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The Comedy of Errors

Giuseppe Garibaldi: The Italian Freedom Fighter Who Inspired Nottingham Forest FC

5 November 18 words: Jeremy Goldsmith

For many, the word “Garibaldi” conjures up thoughts of a curranty biscuit, but it was once a household name for other reasons. In Victorian times, Giuseppe Garibaldi was the celebrated freedom fighter who, with his intrepid band of volunteers, united Italy. Garibaldimania spread across Britain and even influenced Nottingham life; especially in the football department...

After the Napoleonic Wars, Italy comprised of several states with their own laws and traditions. Decades of diplomacy, political manoeuvring, and armed conflict eventually welded them into a single kingdom in 1861, but the dashing figure of Garibaldi captured imaginations. Short of funds, his fearsome volunteer army wore red blousy shirts instead of uniforms, and he became a hero in Britain not just for unifying Italy, but for fighting tyrants and opposing the Pope.

The British loved Garibaldi. In Nottingham, a Garibaldi music band appeared in 1860 and the following year a speaker came to the Mechanics’ Hall to deliver a lecture on his adventures. All manner of merchandise appeared. Of course, there was the Garibaldi currant biscuit. A racehorse was named after him. Scotland produced a Garibaldi sauce. There were Staffordshire porcelain figurines of Garibaldi; mugs, plates and tankards; and red Garibaldi shirts became fashionable for both women and men.

Around this time, units of Rifle Volunteers were formed around the country and Nottingham was quick off the mark, forming the Robin Hood Rifles. Whether inspired by Garibaldi himself or adopted for economy, their uniform was a red Garibaldi shirt. By 1861, three Nottingham outlets were supplying them, all touting the fact these shirts were worn by the local Rifle Volunteers, while one emphasised their suitability for boating or cricketing.

When Garibaldi came to visit England in 1864, aristocrats and politicians courted him, while workers’ groups around the country invited him to their cities. Half a million people witnessed his arrival in London, but not everyone was so keen. Queen Victoria thought Garibaldimania was undignified and wrote to the Prime Minister that though “brave and honest” he was “a revolutionist leader”. Karl Marx, who might have welcomed a fellow radical, dismissed Garibaldi as “a pitiful donkey”.

Nottingham workers met at a now-demolished building on the site of the Council House, the Exchange Hall, where they enthusiastically adopted an address to Garibaldi, controversially praising him for “undoing the chains of oppressed nationalities, and helping to sweep away the wrong, and establish freedom”.

Despite receiving invitations from workers to visit cities across Britain, the government was reluctant to let Garibaldi, a notorious radical, out of London to be free among the people. He could not even accept an invitation to stay with Sir Robert Clifton, MP for Nottingham, at Clifton Hall. Garibaldi was encouraged to leave the country pleading ill health and time pressure. Before he left, a deputation from Nottingham met Garibaldi in London and delivered the workers’ address. The general tactfully thanked them, promising soon to visit the city.

The workers of Nottingham may have embraced Garibaldimania, but the Council’s reaction was cooler. The month after his trip, it received letters asking for a donation to the Garibaldi Funds. The archives starkly state: “No action taken”.

His fearsome volunteer army wore red blousy shirts instead of uniforms, and he became a hero in Britain not just for unifying Italy, but for fighting tyrants and opposing the Pope

Still, in the year of his visit, two General Garibaldi pubs appeared in the city, near streets and houses named after him. There are now no traces of Garibaldi Terrace, Garibaldi Row, or Garibaldi Yard. The pubs are gone too. One down Bridlesmith Gate went through later incarnations as the Gate Inn and the Fountain Inn; these days, it’s the Cath Kidston store. The other, in Alfred Street North, ceased to be a pub before the First World War.

The most famous connection between Garibaldi and Nottingham is in sport. In 1865, a group of enthusiastic amateur footballers founded the club that would become Nottingham Forest. Meeting at the Clinton Arms – now the Orange Tree in Shakespeare Street – they resolved the team colour would be “Garibaldi red”. Initially they ordered caps in that colour before moving onto football shirts. Early newspaper reports frequently called them the “Foresters” but just as often as the “Garibaldi Reds”.

The red shirts of Nottingham Forest have since spread around the world. The colour has been worn at times by Arsenal, Sparta Prague, Ajax and Sporting Braga, all originating in the Foresters’ attachment to Garibaldi. Herbert Kilpin, the “Lord of Milan” who co-founded AC Milan, was a local boy. In the 1880s, while at school, he helped form an amateur football team called Nottingham Garibaldi.

Even today, Garibaldi continues to have an impact on Nottingham life. Following the 150th anniversary of the founding of Nottingham Forest, in 2016 a group of fans set up a new community group for supporters: Forza Garibaldi. The founders felt the Garibaldi connection was an important but often overlooked part of the club’s history, and that using the Garibaldi label was an effective way of promoting its origins.

Since it was formed, Forza Garibaldi has attracted attention not just for fostering a more positive supporters’ atmosphere, but for visual spectacles in the Forest Ground featuring the image of Garibaldi himself. Funded and organised by fans, the most recent display involved 16,000 people.

Nottingham might not obviously go together with radical Italian armies, but it got caught up in Garibaldimania like the rest of the country. And of all the activities, institutions and products Garibaldi inspired, the red shirts of Nottingham Forest are one of his most famous living legacies; not just here, but around the world.

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