News / Ask the Expert – Italian ancestors

Ask the Expert – Italian ancestors

Stephen Rigden, findmypast's resident expert

Our expert Stephen Rigden, pictured, answers your questions.

From Victoria Hopkins in Norwich:

‘I’m trying to discover what happened to my stepmum’s grandfather Vasco Agolini (born c.1882) and his wife Elena Agolini (nee Gawlowska, born c.1885). The only papertrace I can find of them in the UK is the births of their two children, one in Cardiff (Yolanda b.1913) and one in Southport (Elenora b.1914).

The ship’s manifest of the Demerera sailing from Liverpool in 1915 has Vasco’s name on it…but it is crossed through! Does that mean he didn’t board the ship? I thought maybe he was interned but I understand these records were lost in WW2 incendiary raids. I really don’t know where to turn next. ‘

Steve says:

‘Thanks for your question.

It is hard to know what to propose next, as I cannot tell from your email what else you know about Vasco and his wife Elena after WW1. There are so many options: Vasco may have remained in the UK but changed his name, or he may have emigrated, or he could have returned to his native Italy.

From your email, it seems likely that Vasco and Elena were very recent arrivals in England – particularly if you cannot find them on the 1911 census. It may also be the case that they were itinerant, which would add to the difficulty of tracking down documentary evidence of them.

The passenger list you refer to shows Vasco Agolini, aged 33, an Italian artist booked to travel 2nd class with a group of artists (presumably theatrical or music hall performers rather than fine art painters) on the SS Demerara from Liverpool to Buenos Aires in May 1915. He is on a page of the list for alien passengers, so had not naturalised at that time – he is still a subject of the Kingdom of Italy. The group were going on tour rather than intending to emigrate, as the last column of the list shows their ‘country of intended future permanent residence’ as England.

Other pages of the same passenger list show more artists, both alien and British, travelling to Buenos Aires, several of whom are struck out in pencil as is Vasco. I agree that this suggests that he did not sail – perhaps because he missed the boat accidentally, perhaps because of a deliberate change of heart given the conditions of wartime and the fact of his wife and young children.

An Italian such as Vasco would technically have been an enemy alien during WW1, irrespective of his personal politics, and, therefore, subject to internment. It is generally thought that very few records survive, although there are various series at The National Archives (which is always the first place to look for nationally significant records). See TNA’s helpful Research Guide on Internees for more details. Another online resource worth checking for the availability of records is Access To Archives, hosted by TNA – this enables you to check nationwide across the holdings of participating archives.

It might also be worth checking speculatively the local record offices and reference libraries in the Southport and general Merseyside region in case they hold anything on local enemy internees. The well-known internment camps on the Isle of Man would have been nearby but unfortunately there is very little individual name level information surviving – click here (PDF) for more information.

There are references to records held by the International Red Cross but I have no information as to whether these are searchable in practice. Finally, you should consider contacting the Anglo-Italian Family History Society in case they have any suggestions for you.’

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