When Britain fell for Garibaldi | Latest Brexit news and top stories

PUBLISHED: 07:00 18 March 2019

Patrick Sawer

Garibaldi‘s visit to London in 1864 drew huge crowds. Picture: Getty Images


Every schoolchild south of the Alps knows the names of the Holy Trinity which gave birth to the Italian nation. No, not the father, son and Holy Ghost – though that remains inculcated in the country’s Catholic catechism – but Garibaldi, Mazzini and Cavour; the soldier, the revolutionary and the statesman who made Italy. And in the public eye, it is Giuseppe Garibaldi who still stands head and shoulders above his comrades in the long struggle for the reunification of the peninsula that spanned the four decades between 1830 and 1871.

Statues of Garibaldi adorn the squares of most small Italian towns and cities, and countless streets and boulevards are named after him.

But what few Italians, and even fewer Britons, realise today is that the red shirted Garibaldi was for a time hero worshipped in this country just as much as he was at home.

Arriving in England just over 150 years ago General Garibaldi was feted in polite Victorian society and working class circles alike, swooned over by aristocratic ladies and admired by reformist activists, cheered in the streets and even had pubs, streets and, yes, a biscuit named after him.

Wherever Garibaldi travelled, thousands turned out to welcome him; his beard, distinctive red shirt and reputation as the liberator of his people from the oppression of the hated Austrians and Spanish Bourbons making him the Che Guevara of his day, but with even wider appeal.

In a mark of how highly he was regarded, the doyen of British historians, AJP Taylor, went as far as declaring him to be “the only admirable figure in modern history”.

Garibaldi first arrived in Britain following the failed uprisings of 1848. While in political exile he plied his trade as a sea captain, carrying goods across the Pacific to China and in 1853 sailed the brig, the Commonwealth, from New York to London and on to Newcastle to pick up coal, while at the same time lobby for support for Italian unification.

The ship arrived on Tyneside on March 21, 1854, where Garibaldi briefed political and industrial leaders and was greeted enthusiastically by local working men and women.

On April 11, during a farewell reception on board the Commonwealth, anchored at South Shields, Garibaldi was presented with a golden sword bought with public donations and inscribed with the words: “Presented to General Garibaldi by the People of Tyneside, Friends of European Freedom, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, April 1854”.

By the time of his second visit, ten years later, he had only grown in popularity and status, having led his initially thousand volunteers, i Mille, through Sicily and – crossing the Straits of Messina with the help of the Royal Navy – up the spine of Italy to take Naples, before handing the south over to King Vittorio Emanuele II of Piedmont; effectively creating a united Italy.

From the moment he landed at Southampton the country was seized by what we would now call ‘Garibaldi-mania’. On April 16, 1864, the Spectator reported on its front page that: “General Garibaldi arrived in London and was welcomed by a concourse of people as large as that which witnessed the entrance of the Princess of Wales. The enthusiasm manifested was extreme, and as there were no soldiers out, the carriage was five hours making its way from Nine Elms Station to Stafford House.”

The report continued: “On Wednesday evening the General’s hosts gave an entertainment, which was attended by the highest nobles in Great Britain, and on Thursday the Opera House, Covent Garden, swarmed with Peers, and ladies rained flowers on the Liberator’s head as he bowed to the throng. Lord Palmerston has already received the General – who, by the way, is honoured with a salute of fifteen guns – and the people still crowd in masses to catch a glimpse of his face.”

While the upper classes competed for the opportunity to host the great liberator, the London working class turned out in their thousands to greet him, and around the country ordinary people adorned their walls and mantelpieces with his image.

Among its vast historical collection, the National Trust holds dozens of items of Garibaldi memorabilia produced during this second visit to Britain, including Staffordshire pottery figurines of the general, plaques, casts, tankards, photographs and sheet music.

One, a plaster and wood mannequin of Garibaldi dressed in cotton, resembling a peasant’s religious votive, is held at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, while there are several carefully detailed pottery figures of him on foot or horseback, wearing a neckerchief and red shirt, at Attingham Park, in Shropshire.

Thanks to an embryonic mass media Garibaldi became one of the first and biggest celebrities of the day, his presence reported by newspapers and transmitted by telegraph. And like all good celebrities he planted trees – including one in the garden of the poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson – signed visitors books, and was awarded honorary memberships of dozens of civic societies.

