St. Johns Park from its early days has had a high proportion of migrant families contributing towards its own unique community identity. One of the first Italian families to settle in St. John’s Park was that of Domenico Bellotti and his second wife Santa Maria. The story of how they came to Australia is dramatic and extremely arduous.
On 7 April 1881 as a result of the ill-fated expedition to New Ireland, an island north of New Guinea, around 217 refugees were allowed to settle in Australia by Sir Henry Parkes as long as they assimilated into Australian society and used their skills to help build the colony. The Gava family was amongst this large group of mainly northern Italian survivors. They were originally from Sacile near Udine in the Veneto region of Northern Italy. Santa Maria and her husband Giovanni Baptista and their 6 children were from an area renowned for producing fine wines. They had hoped to make a fresh start in a new land. Unfortunately, the settlement in Port Breton was ill planned and doomed from the start. One of the children, Domenic, died during the voyage. Giovanni was with a group of men killed by cannibals as they searched for food. Eventually, Santa Maria and her surviving children, daughters Paulina, Rosa, Anna, and sons Francesco and Santo arrived in Sydney on the James Pattison. They were housed at the Agricultural Hall with the other survivors and then indentured for 6 months to the NSW government in order to pay off the cost of their rescue. The three girls gained positions as nursery and housemaids in private residences. Santa Maria and her 2 little boys were sent to Windsor to help with the fledgling wine industry. Here she worked with and then married fellow survivor Domenico Bellotti.
After working off their passage costs, Domenico found work at Liverpool Paper Mills. During this time Santa Maria gave birth to 2 more children, Peter and Orsola (known as Selina) who were to become pupils of the first class at St. John’s Park Public School.
The Bellottis purchased a smallholding that was part of the St. John’s Park first subdivision of land previously owned by Nathaniel Bull. It was approximately 10 acres on Bull’s Road, running through to another frontage on Bibby’s Road. The lot numbers were 21 and 28 of the first subdivision, not far from where Clear Paddock Creek crosses the suburb. Family stories tell that the particular block they chose was the one with the largest tree growing on it, as the Bellottis knew they would need to chop the timber to build their first dwelling. By the turn of the century a successful, licensed winery was operating from the block. The winery is purported to be the only one that had a license to operate in the St. John’s Park area. When Santa Maria died in 1901, the license was transferred to her son Francesco Gava.
The following year Francesco married Palmira Marantelli, who was from the Lombardy region of Italy. Her family lived near Prospect at the time. Her father had come to Australia to work on the reservoir. Frank built a new family home that included a cellar under the house where large casks of wine were stored. Frank’s daughter Mary remembers that there was a wine saloon and also a bocce pitch, which were visited from Italians who travelled even as far as from the city to come and play on weekends. Domenico and his 2 children as well as his stepson Santo moved north to Lismore in late 1902 where in nearby Woodburn many of the other survivors of the expedition had established the community known as New Italy. Francesco (or Frank as he was commonly known) also ran for local government although he was defeated by 10 votes. He later operated the local Post Office from a room built onto the front of the family home/wine cellar.
Francesco continued operating the winery as well as growing fruit and keeping poultry. He and Palmira went on to have a family of one son, Felice and 5 daughters, Silvia, Irena, Esmeralda, Theodora and Mary. For a time he also worked as Works Overseer for Cabramatta and Canley Vale Council, where he caused great consternation when he applied for holiday leave on full pay! Maybe as a result of having so many daughters, Francesco petitioned and eventually was the awarded permission to take over the running of the St Johns Park Post Office, which was relocated to an office built on to the end of their front verandah. He retired to live at Smithfield in 1945. His son Felice (known as Phil) remained on the 5 acres on Bibbys Road that backed onto his father’s holding. Like his father, Phil was participated in many community matters, including holding the position of treasurer of the St. Johns Park P. & C Association. Frank’s youngest daughter Mary married Harold Jones, nephew of Jacob Cook who held office in Cabramatta and Canley Vale Council. His oldest daughter, Silvia married Victor Wenban who served as Mayor on Fairfield Council for several terms in the 50s/60s.
Frank and Palmira Gava celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary on 24th September 1952. The report of this event in The Biz describes them as ‘pioneers of the district’ with Frank taking a ‘keen and active interest in all things for the advancement of the district’ and Palmira ‘ever ready to give a helping hand’. Frank died on 12 January 1959 at the age of 85 years. Palmira died in 1974, aged 93 years.
[Excerpt from “A journey in time : a history of St John’s Park and its people” by Vicky Movizio]