From ice cream to internment
It’s funny what you end up discovering in the archives. A couple of weeks ago a researcher, Dr Kate Luck, came to me in the reading room and asked if I had come across a man named Andrea Cavacuiti during my research on internees in Wiltshire. I hadn’t, but it turns out that it’s possible to find out quite a bit about him from the police files held here at the History Centre and from the internee records held at The National Archives (now available on Ancestry).
Andrea was an Italian who settled in Chippenham in the 1930s and was eventually sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. Andrea was born in a village between Bardi and Palma in northern Italy. He came to the UK in 1934 and worked as an ice cream vendor (like most Italian migrants) in Burnham on Sea. Eventually he married a woman from Bristol and the family settled in Chippenham. Andrea opened his first shop, selling ice creams, at 25 The Causeway. The building had previously been a butcher’s shop and so already had a large freezer – ideal for an ice cream seller.
He later opened a fish and chip shop and then moved at least some of his business to the Market Place, opening up the Waverley Café in the area.
After the Second World War broke out and Italy looked likely to enter the war against Britain, MI5 asked the Wiltshire police to keep an eye on all Italians living in the county. They eventually produced a list of these people, which survives in our Constabulary records.
You can see Andrea’s name on the list about a quarter of the way down – interestingly he’s listed as female, presumably because whoever wrote the list didn’t realise that Andrea is a male name in Italy. It does give us a little insight into how much effort the police expended in drawing up the list – presumably it didn’t extend to actually observing the people involved!
Like most Italians Andrea was arrested and interned the night that Italy entered the war against Britain.
By and large these people had not committed any offence and there were no specific reasons to think that they might; they were interned because the government feared that they might be dangerous, despite having no evidence for this. Andrea was eventually taken to the Isle of Man and interned in a camp at Douglas, which his internee card (available on Ancestry.com) shows:
Andrea seems to have spent almost a year at the camp until a tribunal in March 1941 ordered that he be released. He finally left the camp on 20 April 1941:
Conditions at the internment camps were largely very poor. They were crowded, food was in relatively short supply and the internees were more or less cut off from the outside world – mail took 6 weeks to arrive. Dr Luck told me that she had spoken to Andrea’s son who was able to provide some more detail about what happened when Andrea returned home after his ordeal. Before he was interned Andrea weighed 14.5 stone; when he came home, he weighed 9.5. His wife and son barely recognised him when we knocked on the door – in fact his son remembers thinking that the man in front of them was a “stinky old tramp”.
Andrea’s café seems to have thrived during and after the war, where it became a place for prisoners of war allowed out of the nearby camps to congregate. Andrea’s story is just one of many tens of thousands experienced by foreigners in Britain during the war, and helps to shed light on the local and human cost of the government’s policy of internment.
I am extremely grateful to Dr Kate Luck for telling me about Andrea and for sharing the stories told to her by Andrea’s son.
Dr Tom Plant, Community History Advisor