The People of Gibraltar
1793 - The Garrison and Exchange and Commercial Libraries 

Drinkwater, William and Sarah Fyers - O'Hara and John Maria Boschetti 
David Johnston and Joseph Abuderhram - Aaron Cardozo and Solomon Benamor
Antony Francia  and Joseph Porral  - Judah Levy and Sir Emanuel Viale
Ralph Lowe and Joseph A Patron - General George Don

During a short period between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th   Gibraltar was also blessed with the establishment of several more or less enduring institutions. Over the next hundred years or so they attained reputations which went far beyond those that they were actually entitled to. Nevertheless the ones that have survived are still looked upon by the majority of the local population with considerable pride and affection - despite the fact that it was only very recently that non-British civilian residents were allowed to participate in any of them.

The first of these institutions was the Garrison Library, the brainchild of the son of a naval surgeon, John Drinkwater (see LINK) who joined the Royal Manchester Volunteers as an ensign in 1777 at the age of fifteen. When he enlisted he thought he would be sent to America as General Burgoyne had just surrendered his army at Saratoga.  As fate would have it Drinkwater’s regiment was almost immediately posted to Gibraltar. 

There he survived the Great Siege with all its attendant life-threatening risks and inconveniences. When it was all over he was ordered home and disbanded. Not long afterwards in 1785 he published his famous account - A History of the Siege of Gibraltar. (See LINK

A German version of the The Great Siege ( 1779 )

Despite the fact that it was based on what must have been a teenager’s diary, it quickly established its reputation as a military classic. Written in the style of a much older man one gets the impression that he was not just a good soldier but also something of an intellectual. For Drinkwater, not having had enough to eat during the Siege may have been bad enough, but not having had enough to read must have been torture.  

When Drinkwater returned to the Rock after purchasing a company in the Royal Regiment of Foot he discovered that Gibraltar was even less of an intellectual haven in peace time than it had been when at war. In 1793 he decided that some sort of remedy was required. He convinced several of his fellow officers to donate some of their books and together with money raised through subscription he rented some rooms near the Convent and founded the Garrison Library.

 The introduction to the 1847 Garrison Library catalogue

A few years later it became quite clear that the place was inadequate and plans were made to build new premises. The Commander in Chief of the British Army, The Duke of York, got to hear of this via a letter from the Governor, O'Hara, (See LINK) and – as such matters were dealt with at the time – had a private chat with the Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger, who amiably agreed to have the British Government foot the bill. No doubt the whole thing was settled at one of the Pall Mall clubs that both of these gentlemen happened to be frequenting at the time.

Letter from O'Hara to the Duke of York

 The Duke of York's reply

Pitt the Younger (Gainsburgh)

The new premises were handsomely designed by Colonel Fyer (see LINK) who also became its first Librarian, a job he was happy to take on in conjunction with his real one of Chief Engineer of Gibraltar.

 Colonel William Fyer   (John Hoppner)

He also happened to be the father of an exceptionally lovely daughter called Sarah (See LINK) who was known within British circles as ‘the Beauty of the Rock’ and was no doubt much admired by the Governor Charles O’Hara. The new library, a stone-built Regency style building with rather pleasant surrounding gardens was imposing by local standards. It was opened in 1804.

The new Garrison library building in Gunner’s Parade  ( 1830s - Frederick Leeds Edridge )  (See LINK) 

In a show of gratitude the Library Committee decided to erect a bust of the Prime Minister in a specially incorporated niche in the front wall of the building. For unknown reasons the bust never materialised and the niche remains empty to this day.

The Garrison Library and the 'Empty Niche'

In a very short space of time the library became what was essentially an officers’ club and membership was restricted accordingly. Apart from the library the premises also boasted a fives court. This game, with its Etonian connections, would have appealed to the officer class as many of them were public school boys. This part of town eventually came to be known as the Ball Alley, a name which was soon corrupted by the locals into el Balali. For less strenuous exercise the place also boasted a billiards room.

All in all it was a pleasant place for officers to spend a few languid or energetic hours in the company of people of their own class. Its fine gardens, atmospheric reading rooms and air of luxury made it a slightly exotic version of that uniquely English contribution to civilization; the gentleman’s’ club.

As early as 1800 people like Thomas Walsh (See LINK) who visited Gibraltar as a young captain of the British Army on his way to join Sir Eyre Coote’s military campaign in Egypt, enthused on the fact that the committee appointed to choose which books to buy, selected only ‘the very best publications’ and that every officer on his arrival was required to pay one week’s wages to the library’s funds. It meant that the library was always well attended and admirably supplied.

Officers’ wives were of course periodically invited to the dances and balls which were held there on various occasions – Ms Fyer must have been at the top of the invitation lists - but its exclusivity was its most treasured characteristic.  In fact, according to John Galt (See LINK) in his Voyages and Travels, ‘the families of the local merchants were never admitted to the balls given by the military’. This ‘unpleasant line of separation’ had been ‘drawn, in consequence of the great number of low and vulgar mercantile adventurers who have settled in Gibraltar.’

