A CUPBOARD papered over for 90 or so years has been discovered during the renovations at Darlington Hippodrome with a trove of items connected to an Italian ice cream family inside it.

There was a single football boot, well used. A box of matches, some still strikeable. And a file of papers – receipts and orders relating to the running of the Di Duca confectionery business, which was next door to the theatre in Parkgate.

The Di Ducas hail from Atina, a village in central Italy near Monte Cassino – both the Rossi family of Bishop Auckland and the Cellini family of Richmond, who featured in Memories 321, also came from this area.

Loading article content

They probably came over to escape a rural life of poverty and had heard that the British were very keen on ice cream. They may not have had any experience of producing ice cream before but they knew that, with hard work, they could capitalise on their Italian heritage as it somehow have their ice cream an exotic flavour. Today, you would not buy an Indian or Chinese takeaway from someone with an English surname like Smith; so 100 years ago, an authentic ice cream had to be produced by an Italian.

Luigi Di Duca arrived in Deptford in London in 1891. He then tried to make a go of it in Forfar in Scotland, but in 1901, his brother Gaetano was trying Stockton, so he came to neighbouring Darlington. He had his wife, Rosaria, and, in time, children: Albert, Cecil, David and Beatrice.

They lived in Clay Row, a very poor area of town which is now beneath the inner ring road, and developed three outlets: in Priestgate, Skinnergate (where Taylor’s butchers is today) and Parkgate, next to the fried fish shop in the theatre block.

All Italian ice cream makers needed a market. Many of them toured the area with their horsedrawn carts, seeking out customers – as well as having a coffee stall on Darlington market, the Di Ducas had a cart run out to Middleton One Row – but the theatre, which opened in 1907, provided them with a ready-made audience. Similarly, the Rossis in Bishop Auckland established their café opposite the Eden Theatre in Newgate Street.

The receipts found in the cupboard are dated from the mid 1920s, so the Di Ducas were trading alongside the Hippodrome’s legendary Italian founder, Signor Rino Pepi, whose ghost is still said to haunt the theatre.

The Di Ducas themselves were not long lived. Luigi died in 1914 and is buried in West Cemetery. His son Cecil took the business on but died in 1921 aged 30, and his daughter Beatrice, who was listed as a “confectionary manageress”, died in Parkgate in 1923 aged 23 of a brain haemorrhage.

Cecil’s son David carried on the café until the time of the Second World War – again as we saw with the Rossis, it was a difficult time to be overtly Italian.

Although the family name is no longer above a café, there are still Di Ducas in the district. In Darlington, there’s Luigi’s great-great-grandson Peter Di Duca and his great-granddaughter Bernadette Di Duca, and in Gayle, near Hawes, there’s Graham Di Duca, who is Luigi’s great-grandson. They recently called in to the Hippodrome headquarters in Darlington Market Place to examine the family treasures that have been lost for nearly a century.

THE Cellinis in Richmond also needed to find a market for their ice cream, so Teresa Cellini took the icecream the family made on The Green in Richmond down to the “bathing pool” – a deep in the River Swale on the Reeth road, opposite the cemetery.

The riverside at Richmond has changed enormously over the decades. The falls are now a delightful tourist trap but the car park was once the site of a paper mill, which burned down in 1883, and then a gasworks. Perhaps this industrialisation was why everyone went a couple of hundred yards upstream to the Bathing Pool, which was such a popular attraction that it had its own wooden changing rooms where the Round Howe car park is today.

“I was born in Fielding Yard, Reeth Road, Richmond, and as a child I used to walk with my Mother round the ponds connected to the paper mill and onward to the Bathing Pool which was near the mill race,” says Sheila Russell. “I well remember the bathing huts on the hillside – there were two large huts at the top of the grassy bank, and smaller huts near to the Bathing Pool.

“In the summer when the river was low it was possible to walk across the weir to get to Round Howe on the other side. Today we have a footbridge.

“After the paper mill closed, people had rowing boats on the ponds. The ponds became stagnant and had a horrible smell, so they were filled in with rubbish. A flood washed away the weir and altered the course of the river and that was the end of the Bathing Pool. The site is now a caravan park.”

BLOB IN Memories 321, we printed a picture of Vincenzo Cellini on his ice cream cart – he couldn’t read so it didn’t matter to him that his name had been painted “Seline” on the side of the cart. We said the picture was taken in Richmond, but no one in the town has been able to place where. Perhaps, then, it was taken elsewhere.