If you walk along Houghton’s main shopping street, you will come to number 67 Newbottle Street.
With its shutters down and a To Let sign adorning the wall, first appearances belie the history of this establishment, as for many years it was Riani’s Ice Cream Parlour, where Houghton’s youth would visit for a drink and a blast of the latest hits from the duke box.
The atmosphere was electric compared to the dusty silence of today.
Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Allessandro and Columbo Riani, two cousins from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, in the Lucca province of Tuscany, Italy, arrived in Houghton-le-Spring in the early 1900s.
A family legend says that Columbo thought he was going to America but was dropped off in Britain. It was common practice at this time for the captain of an overloaded ship to drop Italians off at places such as Wales. The Riani boys headed for the northeast of England, along with other Italian families, including Fiori (who settled in Hexham and Washington), Fionda (South Shields), and Notarianni (Sunderland).
The Riani cousins very soon set up an ice cream shop at 20 Sunderland Street in Houghton-le-Spring, and by 1909 had second premises at 67 Newbottle Street, opposite the newly opened Gaiety Theatre.
Their Gaiety Temperance Bar was ideally situated to capitalise on the many patrons of the theatre, which was joined by the Empire Theatre in 1911. The picture houses had several screenings a day, guaranteeing a constant stream of customers for the Rianis. The central doorway to the shop was sandwiched between two large windows, which were filled with samples of the shop’s tasty treats.
The sign above the door announced: A & C Riani, Tobacconists and Confectioners.
The Riani cousins had a lodger who was an electrical engineer. His skills were put to great use when he installed a motorised belt to turn the churn on the wooden cask of the ice cream maker. The ice cream mixture consisted of ice, which was either imported or made in a factory, fresh cream plus other ingredients for the flavour, along with a liberal amount of salt to lower the melting temperature of the ice.
Sadly, the Riani cousins’ partnership was to end in tragedy. Upon the outbreak of the Great War, Allessandro joined up with the Italian army and was killed in action. It would have been a sad day when the shop signage was repainted to read the singular: C. Riani, Tobacconist and Confectioner.
The family lived above the shop and Columbo continued to serve the citizens of Houghton, until he was interned during the War and sadly killed on his return home. His wife, Nelide, took over the running of the shop with help from their daughter Sonia, while sons Osvaldo and Furio joined the army. Many Houghtonians still remember being served by Sonia, and then her own daughter, Jan.
Locals were also employed to work in the shop. One such employee was Doris Blenkney, who worked for Sonia from the mid 1970s until around 1991. Doris was initially asked to clean and worked her way up to serving at the counter alongside the older staff who had been there years. She remembers it as a happy place to work: Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
An arch led into the back room, with a beautiful terrazzo floor and huge mirror covering one wall. The mirror would be decorated for special occasions by Furio. The Temperance Bar’s wooden booths were replaced with vinyl booths and then Formica tables. The front section had most of the seating until a hotplate and fryer were installed. The shop sold hot chips, and during Doris’s time these were sold in two sized cartons – 30p or 50p:
As a popular place to gain refreshment between shopping trips, it is no wonder there is an abundance of memories of Riani’s. Local man, Richard Rose, 81, remembers the shop during the War years.
Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Alan Vickers remembers how the shop supported the other businesses on Newbottle Street:
Another local to share his memories is Jack Jordison, who recollects Columbo building a new home for the family at the back of the shop:
Amazingly a Roman coin was discovered when the foundations were being prepared – quite a coincidence, considering Columbo was Italian!
Norman Stronach’s memories come from more recent times, the late 1970s:
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Chris Heron also has childhood memories of the shop in the same era:
This was something also remembered by Jan Hanson, Sonia Riani’s daughter:
Jan worked in the shop, helping her mother out, sometimes by sitting on the step, eating ice cream to tempt customers in on quiet days, though the promise of free ice cream did nothing to persuade Sonia’s sons to help out: Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Jan has many happy memories of her mother and the shop:
My mum did love her customers - she was really funny and a bit fearless: When she was very pregnant with Mark, my youngest brother, she thought she heard someone breaking in the shop. My dad worked away as a welder, but she went out in the dark back yard, with a huge stomach, a flowery nightie, and a poker in her hand!
