The People of Gibraltar
1779 - John Spilsbury – A Very Disorderly Life

Frere, Lady Riches, Anderson and Israel - Benady, Mrs Tourak, Witham and Koehler

Captain John Spilsbury is one of the least quoted of all those people who kept diaries during the Great Siege and for a very good reason - his notes were not published until 1908. The original hand written text was donated to the Gibraltar Garrison Library where it was subsequently edited and published by the librarian, B.H.T. Frere, as A Journal of the Siege of Gibraltar 1779-1783


South View of the Rock as drawn by Spilsbury  ( Gibraltar Heritage Trust )

Unfortunately very little is known about the author other than that he was a captain of the 12th Regiment of Foot, that he was stationed in Gibraltar throughout the Great Siege - in fact from March 1776 to November 1783 - and that he took part in the famous Sortie.

Curiously Captain John Drinkwater’s own well known and endlessly quoted version - A History of the Late Siege of Gibraltar - was printed by one T. Spilsbury of London. This has led to the conjecture that the two captains may have come to some arrangement as most of the statistical figures on both diaries are remarkably similar.

All of which is rather a shame as Spilsbury, unlike everybody else, adopts a refreshingly laconic tone when dealing either with people - no matter how exalted -  or with events - no matter how earth shattering. His account deals mainly with military affairs. Nevertheless the following are a set of quotes on those occasions in which he mentions the local inhabitants, and the effect which the siege had on their daily life.  The maps and illustrations are all from the diary.

1779 - June 21 - The heaps of sand on the isthmus to be levelled by Jews and Genoese of the garrison, and no one to remain in the Garrison but those who have property, or will assist in defending it.
Most commentators give the reader the impression that the locals left Gibraltar like rats from a sinking ship. What evidence exists suggests that it was the British born residents - military wives and so forth - who were the first to leave and that quite a few locals did stay behind.
July 19 - The butchers ordered to kill only a certain quantity of meat, but they proving that the rest of the cattle would starve, and that they could not afford to buy more, unless allowed to kill them as they could get them, the order was taken off. 
Aug 11 - A privateer's boat of this place deserted to the enemy. 
Aug 19 - Last night a man came from Spain in a large boat by himself and brought fruit etc to exchange for tobacco. 
Sept 5 - The Jews are praying on their burial ground for delivery from the Spaniards . . . 
Sept 12  -The Jew's boat brought in a Dutch Dogger  . .  laden with wheat cheese etc which is brought into the garrison 
Sept 13 - The inhabitants are leaving the North end of the town
The artillery of the Spanish lines were quite capable of reaching not just the northern parts of the town but right up to Governor's parade and well past its centre. The easy solution was to move out of the town altogether and set up temporary accommodation somewhere to the south of Charles V Wall - which is what most people did.


Lady Riches house was in what is today known as Crutchett's Ramp in the middle of Villa Vieja. This old part of town was in the north and well within reach of the enemy. It was almost totally destroyed during the siege.
Sep 25 - It seems that the Jew Boat got £50 for bringing in the above Dutch lugger. 
Sep 29 - New Jerusalem, on a piece of ground above South Barracks, laid out for the Jews to build on, goes on fast.
This is probably a unique picture of New Jerusalem - also known as either Black Town because of its horrendously unhygenic conditions - or as Hardy Town - the name of the  officer placed in charge of it
Nov 27 - The gardeners continue to work on the Neutral ground, and inform the Dons of anything new in the garrison. 
Dec  14 - Robbery frequent . . .
It is not easy to  make out whether these gardeners were working for the enemy or for the Garrison. Many a local Genoese risked his life during the Siege working precariously in the middle of the Neutral Ground between two sets of well armed enemies. Eliott had - understandably - encouraged them to do so as their produce was desperately needed. Less understandably he also encouraged them to sell their produce at the highest possible price they could obtain. It would, he thought, make them more willing to take risks.
1780 - Jan 12 - Forts Barbara and Phillip fired several shots  . . . one came to French Parade through a house, and fell in the street and wounded a woman, to the great surprise of everybody, who did not think they could throw so far.
French Parade - known as such because a Frenchman had once kept a fine garden in the vicinity of the old Theatre Royal - is one of those places on the Rock that have gone through several name changes. The original name was Governor's Parade, probably a reference to the fact that prior to 1704, this was the address of the Spanish Governor. Later it became known as Gunner's Parade when a barracks for the artillery was built on the west side of the square. In the nineteen century it reverted to its original name of Governor's Parade.
Jan 15 - Merchant Anderson offered to send a brig to Barbary, if the Government would be at half the expense, but she is not gone.



