1845 - The Loreto Nuns - 5. Getting Settled
General Sir Robert Wilson and Miss Wilson
The Sisters first occupied “a good house near the Protestant Cathedral”. This was probably “Don Place” on the north side of Governor’s Lane, just off Main Street. “Don Place” is carved into the stone archway over the entrance. It was in an excellent position in the town but unfortunately it had no grounds.
The Protestant Cathedral of the Holy Trinity
It was fitting that this should be the Loreto nuns’ first home; General Don, (see LINK) despite his evident dislike of Gibraltarians – on arrival he had originally devised a plan to relocate them all to Windmill Hill so as to leave more space in the town for the military – had occasionally allowed children of civilians to attend the military schools, if necessary free of charge, upon production of a certificate from the Catholic priest to the effect that they were unable to afford the fees.
Windmill Hill (John Hollingworth Mann) (See LINK)
Nevertheless schooling was difficult in Gibraltar. The wealthy could afford private tutors of course and some even sent their children to be educated in England, while the Army provided small regimental schools. But apart from a handful of very inadequate ‘dame schools’ (the fees were one peseta a day, and the children brought their own stools to sit on in the ‘teacher's kitchen) and the efforts of local priests to run small literacy classes for a few boys there was little available for poor Catholic children. Naturally, when the new Protestant free schools were set up Catholic children flocked to them. Soon the Loreto nuns would alleviate the situation for the girls.
Don Place is a pleasant house in a pretty little private patio. The patio floor is covered with large flagstones. There is an ornamental ironwork gate not far from the entrance. The patio was probably adorned with flowerpots on the wall and on the ground in the style of many private courtyards in Gibraltar. A heavily ornamented iron hand pump would have existed somewhere in the yard; water would have been pumped up from the underground water cistern which all refurbished houses and new buildings were obliged to have since the early 1800s when General Don (see LINK) had ordered the storage of rain water collected from the flat roofs.
Heating would not have been a great problem in Gibraltar as winters are relatively mild, and in those days larger houses would have had coal or log fires. There was, of course, no gas until 1856 at the earliest, when the Gibraltar Gas Company was formed, and at first it only supplied some of the street lighting; but then Bray in County Wicklow, near Dublin, didn’t have gas until 1860 either. All cooking was done on a Mediterranean version of the Roman ceramic stove. This consisted of a high brickwork ‘table’ with several openings on the surface where cooking pots were placed over small charcoal fires. A plaited straw fan with a cane handle would be used to drive air through rectangular holes at the front of each small fireplace.
Gibraltar Gas Company certificate (1857 )
Here in Don Place the Loreto nuns had their first Convent. It was called “St Aloysius”. Soon after their arrival in Gibraltar the Governor, Lieutenant General Sir Robert Wilson (renowned for his brilliant if sometimes erratic exploits during the Napoleonic Wars) and Miss Wilson, his daughter, visited their ‘neighbours’; Don Place is almost immediately opposite the back entrance to the Governor’s Palace, which incidentally is also called ‘The Convent’ because in Spanish times prior to 1704 it had been a Franciscan Convent. The Governor and his daughter expressed great interest in the mission of the Loreto nuns and wished them well for the future.
The old facade of the Governor's Convent ( c1850s )