Someone once complained that their toasted cheese sandwich was burnt; she took it off their plate, took a bite, gave it back to them and said that it wasn't! It was a regular customer who knew her, of course!”
The shop was a place for Sonia to try out new foods on the customers, particularly dishes inspired by the television cook, Fanny Craddock, as Jan recollects:
The familiar personality that was Sonia sadly passed away in 1991 and the shop closed shortly afterwards. It has had many guises since, including a florists, a sunbed tanning salon, and, most recently, as Trends hairdressing.
But this story is so much more than a shop selling ice cream, teacakes, and coffee. The Riani family history is fascinating and has kindly been shared by the present family, helping to expand what for many of us were fabled names in Houghton’s history:
Allessandro Riani, who co-founded the Houghton business with Columbo Riani, was killed during the First World War. His name is included upon Houghton Cenotaph and is also recorded (as Alexandro Riani) on an archived paper list of the congregation of St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church who lost their lives owing to the 1914 – 1918 war. Allessandro had three children with his wife, Margaret: daughters Roma (1912) and Nita (1915), followed by a son, also Allessandro, who was born on December 21st 1916. Roma was into the arts and went on to perform on cruise ships and have her poetry published. She settled in Australia. Allessandro Jnr settled in East Sussex.
Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Columbo Riani was described as ‘a brilliant musician’ who could play the trombone. It is said that he had played at the Opera House in Florence. Robert Geddes, who was the best friend of Columbo’s son, Furio, remembers Columbo rehearsing in Houghton:
Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Columbo was interned as an alien during World War II. He was deported to Canada (or Australia) but the ship he was on, the Arundel Star, was torpedoed. He survived but was killed when the rescue boat was also torpedoed. Some family members believe he was shipwrecked and washed ashore on Ireland. Columbo’s name is included on an archived paper list of the congregation of St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church who lost their lives during the Second World War.
Jan Hanson, Columbo’s granddaughter, shares her thoughts on his internment:
Anne Boyd, a customer of the café, said that her family were upset by the way the Rianis and other Italian families were treated during the war years:
Nelide RIANI nee LUNARDI
Nelide di Lunardi was the wife of Columbo, and was always known to the customers as Mrs Riani. She was a descendent of Vicenzo Lunardi, an eighteenth century member of the Neapolitan nobility, who was famous for flying a hydrogen balloon twenty-four miles across London in 1784. A family story states that Nelide had a nightmare, where she saw her husband in the water calling her name; she woke up screaming, frightening everyone, and then they found out Columbo had been killed at sea. Nelide was Catholic and made intricate embroidered altar cloths for St Michael’s Catholic Church on Durham Road. Her children, Sonia and Furio, took over the running of the shop, with Osvaldo as a sleeping partner, when she died in around 1957.
Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Osvaldo aka Ossie RIANI
Osvaldo was the first son of Columbo and Nelide, and was born in 1920. During the Second World War, Ossie, on account of him being a virtuoso musician, worked for the Government Communications Headquarters; afterwards, he used to say that he handled the personal coded messages of Winston Churchill, but he would never ever discuss the nature of the messages, even to his dieing day. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Ossie was a sleeping partner in the Riani business, as he was a fulltime pro jazz saxist working in London; he played with Hughie Green and George Evans. Ossie appeared as an extra in the 1939 musical comedy ‘Down Our Alley’.
When the film was screened in one of Houghton’s picture houses, it was billed as ‘starring our very own Ossie Riani’, much to his embarrassment. He had small speaking parts in other films, including ‘Night Train to Munich’.
Ossie’s son, Peter Riani, shares his memories of his father:
One other thing: Ossie sold his beloved tenor saxophone, a Selmer Mk VI, to South Tyneside Local Education Authority in 1977. Ultimately if I ever wanted to buy it back, it would cost thousands. His sax is used as a training
saxophone for exceptional young jazz musicians. I would be interested to know if it's still in circulation. If it is, there is another piece of Houghton history floating about!”
