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How did a descendant of a Swiss-Italian come to wear the chain of office of the Lord Mayor of the City of Westminster in London?

During a recent trip to Switzerland, the current Lord Mayor, Louise Hyams, exhibited the chain worn by Sir John Gatti, whose great uncle, Carlo Gatti, left his icy mark on the British capital.

The title accorded Gatti was in part recognition of the importance to London of his family, who started out very humbly only a few decades earlier.

The story began in 1847 following the arrival in the British capital of Sir John's great uncle, Carlo Gatti, who was originally from the Blenio valley in canton Ticino, and had spent several years unsuccessfully trying to earn a living in Paris.

Carlo's misfortunes were about to change because he had noticed a gap in the market of Victorian England.

By the mid-19th century the English middle classes were becoming larger and more prosperous. And with this newfound wealth they were also becoming more demanding.

They wanted elegant and reasonably priced places where they could take their wives and families. They also wanted something a little bit ritzy.

French-style

Carlo Gatti had the perfect solution. He would introduce French-style cafés with their three distinct elements: good quality coffee and food; plush interiors and live music.

With his emphasis on food and friendliness, Carlo Gatti was in the vanguard of creating family restaurants where women could feel welcome, according to writer Peter Barber.

Barber is one of the authors of Continental Taste, a publication that sets out the tremendous influence Ticinese emigrants had on London society from the mid-19th century.

Carlo did not have the finances initially to realise his project. So he picked up where he had left off in Paris, selling French-style wafers or gaufres, and hot chestnuts in the winter – something the Swiss-Italians had been doing in Italy for centuries.

Before long Carlo had earned enough money to open his first French-style café in the Great Hall of Hungerford Market, which would later be demolished to make way for Charing Cross station.

Carlo continued to expand his small business empire, opening more cafés, a chocolate factory and was at the forefront of selling ice cream to the masses.

"In those days ice cream was a prized delicacy for the upper classes," Barber said. "But Carlo seems to have begun the large-scale manufacture of ice cream, which was sold in the streets, in glasses, at a penny or halfpenny a time.

"By 1858 he claimed to have sold up to ten thousand penny ices a day."

Dynasty

The leading members of the next generation were Agostino and Stefano Gatti, the sons of Carlo's older brother Giovanni. In their teens they worked as waiters in their uncle's cafés in Hungerford Market.

Agostino, the older brother, was a good restaurateur and before long had branched out on his own. His Royal Adelaide Gallery, just off the Strand in central London, was regarded as the greatest restaurant of its day, employing more than 200 Ticinese cooks and waiters.

Stefano was the artistic younger brother, and from the 1860s he began hiring music halls in Covent Garden for promenade concerts and big musical shows. The proceeds from this allowed the two brothers to purchase the 1,500-seat Adelphi theatre on the Strand, which in Victorian times was one of the most elegant streets in London.

The brothers soon realised that to sell tickets and be successful theatre entrepreneurs they would have to invest in electricity. Gas lanterns were no longer sufficient.

The council refused to lay the cables. Undeterred, Agostino and Stefano employed their waiters to help build an electricity substation alongside the Adelphi theatre.

Powerful figures

But this initial victory resulted in more trouble. "A 19th century sub-station creates an awful lot of noise. And it wasn't long before the proprietor of the Vaudeville theatre next door was complaining," explained Barber.

"He demanded the Gattis closed it down. So they trumped that and bought him out."

The second generation of Gattis had now become influential figures in the restaurant trade, as theatre entrepreneurs and in the electricity business. They were soon offering their power to the West End as a whole and before long were the main suppliers of electricity to that part of London.

The next step was to build an even bigger power station in East London. "Until nationalisation in 1948 the Gatti brothers operated the largest electricity company in southeastern England," Barber said.

Sadly, by the 1880s rifts were starting to show in the Gatti family, as the brothers' restaurants and theatres were competing with those of Carlo's heirs.

But the family's influence was far from over. Agostino's son, John, made his mark in politics serving as Lord Mayor of Westminster in 1911.

swissinfo, Andrew Littlejohn in London

John Gatti

Born Giovanni Maria Emilio in Switzerland in 1872, John Gatti was possibly one of the first family members to feel that his home was in England.

While both his father Agostino and uncle Stefano were active in the cantonal and even federal parliaments in Switzerland, John developed an appetite for British politics.

As the Gatti business empire continued to expand, they needed to collaborate constantly with the authorities and this led John to embark on his political career in London.

A Westminster councillor from 1906, he was elected mayor of the borough in 1911.

He went on to serve as chairman of the finance committee of London county council, and was responsible for the finances of more people than there were in the whole of Switzerland.

He was knighted in 1928.



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