Story: Italians

Page 3. Migration chains

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Patterns of migration

The 1890s saw the beginning of village-based trails from rural Italy to several locations in New Zealand. These would characterise Italian immigration until the late 1960s.

As government policy allowed southern Europeans to nominate relatives up to first cousins, immigrants would encourage family members to come, offering work and accommodation, and frequently the fare. Over time, close-knit communities developed, sharing the bonds of kinship and a common village or region back in Italy.

Often, a married man would come to New Zealand, earn enough to build a house, and bring out his wife; sometimes she could wait 10 years before joining her husband. Single men would also return to marry, and bring their wives back. Before the Second World War it was rare to bring out children.

From around 1900, several settlements developed from migration chains.

Wellington: fishing

In the 1890s the Russo family arrived from the volcanic island of Stromboli. They began fishing at Eastbourne, buying land and establishing a small village. Around 1900, 12 ex-gold miners, also from Stromboli, started fishing at Island Bay, which was more sheltered. By the 1920s the Eastbourne contingent began to join them, and relatives of both groups continued to arrive from Stromboli and Massa Lubrense, near Naples, into the 1950s. They worked mainly as fishermen or fish retailers. The Little Italy of Island Bay was still active in the early 2000s.

Tears for Stromboli

'The day she left, Caterina did not move from the boat deck until the island was no longer visible – she cried inconsolably. On leaving Italy she cried again, continuing to do so throughout the journey to New Zealand. When she arrived in Wellington she really did feel as if she had reached "la fine del mondo" – the end of the earth.' 1

Nelson: tomato growing

Giacomo Persico, of Massa Lubrense, came to Nelson in the early 1900s, and a smaller chain originating in Potenza began in 1915. These two groups settled in The Wood, which became a major tomato-growing community.

Taranaki: dairy farming

In the early 1890s a group of South Island gold miners, originally from northern Italy’s Valtellina valley, moved to the kauri gumfields in Northland. Later, some became dairy farmers in Taranaki. This chain continued until the Second World War.

Hutt Valley: market gardening

From the turn of the century, a chain ran from Pistoia in Tuscany, and Belluno in the Veneto, to the fertile Hutt Valley. By the 1920s the community was supplying Wellington’s fruit and vegetable markets. However, from the mid-1940s the government began to buy the land for housing, and many gardeners sold up.

West Coast: mining

From 1910 until the early 1960s, northern Italian miners from Belluno, Vicenza and Conco settled in the West Coast coalmining towns of Rūnanga and Rapahoe.

Other chains

There were also several minor chains based on work:

  • In 1918, 29 street and cinema musicians, mostly from Viggiano and other towns in the southern province of Potenza, were working in New Zealand.
  • Small groups came from Massa Lubrense to Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay (fishing, orchards, farming), and from Stromboli to D’Urville Island (sheep farming).
  • Early migrants from Florence and Tuscany took up dairying, grape growing and market gardening near Levin and at Shannon. As late as 1968 there were 20 small Italian farms in the Horowhenua region.
  • Between 1920 and 1925 a group of northern Italians, many of them stone workers from Treviso and Udine, came to Auckland. They manufactured terrazzo, a flooring material made of marble or stone chips set in mortar. This migration chain died down after the 1950s, but it was the only one with national dominance in an occupation: even in 1966, 72% of all terrazzo workers were Italian.
  1. Dion Page, ed, Famiglie strombolani in Nuova Zelanda, p. 124. › Back
How to cite this page:

Tessa Copland, 'Italians - Migration chains', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 October 2023)

Story by Tessa Copland, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015