These were the kind of ships favoured by most local privateers during the Siege. Anderson was the exception. He must have been very well off. He owned a brig.
Feb 20 - Several women and children sent home. . .  Arrived a prize settee, taken by Mr Anderson's privateer . . 
Oct 9 - The Jewish women go to their burial ground and make great cries and noise for, or to, some of their dead.
Yom Kippur fell on the 9th of October that year. The visit to the cemetery should have taken place the previous night in accordance with Jewish custom. As both synagogues were in the town, it was probably thought safer for the Yom Kippur service to be held in the cemetery in the South.
1781 - Feb 20 - About 40 Jewesses etc sailed for Minorca. 
Mar 12 - Poor people much distressed for bread. 
Mar 24 - Three officers . .  paid smart money, about 30 guineas, for beating and abusing a Jew. It is the first time they have found protection in this place. 
May 7 - Last night sailed the Minorca, and several vessels with inhabitants on board, for Minorca. 
May 21 - A poor woman broke her thigh in striving to get out of the way of the . .  gunboats.

View of Buena Vista Barracks
May 24 - About midnight a shell fell into a house, South Shed, and buried about 16 people for 2 or 3 hours, but they got out . . .  At between 1 and 2 a.m. came the gunboats, 7th time and fired as before. Three Jews, one that had lost all he had in town, near £10 000, his clerk, and a relation, a woman, were killed and one wounded . . .
The Jews were Moses Israel and his clerk's name was Benady. The woman was Mrs Tourak or Taurel. Catherine Upton - who also kept a diary during the Siege (See LINK) - also witnessed this event. She knew the lady in question as Mrs. Tourale.

The gunboats were murderous little vessels used to great effect against the British by the Spanish Admiral Barceló. Unlike the cannons on the Spanish lines which were restricted to causing damage to the north, Barcelo's gunboats were free to go wherever they pleased - and did so. Many of the civilian casualties probably occurred during gunboat attacks against the Black Town

Jun  9 - People killed and wounded almost ever day. 
July 3 - Three women flogged through the camp for buying stolen goodsJuly 4 - In B. Town a shell bursting threw up a cask, oatmeal out of a house, which fell on its end  . . without  . .  damage. 
July 15 - The Jew's burying ground dug up by Captain Witham, Artillery. and made a garden of. 
Jun 19 - People employed making a camp ground. . 
Jun 30 - The inhabitants obliged to pay ground rent without receipt, or lose the ground, though their houses are destroyed. 
Aug 10 - Arrived the boat of a vessel from Minorca  . .  three Jews were left on board, and the mate thrown overboard.

The New Mole. At this point the Siege was taking its toll - not a ship in sight. That vessel from Minorca would have anchored here.
Sept 10 - The inhabitants etc all leave the Town when they know Captain W is on the battery
Captain W was the extravagant Capt Abram Witham of the Royal Artillery who seems to have enjoyed firing all the guns under his command in one go - to such an extent that he once set the Mill battery on fire. Luckily nobody was injured. The  inhabitants probably left town whenever they see Witham not because of his idiosyncrasies but because they knew that the Spaniards would retaliate in kind.
Sep 21 - Several people hurt today. 
Sep 26 - Several people killed and wounded. 
Sep 27 - The Governor reproved the officer overseers, for not attending the workmen sufficiently, when two of them resigned today. 
Sep 29 - Several people killed and wounded. 
Oct 2 - Several people killed and wounded.
The Sortie - Spilsbury actually took part in this well known event. (See LINK) Although he does not write about it in any detail, Spilsbury does offer plenty of plans, drawings and statistics
Nov 27 - About 12 last night a detachment of the Garrison assembled on the Red Sands  . . . and attacked, burnt, and destroyed the Dons' New and Advanced Batteries . .




The troops imnvolved in the Sortie exited the Garrison from the Sally Port - just below the main Gate - rather than through Land Port



These were the kind of structures destroyed during the Sortie




1782
Jan 11 - Several people wounded etc.
Fall of Minorca - French and Spanish forces, regained the island after a long siege of St. Philip's Castle in Port Mahon on 5 February 1782. It was a powerful psychological blow both to the garrison and to the locals as the situation was very similar to that in Gibraltar. Spilsbury only heard about it nearly a month later. This is how he records it.
Mar 1 - Wind same . .  a flag of truce. Minorca taken 
Mar 5 - Some people killed.Mar 10 - Several people wounded.
Ince's Galleries - Sergeant Major Ince began tunnelling on the 25th May. Spilsbury's first  mention of this is in June, as shown below. Later on in the diary there are periodic updates on how the work was going on. He includes two pictures which were probably drawn after the Siege had ended.
Jun 7 - A gallery is blasted in the north face of the Rock above Wills  . . .