Over the years, Galt only spent a few days on the Rock here and there and can hardly have had time to develop any profound insights into the nature of a local population that was continuing to grow. A census taken less than a year after his last visit revealed that there were well over eleven thousand civilians living on the Rock. They now outnumbered the military by a considerable margin.

The Garrison Library in 1810. Gibraltar’s contribution to Civilization

Galt, the son of a naval officer was undoubtedly a man of his time. He was a friend of Lord Byron, a man who thought that Gibraltar was ‘the dirtiest and most detestable place in existence.’ The friendship between the two men may not have been as close as some have suggested. In his autobiography Galt thought that there might have been ‘something of the genius’ about Byron but that ‘he did no loom very large’ in his imagination.

Sir John Galt  (1911)

Galt’s description of the local inhabitants was rather more breath-taking and deserves a full quote.
The population of the rock, exclusive of the garrison,’ he wrote, ‘may be computed at ten thousand souls. In the principal street, however, the throng is certainly very great; and were the appearance there to be taken as the criterion, even twenty thousand could not be considered too high an estimate. The motley multitude of Jews, Moors, Spaniards, etc. at the Mole, where the trading vessels lie, presented a new scene to me; nor was it easy to avoid thinking of the odious race of the Orang-utan, on seeing several filthy, bearded, bear-legged groups huddled together in shady corners during the heat of the day.

John Galt's Orang-utans -a Spanish and a local lady, both of Gibraltar, wearing their traditional dresses. They appear to be buying fish at the mole from a Jewish Porter   ( 1835 - P Blanchard) 

Galt hadn't finished yet  -
The languor occasioned by the heat appeared to have increased the silly expression of their faces; particularly of the Jews, who, notwithstanding the usual sinister cast of the Hebrew features, seemed here to be deplorably simple animals. Their females are entitled to any epithets but those which convey ideas of beauty or delicacy. A few may possibly be discovered, now and then, inclining towards comeliness, but so seldom, that it is no great injustice to call them, on the whole, superlatively ugly.

Sir John Galt's ‘superlatively ugly Jewish woman’ of Gibraltar (J.F.Lewis) (See LINK

A review of Galt’s book in the New York Quarterly Magazine of 1812 noted his negative attitude towards the ordinary people who inhabited the Med – not just those of Gibraltar - and was caustic in its criticism.  In fact the editor went so far as to state that he had,
seldom met with a work of the kind that it was less possible to commend. 
Somewhat hypocritically Galt himself attempted to establish a Gibraltarian trading company in 1813 in order to circumvent Napoleon's embargo on British trade. Wellington's victory in Spain made this both uneconomic and unfeasible so he gave up on the project. In fact he became a bankrupt. One wonders, had he succeeded, if he would have considered himself a ‘low and vulgar mercantile’ adventurer. Nevertheless he was right in his main assertion; the only locals who ever made it past the doors of that ’handsome detached building’ were the servants.
By 1827 the novelty of the Garrison Library seems to have palled. According to Andrew Bigelow (See LINK) , the place was ‘little used, not even for the purpose of an occasional lounge.’ But then Bigelow was also of the opinion that ‘literary tastes and pursuits were quite foreign to the Rock.’ Here and there a shelf may be found in the corner of some miscellaneous warehouse, where a few dictionaries, hornbooks, classical readers and copies of common prayer’ were kept but little else. Obviously warming to the theme he notes that ‘occasionally, a novel or the last poem, or a number of a review or magazine, straggles into the Garrison, but even these are scarcely noticed.’

And yet as further proof that no two witnesses will ever come up with the same story, Thomas Hamilton (See LINK) who visited Gibraltar that same year was of the opinion that the Library was of a quality which few other Garrisons could boast. By 1835 Robin Martin in his History of the British Colonies (See LINK) carries things one step further and insists that it had become one of the finest in Europe!

Inside the Garrison Library (1846 - J.M. Carter )   (See LINK)

There is little historical evidence to suggest that the civilians felt any great sense of pique at being excluded from the library. In fact reading through the lines one gets the impression that historians were generally of the opinion that most of the residents could hardly read and that such things as libraries were viewed by them as yet another eccentric British nonsense. What happened next, however, suggests that it must have rankled.

Mid 19th century photo of the Garrison Library - the well know dragon tree and palms have yet to make their appearance 

Early 20th century - with palm and dragon tree

Shortly after the creation of the Garrison Library, the locals set up their own version in an out of the way side street. In a parody of its military counterpart it also proved too small to deal with its growing number of publications. One hundred and sixty of Gibraltar’s merchants came to the rescue by raising enough money to construct a stylish new building on what was then a prime site.
In 1817 in the presence of the Lieutenant-Governor General Sir George Don (See LINK) his senior staff and a military guard of honour, a foundation stone was laid somewhere on the east side of Commercial square. The press noted the presence of the Governor and his acolytes but the real honour of the day belonged to the local residents and in particular to the merchant princes of the Rock.