Ossie died in 1981 at the age of 61 years.
Columbo and Nelide’s second son, Nelson Riani, was born in 1922. Sadly, he caught diphtheria and died when he was about 11 years old. His younger brother, Furio, went to stay with a family friend, Joe Bartley, while Nelson was unwell. Nelide never recovered from the loss of her young son.
Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Furio aka Mimi RIANI
Columbo and Nelide’s third son, Furio Fulvio T Riani, was born on September 21st 1924 in Houghton. When he was young, around two years old, Furio, like many children of that time, would hang on the back of passing wagons for a ride. He fell off the back of the milk motor and his legs and knees were badly damaged. He was taken to the children’s hospital at Sunderland by Mr Geddes, a friend of the family and owner of a shop on Bowlby Street, at the back of the Riani shop. Furio had a steel framework put on his leg, and after a lengthy stay, was brought home. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Mr Geddes’s son, Robert, who was aged about two and half at the time, remembers the day:
Furio also had the Riani’s musical flare and was a good singer, making several records. Robert recalls that Furio acquired the Mimi nickname after well-known opera singer, Mimi Lerner. As best friends, Robert and Furio even gained employment together; both worked at Houghton’s Grand Theatre as projectionists:
Furio’s skills were put to good use during the War, when he took the role as a mobile projectionist in the army. He was posted to France and it was while projecting a film that he met his wife-to-be, Arlette, a girl from Lisle. When he was demobbed he moved to France and set up various businesses in Falaise, Normandy. Furio and Arlette had three children together.
Furio returned to the northeast of England and died in Sunderland in December 2004.
Sonia HANSON nee RIANI
Sonia Riani was Columbo and Nelide’s only daughter. She worked in the shop for many years and is fondly remembered by many when reminiscing about the café. Doris Blenkney, who worked in the shop for almost twenty-years, remembers a funny incident with Sonia: Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Furio’s friend, Robert, also has memories of Sonia:
Last but not least is the staff that worked in Riani’s shop. Sonia’s daughter, Jan, feels that the staff were ‘really important, great fun and very characterful’: Copyright © Books of the North 2009.
Employee Doris Blenkney, relays some of the older staff members’ memories:
c1900 – Allessandro and his cousin Columbo Riani arrived in Houghton from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, in the Lucca province of Tuscany, Italy.
c1912 – Allessandro and Columbo Riani, proprietors, posed for a photograph in front of their premises, which was aptly named as the GAIETY TEMPERANCE BAR, as it was located opposite the Gaiety and Empire theatres, both of which opened in around August 1911.
WWI – Allessandro Riani was killed during the First World War.
c1920 – Columbo Riani posed for a photograph in front of his ice cream parlour and confectionery shop on Newbottle Street. The name above the door had been amended to read: Tobacconist C.Riani Confectioner.
1920 – Columbo’s first son, Osvaldo, was born. Osvaldo, or Ossie as he was known, used to say that an old priest had claimed the Riani name came from the descendent of an Irish mercenary and may have originally been Ryan.
1922 – Columbo’s second son, Nelson Riani, was born.
1924 – Columbo’s third son, Furio Fulvio T Riani, was born in Houghton-le-Spring in September 1924. He was known as Mimi.
1928 – Columbo’s daughter, Sonia M C Riani, was born in July 1928.
WWII – Columbo was interned as an alien during World War II and was killed at sea, when his ship was torpedoed. His wife, Nelide, was left running the shop with her daughter Sonia. Osvaldo and Furio joined the British army.
1957 or 1958 – Nelide Riani died. Her children, Sonia and Furio, took over the running of the shop, with Osvaldo as a sleeping partner.
1981 – Osvaldo ‘Ossie’ Riani died.
1991 – Sonia M Hanson nee Riani died aged 63 years.
c1994 – The snack bar/café closed, and has had many guises since, including a florists, sunbed tanning salon, and, most recently, as Trends hairdressing. The shop at 67 Newbottle Street has been available to let since August 2008.
