The People of Gibraltar
1799  - The Water Tanks - And the Earl of St Vincent

Rodney, Darby and Howe - O'Hara and Saumarez
Sarah and William Fyers - Betsey Wynne and Captain Fremantle
Nelson and Captain Inglefield - William Otway and Thomas Trigge
William Serfaty and Lionel Culato - James Cutforth and Boschetti
Captain Jahleel Brenton

Admiral John Jervis - Earl of St Vincent ( Sir William Beechey )

In 1796 the British Mediterranean Fleet under Sir John Jervis arrived in Gibraltar and anchored in two separate lines that stretched from Rosia Bay to Europa Point. It was by no means the best anchorage available but Britain was still at war with Spain and Jervis really had no option. He could not anchor along the northern section of the Bay as his ships would have been well in range of Spanish guns. As luck would have it, his visit coincided with a monumental storm blowing in from the north east. Three ships broke anchor and he lost one of them - HMS Courageax. It wrecked itself on Peregil Island near Ceuta and 464 men lost their lives.

Guns salvaged in 1864 from the HMS Courageax

Three years later Jervis found himself back in Gibraltar and in poor health. He had left his fleet in the rather less than capable hands of Lord Keith and had taken up residence in Rosia House. On a heavy and humid levanter day he stood by the window of his drawing room feeling every one of his 64 years of age staring unseeingly at the small harbour in front of his house. Behind him loomed the Rock its top covered in thick cloud. This damn place, he thought. It's going to kill me. It was time to go back home to England.

He couldn't really complain though.  As an admiral of the blue and commander of the Mediterranean Fleet he could more or less do what he damn well pleased and it was he who had chosen to make his headquarters in Gibraltar. But it was long before he had made it to the lofty ranks of the Royal Navy that he had started his long association with the Rock. One would say he almost found it hard to stay away.

During the Great Siege (see LINK) he had taken part in the relief of Gibraltar. Not just once but three times. He was there with Rodney the very first time in 1780, a year later with Admiral George Darby and in 1782 he made it yet again this time with the Richard Howe's fleet. 

The Relief of Gibraltar by Admiral Richard Howe ( Late 18th century - Dominic Serres )

In 1797 he had defeated a large Spanish fleet not far from the Rock at Cape St Vincent and had earned himself - among quite a few other things - the appropriate title of the Earl St Vincent. A year later his protégé Horatio Nelson had beaten the French in the Battle of the Nile. It had left the British fleet as the supreme naval presence in the Mediterranean.  But all that was in the past - ancient history, a phrase that he was certain more than a few of his acquaintances on the Rock probably said of him behind his back.

The Battle of Cape St Vincent (unknown )

They would of course have been mistaken. The Admiral may have been old and not in the best of health but that had never stopped him from getting up at the crack of dawn and taking diner late at night. He was constantly on the move inspecting everything and had even convinced the Governor - Charles O'Hara (see LINK) to order sentries not to salute him so that those under his orders would not be alerted of his arrival.  He was also a man who liked to make the odd wager - he once told a member of his staff that he had bet Admiral Samaurez 100 guineas that peace with France was imminent. It wasn't. 

His flagship was HMS Souverain - a French prize that had not quite been allowed to keep her original name as was the tradition in the Royal Navy. Her French name of Peuple Souverain - The Sovereign People - was far too revolutionary for the Royal Navy to swallow.  She was now moored in the South Mole also serving as a depot ship. She could easily have been confused for just another hulk in a bay littered with them. (See LINK

The Souverain, St Vincent's flagship and one of the many memo's which he sent forth from her

Not that Jervis cared overly about appearances. There were other matters that worried him far more. A ruthless disciplinarian, he was particularly annoyed by the drunkenness and the lack of discipline shown by the soldiers of the Garrison - or as he himself put it - "the abominable licentiousness and total dereliction of all my maxims".  Ironically in this case he was actually referring to a mutiny aboard his own ships.

Mutinies broke out in St Vincent's fleet when they were off Cadiz. On the St George a mutiny broke out in protest against the death sentence passed on sailors convicted of buggery. Four of the protesters were then convicted as well. The day of execution was a Sunday which led to further protests among his officers. Nelson, however, was with him all the way:
If it had been Christmas Day instead of Sunday I would have executed them.  
Not the kind of sentiment one would have associated with that much loved British hero.  Later there was more trouble aboard the Marlborough and by 1799 no less than 50 sailors had been hanged.

HMS Marlborough    ( Henry J. Morgan )

The problem in Gibraltar was that in 1797 there were nearly 7,000 soldiers stationed on the Rock and the vast majority of them were thoroughly bored with the lack of available entertainment. The solution was to get drunk. Army pay had recently gone up by no less than 50%. It was an increase which was almost entirely spent on drinking even more alcohol from the 90 pubs and taverns available to them. Junior officers were forgiven their sins as long as they were able to stand up unsupported during evening parades. In any case their senior officers were hardly in a position to do anything about it - they were rarely sober enough themselves to do so. 

