established fishing industry enterprises in the south coast towns of Ulladulla, Kiama, Batemans Bay and Wollongong.

Following Australian Federation the number of Italian migrants increased due to the policies of the Immigration Restriction Act, 1901 (commonly known as the White Australia policy). Italian migrants replaced some of the workforce lost when the entry of other groups such as Chinese and Kanakas was restricted. Thus, at the time of the first Commonwealth Census in 1901, the Italian-born population in NSW had increased to 1577 and by 1911 to 1723.

Sydney's increases in Italian migration began in the 1920s and concentrated around Stanley Street, East Sydney (still a popular "little Italy" today), Balmain, Leichhardt and Glebe. Many settlers also owned or worked on market gardens on the city's outer fringe. The 1920s and 30s saw the beginning of the significant Italian presence around Griffith in the Murrumbidgee Immigration Area.

The Second World War changed the status of Italians in the State. By September 1942 nearly 4,000 were interned as enemy aliens in camps at Liverpool, Orange, Hay, and Cowra. Their status changed again at the end of the war, and the same camps were used to house the massive influx of refugees and migrants, particularly from southern Europe. In the thirty years after 1945 about 360,000 Italians arrived in Australia. A large number of Italian migrants worked for the Snowy Mountains Scheme and on the Warragamba Dam.

At the proposed Rimembranza Park, near Cowra, a memorial to Italian POWs was unveiled in 1997 by the Associazione Nazionale Combattenti della Guerra di Liberazione, NSW

At the proposed Rimembranza Park, near Cowra, a memorial to Italian POWs was unveiled in 1997 by the Associazione Nazionale Combattenti della Guerra di Liberazione, NSW

Italian cane cutter, 1947. Photograph by Lawrence Le Guay, courtesy of the Walkabout Collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Italian cane cutter, 1947. Photograph by Lawrence Le Guay, courtesy of the Walkabout Collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

In recent years the number of Italian-born migrants has been steadily decreasing. The 1996 census revealed 66,000 Italian-born people in NSW. So this is an opportune time to take stock of the Italian contribution to the State's history and culture while the memories of older migrants are still fresh.

In September Luca Stewart-Crisanti was appointed to the Heritage Office for six months under the Migrant Work Experience Program administered by the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity. His role is to assist the Office to make contact with the Italian community to:

  • advise the community on how the NSW heritage system works;
  • develop awareness of the contribution of ethnic communities to NSW history and culture;
  • seek nominations to the State Heritage Register.

In his first two months he has researched the available historical research on Italian settlement; developed a detailed strategy for the Italian consultation project; and established a task force of Italian community leaders to guide the direction of the strategy.

It is expected that a major outcome of the pilot project will be the preparation of a community-focused heritage study which clearly relates significant places to the principal themes and personalities of Italian history in NSW.

Who was the first Italian to settle in NSW?

Many claims have been made about the identity of the first Italian to obtain land in NSW. Unfortunately, these claims have not always stood up to closer scrutiny. Several writers have stated that Guiseppe Tusa, a convict on the First Fleet in 1788, was the first Italian to receive land in the colony. However, research has not been able to substantiate this claim, and it is likely that the man in question is Joseph Tuzo, a native of the Channel islands between England and France. Other writers have claimed Giovanni Battista D'Arietta, who was granted land at Campbelltown in 1822, as the first Italian settler. Once again, research has shown that this man, properly named Jean Baptiste Lehimaz De Arrieta, was not Italian but from Spain.

The importance of first-hand research cannot be emphasized enough if the identity of the first Italian landowner in NSW is to be known. This, in turn, should allow some investigation of whether this first settler has left any physical evidence, such as a house, buildings or gardens that can be identified and assessed for its heritage significance.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012