2004 – Furio Riani died in December 2004.
Paul Lanagan, local historian
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While researching all three of Houghton’s ice cream parlours – Riani, Dimambro and Jaconelli – I have had to resist all thoughts of dipping into the freezer box and succumbing to my cravings for ice cream. Having had the ice cream parlours on my mind for some time, I have to say that the temptation was often too much, and I did imbibe, purely in the interests of stimulating the writing process!
This article would not have been possible without the help and support of: Dorothy and Peter Riani, Osvaldo’s wife and son; Jan Hanson, Sonia Riani’s daughter; Gian-Colombo Riani, son of Furio Riani; and Mr Robert Geddes, lifetime friend of Furio Riani.
A cornet or two are owed to the following people for facts and memories: George Wilson, Angelo Jaconelli, Joan Lambton, Richard Rose, Alan Vickers, Jack Jordison, Irene Lanagan, Chris Heron, and Norman Stronach.
Buongiorno, I have just read your article about the Riani ice cream parlour in Houghton. Janice Hanson and Robert Geddes have much contributed to this article. I can also bring some information about the family as I am Furio's son; Colombo Riani was my grand-father and I am wearing his name (Gian-Colombo). Colombo Riani came from a very ancient family from Lucca (Tuscany). (His family name originates from hindu sanscript and means Aryan). The Lunardi came in Venezia around the ninth century and settled in the Alpi Apuane of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana.The two families intermarried very quickly and their destiny went with Italy's history but the family was involved with England when Vicenzo di Lunardi (the balloonist) came to London as duke Caramanico's private secretary around 1780. Then hopes lied with the king of Naples but the family learnt about england. At the time of Colombo, my grand-father, native of Lucca, the story started with Giacomo Puccini. As neighbours, the two men were friends. Puccini loved life, my grand-father equally. As a musician, he was "patronised" by Puccini to the Scala di Milano. I do not know why Colombo did not continue his carreer in Italy but he first came alone to england around the 1900s, saw that business could be done there and came back with other italian families (Fiori, Fionda, Notariani, Benini, Di Membro...). About Colombo's wife (my grand-mother), Nelide di Lunardi (not Nelida...), I only know that she was pretty and gentle. She died of lung cancer and just saw me as a baby. Colombo's death has given many interpretations. In reality, he was deported to Australia. His sons, Osvaldo and Furio, while in the english army, threatened rebellion if their father was not released - wich they obtained. On his way back, Colombo's ship was torpidoed by a japanese submarine. Colombo was strong and an excellent swimmer. He survived one day and was taken by a ship going back to Australia. His final journey took him to Ireland, then to england. He met his destiny on the Arundel Star in the Irish sea. The story about Nelide waking up in the dark, telling her children that she had seen her husband, bloody, biding her farewell, is true. The women of the family possess this ability. I have witnessed the same occurance when auntie Sonia died. As for Furio Riani (my father), he landed in 1944 in Arromanches. Was an intructor as he filmed the war then showed soldiers how not to get killed. He was working directly for the SHAEF, came to the North or France were he met my mother, Arlette Bauwens, survived the desastrous "market garden" expedition in Holland and stayed in Germany with the occupying forces. Like his brother, Osvaldo, he never talked about what he saw or did during the war. He married Arlette, the daughter of Jean Bauwens, textile manager killed during the war, and settled in Falaise (Normandy) where the couple built up a factory. They had 4 children : Gian-Colombo, Patrizia, Francesca and Filippo. We stayed in england from 1961 to 1967 and lived for a time with the Hansons in Bolby street. I was old enough to understand that the shop was more than a premice, it was the heart of Houghton where everybody met : between the shop, the Empire cinema, the Bingo, the Robbie Burns pub, the bus stop, life was there. Sonia Riani was the centre on this little world of afterwar Houghton and brought hope when the miners' life was dull. Employees were also part of the family : Lily, Mrs Reese, were performing a real social work there. With the death of Sonia and Furio, the family exploded. Furio's children are living in Provence, near Italy. Sonia's children stayed in England. One mystery remains about my grand-father arrest during the war. Was it because he was considered as an enemy ? Then, during the sixties, one of the Di Membro family involved with one-arm bandits was shot by american-italian mafia. There may have been underground stories we do not know about... Gian-Colombo Riani
ALESSANDRO RIANI, Deceased. 22nd and 23rd Viet., chapter 35. ALL persons having claims or demands against the estate of Alessandro Riani, late of Houghton le Spring, -in the county of Durham, Confectioner, (who was killed in action on the 29th day of August, 1917, and whose will was proved In the Durham District Probate Registry, on the 22nd day of December, 1919, ' by Joseph Charles Kennedy, of Houghton le Spring, in the said county of Durham., Bank Manager, the executor), are required to send particulars of such claims or demands to me, the undersigned, as Solicitor to the said executor, on or before the 26th day of April next, after which date the executor will proceed to distribute the assets, having regard only to the claims of which he shall then have had notice.—Dated this llth day of March, 1920. A. E. PRIDDIN, Honighton Je Spriinig, Solicitor to the said Executor.
