For about sixty-six years, the Sons of Gwalia mine supported the population of the town of Gwalia a and Leonora which was three kilometres away. In 1936, approximately 40 per cent of Gwalia’s inhabitants were Italians, 20 per cent Yugoslavs and other southern Europeans. Only about 40 per cent were Australians, who were referred to as ‘Britishers’.
The woodcutters and workers on the wood-line, which provided wood for the mine, were nearly all southern Europeans. The Slavs were mainly single men or their families lived their home countries. They tended to socialise together and mostly kept to themselves. However, many of the Italians had their families with them. This resulted in a more settled community, and they integrated well with the other cultures within the community.
The Mazza, Columbo, Calneggia, Valli, Pozzi, Piandelli, Zappa, Richetti, Varischetti, Mosconi, Petroni, Togni, Delaqua, Franchina, Pedrochi, and the Tagliaferri families formed the core of the Italian population at Gwalia for many years. The Quartis were the best-known part-Italian family. At Leonora, there were only two Italian families -the Pollettis and the Fannettis, who both owned market gardens near the town. The Guidicis had a poultry farm six kilometres from Leonora.
The Britishers had all of the staff positions and most of the surface jobs on the Gwalia mine. A few were· employed underground, but most of the machine-miners and labourers were Italians or Slavs. They were good workers who generally took pride in their hazardous occupation.
The Sons of Gwalia mine was considered dangerous, particularly in its early years, and many Italians killed in underground accidents lie buried in the cemetery behind Mount Leonora.
A miner’s death affected everyone in the town. If the dead man had not been blown to pieces or too severely crushed in a rock-fall, he would be dressed in his best suit and laid out in a coffin at home ready for his friends to pay their last respects. After a big funeral, most of his countrymen and fellow workers usually got very drunk, discussed the deceased’s virtues, shed their tears, and then went back to work where they faced the same hazards that killed their friend.
The staff lived in comfortable houses on the hill. Apart from a few other well-constructed houses in Gwalia, the rest of the community, including the Italians, lived in modest corrugated-iron houses lined with hessian.
There were only two streets in the town. Tower Street followed the road from Leonora and Otterburn Street was near the post office. Other houses and camps were built along virtual tracks while the rest were simply put up where the owner fancied. One man who intended building at Gwalia sought permission from the secretary of the roads board in Leonora. He was told that he could build wherever he liked provided that he did not position his lavatory too near someone’s bay window. This was a facetious condition, as nearly all the windows in the little cottages were small and of the sash variety.
The householders painted their hessian walls with whitewash and were sometimes tinted slightly. The favourite shades were pink or blue.
A few homes, including Mazzas’ boarding house, boasted some unique interior decorations. A man nicknamed Angelo Viva, (‘Angelo alive’, after Michelangelo) carried out this work in the 1920s. He worked by dipping a sponge in mixtures of different colours and dabbing it all over the ceiling in designs or floral patterns. The ceiling of the Mazzas’ large dining-room was decorated with a pattern executed in reds, blues, and pinks.
Most of the Italians built a bough-shed near their homes. They were pleasant places for relaxing in on hot days. When Alma Shepherd and Tottie Dyer recalled their childhood in Gwalia, they remembered the envy that many of the Australian children felt for the Italians with their bough-sheds. Their parents considered bough-sheds a fire risk and would not build them near their houses. Some of Alma’s and Tottie’s happiest memories of Gwalia were of the sound of music and singing coming from the bough-sheds on holidays or at weekends. Indeed, my childhood memories of Gwalia are similar. The sounds of rhythmic guitars, accordions, and voices wafting through my bedroom window often lulled me to sleep at night.
A trio of Italian musicians visited Gwalia during the Depression years. One played a full-sized harp, another a violin, and the third a piano-accordion. The three men were extremely talented and very enthusiastically received in the town. There was also a very good local string band who generally played at one, or more, of the nine or ten sly-grog shanties in the town. The music attracted the crowd but if the owner refused to give the players as much free beer as they wanted, they would then move on, taking many of the customers with them.
