The People of Gibraltar
2015 - Main Street - A "Great Street"

I have no idea what Main Sreet was called during the years of the Moorish occupation. In fact I am not at all sure what the overall town plan looked like when the Spaniards took over in 1462. (See LINK)




Possibly the oldest extant pictures of Main Street - unfortunately depicting it just after the destruction caused by the Great Siege - the top picture faces south, the bottom one north

They must of course have inherited the layout as originally developed during the early 14th century by the Marinid ruler Abu-l-hasan (see LINK) and which consisted of the following three main areas:

1. Mooorish Castle, a monumental tower with its own extensive alcazaba the whole protected by well fortified walls (see LINK
2. Barcina, which lay directly to the east just below the castle precincts and was probably not much more than a glorified beach opening up towards the Bay (see LINK)
3. Turba, which lies directly south of la Barcina and was were the bulk of the population must have lived. The theory is that the word "Turba" probably came from al-turba al-ḥamra,
Arabic for the "red sands" which formed the foundation of the town and continued well beyond South Port Gates.

The Main Street in la Turba almost certainly dissected it and was the main street of the town more or less as it does and is today. However, it is also almost certain that this street as inherited by the Spaniards was shorter than its modern version. It would no doubt have reached at least up to the main mosque - today's Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned - which was built in the 14th century by Abu-l-hasan as well as the Moorish Baths which were constructed at the same time and lie somewhat further west of the Mosque but almost in line with it.all

A possible plan of the Moorish town of Gibraltar showing possible limits to Main Street in 1462

The principal buildings that appeared to the south of this line after the last Castilian conquest were built in the 16th century on vacant lots. The two largest were the Monasterio de San Francisco - the Convent - and the Iglesia de San Juan de Letrán both of them with large gardens which were significantly larger than most of the others elsewhere. Somewhat later in the century, Charles V wall was built, (see LINK) incorporating what would at first be known as Puerta Nueba (South Port Gate) (see LINK) with an extension to Calle Real then known appropriately as Calle Nueba 

Contemporary map showing the overall plan of the town - Calle Real is shown running from the old Barcina gate straight through town and right up to Charles V Wall and its Puerta Nueba (South Port Gate)     ( 1627 - Luis Bravo de Acuña )  (See LINK) 

As can be gleaned from Alonso Hernández del Portillo's Historia (see LINK), by the early 17th century onwards the entire stretch from the Barcina Gate to Puerta Nueba was known quite simply as Calle Real. After 1704 and subsequent takeover by the British (see LINK), Gibraltar's main thoroughfare appears as "Great Street" on a 1712 summary of Jews who paid rent to their new British masters. A 1771 publication  identifies it as the "High Street"


( 1704 - Col D'Harcourt )


( 1706 - Peter Schenk )


( 1727 - Nicolas de Fer 1727 )

As shown above numerous maps published after 1704 tend to concentrate on the older sections and fortifications of the town in great detail while more or less ignoring the rest of the residential town. Nevertheless a 1756 Landlord Billet list mentions Main Street several times and suggest that this was the preferred name at the time. At some unknown date, however, the authorities took their cue from two of the city gates and Gibraltar's Catholic Cathedral and renamed the street. 

The section from Waterport Gate to the Church of St Mary the Crowned was rechristened Waterport Street, the area in front of the church was called Church Street and the continuation towards the south became Southport Street. This change may have taken place in stages. For example in the 1756 list mentioned above Southport also appears as address but there is no mentioned of either Waterport or Church Street. 

Several decades later, an officer who took part in the Great Siege - Samuel Ansell (see LINK) - mentions in his Journal that during 1781:
A shell which entered a house in South Port Street, in the explosion blew a Genoese woman out of the window, but fortunately she did not receive any other damage than a bruise by the fall.
And in 1802 Standing Orders issued by the Governor General O'Hara (see LINK) mention both Waterport and Southpost Street
In 1828, Andrew Biglow - Travels in Malta and Scily with Sketches of Gibraltar (see LINK) - muddies the waters considerably by suggesting that the entire Main Street was now known as Church Street.
From this quarter my guide conducted me into the heart of the town through streets which elsewhere would be termed lanes and alleys; and these were all filled with passing multitudes, men, women and children, sailors and military, horses and carts, dogs, goats and asses. At length we entered Church-street, the main thoroughfare through the town, and which in width and other comforts may rival, but not surpass old Ann-street in Boston. . . . 
Shops of three floors, narrow and poorly lighted, let in Church-street, for rents varying from one hundred, to one hundred and forty dollars a month. This partly explains the dearness of almost every article of personal or family use, which is vended in Gibraltar.
In 1840 another visitor, E. D.H.E. Napier (see LINK) refers to Main Street as "Caille Real" - 
(0n) entering the town, (they) steer as they best may through the numerous “bourros,” “carros,” water-carts, drays, Jews, Moors, and contrabandistas, with which, even at this early hour, the narrow “Caille Real” is infested. 

