Just over 40 years ago Kidlington people rallied to the aid of Contursi Terme, a village near Naples in Italy devastated by an earthquake in November 1980.
Now, as the people of Naples commemorate the anniversary, have come renewed messages of thanks for the rescue mission organised by Kidlington Round Table, and the contribution Round Table members made to a UNESCO work camp which helped to rebuild the village the following summer.
It all began when Kidlington residents Colin and Pam Webb received an appeal for help from their friend Gabriella di Martino, Professor of English and Linguistics at Naples University. Pam contacted Round Table member David Lang and together with fellow member Philip Hine they launched an appeal. Within days the St John Ambulance Hall was filled with clothing, bedding and a wide range of items that might be needed to help survival in terrible conditions.
Transport was arranged to Heathrow and the Italian Embassy organised flights to Rome and onwards by lorry to Naples. The lorry drivers had mistakenly been given Gabriella’s Naples flat as the appeal HQ, but she managed to contact the British Consul, and the Italian Air Force organised a hangar to store the enormous quantities of aid. Her flat became a refuge for the drivers where she and her mother, father and sister provided meals and the drivers could shower and rest.
Three of those drivers were Norman Davies, owner of Snips hairdressers at the time, Stuart Swift and Jim Beckett, all members of Kidlington Round Table. They had put out an appeal on Radio Oxford for relief supplies and these were delivered inadvertently to Snips, overwhelming the salon. An additional vehicle was hired and the three set off directly to drive to Naples. Norman says he will never forget their experiences, including being arrested just outside Le Havre and taken to court because their paperwork indicated they were carrying ‘millions’ of blankets. On arrival in Naples, they were escorted by armed guards to Gabriella’s apartment for food and rest. Tremors were still being felt in the city, and on arriving in the stricken area, they remember the humbling sight of unfortunate people standing in severe weather when the loads of winter clothing and blankets pulled in to the station.
Gabriella writes: “We were absolutely overwhelmed. Unluckily, we did not collect anything – even the names of these fantastic and generous people.”
During the following Summer of 1981, UNESCO Clubs in Italy organised a working camp to help rebuild Contursi and surrounding villages, constructing wooden huts, repairing buildings, giving agricultural and social assistance. In her university role, Gabriella was a member of UNESCO Clubs and helped organise the working camp with over 70 volunteers from 10 European countries, mostly students. David Lang, Philip Hine and John Wathen from Kidlington Round Table and Peter Hall from Oxford Round Table, volunteered to go from the UK. They saw for themselves the devastation that still remained and the horror of meeting people whose loved ones were still buried in the ruins. They were allocated to digging holes and trenches for the foundations of the wooden huts, teaching youngsters in the summer school and spraying olive trees. Accommodation was in a school dormitory and a local farmer provided a banquet style spread and plenty of wine on their last day.
The UNESCO Clubs Report on the project reflects that “it put into practise international understanding as each volunteer, by simply modifying his daily habits felt himself at home and well at ease, had integrated himself with the people of Contursi and shared their problems and difficulties.” The volunteers had “given a great contribution to the solution of some of the problems of the community and some families in particular.”
On 23 November 2020, Naples commemorated the 40th anniversary of the earthquake, and Gabriella sent a message to Kidlington to say THANK YOU to all those who helped in their time of need. “It would be nice if you could thank them on our behalf after so many years and tell them we’ll never forget their generosity.”
(Kidlington Round Table closed in 1988 due to lack of numbers)