LRfinalfinal.jpg   Family roots


BORZONASCA is a pretty hill village on the Italian Riviera, 30 miles south of Genoa, just inland from the coast and north of Tuscany. It is overshadowed today by the celebrity status enjoyed by its rich neighbours — Portofino, Santa Margherita, Rapallo, and to a lesser degree Chiavari — but in my great-grandfather's time the Dolce Vita lifestyle these names now conjure could hardly have been conceivable.


Louis Rocca (senior) was born Luigi Rocca in Borzonasca, province of Genoa, in 1838 and some 27 years later was still a bachelor living in the Chiavari region (at Graveglia) when he decided to pack his bags and head for England.

What prompted his move is unknown, though conditions in the country were not good and I can only assume poverty was the root cause. I've searched the records and still can't find what he did for a living, although it would be nice to think he had a few grapes growing in his back yard. His brother John (Giovanni) lived in Borgonovo, just up the road, with his wife Luisa and all three decided to emigrate, whether separately or together not being clear.


It was a period when 'Italy' was in quite an interesting condition. The 19th century saw the unification of the country in the Risorgimento, or Reawakening, which led to revolt, insurrection and the birth of the nation in 1861. Florence had become the nation's capital a year before they decided to leave.

Why they should have picked Manchester, 1,000 miles away, is no mystery. It was the magnet, the smokestack Silicon Valley of its day. The city was prospering at the heart of the cotton trade, the bales being shipped from America via Liverpool before being hauled off to Lancashire's spinning mills. With the Industrial Revolution at its peak it was simply the biggest powerhouse on the planet and held a dynamic pull for thousands who uprooted themselves from the poverty of their rural villages in search of a better life in an unknown land.


Many walked all the way from Italy through Switzerland and France to get there. Basically farming people used to a landscape of mountains and hills, they settled under leaden skies and a vastly different outlook of grime and brick, trading open country for narrow streets and the stink of huddled masses at close quarters.

The contadini gravitated to the Ancoats industrial quarter, which had been an unhealthy and violent place in the early 19th century with its mills, back-to-back slum dwellings and high crime rate. But in the rows of mill-workers' houses, many of which were over a century old even then, they must have found advancement: these at least had separate kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and outside privies.

Very soon after his arrival Luigi married an Italian girl from Sheffield, Maria Casinelli (maybe his reason for going to England wasn't that obscure after all), and Ancoats' 'Little Italy' became our family home and base for an ice-cream business proudly bearing the Rocca name, "Est.1872". Their first son, Giuseppe (Joseph) was born one year later.


The greatest influx of Italians into Manchester took place between 1865 and the early years of the 20th century, so Great-grandpa was one of the first. (The presence of Italian immigrants in England pre-dated their arrival in America, which may well have been discovered by Christopher Columbus — another Genoese — but did not start attracting Italians until the 1870s. By then, more than half the migrants leaving Europe were sailing from Liverpool, only 35 miles from Ancoats).

The 1881 census of England and Wales had Louis dwelling at 3, Ancoats Street with Maria and three children (Giuseppe, Aurelia and Teresa). Great-grandad's official occupation was listed as 'lodging house keeper' but family memories favour 'musician'. The census shows nearly a third of the immigrants were street musicians/vendors in those days.It seems amazing now, and totally politically incorrect, to think they would walk the streets playing their barrel organs and hurdy gurdies, some with monkeys in red waistcoats and hats, and a few with dancing bears.

The Italian colony grew, and began to outnumber the English and Irish families in the parish. Making and selling ice cream in the cellars of their little homes became a big industry, and by 1891 ice-cream vending was established as the main Italian immigrant occupation.

"The names of the more famous and industrious ice cream families were magic, music to the ear, and roll off like the names of the Italian national football team," says Tony Rea, scion of another ice-cream dynasty like me, on his excellent website. And he goes on to name them: "Marco Rea and sons; Vincenzo Schiavo (Vincent's Ices); Carlo Tiani's; Boggiano's (Peter Burgon's); Gerardo Scappaticci (Gerard's Ices); Bernardo Scappaticci (Ben's Ices); Carlo Visco's (Mamma It's Carlo); Rocca's; Pessagno's; Pandolfo's; Trulio's, Sivori's; Raffo's; Meschia's; Granelli's (of Oldham Road); Bacigalupo's; Mattiusi; Luchetti; Cabrelli's; Granelli's (North Road Clayton); Longinotti's; Bertaloni's; Coniola's; Andrucci's (Andrew's); Levaggi's of Denton, and many more."
As the business and the family grew, the Roccas moved to No.13 Great Ancoats Street (which later became part of the Daily Express office and was to play a very significant role in my life). Louis and first son Joe ran the business, with some help from a second son, also called Louis (my grandfather), born two years after that census. But how much time this new member of the family devoted to the basement is questionable. He was 10 years younger than Joe and it soon became evident his true interests lay elsewhere, for in 1895 when he was only 12 he latched on to a local football club as tea boy. He did well, gradually working his way up to be trusted to look after the team kit — an envied position — and eventually becoming its first groundsman.


The club was formed by railway workers who enjoyed kicking a ball around their rail yards in their spare time and went by the official name of Newton Heath LYR (for Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway) though everyone called them The Heathens. Young Louis must have been popular, for when he was still only 19 he was present at a crisis meeting on April 26, 1902, called by the directors with the aim of changing the team's name (by then generally disliked, as the club had moved from the district to new premises nine years previously).

Several names were proposed. 'Manchester Central' was rejected as it sounded too much like a train station. 'Manchester Celtic' made good running but seemed too partisan. The ex-tea boy then stepped forward with an idea which, doubtless to his complete surprise, won popular acclaim. And Newton Heath became Manchester United.

Louis soon found himself on the coaching and scouting staff, with results that have gone down in club history: in 1909 when United won the FA Cup the team was even known as Rocca's Brigade. He eventually set up one of the first country-wide scouting systems and was asked to share the running of the team with the club secretary. To quote my Dad, Leo: "Dad knew more about how football should be played than the man in the office, so he was manager of the team in all but name. His eye for a good footballer brought some good players to the club."

The story from the (long defunct) European newspaper, reproduced here, tells it all. Grandpa was with the club a total of 55 years, combining managing and scouting, and is best remembered for having brought Matt Busby to United in 1945. Many years and trophies later Sir Matt wrote: "Louis Rocca taught me the ropes of management."

I have only one memory of my Grandpa. I must have been about five when I was taken as a treat to Old Trafford for an important lunch with the directors. They served ice cream for dessert, which I found not quite to my delicate taste. "Grandpa, this ice-cream's lumpy!" I announced to the assembled. "Quite right, son, it is," said the old man, and gave me five shillings (a fortune at the time, equivalent to about £6.50 on today's retail price index – worth £19 in purchasing power now).

And how did the Daily Express on Great Ancoats Street influence my life? My father got his first job there as an office boy, eventually rising to become Circulation Manager. I was born into newsprint and ice cream and grew up with the smell of printers' ink.

Red wine? Just an accident.



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