By Mike Amos » LAMENTING the death of Eddie Rossi, ever-amiable Bishop Auckland café owner and former ice cream salesman, last week’s column recalled the great influx of stop-me-and-buy-one Italians into North-East England about 100 years ago. As if stirred by the sound of a twopenny cornet, if not quite the candyman’s trumpet, memories march from throughout the region. There have been recollections of di Palmas and Dimambros, of Minchellas and Martinos, of Pacittos, Quadrinis and, hail, Fellas well met. What, too, of celebrated singer Chris Rea, son of a Middlesbrough ice cream trader? Far and near, there appear to have been an awful lot of Reas. Before proceeding, however, it is necessary to issue a warning. Today’s column has monkeys’ blood on its hands. SO where to start? Alan Vickers, in Sunderland, an ice cream historian who clearly it would be hard to lick, sends a long list of Italian emigres – barrow boys who made good. The Dimambros appear to have been thickly spread across the northern half of County Durham, horse before the cart before signs of the chimes. The de Lucas were in Darlington, the Minchellas around South Shields, de Grecos in Middlesbrough, Quadrinis in Witton Park, Valentes in Stockton and Atiglio Giacinto – never heard of him – in Shildon. Jon Glen, now head of Terrington Hall school near Malton, recalls childhood Sunday afternoons back in Pittington, near Durham, where Sherburn Hill Salvation Army would play around the village with the bells of Mrs di Palma’s ice cream van somewhere in close disunison. “Do you wanna de monkeys’ blood?” the lady would ask. Jon was never quite sure. “Had I known it was raspberry sauce I might have said yes, but the thought of monkeys’ blood on the beloved ice cream was always offputting, so I declined.” There’s a supplementary email. “I bet Mr Whippy never did monkey’s blood,” it says. THERE are two further problems with monkeys’ blood – the term seems to be peculiarly North-Eastern but, then again, aren’t we all – the first being where to place the apostrophe. The Eating Owt column has a similar difficulty with goats’ cheese. It probably depends how many goats, or monkeys, were involved in the operation. The other is etymological. knickerbocker glory is said to owe its iridescent identity to knickerbockers – the explanation, like the trousers, seems loose fitting – but whither monkeys’ blood and why is an ice cream with a flake called a 99? The most recent dictionary on these shelves includes 9/11 (“the events of September 11, 2001”), 999, 911 – the American equivalent of 999 – and 99, though without any hint at its origin. Ice cool as always, Gadfly readers are invited to help – though, just once, it’s 99 per cent that they can’t. ETHEL Hand, in Bishop Auckland, not only recalls the days when Eddie Rossi and his brother sold ice cream from a barrow – she’s 91 this week, and must be wished the happiest of birthdays – but many others of that peripatetic persuasion. The Bishop Auckland area alone had many offering the Rea thing, Gabriele’s and di Palma’s were well established, Quadrini’s sold from a motorcycle and sidecar. Ethel also recalls that Eddie Rossi would get the kids to mind his cart while he joined in their game of cricket. The Gabriele’s guy would play football with us in the back alley behind Albert Street in Shildon, thus assuming a status akin to the angel Gabriele. We innocently assumed him to be Gabby himself, but probably he was Charlie from Chilton. The games were ever-friendly, but still there was monkeys’ blood everywhere. WE’D also recalled the late Peter Jaconelli, extrovert ice cream king of Scarborough, former borough mayor and improbable pin-up boy – there may be other descriptions – on the 1980 holiday brochure. Alan Vickers’s list includes a Diamond Jaconelli in Houghton-le- Spring. Like a sixpenny sandwich, they may have been quite thickly spread. John Maughan, in Wolsingham, not only remembers Eddie Rossi – “a true gentleman” – but his brother, known as Horace. Told that John was taking his family on holiday to Scarborough, Horace advised him to go to Jaconelli’s ice cream parlour and mention his name. “Sure enough, they confirmed that Horace was a relative and we had free ice creams all round. Happy days.” MORE Italian connections, Marie Marsh recalls her Second World War childhood in Bury where soldiers were billeted in a nearby mill and the Catholics would march to Mass every Sunday. Marie’s father would invite them back for musical evenings, among them Toni Rossi – “a brilliant pianist” – from Consett. Marie only came across the surname again after moving to Richmond, wonders what happened to Toni and his ambition to become a concert pianist and if he were any relation to Eddie. Doubtless we shall learn more. NOT everyone appreciated that picture of Peter Jaconelli wearing a handkerchief on the front of the holiday brochure promoting Whitby and Scarborough – the two towns never lay easily in the same local government bed. Harry Mead recalls being in Whitby on the January day that the brochure was published. “Look what we’ve got to promote the charms of Whitby,” a furious resident told him. “Jaconelli’s belly”. IN Easington Colliery, the village where on Sunday they mark the 60th anniversary of the great pit disaster, John Todd recalls a coffee bar called Bimbi’s – “quite close to the Hippodrome” – and another, further down Seaside Lane, known as Equi’s. John and his troops would stroll between the two on Saturday evenings, nip in if affluent to put a tanner in the juke box. Bobby Vee – “another Italian” – was favourite back then. In Easington Village was a chip shop called Regalfry, run by another Italian – “a very jovial chap” – who’d display on a cork board the calling cards of all the pop groups who’d divert from the A19 for a fish supper. In Sunderland and down the Durham coast they still call such things “lots”. That’s another little etymological enigma. “The only card I can remember is Long John Baldry’s,” says John, now in Barton, near Richmond. “I wonder if he had to buy enough lots for the Hoochie-Coochie men, cramped up in the back of the Transit, as well?” WHICH leads us down the A19 to Chris Rea – 60 gone March – whose grandfather was one of 729 Italians drowned when the ship deporting them to America was torpedoed during the war and whose father, Camillo, ran an ice cream business in the Boro. “It was very popular, deservedly so,” remembers Stan Coates, in Guisborough, though a Pacitto’s man himself. Chris, who started out as a labourer and therapy chair salesman, doesn’t get back much. “The Middlesbrough I knew has changed a lot,” he once said. “The area I grew up in doesn’t exist any more. It was knocked down about 1977.” His tastes in ice cream are, sadly, not recorded. …so finally to Café Bungalow, a familiar landmark overlooking the harbour where Sunderland meets Roker sea front. Once, it’s said, there was a fourfinger signpost nearby – one indicating the village, a second the beach and a third the Bungalow. The fourth pointed towards the sea. “Germany,” it said. We looked in for an ice cream after a Saturday stroll round Seaburn – lovely people, great views, knickerbockers truly glorious. They suggested we take a seat, quickly bought coffee and cornets. The lady hovered, a squeezy container in her hand the size of a small fire extinguisher. “Monkeys’ blood?” she asked. Mrs di Palma, where wert thou at that hour?