How do I research my Italian great grandmother?

Geraldene Volante is eager to track down her elusive ancestor, Sobbella, who vanishes from records after 1901.

Volante ice cream seller

I’m trying to learn more about my Italian great grandmother, Sobbella Volante. According to member trees on ancestry.co.uk, she was born about 1869 in Atina, Italy, and died in 1901 in Cornwall.

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According to the 1901 census, Sobbella was married to Arduino Volante and had two children: Joseph (my grandfather) and Bessie Palmer Volante. By 1902 Arduino was married to a Maria Benedetta Di Manno, who is on the 1911 census 
as his wife.

If the Ancestry trees are to be believed, Maria seems to have remarried some years later and gone to live in America. I cannot find anything about Sobbella: 
no birth, marriage or death record or maiden name.
Geraldene Volante

The lack of any General Register Office (GRO) entries for a ‘Sobbella Volante’ was a real puzzle. The answer 
lies in the difficulties that an illiterate couple from 
the Italian mountains must have had with English spellings and bureaucracy.

As you had found, ‘Sobbella Volanti’ appears in the 1901 census for Camborne with husband Arduino, an ice-cream vendor. First, Sobbella is actually ‘Sabbetta’ (a diminutive of Elisabetta) as this particular enumerator never crossed his ‘t’s. The places of birth of their children, Joseph (aged 11) and Bessie Palmer (aged two), were given as Birmingham and Cornwall respectively.

In 1902, Arduino indeed married a Maria Benedetta Di Manno and they were living together at the time of the 1911 census. Maria gave her place of birth as Trella, Italy. So did Sabbetta die between the 1901 census and Arduino marrying Maria in 1902? The answer is found in Bessie’s birth certificate.

Bessie’s birth was registered in 1899 by her father ‘Ardinno Volondi’, who gave the mother’s name as ‘Sabbetta Volondi, formerly Dimana’. Just after Arduino married Maria in 1902, it must have come to light that when he had registered Bessie’s birth, he and Sabbetta had not been married so the entry had to be corrected by a statutory declaration sworn by Arduino and Maria. Crucially, the mother’s name was changed to ‘Maria Benedetta Di Manno’, indicating that Sabbetta and Maria were the same person and Di Manno was her maiden name.

This is key, as I then traced the birth of your grandfather who later went by the name Joseph Volante. He was born ‘Papina Manna’ in the Birmingham workhouse in 1890 and was registered as the daughter of ‘Eliza Manna’, of no occupation, by the workhouse matron nine weeks later. In 1906 the certificate was corrected by another statutory declaration by Arduino and ‘Elizabeth’ Volante to change ‘Papina, a girl’, to ‘Papino, a boy’ and to correct 
the mother’s name to ‘Elizabeth di Manna’.

Sabbetta/Elizabeth/Maria was illiterate, and communicating with registrars in another language when she could not even sign her own name must have been difficult. I have never seen so many later corrections 
as those that appeared on Papino’s and Bessie’s birth and Arduino and Maria’s marriage certificates: 12 in all!

So where was Maria from? If you search for ‘Ardivins Volante’ in the 1891 census on ancestry.co.uk, you will find your great grandfather as a ‘Street Musician’ in Plymouth with 17 other Italians (a group of ice-cream vendors and street musicians). They included Sabbetta Manna and Peppino Manna, born in Trella and Birmingham respectively – your great grandmother and your grandfather.

I take ‘Trella’ to be Terelle near Atina in the mountainous region from where many of the group came. I spoke to the registrar for Terelle and he found the entry for the birth of a Maria Benedetta Di Manno in 1868! The father was Celestino (matching the name that Maria gave when she married in 1902) and the mother was Eugenia Vettraino. They were a farming family. As for Maria, she did not remarry or move to the States but died in Camborne in 1948.

Maria also had a sister Anna and brothers Pietro Maria and Serafino Benedetto. Serafino is found on the same 1891 census page as Maria. He remained in Plymouth, married a Serafina and had a large family. Lastly, I located a photograph of an ice-cream vendor in Camborne in the early 1900s from the Cornwall Studies Library (see above). The name on the trolley… Volante!

So, two tips for tracing foreign ancestry are to be imaginative with spellings and to exhaust all UK records first: BMDs, censuses, the 1939 Register, naturalisation certificates, Poor Law records, wills, county record offices, etc. One source may have the person’s full names or date of birth, the parents’ or siblings’ names or the name of the village to narrow down the search. Buona fortuna with your quest!

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Mark Daly is a former lawyer and professional translator with over 20 years’ experience researching family history. He is based in London and leads the research team Time Sleuths.