John's Cafe, Beamish Museum

15th August 2013

Beamish Museum Curatorial Assistant, Clara Woolford, provides an insight to the recent work behind the scenes at the museum.

Johnnie Parisella

Beamish Museum is about to remove the extraordinary, early twentieth century interior fittings of an Italian-run cafe and ice cream parlour in Wingate, Sunderland. These furnishings and fixtures will be installed inside a re-creation of the terrace where the original cafe is located, as part of Beamish’s planned development of a 1950s town. The re-opened John’s Cafe will offer the opportunity to represent both the important contribution that Italian immigrants made to the local area and help to tell the story of how diet, taste, music and communities changed during the 1950s in the North East.

John’s Cafe, on the Front Street of Wingate, was a bustling place in the 1950s. As the centre of social life in the large pit village, the cafe was where favourite aunts treated their nieces and nephews, the football team celebrated their latest wins and the young men courted the local girls. The owner Johnnie Parisella and his wife Eva were at the heart of the family run business.

Johnnie was born in Edinburgh and moved to the North East after being demobbed from the British Army, in 1952. However, as his name suggests, he was of Italian heritage. Italians had been emigrating to the port cities of Scotland and the North of England since the latter half of the nineteenth century, following the economic upheaval caused by the unification of Italy (the Risorgimento), which forced families from the poorer, rural South to seek work abroad- largely as ice cream sellers.

There are many legends about why their chosen destinations were in the coldest parts of Britain, but some stories tell of Italians being duped into believing that they had bought passage to America, only to arrive in Glasgow or Newcastle. More likely, they simply travelled as far as they could afford to, but whatever the reason, once the first pioneers arrived, the populations of sometimes entire villages followed. Ice cream was a novelty to the area despite the chilly climes, and small barrow-based businesses selling ‘penny-licks’ flourished into sophisticated ice cream parlours and cafes.

Theses establishments found a particular niche in the pit villages and towns of the Great Northern Coalfield. The Temperance Movement, which coincided with the prevalence of Methodism amongst the working classes in the North East during the nineteenth century, meant that Italian ice cream parlours could provide an alternative to pubs as meeting places. Indeed, they continued to be considered respectable and family-friendly spaces, where the sexes could mix freely.

British coal production peaked in 1913 and this followed a generally prosperous period for the local area. This meant that workers had increasing amounts of disposable income to spend on luxuries like ice cream. In fact, perhaps the greatest appeal these cafes had was their sense of opulence. Prior to John taking over, his cafe was run by another Italian, Luigi Pirelli. In 1925 Pirelli installed carved mahogany booths with glazed panes, individual radiators and folding cinema-style seats, along with wall panelling, plaster moulding and a marble-topped counter. The joinery most likely came from the cabinet-department at Binns in Sunderland, while the glazing was made by the famous James Joblings & Co., also in Sunderland. This style of decor was almost universally common among Italian cafes of the period, until it was replaced by the chrome and leather of the 1950s.

Yet, whilst most Italian immigrants thrived during the early twentieth century, the Second World War caused divides both between the local community and amongst the families themselves. During the war years, thousands of Italian immigrants were interned as supposed security threats, with many being sent to the Isle of Man or Northern Ireland, although others were deported to Canada or Australia. Those that remained free were met with varying reactions from their neighbours. Antonio Marcantonio, who still runs his family’s ice cream business in Newcastle, recalls how his ‘aunt said crowds use to gather outside the shops sometimes, and they were pelted and abused and life was made very difficult for them.’ Another family, the Rianis, whose cafe was in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham, were while victims of interment not treated so badly by the surrounding community.

Colombo Riani was deported to Australia, only to die on the return journey home when his ship was hit by a German U-boat in 1942. The family’s customers were apparently outraged at his treatment. To add to this distress, while the older generations might be interned, often the younger generations, who were born British citizens, would be conscripted into the British Armed Forces.

Both of Colombo’s sons were in the British Army and similarly, Antonio Marcantonio’s grandfather and great-uncle were interned, but their sons were made to enlist. Johnnie Parisella, as a British citizen also fought for the Allies in the 7th Battalion Kings Own Scottish Borderers, but managed to secure enough money by 1952 to buy the cafe on Front Street. He left behind his family’s fish and chip shop in Alnwick and took his new wife with him to Wingate.

After the disruptions of the Second World War, the Italian parlours experienced a resurgence. Many transformed themselves into diner-like hang-outs with new gadgets, such as soda-streams and cappuccino machines. Unusually, Johnnie decided to keep his old-fashioned booths, but did install a Juke Box.

This Juke Box probably became the cafe’s biggest attraction for the neighbourhood, as rock ‘n’ roll and the concept of the teenager reached the North East. One customer, James Cook, fondly remembers Elvis being played continuously and ‘the real hum’ that surrounded the place when the pubs closed for the night and everyone headed to Johnnie’s. The cafe continued to be a local landmark until Johnnie died in 2005, after which it has stayed untouched. Now its interior is one of the few surviving examples of traditional Italian ice cream parlour decor in the region.

The process of dismantling the interior fixtures of the cafe is a complex one. A record survey of the fittings and furnishing, as well as the building itself is underway and will result in a set of scaled drawings and photographs. Then the Beamish team will begin carefully removing the booths, panelling, display units and counter, with each individual piece being carefully marked and numbered so that it can be accurately reassembled. Further details may also be recorded, such as moulds being made of the plaster work above the panelling.

Eventually, the interior will be re-created in its full glory, as it would have appeared in the 1950s, inside a replica of the original terrace shop and will function as a cafe for Beamish’s visitors.

All of this effort is more than worth it, as beyond the wonderful fixtures, what the cafe really offers is the stories of the people who remember it. As is often true of the experiences of immigrant communities throughout history, the treatment of North East Italian families and their businesses by the native population reflected wider social and political concerns within the local area. But Johnnie’s menu shows how integrated the two cultures he belonged to became; as his customers could not only buy authentic Italian ice cream, but cups of hot Vimto and oxtail soup with beef crisps. Indeed, the cafe represents the histories of the Parisellas and other Italian immigrant families, alongside the lives of their customers and the habits of their local community.

The booths of the cafe are covered in the names and love-hearts of countless visitors and since publicising the move to Beamish we have been inundated with accounts of couples who met and courted at the cafe. People have written to us to tell us their memories of Johnnie’s as ‘a ‘second home’ and how so many social events were marked by a trip there.

With music playing, the mahogany and marble sparkling and ice creams on sale, we hope that the warmth and atmosphere of Johnnie’s will be felt once again. John’s Cafe, as it will of course still be called, will become part of the planned 1950s town at Beamish, portraying both the optimism and challenges of life in the North East following the Second World War.