Emigrants



Since the latter part of the 18th century, there have been many emigrants from the poor rural areas in Switzerland. The remote and confined Poschiavo valley did not contain sufficient resources to support an expanding population, and so there was little option but for some to seek life elsewhere. Many went to other European countries, but from about 1830 onwards, it became possible to go far away, to America and Australia, despite the difficulties of such a journey in those days. Many Poschiavini chose to do this, and in our family, Federico Marchesi was the first to emigrate to Australia, followed by three of his brothers. The last of these - Adolfo - remained there, and you can find his descendants through this website.

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Swiss Emigrants

After the Napoleonic era, Switzerland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, especially in rural areas. As a result, many Swiss saw no alternative but to emigrate to countries including France, Spain, Russia, and during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Australia, America and Great Britain.        

The small and enclosed Poschiavo valley could only support a limited population and many young people had to go abroad to find work. The impact on those left at home was sometimes traumatic, for the emigrants were venturing far away from their traditional life and values. They might never see their families again, although some did return in their later years, bringing home the prosperity they had achieved. The “Spanish Houses” in Poschiavo were built by emigrants who had made their fortunes in Spain.         

Some members of the Marchesi family no doubt went to various European countries and subsequently to America. We know certain Marchesi went to Australia and later to United Kingdom, and we therefore provide information about these ancestors. 

Swiss emigrants usually sailed to Australia via UK, France, or Hamburg, Germany, often on British vessels, as trade with Australia was common from these ports. It is recorded that between 1854 and 1856, over 2000 young men left Canton Ticino, Switzerland in the hope of finding gold in Australia and many Poschiavini also went around this time. We know that some early emigrants travelled to Hamburg, thence to Hull, and by rail to Liverpool, taking about 14 days for this journey.

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The Barque "Ocean Pride" 1865, a typical vessel of the period that would have sailed from Europe to Australia.

The Australian Gold Rush

For details of this, click here:- The Marchesi Family and the Australian Gold Rush

 Travelling on-board the emigrant ships.       

Travel from the Poschiavo valley became much easier when the railway opened in the very early years of the twentieth century. Before that, journeys were much slower and more difficult, being by horse-drawn coach or sleigh, or even mule. (See Photo Album). Thus, to emigrate to Australia or America was a major undertaking. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, ships powered by steam travelled on that route. Earlier voyages would have been across the Atlantic Ocean via the Azores, around the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, and then across the southern Indian Ocean.  To return to Europe, the ships would leave Australia or New Zealand and travel eastwards across the southern Pacific Ocean around Cape Horn, South America, and northwards in the Atlantic Ocean. The strong winds, huge waves and icebergs in these latitudes carried the ships with greater speed but more danger.

These voyages undertaken by our ancestors during the mid to late 19th century have often been so romanticized that people today have little sense of the trials and hardships they suffered. To reach a port in Europe from Poschiavo, a journey by coach lasting up to two weeks would be necessary. At this time, many of the ships would be powered by steam and sail, with tonnages of 600 to 2,500 and the larger ones would carry a crew of 25 and up to 600 passengers. The voyage took about 2½ months and the vast majority of passengers had never seen a vessel of that size let alone undertaken a voyage on one. Many hoped for a better life in a new land across the sea, but the wretched conditions on board ship sometimes meant that some never reached their destination.        

The ships were very cramped and much of the available space was jammed with cargo as well as a few live animals, to provide fresh meat during the voyage. Each family was allocated tiny living quarters, sometimes only divided from their neighbours by a canvas curtain. Fresh air was ducted in from above or through small portholes which, in rough weather also allowed in salt water. Imagine the lower deck about 40 x 10 metres. The bunks were about 1 metre wide and one above the other. There were bench seats, and the dinner tables were pulled up under the deck above to allow more floor space when not needed for meals. When heavy seas were running - almost every day and night - everything was rolling around.



           Immigrant ship below decks.         

In good weather, it was much easier for passengers to exercise on deck, but when stormy conditions prevailed, the ships were ill-equipped for emergencies. Passengers could be victims of poor food, damp conditions and illness. Deaths occurred from illnesses such as typhoid fever, tuberculosisdiarrhoea, and scarlet fever. Illnesses were exacerbated by the damp and cold conditions of the Roaring Forties or the sapping heat of the tropics. Many families consisted of six to ten children, and each ship carried men and women who were ill, homesick and nursing some of their families.       

