Back in the 1980s I made several visits to my granny’s cousin Betty at Ebchester. Susannah Betty Spregg Henley nee Stoddart was the daughter of my great-grandfather’s youngest half-sister, and one of the few surviving members of granny’s generation. Her forenames came from her grandmother, my great-great-grandmother, Susannah Betty Sprague Axford/Voyzey nee Curnow, and meeting Betty somehow seemed to span the generations.
A few months ago I was really sad to see Betty’s death notice in the Evening Chronicle – “HENLEY (Ebchester). On 27th April, aged 89 years, Betty …” – and my mind drifted back to those visits. Of course I’d been on a family history quest, and most of the notes I took related to earlier generations, but there were also a few references to to Betty’s late brother, Thomas Stoddart. One note – the one I particularly remember – referred to his 1942 marriage to an “Estelle Reed Richards (who was really a Figiolini)”.
During my childhood in Rowlands Gill, Figliolini (as I now know the name is spelt) meant ice-cream. Regularly during the summer months a little van with Figliolini on the side ran around the streets selling the most delicious ice cream I’ve ever tasted, ice cream made locally at Chopwell where the family had premises on Derwent Street near to the cinema. The van was cream coloured as indeed was the ice-cream – which I understood to be the result of using egg-yolks in the basic mix.
I could never forget that van for another reason: on one memorable occasion in 1949 it conveyed me to the doctor’s surgery to have my face sewn back together. My mother had briefly left me in the house while she nipped out to buy two ice-cream cones from Figliolini’s van which was parked opposite. I watched her from the kitchen window and when I saw her coming up the garden steps I ran to meet her, tripped and fell forwards with my face striking a sharp corner of a low stool. The corner penetrated my cheek just below my right cheek-bone and left a large gaping wound – my cheek was literally hanging off and I was bleeding profusely.
Showing commendable presence of mind and untypical forcefulness of character, my mother picked me up, ran back to the ice-cream van and ordered the driver to take us to Doc Willie Henderson’s house on Strathmore Road. Despite being only 3½, I remember everything of the incident up to that point as clearly as if it were yesterday, but I don’t actually remember the journey at all. My next memory is in the doctor’s front room, where I was sitting on a heavy polished table and the doctor had a strange contraption in his hand. He pointed a nozzle at my face and squirted clouds of fine white powder – which I assume to have been penicillin – into the wound by repeatedly squeezing a black rubber ball. Then he stitched me up; I didn’t count, but there were a lot of stitches.
Why I remember this so well, I don’t know. Perhaps the scar, which I still bear, provided a constant reinforcement and prevented the memory from fading. Whatever the reason, it is my earliest clear memory by quite some margin. That was the summer of 1949, and apart from vague recollections of starting school in September 1950 and of being in Miss Laurent’s reception class, my next vivid memories are of listening to two events reported on the radio in the winter of 1951/52. First the sinking of the Flying Enterprise and the bravery of its skipper, Captain Kurt Carlsen – a story which unfolded between Christmas 1951 and early January 1952 – and then the death of King George VI in February 1952, which I’ve written about elsewhere.
So why was Estelle Reed Richards who married Thomas Stoddart, my granny’s cousin, in 1942 “really a Figliolini”. I was intrigued. After following several false trails, I eventually found that Estelle was indeed born Estelle Reed Figliolini on 14 Aug 1921, the daughter of Peter Figliolini and his wife, Elizabeth Jane Reed. Peter, incidentally, who was really Pietro, was the Figliolini who ran the ice-cream business at Chopwell, and the driver of the van which took me to the doctors.
Peter and Elizabeth had married in 1916 and two children, John Reed Figliolini in 1918, and Estelle in 1921, but by the time Estelle came along in 1921, the marriage must have been on the rocks because soon afterwards Peter petitioned for divorce and this was granted in 1922. So I know why Estelle was “really a Figliolini” – that was the name of her birth certificate. The question really is, why was she married as a Richards?
There are many possibilities. Maybe Estelle’s real father was a Richards (and if Peter had discovered this it could account for the divorce too). Maybe Estelle had been fostered by a couple called Richards? Maybe she’d been previously married to a Richards – though I can find no record of such a marriage in the six years between Estelle’s sixteenth birthday and her marriage to Thomas. Doubtless I could find more by getting hold of various documents – the 1942 marriage certificate to see if she’d been married before and who she named as her father, the 1922 divorce papers to see who was named as co-respondent etc – but that would prove expensive and I don’t really have the motivation. After all, I’d answered the question I’d posed myself.