Despite Napier's mishearing of the local "Calle Real", the street sign on the right still shows a very English "Main Street" in this mid 19th century engraving   ( Unknown )

In 1860, yet another one, Walter Thornbury, suggests that Waterport Street- on its own - was the "High Street" of Gibraltar. It confirms that the new names were finally being accepted by at least some of the population.
That night I fell asleep in the hot boarded bedroom of the Club House Hotel, Gibraltar, which once, I believe, a great man's house, (see LINK) is now merely a great house for travellers, and rears its yellow-ochry bulk in a sort of small market square just out of Waterport Street, which is the High Street of Gib. 
Waterport Street is prolonged to the S. by Church Street. Beyond Commercial Square and the Exchange we come to the Catholic Cathedral on the left, originally a mosque, but restored by the 'Catholic kings' after 1502 . . .   A little farther on, on the same side is the Supreme Court with its pretty garden. . . The southmost part of this line of streets is Southport Street.

Waterport Street by the Exchange and Commercial Library looking Nouth  (See LINK)


Waterport Street by the Exchange and Commercial Library looking south 


Church Street by the Cathedral looking north


Possibly still part of Church Street by the Court House looking north

It was only after the 1868 census that Main Street no longer appears as an address and Waterport Street, Church Street, Southport Street take over. Ten years later, in 1878, Main Street is once again an appropriate address whereas Church Street appears with the proviso that it is now considered to be part of Main Street.  Over the century the name of the southern section was spelt as either Southport or South Port Street - on one particular postcard it is spelt as Southportstreet.


Southportstreet

Unfortunately in 1884, R. Stewart Patterson writing in the magazine Notes and Queries for Military Men reintroducing the idea that there were in fact four sections to the street rather than three:
One of these streets extended from the Land Port to the South Port, and was called Calle Real. It now bears four English names in different portions, Waterport Street, Main Street, Church Street, and South Port Street.


Waterport Street     ( 1880s  G.W.Wilson  )  (See LINK)

To make matters even more confusing, the Spanish speaking members of the local population called Waterport Street la Calle de la Mar  and South Port Street la Calle del Muro. In other words - and as far as I can make out - these renaming initiatives appear to have been official but relatively unsuccessful attempts to standardise the naming of Gibraltar's main thoroughfare.

Reading between the lines the locals seem to have derived a certain amount of pleasure during the many polls carried out during the entire 19th century in giving different names to the same street when identifying their personal addresses. It was only in 1881 that the three section system seems to have been more or less acknowledged by everybody. 


The Post Office in Main Street - which  was still partially cobbled at the time  (1880s - The National Archives )

This continued right up to 1913, when Main Street was officially adopted as the name of the entire thoroughfare from the beginning of Casemates right through to South Port Gate. Waterport Street, Church Street and Southport Street were theoretically abolished. But theory and practice rarely coincide in Gibraltar and throughout the early 20th century the old names of the different sections were still in common use. 

Throughout this name changing merry-go-round the actual shape of the street altered very little and would probably have been reasonably recognisable to a Spanish time-traveller from 17th century Spain. The only major changes would have occurred in the early 19th century.

During the Great Siege (see LINK) which took place in the late 18th century, the Cathedral of Santa María la Coronada was badly damaged and in 1800 the elders of the church accepted an offer from the Governor - General O'Hara - to pay for its repair. There was one condition - that the building be shortened by about one quarter of its length. This allowed the authorities to remove the kink caused by the fact that the church jutted out eastward into the street. The work was completed in 1810 and Main Street was both straightened and widened. 

Prior to O'Hara's offer to repair the church, the damage caused to town during the four year Siege that some thought was given to redesigning the overall town plan. In the end and much to the disgust of John Drinkwater (see LINK) - the definitive biographer of the Great Siege - nothing came of it probably because General Eliott (see LINK) who was still his boss and Governor at6 the time thought the expense would be too great. The reality was that the sheer geography of the western slope of the Rock did not really permit for too many alternatives. Where possible the "new" town was built on the foundations of the old and it - and Main Street - retained its overall shape.


A comparison of several town plans of Gibraltar
1627 - Luis Bravo de Acuña (see LINK) - 1720 - Hermann Moll - 1779 - Juan Caballero   1831 - W.H. Smyth

As regards its name, we seem to have opted for a minimalist approach - that old Hispano-Moorish street is today simply known as either Main Street or Calle Real.