The Freemason's Magazine for August 1794 includes several letters written in 1748 by Thomas Dunckerley to the Earl of Chesterfield. A cursory research on my part identifies Dunckerley as a particularly influential 18th century Freemason who also happened to be the bastard son of George II. Perhaps appropriately he received financial assistance from the Freemasons in Gibraltar that enabled him to persuade George III to accept him as his half-brother.
Thomas Dunckerley ( from his Biography by Henry Sadler - 1891 )
In 1747 - long before he had joined the Masons - he was appointed Chief Gunnery Officer on a Royal Navy Sloop. It is perhaps on board this ship that he visited and got to know Gibraltar. Two letters written by him describing the Rock have survived. They were written to the Earl of Chesterton whose main claim to fame from Dunckerley's point of view was that he was a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the Prince of Wales - his half-brother. The first letter is a description of St George's Cave - now known as St Michael's. The second a short, general description of Gibraltar.
Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield
Letter I - A Description of St George's Cave at Gibraltar - Undated.
ln compliance with your Lordship’s desire, I do myself the honour of giving you the following description of St. George’s Cave, as related to me by an officer of this garrison.
A little above the Red Sand, not far from Europa Point, on the S. W. side of the hill, is a large cavity, which is the mouth of St. George’s Cave : the entrance is very steep, in some places descending regularly, in others very irregularly, and all the way very dirty and slippery occasioned by the continual penetration of the water through the top and sides of the rock, which causes a mouldering and decay in the stone, so that one cannot well go down without boots.
The descent to the Cave is in some places a man’s height, in others you are obliged to crawl on hands and knees. After several turnings and windings, which render the passage very tiresome, you enter the Cave itself; the bottom which is level, and the roof very regularly arched after the ancient Gothic manner. There are several tables, with benches round them, the workmanship of which is very curious, all cut out of the solid rock ; but the roof and sides surpass all imagination for beauty and magnificence.
The gentleman from whom I had this account assured me, that all the descriptions invention ever furnished us with are poor and mean in comparison of the glories, that strike you in your first entrance into this Cave; adding, that it infinitely exceeded the finest paintings or sculpture he had ever seen, as well in the prodigious lustre and diversity of colours that shine round you on every side, as for the neatness of the carving and other embellishments.
This Cave, in common with most other extraordinary productions of art or nature, are ascribed to preternatural architects, and various are the stories raised of apparitions, &c. haunting this place. The most probable conjecture that can be raised is, that some priests, or other retired persons, chose this spot to seclude themselves from the World, and employed their leisure hours in beautifying this their retreat. The beauties that are celebrated in this Cave are, in my opinion, the equal, productions of Art and Nature.
The tables, with their surrounding seats are doubtless hewn out of rock. and as the water is continually dropping from all parts, it polishes the sides of the cave and renders them as smooth as the finest marble and the tops of the table are as fine as the smoothest glass.
Most that visit this cave are obliged to carry lighted torches with them to find their way and now the rays proceeding from these lights are thrown upon the polished surface of the internal parts of the Cave which is entirely composed of convexities and concavities and again reflected back in all the beautiful diversity of colours, in the same manner as we see a diamond or a cut glass reflect the beams of a candle and this I take to be the natural cause of this wonderful appearance.
There was formally a very good entrance to this Cave, but it is now stopped up by the falling in of the rock, and I don't doubt but that the Cave itself will, in the process of time, share the same fate.
I have the honour to be,A quarter of a millennium later the Cave is still there in all its glory - albeit now known by its original name of St Michael's. The tables and chairs mentioned do not seem to have survived. Nor is there any mention of a Moorish wall that almost certainly still guarded the entrance at the time. Whether Dunckerley ever actually visited the cave himself is of course impossible to verify.
Your Lordship’s most obedient servant.
Letter II - A Description of Gibraltar
I had the honour of sending to your Lordship some account of St, George's Cave at Gibraltar, and now proceed to give you a description of that garrison. Gibraltar is a very high and steep bill, of an oblong figure, arising out of a plain almost perpendicular, which adds greatly to its loftiness. This place is the key to the Mediterranean, by reason that no fleet can pass to or from it unobserved or unlicensed by the masters of this important spot, which were formerly the Spaniards, but at present the English.
Though the fortifications of this place are universally allowed to be the most regular and strong imaginable, yet in all that art has effected but a poor superstructure upon the most wonderful production of nature, who seems to have played the engineer here with utmost skill. The Eastern, or back part of the hill, is one continued horrid precipice; the North side, which arises out of a low marshy plain, is extremely rugged and steep; and the South part, orEuropa Point, is also very steep, and runs out into the sea.
Thomas Dunckerley's visit to Gibraltar must have overlapped with that of the Reverend Robert Poole, who also left us his impressions. ( see LINK ) Poole's notes are in fact the most complete reference available as to what the Rock was like in the mid 18th century. His were far more detailed and were included in a book rather than a letter. Nevertheless Dunckerley's observations are not dissimilar to those of Poole and contain the odd bit of extra information.
