Establishing the New Italy settlement

It was just over one year following their arrival in Sydney Harbour, after fulfilling Henry Parkes’ decree to work amongst the colonies of New South Wales, when expedition families were introduced to land in the Richmond River Valley. The northern Rivers was the last region in the colony still available for selection, and this was ‘left over’ land that other colonists had rejected. The 19th century observer of New Italy, Frederick Clifford, calculated that 3,030 acres was taken up by 34 Italian families between 1882 and 1888. They had been joined by other Italians, who were not expedition survivors. By 1887 the settlement numbered 202 people, (99 adults, and 103 children under 16).

The Italians brought their agricultural traditions and practices from their homeland. Unlike the broad-scale agriculture of surrounding properties, they intensively farmed small, agricultural plots of vegetables and some crops, developed orchards and planted vineyards with cuttings they brought from Italy. They kept pigs for salami making, house cows, and poultry. However, the soil for cropping was barren and the first years were very hard.

Members of the New Italy Settlement. Photographer Joseph Check c1896
Reproduced with permission of CoAslt – Italian Historical Society: courtesy State Library NSW

Reflecting on his first visit, Clifford noted: Italians toiled from sunrise until dark. Men, women and children were either using hoe or axe. The land was poor. No spread of ink could overcome its poverty, or keep the stock alive. Of the few cows and horses bought with the earnings made at sleeper-making or sugar cane cutting, many have died during the last two years.

Rocco Caminiti – Courtesy RRHS

It was Rocco Caminiti, a fellow Italian, who first alerted the Marquis de Ray survivors of available land in Northern New South Wales. Antonio Pezzutti, Pietro Mazzer and he, selected the first blocks. Rocco married Catherina Gala, whose father Giovanni had died in Port Breton.

A diversifying community: Multicultural New Italy.

The isolated community was almost entirely Italian in its founding year. However, as early as 1883, they were joined by the Irish family of John and Ann Flatley. In 1887, the Fleet family arrived from northern Scotland and by 1900, the Williams were settling in.

Demonstration Day at New Italy School 22 August 1910. Note the new iron roof and water tank.

After the school opened in 1885, they were Roman Catholic Italians, Irish Catholics, Presbyterian Scots, and a couple of aboriginal children, taught by a Frenchman. As the second generation of Italians learned English and grew older, intermarriage across ethnic and religious divides created a rich multicultural community. In 1898, the last names of the 232 residents included Tunstead, Duffy and Flynn.

Chipping and digging – memories from childhood

What were you doing when you were eight? Augusta Piccoli born Roder grew up at New Italy. That is her family in front of the wooden loom. Remembering her childhood, she said: “We used to go out chipping and digging – I suppose we were eight, nine, 10. We had to work. As soon as kids got big enough that they could hold the handle of a hoe, we used to go out amongst the corn and potatoes.

Wool Spinning

Seed Collecting

Free Selection: land tenure in colonial New South Wales

Title to land in colonial New South Wales required that settlers build, and live, on their property. So the New Italy settlement was spread across the landscape rather than forming a tight village structure. From here it was 4 km to the next cluster of buildings – the Catholic Church, the Nardis’ wine, shop and community hall. 2 km further on stood the school and the Pezzutti/Pedrini post office and store/wine shop.

As the settlers began leaving New Italy in increasing numbers from the early 1900s, they dismantled and rebuilt dwellings on their next properties. The church blew down in a cyclone and the deserted pise homes eventually crumble back into the earth. Nothing remains to be seen of any of the buildings.

The Crown Lands Acts of 1861, also known as the Robertson Land Acts, open public, (Crown) lands in designated regions for the selection of small-scale farming blocks between 40 and 320 acres. Until that time landed been ‘locked up’ under the vast leases of the squatters. ‘Free Selection’ meant the ability for those little capital to purchase unsurveyed land at 1 pound per acre, under a deposit.

The balance of the purchase was meant to be paid to the government treasurer after three years. However, in practice, payments could be made annually at 5% interest. It often took between 20 and 30 years before freehold title to the land was eventually granted. All the original land at New Italy was purchased through this process.

Making a living: at home and away

Valiant attempts were made to produce cash crops and develop other industries that would have allowed everyone to stay in the settlement. The Pedrinis, Piccolis and others made money from selling couch and carpet grass seed. It was a laborious industry, cutting the grass with their scythes, drying and sieving the seed and bagging it for the Sydney market. Angelo Roder reared sheep, but the climate was too wet for their long-term survival. As dairying across the region increased from the 1890s, the Morandini’s were the first at New Italy who could buy enough land, to run a commercial dairy. Others followed.

Morandinis with their children.

However, the soil was too poor and their selections, too small to enable most families, their dreams of self-sufficiency. Women and children worked the gardens and fields at home, while the able-bodied men and boys worked away for up to 6 months of the year. For example, teams of New Italy, men cut sugarcane on the Clarence, Richmond and the Alstonville Plateau or worked at the Broadwater Mill. Three cane knives are displayed on the wall in front of you.


A tool should do at least half the work.

This was a harsh landscape to mould into the imagined farming community of the Italian settlers’ dreams. However, just like the colonists before them who cleared the original forests, the men, women and children of New Italy created their homes using the resources around them, their multiskilling and the tools that made it possible.

Many of the tools on this wall were multipurpose – used to cut down the timber, make the built structures and bring money into the community. Crosscut saws and axes were used to clear the timber that was then used for building the houses and for cutting into sleepers for sale to Melbourne and Sydney markets. To your left, the broad or squaring axe, made either as left or right handed, was flat on one side to cut/square the edges of the logged timber to make beams and rafters or sleepers. The adze then smoothed the log face so that moisture couldn’t penetrate any chunks left by the squaring axe. The morticing axe made the hole or mortice into which another length of wood was fitted. These were the same tools used to make the post and rail fences that surrounded each farm, like the one standing on the Pacific Highway side of this property.

Look above – these are augers that were twisted into the wood to drill a hole. The wooden mallet on the right was used to pound joints into place when assembling post and beam structures or to hit the shingle cutter below it. And imagine having to lean all your weight onto the breast drill and hand-turn to make a hole in metal. Below that is a maul, with its large wooden head and metal handle. One of its many uses was to belt a metal wedge into a log to split off narrow shingles for roofing, as demonstrated at your feet.

All the early cottages were made of wooden slabs with shingle roofs. Later, a few families built two-story pise or mud houses in a style reminiscent of their homeland – like the replica of the Antoniollis’ house and store, here in the museum complex. The mud came from a corner of the Pezzuttis’ property. Most properties had a mud-built well, their only water supply in the early days as there were no permanent creeks or bores. And even the timber cottages often had a mud-walled cellar to keep their salamis, cheeses and other produce cool.


Portable blacksmiths Forge.

This forge was used by the blacksmith to heat a piece of metal, so it became hot and soft enough to shape. Air was forced up through the rotary blower by pumping the wooden handle, heating up the black coal, coke or charcoal in the pan until it was red hot. The heated metal was then transported back and forth between the forge, and anvil, using the tongs, as it was hammered into shape. Using thieves, implements, the blacksmith or his assistant could make and repair horse shoes, hand tools, metal rims for wagon and sulky wheels, parts for ploughs, or the metal sections of horse and bullock harnesses.

Blacksmith and sawmiller, John (Giacomo) Rosolen – this anvil was owned by John/Jack Rosolen, blacksmith and wheelwright at New Italy from 1900. He operated a sawmill on his selection until 1916, employing bullock teamsters, including the Tunstead brothers, Nobby Perkins and Bill Druid.