The Colourful History of the University Cafe

In the window of the University Cafe on Byres Road is an old black and white picture of the cafe frontage as it used to look shortly after it opened in 1918.  The proud couple standing outside the front door are the original owner; Pasquale Verrecchia and his wife; whose grandsons still run the cafe today.  Originally from the village of Cassino, they were among thousands of Italians who settled in Scotland from the mid-nineteenth Century onwards.  In-migration of Italians peaked in the decade between 1913 and 1921, and by the start of the second world war there were around 5,000 Italian born residents in Scotland.

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Many, like the Verrecchias, opened cafes and ice cream parlours in Scotland’s towns and cities.  But why did they come? Well, Italy at the time was still a largely poor and rural country, with relatively little economic development outside of the northern cities.  The rapidly industrialising towns and cities of Scotland provided an opportunity for young, resourceful Italians looking for a new life; particularly after the First World War.  There was a burgeoning demand for ice cream parlours and soda fountains at the turn of the century in Scotland, according to Craig Angus:

‘In Glasgow… in 1903 there were 89 ice cream shops in the city. A year later that number had nearly doubled, reaching 184, and by 1905 there were estimated to be 336 ice cream shops in the Glasgow area.’

As the ice cream parlours multiplied, many needed to diversify their business to stay viable, turning to fish and chips; another Scottish favourite.

You can read more about the social history of Italian immigrants in Scotland in this article by Craig Angus.

When I spoke to current owner Rico Verrecchia about my Lego model of the University Cafe, the first thing he did was to go and fetch the old picture to show me what the cafe used to look like.  Although the current frontage dates from the late 1940’s he still refers to it as the new cafe.  The old cafe exudes the kind of Art Nouveau style of the early 1900’s and wouldn’t have looked out of place in Paris.  But why did it change?

When Italy joined the Second World War on Hitler’s side in June 1940, overnight all Italians living in the UK were declared to be enemy aliens. Churchill had given the instruction to “collar the lot of them” and 4,000 Italians living in Britain were rounded up and taken to a prison camp on the Isle of Man.  Among those interned was Rico’s grandfather Pasquale, despite him having left Italy well before Mussolini had come to power. In a darkly ironic twist, Rico’s father Alfredo joined the Royal Navy and fought for the allies against the Axis powers, while his father was still behind the barbed wire in Douglas.

And while Pasquale was interned, an even worse fate befell his beloved cafe.  As foreigners and Roman Catholics, Italians in Scotland had always been resented by Presbyterian Scotland and subject to some level of discrimination.  But, added to that, their ice cream parlours and cafes were viewed as sinful; being the venues of choice for romantic and rebellious teenagers (even on the Sabbath).  When Italy declared war on Britain, being anti-Italian could be masked as being patriotic. Italian children were called “dirty wee Tallies” in the streets of Glasgow.  There were anti-Italian riots in both Edinburgh and Glasgow; with the University Cafe among the mob’s victims.  Bricks were hurled through its windows which had to be boarded up for most of the war.

It was only after the war, when the family was reunited that the current facade was put in place.  And it’s probably the one that most Glaswegians know and love.  But it’s clear that this wasn’t always the case, and that Italians in our city had to be very tough and enterprising to survive.

You can buy my University Cafe model here.

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