On the, North side, towards the Spanish lines (the advanced posts of which are not above a pistol-shot from ours), on the declivity of the hill, is a very strong battery of several brass pieces, called Willis’s Battery, which has communication under round with the lines which run up the side of the hill, and are, as I am informed by connoisseurs, of incredible-strength; all along the side, and up to the top of the hill, appear the vestiges of the old Moorish lines, cast up by them when they were in possession of this place; there are, also, the ruins of an old Moorish castle. ( see LINK )
The Rock of Gibraltar ( 1750 - Cavallero Renau )
At the top of the hill is the Signal-house, which has a most extensive prospect, and from whence, by signals, the garrison is informed of whatever ships are either coming into or going out of the Streights. Towards Europa Point, on the South side of the hill is the New Mole, ( see LINK ) capable of containing ships of the greatest burthen, where our men of war commonly heave down and refit.
A little above this, upon the side of the hill, is the hospital for sick and wounded seamen. This is a very good building on the inside; the wards are very neat and clean; there is a large spacious court-yard in the middle, surrounded by several apartments, which are built upon piazzas, and form an open kind of gallery or balcony all along, much like those we have in some of our stage-inns in London, which is extremely agreeable, as by this means the least breath of air that stirs in the warm season of the year in this hot climate, is brought into the apartments for the benefit of the sick.
This hospital is served by a physician, surgeon, and two mates, with proper assistants. Near to this are the barracks for the soldiers, a neat and regular piece of building of free-stone; it is in a long square with two wings; the apartments are neat and commodious.
Dunckerley could be the first but would not be the last person to mention the Naval Hospital as one of the outstanding building of Gibraltar - together with the nearby South Barracks. Both had been very recently built by another influential Freemason, James Gabriel Montressor, Gibraltar's Chief Engineer at the time. ( see LINK )
The Naval Hospital in the early 20th century and original plan by Montressor
A little further lies a great plain of sand, called, from its colour, the Red Sand, which is the common burying-place of the Garrison; at the North end of this sand is the place where ships send their boats for water, called the Ragged Staff ( see LINK ) a very convenient place for watering the largest fleet, and affords abundance of most excellent water.
Contemporary Spanish map showing Puerta de Mar or Ragged Staff ( 1747 - Unknown )
About a quarter of a mile from this place is the South-port gate, ( see LINK ) by which you enter the town, which consists of a small number of houses, very low and ill-built, and, upon the whole, cuts a very mean figure. The governor has, indeed, a very handsome house and gardens, which were formerly a convent, and still retains that name.
The Governor in question was Lieutenant General William Hargrave ( see LINK ) - perhaps the most avaricious of a long line of British administrators responsible for the fortress during this period.
Lieutenant General William Hargrave ( Abraham Seaman )
There are a great number of Jews here, who seemed to me to be used chiefly as luggage-porters, for you will see three or four of these circumcised gentlemen with a great chest or bale hanging by the middle on a long pole, which they carry across their shoulders, and so trudge along with it at a surprising rate.
Their usual dress is a little short black cassock, bound round their middle with a piece of blue or other coloured linen, and falling down, in a kind of close drawers, as low as their knees. They always go barefoot through choice, by reason of the heat of the climate, andpartly through poverty.
Porters at Waterport. These may be Moorish rather than Jewish. As many of the latter originally came from Barbary they were often hard to tell apart from their Moorish compatriots.
A surprisingly innocuous - even sympathetic - treatment of the Jewish population of Gibraltar.
Gibraltar is a place of very great trade for cloths, silk, etc. and contains upwards 4000 inhabitants, exclusive of a garrison of 3000 always kept here. From the town we go out by the Landport gate into the lines, which run and meet those of the Spaniards upon the little neck of land or marsh which joins Gibraltar to the Spanish main. This gate is about a mile distant from the South-port gate, being the length of the garrison.
His figure of 4 000 inhabitants is hard to believe. In 1725 there were just over a thousand and by 1753 the numbers had grown to just over 1800. In fact the population did not reach Dunckerley 's figure until after the Great Siege in the late 1790s. One possible explanation was the perennial difficulty in distinguishing between residents, legitimate visitors and innumerable illegal immigrants
Near it is the Waterport, or Old Mole, ( see LINK ) formerly the place for careening ships, but since the building of the new by the English, it only serves as a kind of haven for market-boats, xebeques, etc.
There is a very, handsome parade for the troops, about half the bigness of that at Whitehall. Opposite to this hill lies the town of Old Gibraltar, ( Algeciras ) in the possession of the Spaniards, who are frequently spectators of their own ships made prizes, and brought in by us under their inspection.
I have the honour to be, &c.
Grand Parade - ( 1860s - G. W. Wilson )