While the Captain was responsible for his ship and its crew, the Ship’s Surgeon watched over conduct, morals, behaviour, and health of passengers. He would appoint a Matron to govern the single women and two or three Constables to keep order, distribute food and other supplies.       

Whilst most emigrants travelled willingly and in hope of achieving a better life, they had also torn themselves away from their country, family, and friends and were anxious about their future. It is understandable that boredom and anxiety took their toll on these long voyages, and those left at home were also worried. However, it is recorded that 54 young men emigrated from Prada near Poschiavo, leaving only 3 behind, who were able to choose their life companions from 50 young ladies!       

Here are three of the ships which our ancestors travelled on:


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SS Scottish Chief

This is the sailing ship on which Federico Marchesi travelled to Australia in 1858. We cannot find a photograph or painting of SS Morning Light, on which Giuseppe Marchesi travelled.


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SS Somersetshire
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SS Somersetshire between decks in a storm on 18 November 1873

Tomaso Marchesi sailed on this ship. It was built at a cost of over £70,000 by Money Wigram and Sons at Blackwall on the Thames, as the company's second auxiliary steamer for the Australian trade and launched in June 1867. She was a barque, with a service speed of 9 knots, and 2342 registered tonnage. A ‘barque’ has at least 3 masts, all of which have square sails except the mizzen (aft) mast. She could carry 363 passengers, and the greatest number recorded for a voyage was 287, arriving in December 1871. Somersetshire replaced the " London", which sank after foundering in the Bay of Biscay with the loss of 230 lives on only her third voyage to Australia.

The "Somersetshire" was the first steamer in the Australian trade to be equipped with more efficient compound steam engines, and one of the first steamers to establish a regular direct service from London to Melbourne, averaging under 60 days on the run from Plymouth to Melbourne. On early voyages she worked outwards via the Cape of Good Hope, with occasional calls at Cape Town, and returned via Cape Horn. Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, return voyages were made via Suez. She was withdrawn after making a final voyage for her original owners in July 1880, although two subsequent voyages were possibly made from Liverpool under different ownership, before she was sold in 1885 for conversion into the sailing vessel “Prince Edward.”


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SS Durham

Salvatore Adolfo Marchesi sailed on this ship from London, England, on 15 January 1876, and arrived at Melbourne on 28 March 1876. She was built at a cost of £35,000 by Money Wigram and Sons at Blackwall on the Thames, registered in London in 1871, and launched in May 1874. The design appears to be the same as that for ss Somersetshire. She was an iron single screw barque, with a gross tonnage of 2,284 tons, propelled by a 300-horsepower steam engine. Her dimensions were, 286ft long and 39ft beam. Her master was Captain F. Anderson. In 1880, she did two return voyages to Lyttleton, New Zealand, via the Cape of Good Hope from London, for Shaw Savill & Co. who later became Shaw Savill & Albion.

Emigrants to England including Federico Marchesi 

From ships passenger lists published on the web, and also from papers found in San Carlo, we can be almost certain that the following details refer to our ancestors: -

MARTHESI FREDR arrived Melbourne, 18 May 1858 on SS SCOTTISH CHIEF. MARCHESI GIUSEPPE arrived Melbourne, 21 Jan 1861 on SS MORNING LIGHT. MARCHESE TOMASO arrived Melbourne, 21 Mar 1873 on SS SOMERSETSHIRE. MARCHISI ADOLFO arrived Melbourne, 28 Mar 1876 on SS DURHAM.

Although there are spelling mistakes, other well-known names from Poschiavo including Cortesi, Beti, Dorizzi, Crameri, Lanfranchi, Giuliani, Bontognali, appear on the lists, thus indicating that groups of Poschiavini travelled together. Details such as ages don't always match on the lists but this might be because the writer did not understand the passenger correctly, the passenger wanted to look "more adult", or the handwriting was misinterpreted when the transcription and indexing were made. We are 95% sure that Federico was on the Scottish Chief, the exact dates for this voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne being 06.02.1858 - 10.05.1858. The other ships were all from British ports to Victoria, and whilst some details have been traced, further sources of information would be welcome.

