Most people think that the Italian community in the Yarra Valley began in the post-war era. However, Italians have lived and worked in the Yarra Valley since the pioneer days and significantly were part of the district’s early wine industry and made up a large part of the workforce on the construction of the Silvan Dam, as well as running farms and businesses that contributed much to the area’s pre-WW2 agricultural industry.
I first became interested in the Italian history of the Valley while researching the history of the area during World War Two. I was very interested to learn about what happened to the established Italian community in this period. What happened to them when the country of their birth went to war with their adopted homeland. How did they cope as ‘enemy aliens’ and how did this restrict their lives? I was surprised at how they turned this around and made such a valuable contribution to Australia’s war effort. I am not Italian, but as a local historian I was interested in the stories of what was, and still is, a significant local community.
Some interesting information about the history of Italians in the Yarra Valley:
- It was an Italian, Pietro Cecchi, who gave Dame Nellie Melba her first professional singing lessons in Melbourne.
- The first Italians to come out to the Yarra Valley in large numbers were brought out here in the 1880’s by local wine makers to work on local vineyards
- The first Italian to be buried at the Lilydale Cemetery was Francesco Poli, who drowned in 1895 in the dam at Yeringberg while working there.
- One local Italian, Dominic Correicllo, enlisted in the AIF in World War One and was wounded in action at the battle of Pozieres.
- Many Italians were part of the workforce that created the Silvan Dam from 1926 to 1932 and appreciated the area so much they bought farms and settled in the district.
- It was Italians who nicknamed the Lilydale Hotel – the ‘White Dog Hotel’ – as they found Lilydale Hotel hard to pronounce and its owner had a white dog.
- It was an Italian stone mason, Celeste Sortiazza, who built the stone walls around Melba’s Coombe Cottage and at Melba Park.
- In 1938 Marion Lattanzi of Silvan was on the last ship, the SS Esquilino, allowed to come out to Australia before all immigration from Italy was stooped as a result of the war.
- With travel between Italy and Australia stopped during World War Two, many families became separated. Fiore Di Giovini didn’t get to see his family for ten years, in fact one daughter was born six months after he left Italy and she was nine years old when he first saw her.
Anthony McAleer – Yarra Valley historian, author La Terra Promessa.