The crowd usually finished their evening at a sly-grog house on a little rocky rise, called the Broken Hill. According to one man, it was named after the proprietor’s home town of Broken Hill, while another claimed it was inspired by the number of bones broken by customers as they stumbled and fell over the rough terrain on their way home. The owner kept his customers entertained with a one-man-band act: he played the accordion while at the same time beating a drum with his foot. One of those who patronised the Broken Hill said: ‘We danced like steam up there and they made a fortune. They made their grappa and they had their brandy and whisky and if anyone was sober and ordered either of these drinks he’d get what he asked for but if he was drunk he’d get one that was watered down. The drunker he got the weaker the drink became’.
My informant found grappa ‘horrible stuff and estimated it to be about 98 per cent alcohol: ‘A little bit in coffee might be O.K. but not drunk alone. I couldn’t tell the difference between methylated spirit and grappa ‘. The Italians drank a fair amount of claret but also developed a taste for Australian beer. As one Italian told me, ‘It would be madness to drink the same amount of wine in a hot climate as in the cold’. One popular drink was made by whisking eggs with milk, sugar, and claret; another was a combination of coffee, milk, cheese, wine, and butter.
While pasta was an important part of the Italians’ menu, one of their favourite foods was a dish called ‘Little Birds and Polenta ‘. Renzo assured me, ‘You’ve never tasted anything like it! It’s fit for a king’ and continued: “In Italy where there isn’t as much game as here, a man would chase one of the little birds, we’d call a grundy, all day with a gun until he caught it. He’d put that in the fridge and then go out again the next day and so on until he had caught enough to make the Little Birds and Polenta. The birds are best stewed gently in an iron pot with plenty of butter and some wine until there are lots of gravy.”
The polenta was made with maize flour, boiling water, lumps of cheese, and salt and pepper. It looked ‘just like a boiled pudding’ when cooked and was cut in slices and eaten with the stewed birds. Large birds were also used to make this dish. Pigeons were kept by many Italians for eating purposes and galahs, too, were considered a delicacy.
In the early years, it seemed that nearly all of the Italians in the district owned guns and used them when galahs flew over. One of their favourite early morning flight-paths was over a section to the east and south of the Gwalia mine known as Little Italy. They were on their way from Clover Downs station to an area where they could get plenty of ‘double-gees’, three-cornered prickles containing a seed which they coveted. As they flew over the Italians’ houses and camps the sound of gunfire would follow them: ‘It sounded just like a war!’
Goats were part of the Italian diet. Most owners would let them roam, grazing freely, during the day and shut them up at night. This practice often led to problems as many an irate housewife was forced to chase away goats that were sampling washing from her clothes-line.
There was the infamous goat story involving Peg-legJack, an Italian who lost part of a leg in a mine accident. After the accident, he was employed around the staff houses as a messenger and handyman. He was at work one day when his daughter, recently arrived from Italy, rushed up to the mine and spoke to him excitedly in Italian. He immediately climbed into his sulky and galloped the horse down the hill to his home. It appears that he had left a £5 note on the kitchen table ready for his daughter to go shopping with but a pet nanny goat had taken a fancy to the money and eaten it. Peg-leg wasted no time. He killed the goat, retrieved the chewed-up note from the animal’s stomach, and took it to the bank where he was given a new £5 note in exchange. The goat was made into sausages.
Good Italian sausages were made by Bernardo, ‘Barney’, Mazza, He kept a mob of goats at ‘the Garden’, about 5 kilometres from town. He made as many as 160 kilograms of sausages a fortnight and sold them to his customers for 2 · shillings per 450 grams. The Italians on the wood-line were some of his best customers. In the sausage mixture, he used a ratio of one pig to about fifteen goats.
Barney Mazza stabled his herd at night and let them out each morning, to drink their fill and then follow their leader to graze in the bush until the evening when they returned home again. This ritual was upset at times of heavy rain when the goats no longer needed to return for water and stayed out in the bush. Barney would then offer Aborigines 1 shilling for each goat they could find and bring in. Sometimes they would return with an extra hundred or two, a bonus for Mr Mazza and themselves.
