Padrone Luigi Rabbiotti was born in 1810 in Parma. The year of his arrival in London is not known, but he is recorded in the 1841 census as a married man (to an English woman), thirty-one years of age, and living in Laystall Street, just off Leather Lane. His brother Antonio occupied the same property. Living a seemingly respectable life, he was naturalised in 1867. Yet, the back of the same house was shared by twenty-five organ boys. Later he was associated was an address at no.1/2 Eyre Hill Street, Clerkenwell, were some fifty organ grinders were held.
A padrone was responsible for ‘importing’ children from destitute parents, a practice known as ‘La tratta dei fanciuculli’. Living in overcrowded lodgings, the children were given a street organ or harp. The padrone took all their earnings. As early as 1820 The Times highlighted the Italian ‘slave trade’. In 1845, fifteen-year old Giuseppe [Joseph] Leonardi died in the street of lung disease, thought to have been brought on by abuse. Rabbiotti was charged with manslaughter, but acquitted. The system persisted. In May 1864 brewer and liberal MP Michael Thomas Bass put forward a bill on ‘Street Music in the Metropolis’. The resulting Street Music Act introduced fines to discourage the spread of Italian organ grinders in London (he received support of the metropolitan literati, including Charles Dickens). The act focused on noise pollution. The fate of child-musicians was ignored. As late as 1876 Thomas Barnardo called for the rescue of ’White Slaves’. It was not until 1889 that the ‘Children’s Charter’ passed. The legislation made an immediate impact on Italian child exploitation.