The People of Gibraltar

1842 - The 'Gib' Convicts -  Skipper Figallo and the Fandangillo

Reverend Godfrey Kingsford and Harry Blair
H. Armstrong and De Soiza
Captain Figallo and Joe Moondyne
Sutherland and William Hayes

In 1843 John Henry Capper - Superintendent of Ships and Vessels Employed for the Confinement of Offenders under Sentence of Transportation - wrote a report for the House of Commons. Apart from confirming that he possessed one of the longest official titles ever conceived by Victorian bureaucracy,  he was also pleased to let the Hon Members know that in October 1842, two hundred convicts had been sent to Gibraltar in the ship HMS Owen Glendower. They were now carrying out repairs on Public Works  to the satisfaction of the officers under whom they were employed.  


HMS Owen Glendower before its conversion into a prison hulk

It was the beginning of a relationship between Gibraltar and long-term convicts from Britain and elsewhere that would last until 1875. Throughout this period Gibraltar, along with Bermuda, was regarded as a penal stage establishment whereby convicts would spend spent one to three years on public works, after which they would be sent on to Australia.

They were housed in the frigate that had brought them to the Rock. It had been transformed  into a convict hulk and was now appropriately docked in the waters of the New Mole. Proper prison cells were later built within the dockyard and the bulk of the prisoners were moved ashore.  The ship was later converted into a hospital for the specific use of the convicts. As a curious aside, the tender that was used to bring the convicts ashore was called the 'Fandangillo'  and was under the command of Captain Figallo.


The Owen Glendower in the centre right of the picture without masts. No sign of the 'Fandangillo'.

By 1848 the number of convicts had grown to 900 and were now part of the background noise in Gibraltar. Among themselves they knew each other as 'Gib prisoners'. The Reverend Godfrey Kingsford who was a Protestant padre on the Rock at the time and had spent the previous four years involved with the convicts in one way or the other, wrote a long-winded letter to Earl Grey, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in which - among other things - he describes how the Convict labour system was handled in Gibraltar.
I proceed to describe briefly the treatment of the convicts at Gibraltar. Work is the' all in all; to this every other consideration is subordinate ; and the prevailing notion is, that they are sent hither only for this purpose. It may truly be affirmed that they labour from 4 ½  a.m. until 5 p.m., almost without interruption.  
For, though they go not to the public works much before six, yet until that time they are employed in necessary labour at home, cleaning the barracks and so forth ; and, though the majority return from the works at 3 p.m., they are then engaged in scouring clothes, and attending to other matters, equally fatiguing as their previous day's toil.  
Two or three gangs do not, in the summer months, return until 5 p.m., who, though they are allowed two hours in the day for dinner, could not avail themselves of the time for improving their minds, even if they had the means supplied ; for this is the only part of the day in which they can scour their clothes for the morrow. Hence it happens, generally, that the prisoners are not ready, by exemption from manual labour, for instruction of any kind till 6 p.m. At 7 p.m. they go to bed. 
Gibraltar Convicts - Sutherland and William Hayes
Under such a system, it is obvious that little can be done for reforming their criminal habits . . .  for the 900 men are distributed into three lots, each requiring a separate ministration - one in a wooden barrack ashore, and the remaining two in hulks respectively; and were it otherwise, were it possible for all to attend every evening, their minds, fatigued as well as their bodies, would  be but little prepared for instruction ; and yet such is the desire evinced for improving themselves by reading, that I am deluged, as it were, with applications for the loan of books. 
. . . Divine service is performed in the hulks, at a school held in the general passage and two contiguous cells, for the purpose of teaching writing and arithmetic ; yet how lamentably deficient are the means provided for their mental culture ! 
Convicts being transferred from the hulk
For upwards of 900 men confined in three separate places, there is but one chaplain, no schoolmaster, not a sufficient number of Bibles and Prayer-books to afford to a third of the prisoners every man a copy of each ; but a very few volumes of useful and entertaining knowledge, no suitable place for giving instruction, and no time set apart for the purpose. 
Kingsford was a strong advocate of a having newly arrived convicts held in isolation for 6 months to a year and half. It was something that the authorities were loath to do as it was expensive to find single cells to accommodate the constant flow of new prisoners. One curious anomaly of the system was that many convicts were transferred to other penal establishments before they had completed their sentence. Not seven years since the system began several were already sent across the Atlantic to the large convict colony at Van Diemen's Island. 