The Italians spent a lot of their leisure time playing games. Brothers Lorenzo and Dino Mazza remember their childhood in the years before the Second World War. The miners worked three shifts and after eating their meals at one of the boarding-houses -Petronis, Mazzas, or Mosconis – they would often go outside and take part in a tug-of-war contest, scratch-pulling, long-and high-jumping, or throwing weights.
The national game, bocce -a type of bowls game – was immensely popular. There were five bocce grounds in Gwalia and one at the wood-line camp. Each time the wood-line workers moved on to a new cutting area they would soon prepare a new bocce ground. They mixed clay with gravel and earth, then wet the ground and rolled it, or scraped it until it was beautifully smooth. The ground was framed with wood, usually railway sleepers, with higher sections at each end.
Two Gwalia men, Columbo and Maninetti, both proficient at bocce, started playing for money early one evening at a ground lit with electricity. The game was still in progress when the miners were walking home from afternoon shift, at about 11.30 p.m. Maninetti had run out of cash and offered to stake the camp which Columbo rented from him. The electric lights went off at midnight, as was the custom at that time, so the miners set up their carbide lamps around the wooden wall to enable the men to finish their marathon game. Maninetti lost, but only temporarily lost the camp too, as the two men often played for it.
Gambling was very prevalent among the Italians, with card games and two-up particularly favoured. Some regular two-up games were held but there were many impromptu games as well. In the early days, there was a priest in Gwalia who loved two-up. This made him a popular figure among some of his parishioners as he often cut his services short so that he could join in a game. One day the priest was playing two-up in a school in the town when some of the players heard horses approaching and saw two mounted policemen heading towards them. The game broke up immediately, with men scattering in all directions. The priest shut himself in the nearest lavatory and when a policeman opened the door he saw the Father sitting on the seat, his trousers still buttoned, innocently reading a paper.
In the 1930s the ‘commission game’ made a brief appearance in Gwalia. The organisers laid out their tables for the two-up dice game in the gaming house, which was practically in the centre of town. Their commission was one-and-sixpence in the pound. The game started on Friday night and by Sunday ‘the town was broke’. One ‘six-foot-four fellow with a Hitler moustache’ lost his money week after week. Then one day after work he walked into the back-yard of the gaming house, grabbed an axe that was lying near the wood-heap and broke the back door down. He then went inside where the tables were all set up, smashed into them with the axe, broke up all the seats, and put holes in the floor. That was the end of the commission game.
There was surprisingly little violence within the Gwalia community. There were only a few rare political disturbances, notably between the Italian Fascists and Socialists. Most of the Gwalia Italians had been Socialists, or ‘redshirts’, in Italy. When a few Fascists or ‘blackshirts’ arrived in town, the ‘redshirts’ gave them the treatment. This consisted of forcing castor-oil down the unwilling victim’s throat. If he protested too violently he had his mouth and lips cut with the jagged edge of the bottle, which had been opened by smashing the top off.
Milano, also known as ‘Burglar Bill’, was one of several Socialists who always wore a red shirt on Labour Day. This day was a special occasion at Gwalia where a picnic sports day was held at the recreation ground. Milano’s main role was as a type of Robin Hood, always willing to help others although often at someone else’s expense. One who knew him explained:
‘Say for argument’s sake he’d go to your place and do a job
and there’d be no shovel. He’d say, ‘I’ll get you one’, and then come to my place and pinch my shovel and give it to you. The next time he’d probably take your rake and give it to me. Most people probably broke even.’
For all this, Milano was a very popular man. At one time he broke in horses for use underground in the Sons of Gwalia mine. About a dozen of these horses were used to pull the oretrucks along the rails underground. When they had been broken in, Milano took them down to accustom them to their work and the darkness. They would probably live underground for the rest of their lives. Horses were used for this work for about half a century until they were replaced, in the mid-1950s, by electric locomotives.
During 1963 the mine owners decided that the ore was too uneconomical to bring to the surface and process, so in December of that year the mine closed down. The population of the town diminished rapidly until there were only a few people left.
Many of the old Italians who once lived at Gwalia have died but their children are living in various places in Australia. Their children are often told stories by their parents and grandparents of the good old days at Gwalia.
First published in Colourful Tales of the Western Australian Goldfields, in 1980 by Norma King. Edited by Lorraine Kelly 19/11/2019