Pietro Figliolini was one of three brothers from Cantu in the Province of Como in northern Italy who had arrived in this country around 1910. The eldest, Antonio Angelo (Angel), born 1892, found a job with confectioner, Livio (Leo) Guazzelli, at Chopwell, while his younger brothers, Fiorovante (George), born 1894, and Pietro (Peter), born 1897, worked for Carmine Rossi in his ice-cream business at Consett.
Those three names Guazzelli, Figliolini and Rossi remained prominent in the ice-cream/confectionery trade in the area for many years – Rossis with their two cafes in Consett, Figliolinis with cafes in Chopwell, Blackhall Mill and Leadgate, and Leo Guazzelli who moved to Rowlands Gill and ran a “confectioners and refreshment rooms” opposite the Towneley Arms for many years.
The Figliolinis set up a business together – Figliolini Brothers – at Chopwell just before the outbreak of World War One. Later Angel & George opened some refreshments rooms at nearby Blackhall Mill, trading as A & F Figliolini, leaving Peter to run the café, or rather “temperance bar”, and ice cream business at Chopwell, trading as Pietro Figliolini. Pietro also ran a temperance bar at Leadgate for a while. Once established, the brothers brought their widowed mother, Clementina, over to the UK too.
Angel and George’s business at Blackhall Mill wasn’t doing too well, so in the 1930s, they relocated to South Shields where they opened an ice cream business at 98 Ocean Road. Angel stayed there for many years before retiring to Sittingbourne in Kent, but in 1937 George moved on to Weymouth in Dorset where he set up an ice-cream business at 14 Royal Arcade.
So for many years the three brothers ran ice cream businesses many miles apart – Peter in Chopwell, Angelo in South Shields and George in Weymouth. They were, however, reunited at the end. Pietro retired to Weymouth to be near his brother George, and Angelo, though living in Kent, was in Weymouth, presumably on a visit to his brothers, when he died on 6th April 1963, aged 70. Pietro was the next to go – on 6th December 1964, aged 67, and finally, in January 1970, George breathed his last at the age of 75. All three brothers lie in Weymouth’s Melcombe Regis Cemetery.
As far as I can establish only one descendant of the three brothers is still in the ice cream business – Fulvio Figliolini, one of George’s grandsons, is a director of an ice cream business at 92 The Esplanade, Weymouth. Ironically, the business is called “Rossi’s Ices Ltd”. (I’m reliably informed that 92 The Esplanade is the same property as 14 Royal Arcade – so this must be the very business set up by Fiorovante/George all those years ago.)
Thinking about Figliolinis reminded me of some stories my mother, a Chopwell lass, told about the ill-treatment Peter and his mother suffered during World War Two because of their Italian origins. Their premises were attacked on more than one occasion and they were subject to frequent verbal abuse. Such treatment was completely undeserved – their sympathies were entirely with the Allies, after all Peter had been in the village since before World War One, his son was serving in the forces and he had become a naturalised British subject. Their loyalties were aptly demonstrated when Dunkirk evacuees were billeted in Chopwell Drill Hall in June 1940 and the Figliolinis donated cigarettes and other treats for the men almost as soon as they arrived.
Food regulations during World War Two were very strict and very complex, with new orders being issued at a confusing rate. Traders could not be expected to keep fully abreast of such orders and often relied on visits from the council’s Enforcement Inspectors to point out infringements. Such officers were rarely heavy handed at first, and invariably gave the traders a warning and time to comply. When going through the files of the Blaydon Food Control Committee I came across dozens of such cases, but I only came across one case where a member of the public had informed on a trader, and that related to Figliolinis.
On November 6th, 1942 a gentleman from Strathmore Road, Rowlands Gill wrote to the Ministry of Food in Newcastle to tell them that Figliolinis of Derwent Street, Chopwell were still manufacturing ice cream despite an order banning this. This order, incidentally, had only come into force the previous month. The Ministry of Food then passed the letter on to the Food Executive Officer at Blaydon who sent out an Enforcement Inspector to investigate. Figliolinis immediately stopped making ice cream and, as far as I’m aware, no further action was taken. Nonetheless it can’t have been very pleasant for the Figliolinis, especially after the abuse they had already suffered, and they must have assumed they’d been singled out once again because of their country of origin.