Decio Anzani

[Extracted from Alfio Bernabei (London) “Decio, in fondo al Mare” (Decio at the bottom of the sea).]

Papers held at the Forli archive in Italy show that he was born – of unknown parents – on 10 July 1882 and handed over to a midwife by the name of Annunziata Lombardi. He grew up in Forli orphanage at No 45 on what was then the Borgo Vittorio Emanuele (now the main street through the city). How he came by the name Anzani is not known. He was adopted by the Porzio family at the age of 10. Later he frequented socialist and anarchist circles in the city. In 1903 he was called up into the army but deserted instead and had then to leave Italy. The State Archives in Rome show reports about him from Italian spies in Switzerland, France, Belgium and Great Britain.

His file as an émigré opens with a note dated June 1904 from the Italian Embassy in Paris at 73, Rue de Grenelle: “ANZANI, Charles – sought without success, not known in the Rue du Faubourg St. Antoine.” His was amended a short time later to read: “Anzani showed up at the embassy looking for work and stating that his name was Carlo.” He was soon under surveillance from French as well as Italian spies. On 28 April 1906 he was arrested and sentenced to a month in prison for “having taken part in Paris in anarchist preparations to mark the First of May.” Police surveillance led to his being expelled from France and he fled to Lausanne. He was tracked down by the Swiss police who informed the Public Security authorities in Rome: “He work as a tailor for a Monsieur Bianco at No 9, rue Mercier”. In February 1907 Anzani moved to Geneva for a few months before crossing back into France. Only to be arrested again, this time for “passing counterfeit currency”. 

On his release he lodged initially with the anarchist Giovanni Baldazzi before living “in concubinage” with the 18-year old Marta Giorgi. He was arrested again, for stealing sheets from an inn on the Avenue Parmentier and received a two-month prison sentence, confirmed on appeal. He then returned to Geneva only to be arrested as a vagrant and escorted to the Italian border on 15 October 1909. There was a warrant out for his arrest for desertion and he was taken to Naples prison where he served a year. On 1 June 1910 he was transferred to Bologna, only to desert again. 

Five months after that he turned up in Paris, this time using the name “Emile Millet”. Shortly afterwards he was picked up for breaching his expulsion order and sent to prison for three months. In March 1911, sentence served, he was moved to Chambery where he was given 48 hours to get out of France. On 7 October, from Paris, an informant told the Italian police that Anzani had crossed the Channel into England. “He has written to his comrades seeking help because Marta, his lover, is in hospital.”

The earliest note from the Italian Embassy in London stated that Anzani “has notified the police that he is living in Yeoman’s Row near Brompton Road where he plies his trade as a tailor.” The note added: “He belongs to the anarchist group at No 99 Charlotte Street, Soho.”

He was being monitored by two very active Italian informers signing themselves as “Virgilio” and “xy”. Anzani “quickly came to attention as an organizer of anti-war Meetings” with Malatesta and he took part in the proceedings of the “Italian Social Studies Group” which debated topics such as “the usefulness of trade unionism”. One of the lecturers was Baldazzi, Anzani’s old friend, who had been visiting England since 1907 and had probably given him some useful addresses. Baldazzi, though, would later become a turncoat and a Fascist.

In 1916, at the age of 34, Anzani married Victoria Billen, a native of Brussels. And they had a daughter, Renee. The Italian informer sent the police in Rome this update: “Anzani has calmed down and spends all his time working. He has a shop at No 25 Great Titchfield”, near Oxford Street and Bond Street.

His daughter Renee Anzani recalls: “My girlhood memories bring me back to the parties held at home on Sundays, We referred to these as ‘music Sundays’ because people would turn up with their instruments and my parents would sing. Those invited were virtually all Italians. One was Alberto Verri who would then launch the ‘Troyes Mandolin Band’ which was very popular in the music halls and on the wireless. We moved house sometime in 1922-23 to No 3 Caroline Place in Bloomsbury. The Sunday gatherings continued. Whether there was a political aspect I could not say. I was just a girl and would not have understood.”

Two Italian lecturers at the University Of London set up a chapter of the Fascio in London: one was Camillo Polizzi. The London fascists captured control of the Italian-language paper La Cronaca (launched on 4 December 1920) and turned it into a fascist propaganda sheet, run by Polizzi. On 8 July 1922 the London anarcho-syndicalist group responded with the first issue of a weekly called Il Comento. One of its aims was to alert Britons to what was going on in Italy. The suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, the partner of Corio who had become a friend of Anzani’s was one of the first English intellectuals to turn against fascism. Some articles were quite detailed in their references to Mussolini and Anzani as someone of the same age and from the same area was suspected as the author. 

