The Antonelli Story
Domenico Antonelli was born in the village of Picinisco in the Province of Frosinone, Italy, in 1857. At an early age he was trained as a carpenter; later he was conscripted into the army and became a sergeant instructor marksman in the Bersaglieri Regiment. When he returned home to marry his wife Christina, work was so difficult to find that he decided to emigrate.
From Barrel Organs...
Travelling via Paris he arrived in London where he honed his skills as a cabinet maker, having worked in a furniture factory and Chiappa & Sons for nearly ten years. Once in London he became a member of the small, but growing, Italian community in Clerkenwell. The date by now was 1880, and he brought his woodworking craft into the manufacture of pianos: later he went into a brief and unsuccessful partnership under the name of 'Antonelli, Rossi and Spinelli' to make barrel organs.
Then came the move to Manchester where, in the Italian community of Ancoats, in 1894, he started his own organ factory, at 121 Great Ancoats Street. Here he and his six children, Ernesto, Luigi, Romolo, Julia, Vera and Dolly all thrived. So much so that he decided to expand his business into other areas; the family ran an Italian food and wine wholesale and retailing business from 55 Great Ancoats Street, and held the licence at the Astley Arms Hotel 1913-1915 - but as a non-drinker it did not go along with his concept of family life.
In 1901 Domenico was awarded a Royal Patent for a new method of installing barrels, which was to be a great time saver for the whole industry. Soon the demand for barrel organs required larger premises, and in 1901 he relocated to 59 Great Ancoats Street and 2-4 Blossom Street, which had previously been a furniture factory and was fully equipped. Domenico's two eldest sons Ernesto and Luigi attended the Manchester College of music and qualified as Associates of London College of Music, and in 1905 his third son Romolo joined the firm.
I believe that D.Antonelli & Sons were the only first line manufacturer in Ancoats to be able to produce Street Barrel Pianos from start to finish; all others produced organs or were agents for the London manufacturers and repairers, or repined barrels changing the original labels of manufacture for their own. The business continued to expand and now included automatic pianos with 'penny in the slot' supplied to public places, and in 1909 the business moved into 61 Great Ancoats Street. In addition to street music, the company was also involved in the production of cardboard books for operating fair ground organs. The quality of his pianos was recognized at international exhibitions with awards that included Bronze Medal in Milan 1906, Gold Medal in London 1910, and Silver Medal in Turin 1911.
...To Wafers and Biscuits
Although prolific, the life of the organ factory, however, was doomed. The coming of radio and cinema during the 1920s finally caused its closure and the the whole family effort was concentrated into the 'International Wafer Company' that they had started in Bridgewater Street, Salford, in 1912. Progress was rapid in this field and agents were appointed to distribute the by now famous 'International Wafers' and 'Sugaco' cones. Soon, all the other businesses were closed to prepare for a new factory that was to be the most modern purpose-built wafer and cone factory of its time. In 1926 the 'Progress Works' next to the Old Trafford County Cricket ground, Manchester, was completed. At this time the driving force was a combination of the three brothers with Domenico taking something of a back seat, without exactly retiring.
The next years saw a number of innovations: in 1928 the first table biscuit oven was installed and in 1932 the factory was enlarged to install one of the first two automatic biscuit band ovens for baking table biscuits. Table biscuits became of ever-increasing importance with the addition of the cream sandwich, chocolate enrobing and marshmallow tea-cake machines, and so in 1936 the company took the name 'The International Biscuit Co. Ltd'. As the second world war approached the biscuit business was booming (although in the ice cream biscuit field there was already a war raging of another kind: a price war), but all this came to an end in 1939. Manufacturing was then controlled by the allocation of materials by the Ministry of Food, but fortunately 'International' was one of the firms selected to bake army biscuits for "iron rations".
Antonellis and the Community
But business wasn't everything: Domenico also had the interests of the Italian community at heart. He joined the committee of the then 'Italian Catholic Society' and became their first president until 1934. In 1937 he was elected Honorary President and held office until the start of World War Two. Ernesto, and later Romolo, served as Treasurer to the society from 1924 until 1934, and Romolo again from 1937 until 1939. Romolo was responsible for the purchase of the ‘The Madonna and Child’ statue that he had seen at a religious artifact exhibition at the Monastery of Monte Cassino for £63-10s-6d in 1930, and which was carried for the first time in that year's procession. Domenico and Romolo organised the annual pilgrimage to Holywell for seven years from 1926 until 1932.
In 1913 the family formed The 'Star of Italy ' musical society, the aim being to produce a band of Italian Boys who could lead the annual procession. He chose the officers dress uniform of his old regiment, 'The Bersaglieri', which were specially purchased along with instruments out of his own funds. The following year, 30 boys proudly led by Domenico led the Italian Society in procession. The band was so successful not only for its originality, but also for the quality of its performance, that it was engaged by the British Army in its recruitment campaigns in Manchester and Birmingham. Unfortunately most of the boys were of military service age and left to serve in both the British and Italian Army, and the society was disbanded.
His contribution to the Italian community was recognised not only in Manchester but also in Italy, being awarded by the Italian government the 'Grand Cross of Merit' in 1914, and 'Star of Merit' in 1922, for his business success and for his social work within the Italian community, and 'Cavaliere della Corona D'Italia' - Knight of the Crown of Italy - in 1932, a then rare award for an Italian living abroad.
In 1943, at the age of 86, Domenico the much-respected elder stateman of the Manchester Italian colony died as peacefully as he had lived. There is little doubt that if it was not for his continual concern for the safety of his family and business as the bombs of the Second World war fell on Trafford Park, he would have enjoyed many more years of happy retirement.
When peace came, and controls were lifted, business was as before with an ever-increasing range of biscuits. On returning from their National Service, Romolo's three sons joined the business during 1952-54. By the late 1950s the factory had grown to 120,000 sq. ft. and was fully equipped with the most modern baking and processing machinery. But the market was changing and the absence of other members of their generation was making life difficult. Motivated by the urge to "progress", in 1961 Ernest, Roland and Victor moved on to start a new business in Eccles, Manchester, specialising in cones for ice cream. These were to be cones for the connoisseur: a quality biscuit, not just a container for ice cream but a tasteful addition to it.
In 1962 their father Romolo was privileged to be knighted 'Cavaliere' by the Italian Government, as their grandfather had been thirty years earlier. And the following year 'The International' was sold to 'Wrights Biscuits' (now part of 'United Biscuits') and the directors retired. Romolo, however, was invited to join the board as chairman of Antonelli Bros. Ltd., for even in retirement he was keenly interested in their small but industrious company. Although starting at 'The International', the brothers have pioneered the marketing of rolled sugar cones, under the trade mark 'Sugaco-Twist', in this country. The product is now growing in popularity as a factory-filled novelty.
*pictures and text © Roland Antonelli, not to be used without permission
All text and images (unless marked *) © Anthony Rea 2010 not to be used without permission. All rights reserved