Why Sunderland netties have a link to Italy

Greg and Sandra shortly before they married - a photograph taken on the North-East  coast.
Greg and Sandra shortly before they married - a photograph taken on the North-East coast.

Sandra Laws’ story of life among the olive groves of Italy prompted great interest among Wearside Echoes readers.

But we were keen to find out more about her Wearside roots.

The couple's farmhouse view of the Adriatic Sea.

The couple's farmhouse view of the Adriatic Sea.

And in a second article, she re-lived her childhood – and revealed how Italian connections were all around her even in Sunderland.

When Sandra and Greg Laws wake up, they look across their olive groves to see the sun rising and sparkling on the Adriatic Sea.

But looking back, Sandra remembers 1960s and 1970s Sunderland and sees the similarities between a rural Italy and the big Italian influences on Sunderland and the North East.

From the early Italian immigrants who lived in areas such as the East End in Sunderland, Italian prisoners of war who filled labour camps in the North East, through to post war skilled Italians who began lots of Italian eateries.

After I got my wage packet on Fridays, me and my friends would sometimes go to nightclubs - sneak home in the early hours by catching the 4am miners bus that stopped at Park Lane

Sandra Laws

Sandra’s Nanna lived in Sunniside, Houghton, and had an outside ‘nettie’.

Read more: Your memories of a Sunderland shop which was all the fashion

Did you know, the word is assumed to have come from the plural Italian word Gabinetti, which means toilets.

Italian influence is everywhere in and around Sunderland. She remembers the ‘Bis Bar’ in Park Lane which was Italian owned, an Italian barber called Tony Mincella, one of the Mincella family who lived near Sandra in Farringdon, Notriani’s ice cream parlour.

Greg and Sandra sitting outside their Italian farmhouse bed and breakfast.

Greg and Sandra sitting outside their Italian farmhouse bed and breakfast.

The Valelli family were all good friends of her Mam and Dad. Some lived in Farringdon. There were Italian restaurants and later take-aways, and Michael Quadrini’s floating nightclub the ‘Tuxedo Princess’.

Sandra recalls in her younger years, after she received her weekly cash wage packet on Fridays, she would sometimes go to nightclubs; La Strada (Italian words which translate as The Street/Road); Wetherills; The Rink (re-named The Fusion) and The Mecca – sneaking home by catching the 4am miners’ bus that stopped at Park Lane so she and friends did not have to do the walk home.

But it wasn’t all partying when Sandra in the 1970’s worked as a GPO telephonist in the Sunderland telephone exchange. There was an IRA bomb threat and she was one of a handful of operators who volunteered to stay and take the risk because they felt they could not leave the emergency telephone service unmanned as no one would be able to get police, fire or ambulance assistance.

Luckily the threat turned out to be a hoax.

She also remembers there was a fire in the exchange building and she was having her break on the top floor.

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“Someone looked in and said to the few operators in the canteen that there was a fire on the second floor which was under control but they could leave if they wanted to. The fire spread and the few left in the canteen had to eventually exit down a smoke filled stairway choking with the smoke with firefighters helping them to reach outside.”

In another great memory, Sandra recalled: “On Saturday afternoons – when Sunderland were playing at Roker Park – a Grandstand reporter would telephone his report live on TV and the reporter would say – ‘no pips’ at three minutes because it was live and no listening in. The operator taking the call would listen in because we all wanted to know the score and shouted the score to the other operators.”

When Sandra’s dad Arthur Laws, who also worked for the GPO, died at the age of 56, his fellow workers lined up their little yellow GPO telephone vans in tribute as the cortege passed to the crematorium.

We’ll have more of Arthur in our next instalment, but here’s another memory from Sandra. Or more specifically from her nannas and another similarity to Italy.

More nostalgia: She lives among the olive groves of Italy - but what does this former Wearside woman miss most about Sunderland?

With not much money to live on as a young mother of two daughters, Sandra’s nanna taught her how to ‘make meals out of nothing like soups, stews, pies’.

Sandra added: “The similar Cucina Povere (poor kitchen) is also widely found in this part of Italy. Here you do not have the extensive choice of ingredients you find in UK supermarkets and can only buy what’s in season so it limits you to what you can cook.

“We always eat Italian food and particularly my own recipe minestrone soup is greatly admired by our Italian and English friends.”

There’s much more to come from a Farringdon lass in Italy next week.