Kingsford was also convinced that the local inhabitants viewed the presence of the convicts wandering around town as a positive rather than a negative contribution. 
I have conversed with some of the oldest in habitants upon the subject, all of whom have said that the intention of sending convicts hither, when first announced, excited alarm ; the result, however, they acknowledged had proved the groundlessness of their fears. 
When, now, any of the respectable portion of the community make mention of the convicts, it is with admiration of their industry and manifest good behaviour, not with complaints at their location. 
In this he was surely mistaken. Expats and those British born individuals living on the Rock may have enjoyed the idea of having people working for the establishment for free. Not so the local non-British inhabitants who must have seen their own jobs threatened. Tradition has it that from the middle of the 19th century and well into the 20th Gibraltarian reluctance to offer themselves for work that involved physical labour stems from this perception of the convicts as a 'bad thing'.


Gibraltar convict in solitary confinement

In 1863 the obvious importance of convict labour in Gibraltar is highlighted by a detailed 36 page report sent to the Duke of Newcastle by the Governor of Gibraltar Sir William Codrington. The main reports by Harry Blair - the Prison Comptroller -  and by his deputy H. Armstrong, were veritable litanies of good news.

There were at the time anything between 935 and 779  prisoners, a large number of them working alone on various projects and 'free from any admixture with military or civilian labour.' Their conduct, the comptroller was gratified to report, had on the whole been satisfactory. 

For some reason about 600 of them were relatively new arrivals. About half of them had been brought to Gibraltar aboard the Dalhousie in 1861 and the rest on the Ironside in September 1862. As for the prison officers, their conduct had been generally praiseworthy. Among the various named wardens one stands out - a certain De Soiza. There may have been others but his name does suggest that non-British local were employed to look after the convicts.

There seems to have been no limit to the kind of public works that it was considered appropriate for convicts to be employed in and - rather surprisingly and unlike elsewhere in the Empire - they were allowed to work without military or civilian guards. 


Joe Moondyne a famous convict who made a name for himself because of his escapes from prison in Australia. He died of natural causes after having served his sentence of 17 years. He would have done his first stint in Gibraltar.

By preference, of course, the prisoners were mostly engaged in major public works. The building of a large tank near the Moorish Castle was a case in point. Another was the employment of well over a hundred of them at the Europa Quarry where they were engaged in blasting rocks and then conveying them by sea to the extension work on the New Mole. Working side by side with hired workers Gibraltar's New Mole grew in length from its original 300 ft to over 1300.


The extended New Mole. Almost all those stones were blasted out of the Rock and hewn into shape by convicts  ( 1860s - G.W.Wilson )

The Viney Cottage Quarry was also worked by the prisoners - in this case without hired help - and the stones were used to supply improvements to for the Breakwater, the New Mole Head and the building of the Buena Vista Barracks.

The shaft or drain from Buena Vista to Camp Bay was entirely done by convicts as was the dredging and the building of the new wharf at Ragged Staff. When the work on the latter was nearly finished it was intended to hand over the project to the military. The convicts seem to have taken umbrage and - rather surprisingly from a discipline point of view - their discontent was acknowledged and they were allowed to complete the work themselves.


Ragged Staff in the 1870s

Prisoners were also employed in the Dockyard's carpentry, smiths' and fitters' shops as well as the foundry.  There were so many of them mixed up with the civilian workers that it was hard to tell them apart. Similar conditions existed when convicts were involved in stone cutting. It was a situation that apparently led to certain unspecified 'difficulties'. According to the report 'the opportunities for traffic are our greatest evil'. 

By 'traffic' The writer was probably referring to cigarettes and alcohol. The Comptroller was generally of the opinion that the practice of allowing prisoners 'the privilege' to smoke one cigarette in the morning and another at night was asking for trouble.

