With the onset of machines and production lines the working class was born and the problem of learning to manage the relationships between workers and employers. One such case in the Bourbon Kingdom was resolved in a fair and original manner.
Since the late eighteenth century there have been large concentrations of people who work in ‘assembly lines’ in the factories and mills. These people have schedules and lifestyles that follow the work cycles and therefore they must all live in the vicinity of work establishments creating urban and human concentrations that they had never been seen before.
Stories of exploitation are known but less than those of good relationships between workers and employers. The Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies is known for some enlightened examples from that of the San Leucio silk factories.
At Isola del Liri the first factories were built at the end of the eighteenth century when the King of Naples, Gioacchino Murat, Napoleon’s brother in law, seized churches and convents and sold them to industrialists. The interest in this area was high because of the availability of power produced by the water falls and gradients of the river Liri.
The convent of Santa Maria delle Forme was requisitioned and transformed into a little paper mill called Fibreno that was later bought by Carlo Lefebvre. It is interesting to find the features of the original facade of the church in the building of the factory entrance.
The mill employed hundreds of workers immediately and they had to have accommodation. It created a new urban core in the upper part of town with purpose designed buildings for the different social classes: workers, managers, director and owner.
All paper mills were organized to meet the needs of workers: shops for groceries, school for children, medical centre and even a church or a temple. They were very original and the new church of Santa Maria delle Forme, was built virtually on the roof of the underlying Lefebvre paper mill, the Gothic temple was built by the Neapolitan businessman Natale Sorvillo within the Southern Paper Mills.
At Isola del Liri were clearly distinguished the first examples of public housing of 1800s and 1900s and next to houses the life of a new urban core was formed. Nothing was left to chance and the houses followed a particular architectural style and a well-defined urban plan.
With the concentration of so many workers there was a growing power of the workers and an independence of mind that leads to unexpected results. For example, a protest movement against the pastor led to a group of worshipers separating from the church and founding the first Evangelical Church.
The social structure of Isola del Liri had evolved enough to permit the opening of one of the first Workers’ Mutual Aid Society – SOMS – born after the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. This association was created to assist workers in cases of injury, illness or other extraordinary events.
Over the years many SOMS closed or their experience was lost with the trade union movement or the fascist corporations. Some resisted, and in the 1950s they returned to grow expanding their interests.
At Isola del Liri, in the building below the waterfall, is still the original visible sign that read ‘Società Operaia di Mutuo Soccorso’ with the date 1862. The labour movement was so important that Isola del Liri was called in 1867 ‘the city of work and workers’. The SOMS is still active and is one of the oldest in Italy but moved its headquarters to the Piazza San Francesco.
After the second world war, the large number of workers employed in paper mills led to another interesting effect: the great festival of May 1, Labor Day. May Day is a celebration founded in America by President Grover Cleveland to commemorate some of the dead at Haymarket in Chicago from an uprising of the factory workers at the McCormick farm machinery factory.
The celebration of May Day arrived in Italy the 1800s and in the fascist period was temporarily merged with the Birth of Rome on 21 April. This day of workers was changed to May in 1945 at the end of World War II and in 1955 Pope Pio XII instituted the feast of St. Joseph the Worker so that May 1 became the feast for Catholic workers.
For years, May Day was primarily a festival for the trade unions that in Isola del Liri were very powerful so that you can still make out a hammer and sickle stamped on the stones of the walkway beside the river Liri near the waterfall. Today, the festival has become a musical event and is celebrated in Italy with a big concert in Piazza San Giovanni in Rome.
For Isola del Liri, May Day is a major celebration for its historical value and today artistic value, attracting people from across the province of Frosinone.