July 19 - It appears that the Governor takes all the inhabitants money at 38 d per dollar which means that we can never get it for less than 39 or 38 ½; what management for us.
One of the most remarkable features of Spilsbury's account is his lack of enthusiasm for General Eliott - at least in comparison with all other commentators who considered him faultless both as a man and as a commander in chief.

Aug 19 - A flag of truce with a present of game, fruit etc for the governor  . . and a packet of letter for some inhabitants, brought by the Count d'Artois . .
The game and fruit were propaganda and Eliott returned them uneaten. The letters to the inhabitants was also a nice attempt to undermine moral.
Aug 21 - Several people wounded. 
Aug 22 - The influenza seems going through the Garrison, and several people are very ill of it. 
Sept 1 - Everybody busy striving to secure their property at Windmill HillSept 10 - About 2 am the  . . ships attacked us as before and threw many shots  . . . on all these firings the Line Wall is generally crowded with people. 
Sept 13- Several people wounded etc. 
Sept 15- several people killed and wounded
The Grand Assault - This event took place on the 13th and 14th of September 1782. Spilsbury's account is rather confusing. For a start he didn't think much of the enemy's 'floating batteries' - which he calls 'Junk ships'.
Sep- 13 - At about ½ past 9 a.m. ten junk ships came and anchored off the King's Bastion.

Sep 14 - The prisoners talk of a floating battery but it is not known what came of it. . .  at about 4.am. three of the Junk ships blew up.


The explosion was so violent that it blew open the doors and windows of the Naval Hospital.


La Pastora was the flag ship of the floating batteries. As regards the gunboats, the British hardly acknowledged the effectiveness of the Spanish version until long after the Siege was over. The British tried to counter with a boat of their own but they never managed to replicate Barceló's successes
Sep 25 - People killed every night. 
Oct  2 - Several people killed and wounded 
Oct 10 - A general Court Martial to try Ensign - . . . for defrauding a Jew Inn-keeper. 
Oct 17 - People left off working at night. 
Oct 22 - Spanish priest under arrest and has a sentry at his door 
Nov 20 - Officers now pay for permits etc as inhabitants.


South Bastion

1783 - Jan 6 - Some officers have been engaged in a riot among some serjeants . . at a dance, and some others in breaking open a ward in the hospital, and attacking the women there ill of the disorder. 
Jan 10 - A Jew wounded.

Jan 16 Several people wounded etc
Hostilities officially ended in Feb 1783 - but Spilsbury makes no direct reference to this.
Feb 11 - No more wood to be burnt by the soldiers, coals being plenty, and the inhabitants' houses not to be inhabited but  by their permission. 
Feb 15 - Houses begin to let very high in town, and huts wanted to purchase among the inhabitants. 
Mar 4 - A poor Jew robbed of 100 cobs . .  the Garrison baker reprimanded, having delivered very bad and dirty bread for some time past. 
Apl 23 - St George's Day.



The celebrations included a procession from the Convent to King's Bastion, the later suitably decorated with a colonnade made from the masts and yards of the floating batteries.
May 3 - It seems 8 inhabitants only have licence to sell tobacco here. 
May 8 - Arrived a Venetian from England with some Jews. 
May 21 - Wine being plenty, the soldiers now live a very disorderly life, and are constantly quarreling with the Jews, or among themselves. 
July 18 - The inhabitants that have ground in Town are desired to remove there, as an order will soon be given for leveling all buildings erected since the siege etc south of South Port Ditch. . . . 
The inhabitants to give in a return of their names and time of residence, and none to leave the Garrison without reporting where they are going, and how long they mean to be absent, on pain of being expelled. Most of the junk ship guns are expected to be got up; an Algerian dives, and slings them. 
Aug 2 - An inhabitant's house pulled down, supposed to have sold some of the Government's iron, a mistake. . . About 2 p.m. an elderly inhabitant, a barber, shot himself in consequence of the above iron. . . . No soldier to work or do any kind of service for an inhabitant. Many inhabitants arrived from England.
After the Siege Spilsbury treated himself to a visit to Spain - as a tourist. I am not sure who Sir Gascoigne was.

Spilsbury's only mention of 'George F. Koehler ( inventor of the depress gun-carriage used )' is in an appendix in which he lists the names of officers serving in Gibraltar during the Siege. He does however offer us two drawings of the various types of guns used during the conflict.