The authorities also made sure that they personally got their own perks out of the system. Small detached parties were often employed to paint and repair the houses of the Bishop of Gibraltar, the Captain of the Port and those belonging to the officers of the Dockyard - but not apparently the Governor's residence - the Convent - which was in rather bad state at the time. 

According to local historian Freddy Gomez, other public works which the convicts were involved in over the years included the enhancement of Rosia Pier, repairs to Wellington Front and the restoration of the Casemates.  


Rosia Bay almost certainly before the convicts started work on it   ( 1844 - George Lothian Hall )

It all sounded very cosy. But there were glaring omission in the various reports. For example they all failed to mention that the convicts were made to wear a two coloured uniform stamped with the bench mark imprints resembling a bird's footprint.  They were also either ankle-chained or hand-cuffed when marched through town on their way to work.

Unfortunately the ultimate aim of the establishment was - to quote the Comptroller who wrote the 1861 report - that for every convict  'the discipline should be of such a nature, as to inspire him with a lively and enduring aversion to the place of his confinement.'




The following rather juicy quote from the British Historian Allen Andrews probably best describes the reality of convict labour in Gibraltar:
A thousand men now lived in two-story blocks of cells beyond the walls . . above the stagnant ordure from the sewers, and separated from the batteries which commanded them by a very pretty garden. The convict prison revived in Gibraltar a degrading feature that had been growing less common. 
Flogging was fading swiftly from the British Army - by 1868 the maximum sentence was fifty lashes, and it could be imposed only on active service. But convict prisoners were still dominated by rigorous brutality, and the screams of lashed men rose again on this Rock that had known much torture, and the flayed flesh spun off the scourges into the dust as the ponderous swivelling feet of the executioner wore pits in the ground.
Outside their cells, and around the prison grounds at night, were heavy spring man-traps that had the force to break a limb; for the convicts were always set on an escape. They were marched in their stiff, broad-arrowed uniform and their red neckerchiefs, manacled by the hundred, as they went off up the mountain to scarp the Rock into an even more unclimbable shape, or along to the naval dockyard, their normal place of work, where they earned tuppence a day, with a drink of grog extra if they were labouring in the water.

 ( Late 19th century - Unknown ) 
For the most part, they were ineffective workers, since the official ending of transportation gave them no incentive to outstanding good conduct. Under the transportation system a man could qualify for a ticket-of-leave after undergoing eighteen months’ solitary confinement and a minimum of eighteen months’ further detention - about four years in all counting the delays of transfer and the long voyage, and always presupposing good conduct. 
But the penal servitude system, which used Gibraltar as an outlying branch of Millbank - the terrible base prison on whose site the Tate Gallery now stands - never promised more remission than one year in four, and sentences were high.
The men did enough work to keep out of trouble, and kept a lookout for the chance to knock a guard on the head, fall into a boat, and row to Spain, where there was no extradition. Then the guns boomed, the white flag with five black crosses was flown from the Signal Station masthead and the woman of Gibraltar shivered at the realisation that desperate men were at large . . . 
During the mid 19th century Captain Frederick Brome was the governor of the Military Prison in Gibraltar. He was also a keen archaeologist. From 1863 to 1869 he made use of quite a few convicts to help him out in archaeological excavations in various caves around Gibraltar such as Genista 1 to 4 in the Windmill Hill plateau, Martin's and Figtree caves on the eastern face of the Rock and St Michael's and Poca Roca.

When the War Office got to know of Captain Brome's little hobby, they made their feelings know in no uncertain manner - he was dismissed not just from his post but from the service. 

From the authorities point of view the treatment of the convicts - archaelogical, humane or otherwise - was the least of their problems. Hidden away among the morass of statistics produced by numerous Comptrollers of the Prison in Gibraltar was one very uncomfortable fact; the profit gained from using convict labour was less than it cost to keep the whole thing going. In 1861 - to give just one example - it cost £21 500 to produce work valued at £19 000. It couldn't last and it didn't. On the 25th of May 1875 the scheme was quietly abandoned and the convict establishment was closed.