Migrant workers from Ticino were already present in Britain and Ireland in the early 18th century.
The first to arrive were plaster workers who decorated English and Irish churches and homes. They were followed in the early 19th century by glaziers and barometer makers.
Both groups came from lower Ticino, known as the "Sottoceneri". However, neither group numbered more than a few hundred people.
Mass migration started in earnest after 1847 when Carlo Gatti, originally from the hamlet of Marogno near Dongio in the Blenio valley, travelled to London from Paris and introduced cheap ice creams in Britain.
It only took Gatti a few years to establish a number of French-style cafés in London. Over the following decades he recruited relations and residents from other villages in the Val di Blenio and in the Valle Leventina as waiters and chefs. He also acted as an agent for Ticinesi who travelled to Australia from Liverpool.
From 1860 Carlo Gatti and his close relatives rebuilt their cafés as large café-restaurants and extended their interests to other sectors.
Ticinesi were recruited to assist with all of these enterprises, and in related trades with several becoming fishmongers. Most, however, continued to work in the restaurant business and the Gattis increasingly gave loans to successful chefs and waiters so that they could rent premises of their own in which to open their own café-restaurants.
"From Gattis" was often written on the fascias of these places, which had some of the characteristics of modern restaurant chains.
Elegant and humble
Initially the Ticinesi seem mainly to have come to London after working for some years in Paris but after the opening of the Gothard Tunnel in 1882 they arrived straight from Ticino.
By 1900 there were hundreds of Ticinesi restaurants throughout Britain, particularly in London and in towns along the south coast.
They ranged from extremely elegant establishments in the West End of London to humble cafés and sandwich bars in the suburbs.
In 1874 the Unione Ticinese, was founded as a Benevolent Society for Ticinese waiters and has since become a club for all Ticinesi, descendants of Ticinese immigrants and for all people with a special interest in Ticino.
The tide of immigration began to decline after the enactment of the Aliens Act in 1905.
The last Ticinese café-restaurant closed in 1987 but descendants of the Ticinesi are now represented in most fields of British life including parliament, the armed forces, education and journalism.
Text by Peter Barber, co-author of Continental Taste, Ticinese emigrants and their Café-Restaurants in Britain
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