Antonio Fanconi was thought to have come to England around 1850, although we have not been able to confirm this from published data. We know from census records that the Compagnoni and Semadeni families were amongst the earliest arrivals from Valposchiavo, in the 1850s and 1860s. These families were related, so it is not surprising that they came around the same time. They brought others to England in subsequent years, and often employed members of their families and friends. Hans Semadeni was a very important early arrival in 1868, so we give information about him here.

Hans Semadeni 1836 – 1913

Hans was born in Poschiavo and like many other young people in the region, he had to seek employment abroad, so at the age of 15, he went to Italy to work in a grocery store. His wages were low, and he read articles about the money that could be made in the Australian gold mines, but his father did not want him to go there. Nevertheless, in 1856, he embarked with 15 Poschiavini and arrived in Melbourne, from where he travelled to Ovens, 200 kilometres northeast of Melbourne, where alluvial gold could be found. We have no other details of his outward journey. He sold his watch to buy a miner’s license, but soon learned that only a few were successful in finding gold and there were easier and less hazardous ways of earning money. He became a camp cook, and the work was easier with more pay. When summer came, it was extremely hot, and he realized the miners’ demand for water, so he obtained a horse and cart and began work as a water merchant. With the drought continuing, his income increased, and he bought another horse and cart, but then his luck ran out. He arrived at the mines on a day when there was a storm and there was no demand for his water. He sheltered from the rain but when it passed, his horses and carts had gone. Once again, he worked in the mines, but after some limited success he decided to leave Australia. He returned to Europe, embarking on the ss Dover Castle at Melbourne, on 1st July 1866 and there were 10 cabin passengers and 177 in steerage accommodation. Then he travelled to France and stayed with his brother at Charleville, learning the trade of pastrycook.

From there, he went to London to learn English and worked as a pastry cook in Verrey’s Restaurant, Regent Street, a long-established and high-class business. After gaining more experience, he opened a Swiss Café in Brighton in 1868. In the years between 1868 to 1888, more than three hundred Poschiavini emigrated to England and Scotland. Over 40 of them came to work for Semadeni, amongst whom was our maternal grandfather Louis Rocca, aged 22, from San Carlo.  Hans helped many to establish themselves independently and so he can be regarded as the pioneer of the emigration to England from Poschiavo. Swiss Cafés opened in many towns particularly along the South Coast and became very well known amongst the gentry for their fine pastries. You can read more about Hans’ Swiss Café in Brighton and about others in our pages about Swiss Cafés in England.

Antonio Fanconi was thought to have come to England around 1850, although we have not been able to confirm this from published data. We know from census records that the Compagnoni and Semadeni families were amongst the earliest arrivals from Valposchiavo, in the 1850s and 1860s. These families were related, so it is not surprising that they came around the same time. They brought others to England in subsequent years, and often employed members of their families and friends. Hans Semadeni was a very important early arrival in 1868, so we give information about him here.

Federico Marchesi 1839 – 1922

At the age of 18, he was the first in our family to travel to Australia in the Victorian Gold Rush. He sailed on the SS Scottish Chief from Liverpool, arriving in Melbourne on 8 May 1858. He went to Kangaroo Flat, a suburb of Bendigo in Victoria, which derived its name from the large numbers of Kangaroos encountered around gold miners' campsites near Bendigo. Like many of his compatriots on this ship, he was described as a labourer, but we think that he became a miner, because he was listed as one when he returned to Europe in 1875. The miners were relatively well paid due to the dangers and later immigrants could not get these jobs. Other emigrants worked in the ancillary services supporting mining. Federico married first, Mary McKenzie who died shortly afterwards, possibly in childbirth, and second in 1867, an Australian lady, Elizabeth Claxton, 1845 - 1922. Their eldest son Giuseppe was born in Heathcote, near Melbourne in 1867, and two more sons and a daughter were also born in Australia. However, the last three - all daughters, where born in Poschiavo and San Carlo, as we know that Federico had returned to Switzerland in 1875. By this time the gold mining was becoming much more difficult, and he obviously felt that opportunities must be sought elsewhere.