By 1924 Il Comento was carrying editorials about the need for “an armed revolution in Italy’s squares”. Fires then broke out at its presses and the British police pressurized the paper into closing down. In 1927, on a visit to Rome, Churchill stated: “Had I been born in Italy, I’d be a fascist.”

Renee Anzani recalls her father relocating his shop to Pollen Street, even closer to Oxford Street: “About the time he became a first call tailor. He had a superb professional reputation among some of the fashion houses which would occasionally publish their designs in Vogue Magazine. He also worked for the Galeries Lafayette on Regent Street, as well as taking on private commissions: on a number of occasions he designed and made dresses for the former queen of Spain.”

By the early 1930s Renee noticed that dresses were not her father’s only concern: “I remember a lot of correspondence coming in for the LIDU (the Italian Human Rights League). My father had become the honorary secretary and Alessandro Magri was the president. The League’s members would gather in our home: a lot of the correspondence was coming from France and we also had lots of Italian visitors. […] We even wound up dining with Berneri in Taborelli’s restaurant in Soho.”

Anzani and LIDU were being monitored by Mussolini’s OVRA secret police. Scotland Yard was watching to guard against plots on Mussolini’s life. There was a London connection in the assassination bids mounted by Violet Gibson, Sbardellotto and Schirru.

On 19 July 1932 an OVRA agent in London reported to Rome: “The subversive Anzani has been made the LIDU delegate in London. He goes by the name of D’Anzani or Dani. And has been in touch with subversive elements for some time. Becoming a fiery, dangerous antifascist.” Another note that November arranged for Anzani to be placed on a watch list on the borders of Italy. Perhaps in an effort to track his movements and contacts, the consulate in London renewed his Italian passport.

In 1935 Scotland Yard reported: “Still engaging in antifascist propaganda through LIDU”. His name was included on a list of persons to be monitored, alongside Carlo Rosselli, Max Salvadori and Filippo Turati. On 17 April 1935 Scotland Yard opened a separate file (320.FTL/254.SB) on Anzani, claiming that he was the author of the pamphlet What Has Mussolini Done to the Italian People? Police had established that LIDU London had about fifty members. 

Renee Anzani recalls: “There was an office above Recchioni’s store in Soho which is where a pamphlet entitled Spain Today, Italy Tomorrow was printed. In addition to my father there were Berneri and Emma Goldman: George Orwell used to drop in from time to time.” She also states that her father was aware of the police surveillance, mounted, not least by a “Mr Cooper”, a plain-clothed police officer.

Around about 1938 my father applied for naturalization. He feared complications with the Italian authorities and wanted to become a British citizen.” His spoken English was flawed and the application was refused. 

Anzani also had links with the TUC and the Labour Party; the party’ archive show correspondence between Anzani and its international secretary, William Gillies. When the Labour Party was asked by the government – prior to the Second World War – to compile a list of Italian antifascists in London, Anzani was asked to help with this and added his own name to the list. Italy declared war on Britain on 10 July 1940; thousands of Italians were rounded up as “enemy aliens”.  He was taken away by police on 11 July but assured his family “They’re taking me to Hornsey police station, but don’t fret, they’ve told me I’ll be back shortly.”

Pankhurst, Herbert Morrison and William Gillies sent Churchill a file proving that Anzani was a committed antifascist. Renee recalls: “My mother and I went down to Hornsey police station. They told us that my father had been moved to a barracks in Knightsbridge. When we got there it was to discover that the internees had been moved on to Lingfield. Eventually we had a letter from there from my father asking for some clothes and coffee. We made up a parcel and sent it on to Longfield. After which we had another letter from my father, from the Isle of Man, saying: ‘I received nothing.’ We sent off another parcel to his new address which he had given us: but by then it was too late as my father had shipped out on the Arandora Star.”

That former cruise ship was used to ship thousands of internees to Canada. It set sail from Liverpool on 10 July 1940, with 1,200 internees on board. Around 800 of these were Italians, first or second generation. 75 miles off the coast of Donegal, the Arandora Star was sunk by the U-boat U47. The vessel displayed no lights, no red cross marking it out as a prison ship and it was armed. Over 800 lives were lost.  One of the 476 Italians drowned was Decio Anzani. 

The London branch of the Italian Democratic Party is named after him.

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.