Mention was made of John Maria Boschetti ( See LINK ) representing the Catholic ‘Elders of the Church’, David Johnston, a Protestant of the ‘Grand Jury and Merchant’s Society’ and Joseph Abuderhram representing those of ‘the Hebrew persuasion.’ The place was called the Exchange and Commercial Library and is today in use as Gibraltar’s Parliament Building.

1830 - The Exchange and Commercial Library

 The Exchange and Commercial Library during the Empire Day celebrations. It had hardly changed     (1904 - The Graphic)

By 1823 the Library was sponsored by 150 ‘Proprietors’ of which slightly less than 90 percent had surnames which were recognisably English. The non-British contingent included, well-known locals such as Aaron Cardozo, (See LINK) Solomon Benamor, Antony Francia Joseph Porral and Judah Levy. Boschetti had now become Sir John, one of only three knighted individuals on the list. Sir Emanuel Viale (See LINK) was another. The book list was rather less impressive. The library held fewer than 3000 books.

1828 - The name on the boat in this view of the Rock from the Middle of the Bay is that of Ralph Lowe. He was the 110th proprietor of the Commercial Library ( F. Benucci )  (See LINK) 

Among the usual club rules was one which stated that Proprietors keeping Hotels or Lodging Houses would not be allowed to invite people to the Library. It makes one wonder at the quality of the tourist trade at the time.

It is a curious but understandable anomaly that the Garrison Library has always been viewed by local residents as a somehow grander heritage than the old Exchange and Commercial Library. Yet the former was and still is just a club whereas the latter developed into something of historical importance. Over the years it became more than just a place where the well-off could meet to do business, catch up with the latest news or just simple improve their minds. The Library Committee was at first elected by the its subscribers, but later any local householder wishing to participate could do so and as time passed it soon found itself at the center of the world of local politics.

Old postcard showing the Garrison Library

Biglow, however, was as scathing in his opinions of the civilian version as he was with the Garrison Library.  It had been established, he wrote, ‘as a mere matter of form, - the books being wisely kept for show.’ The few local residents that resorted to it were attracted mainly by the newspapers ‘which were spread daily upon the table.’ As for literature as a topic of conversation, it was seldom introduced.

A few years later the Garrison Library was still in vogue. When Benjamin Disraeli came to visit ( See LINK ) he was told that it contained more than 12 000 volumes. He also found out that the library had a copy of his father’s Literary Characters, a book which he had edited himself. When he discovered that it was looked upon as a ‘masterpiece’ he,
apologised and talked of youthful blunders; but finding them, to his astonishment, sincere, and fearing they were stupid enough to adopt his ‘last opinion’, he shifted his position just in time. 
All of which says more about Disraeli’s overweening vanity than the intellectual shortcomings of the Garrison’s officers. From then on, however, the Library became one of the best known institutions on the Rock and not a visitor passed by without writing about it.

1830s The young Disraeli

Josiah Condor who was on the whole rather indifferent to most things Gibraltarian was of the opinion that the Garrison Library,
together with the sensible and polite conversation of the engineer and artillery officers, most of whom are men of education and liberal minds, gives an agreeable tone to the society and manners’ of Gibraltar.

1880s Garrison Library book label

 But perhaps the Library deserves one last quote as it appears on Richard Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain, a work renowned for its venomous descriptions of all things Gibraltarian. ( See LINK )  Here in the Garrison Library,
let the traveller with the sweet Bay and Africa before him, a view seldom rivalled, and never to be forgotten, look through the excellent Historia de Gibraltar by Ignacio Lopez de Ayala.(See LINK)

Richard Ford. Apparently he liked dressing up like a 'native' when he was travelling through Spain.

By 1897 the library seems to have accepted that at least one or two well off local residents might be were worthy of membership. When a special committee was appointed to investigate the possibility of forming a club within the premises of the library, one of the six signatories was a prominent local resident, Joseph A Patron.

Incidentally the report concluded that the scheme was the best that could be suggested 'for upholding both institutions - the Library and the Club. The proposed agreement may appear at first sight to entail a loss on the Library, but the loss it would suffer from the establishment of a Club outside would probably be far heavier.' I am not entirely sure what this was all about but the tone of the conclusion suggests that the committee was not entirely without misgivings.

Part of the 1897 report of the special committee.

Strangely enough when the 'fundamental' laws of the Library were changed eight years earlier in 1889 membership still seems to have been restricted to officers and civil servants one of the signatories was the above mentioned Joseph Patron. The reason for this anomaly may have been that this gentleman was considered by the British authorities as a man of influence who 'represented large interests in Gibraltar'. In other words he was a rich member of the community who had decided to work within the parameters of power laid down by the colonial government.

Part of the 1897 report of the special committee.

1918 Book Label

1823 - List of Proprietors of the Commercial Library