Several Poschiavini had already established successful catering businesses in England, and Federico decided to follow them with his family in the early 1880’s and seek prosperity. He opened a bakery in Broadstairs, Kent, and shortly after this, he also established a restaurant, which became very successful indeed, employing our two grandfathers, Erminio Marchesi and Louis Rocca. At this time, seaside resorts were becoming very popular, and could be visited easily, due to the opening of the railway lines. The photo that you see shows Federico and Elizabeth in 1909, at the wedding of their daughter Ida and Emilio Crameri. You can read about them all in the pages on Swiss Cafés in England. The grave of Federico and Elizabeth is still in Poschiavo cemetery.

Giuseppe Marchesi 1842 - 1920

At the age of 18, he followed his brother Federico to Australia on SS Morning Light, arriving in Melbourne on 22 Jan 1861 We know no more about his journey, but he and his countrymen were described as labourers and hoped to prosper from the gold mining activities at Bendigo in Victoria. In due course, when the gold became harder to find, he returned to Switzerland, but we have not been able to find details of the return journey from Australia. After his return to Poschiavo, Giuseppe became a much-respected local councillor, and in October 1883, he married Maria Mengotti, 1838-1907. Giuseppe died aged 79 after a brief illness, mourned by his family and his wide circle of friends and colleagues. Sadly, there is no more detail of Giuseppe. His brother Adolfo (Dolph) who remained in Australia, corresponded with him and letters from Dolph in Italian and one from Dolph’s wife Elisabeth in English are shown on the pages about the Australian Gold Rush.

Tomaso Marchesi 1851 – 1897

At the age of 21 he followed his brothers Federico and Giuseppe to Australia, to work in the gold mining industry. He sailed on SS Somersetshire arriving in Melbourne on 1 March 1873. Tomaso was described as a miner on the passenger list, but we cannot verify this. We cannot trace a return voyage from Australia, so we do not know whether he remained there or returned to Poschiavo. Sadly, he died at a relatively young age, and we have no more detail about him.

Salvatore Adolfo Marchesi 1853 - 1921

Adolfo was 23 when he journeyed first to England and sailed from Gravesend, London, arriving in Melbourne on 18 March 1876. His was described as a gold seeker. Dolph, as he became known, married an Australian, Elizabeth Ann Hester, 1862-1947, and they lived in Heathcote, 120 Kms north of Melbourne, near the Costerfield goldfield, where their descendants are today. Costerfield was rich in gold but also had significant deposits of antimony, which as we have said, became a very valuable commodity. The miners were relatively well paid due to the dangers and when the gold became harder to find, they searched for antimony, which could cause serious diseases. Working conditions in the mines were primitive and the risks were not fully recognised at the time of the gold rushes of the 19th century.

Eventually, Dolph and many others became very ill with respiratory problems known as “the miner’s disease,” and he died in 1921. We have copies of letters to his brother Giuseppe, who had returned to Poschiavo from Australia. The letters were found in a drawer by Milena Rossetti-Marchesi in the Mulino di Aino (Aino Mill) property where the brothers were born. The Mulino was owned by Gioan Antonio Marchesi (1777-1839), our great x 3 grandfather. It was functioning until the 1960’s, is now fully restored to working order as a museum and is visited by the public. You can read about this in the chapter about the Aino Mill.

The first letters are in Italian but when he became too ill to write, his Australian wife Elizabeth took over, giving the news to her brother-in-law. The letters show great affection between the brothers and provide a brief insight into the way of life for many in those days. Some of these letters can be seen through links on the pages about the Australian Gold Rush.

 Dolph worked in a mine at Mundy Gully, about 10 Kms south of Heathcote. We have found a copy of a local newspaper article published in April 1900 indicating that successful mining in Mundy Gully was becoming much more difficult, and in a letter in February 1913, Elizabeth told Joe (Giuseppe) that the mine had been sold for £205.

In Valposchiavo today, emigration continues especially for young people who leave the valley to continue their studies by attending Swiss and other universities and then working elsewhere. On the other hand, immigration also occurs and in a survey in 2014, just under a fifth of the total population in the valley were people from other countries including Italy, Portugal, and Germany.