It would be wrong to suggest Garibaldi was universally popular. In 1862, a mass fight broke out in Hyde Park between his supporters and those of Pope Pius IX, a major opponent of the reunification movement.

However, Garibaldi did attract wide support, across Britain’s social divides. For the ruling elite Garibaldi represented a romantic hero, leading his people in the fight against continental despotism with which Britain was itself in conflict. To middle class reformers and working class activists he was the champion of the underdog, in an age when British trade unionists were fighting for basic workers’ rights and the Chartists were agitating for universal male suffrage.

On May 3, 1864, the New York Times’ London correspondent noted “that while the aristocracy have been very elaborate in their courtings of Garibaldi, Garibaldi himself has sought mainly the sympathies and friendship of the working classes. It was for this he desired to reach London on a Saturday, that those of the workmen, who on that day have a half holiday, might turn out en masse to meet him”.

Distant echoes of Garibaldi’s intense popularity at the time can still be gleaned in those most British of institutions; football, the pub, and tea and biscuits.

During his 1864 visit Garibaldi had stayed with the Nottinghamshire mine owner and radical MP, Charles Seely, on his home on the Isle of Wight – apparently to Queen Victorians’ displeasure.

As a result, when Nottingham Forest FC was founded the following year, the team bought a dozen tasselled red caps in ‘Garibaldi Red’, in honour of the colours worn by the general. The caps soon gave way to red shirts, similar to those worn by him and his men, which are still worn by the team to this day.

These surprisingly strong associations continued down the years. A school in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, was named after him when it opened on Garibaldi Road in the early 1960s and when a group of fans came together in 2016 to mark the 150th anniversary of Nottingham Forest they called themselves Forza Garibaldi, displaying a red banner at the club’s City Ground declaring ‘Rise of the Garibaldi’.

More than a century and a half after his two visits to Britain there are still at least eight pubs named after him, though the reason why they should be dedicated to a long dead Italian may well be lost on many of their regulars.

The village of Knaphill, outside Woking, in Surrey, has one; Garibaldi’s bearded face adorning the sign above its door. So do Redhill, Northampton, and St Albans. There were as many as three in and around Slough – so named following his visit to nearby Cliveden; one in Stourbridge; and, until recently, in Staines-upon-Thames.

There are also roads named after Garibaldi, dating from the time of his visit, including in Grimsby, Scarborough, Redhill, Stoke-on-Trent, Bradford, Warrington and the south east London suburb of Plumstead.

And then there’s that biscuit. This was produced and named in his honour by the Bermondsey biscuit company Peek Freans in 1861, the year Italy became a modern unified country following the defeat of the Austrian and Bourbon empires by the Risorgimento armies led by Garibaldi.

The version of the story popular in Italy has it that on his visit to Britain the general liked an existing version of the biscuits so much the company simply named the thin layer of currants between two slices of biscuit paste after him.

In the decades that followed the unification, Garibaldi remained an enduring example of the best of the peninsula; of the civic minded, honourable and courageous citizen the country can produce, in contrast to the corrupt, mendacious and dishonest public figures who all too often appear to represent the typical Italian politician or business leader.

His upright character, military bravery and intelligence inspired the left-wing resistance against the fascists and Nazis, with the Communist Party naming its partisan brigades, which between 1943 and 1945 fought a tenacious guerilla war in the mountains and valleys, in his honour. Along with his comrade Giuseppe Mazzini, Garibaldi has also been hailed one of the first political leaders to argue in favour of closer European union, even anticipating that Germany might take on the role of leading a federalist movement.

He was also an early advocate of universal suffrage and the emancipation of women, founding the League of Democracy in 1879 to campaign for both. While Camillo Cavour became the new country’s first prime minister in 1861 – dying just three months later – Mazzini, the revolutionary theorist of the Risorgimento, continued, until his death in 1872, to criticise the way unification had turned out.

As for Garibaldi, after handing over power to Victor Emmanuel he retired, albeit temporarily, to his farm on the Sardinian island of Caprera, a move that today that seems almost impossibly selfless and idealistic.

But with the leaders of the ruling League still dreaming of a separate northern Italy (they call it Padania), the heirs of Mussolini on the march again, and Silvio Berlusconi attempting another return to politics earlier this year – despite his conviction for tax fraud – what would progressive forces in Italy give now for a new Garibaldi?

Patrick Sawer is a senior reporter with the Daily and Sunday Telegraph