Drink, of course, led to indiscipline and seriously interfered with the smooth running of the Garrison. But there were other reasons that also made it increasingly important that somebody should do something about it - a very large number of reasons in fact. The civilian population had arisen very rapidly during the previous decade to 8,000 souls. Most of these were Genoese, Spanish and Jewish residents rather than British born individuals. They were orderly people who worked hard, hardly ever got drunk. They objected to having their wives and families subjected to periodic and unpleasant encounters with drunken soldiers. 

The problem came to a head in 1798 while half the Garrison was away on an expedition to Minorca. A large number of residents cooked up a plan to return Gibraltar to Spain and bribed members of the Garrison to help carry it out. The authorities, however, soon became aware of the plot and the governor responded by expelling no less than 1,100 civilians. 

Curiously this event is rarely treated in depth by any mainstream history of the Rock. Several British historians suggest that this "shady" plot was hatched by Manuel Godoy - the Spanish Prime Minister to Charles IV - together with Jews from Paris and Irish officers in the Garrison. Unfortunately they give no references. In fact it is a theory that is difficult to accept. There were no Irish regiments in Gibraltar at the time, the local Jewish community tended to have links with their coreligionists in Lisbon and London rather than Paris, and Godoy's well known anti-British policies and general incompetence makes him an ideal scapegoat - although  not necessarily guilty.

A dramatic view of the Rock (Unknown )

Sir William Jackson is another historian who also glosses over the event - he hardly mentions it. Instead he uses the diaries of two young ladies who happened to live in Gibraltar at the time to question the seriousness of St Vincent's preoccupation with a drunk and disorderly Garrison. 

The first was written by Sarah Fyers, (see LINK) the daughter of General William Fyers who was the Chief Military Engineer in the Garrison and the man St Vincent would have liked to plan and design his dockyard schemes. The other was by Betsey Wynne, (see LINK) who was married to a naval captain - Thomas Fremantle - and was mostly famous for having been on board her husband’s ship at the fiasco of the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797. 

According to Jackson, it is rather odd that neither of these attractive young ladies made any reference in their diaries of ever having been molested or seeing any indiscipline or drinking among the troops. A rather naive comment if ever there was one. These two ladies rarely socialised with anybody in Gibraltar other than the Governor and other high-ranking officers of the army and Royal Navy.  The diaries hardy make any mention of the local population - or the natives as they would have undoubtedly viewed them. Generally they both led thoroughly sheltered lives and care would have been taken not to expose them to anything as gross as a drunken trooper.

To put it another way - drunken behaviour in Gibraltar was the norm and Jervis must have soon realised that it was part and parcel of Gibraltar's well-known shortcomings as a naval base. But if St Vincent was unable to do much about solving that particular problem for the moment, he was nevertheless determined to make improvements elsewhere. He had already made his first move in a letter to Earl Spenser, First Lord of the Admiralty in which he insinuated that: 
 (Gibraltar could) prove a very great resource, especially if the Governors of the Garrison will think as I do, that the only use of Gibraltar is to furnish the Navy of Great Britain with supplies and therefore enable it to maintain the empire of the adjacent seas. 
It was perhaps unfortunate that the Governor of the Garrison at the time - General Charles O'Hara did not always exactly see eye to eye with him. When in St Vincent found out in 1797 that Spanish treasure ships were about to reach Santa Cruz de Tenerife he asked O'Hara to allow him to take a landing force made up of Garrison troops. 

O'Hara said no and Jervis was forced to put Nelson in charge of an alternative force made up of sailors. That the mission proved an abject failure can be gauged by a general glossing over of the event by British naval historians. That Nelson actually lost his arm in this battle is treated as yet another romantic episode in the life of a man who was well on his way to becoming an icon of the Royal Navy. 

Nelson losing his arm in the Battle of Tenerife   (1809 - J. Neagle in 1809 )

Jervis must have felt quite comfortable in Rosia House. It was from here that he was able to harass his superiors to do what they could to improve the role of Gibraltar as a naval base.. He was well placed to do so as he was an excellent "man of business". It was Nelson - his subordinate and later successor as commander of the Mediterranean Fleet - who once used this expression to describe him. In modern parlance it meant that he was a fine administrator. In any case Jervis himself was unashamedly immodest in his judgement of his own abilities. He was, he thought:
. . . .able to go through more fatigue than any officer on this rock or, I believe, in the fleet. 
As Jervis saw it Rosia Bay - Gibraltar's small but only natural harbour - should be developed for the use of the Royal Navy. To do this there were two main problems that needed attention - easy access to water and access to a modern nearby victualling yard. Of the two the problem of water - or the lack of it - was probably the harder to solve. 

Rosia Bay on the left now superseded by the modern harbour on the top right ( Early 20th century postcard ) 

Rosia Bay - the romantic view ( 1846 - J.M. Carter ) (See LINK)

During the early 17th century a canal had been dug along the south side of Charles V Wall (see LINK) to carry water from an old 16th century Spanish aqueduct right down to the sea at Ragged Staff. (See LINK) Here the water was collected in tanks, poured into barrels and then loaded on to ships. It worked in winter but it was a completely unreliable watering system in summer. 

There were wells in the Neutral Ground where water was available but it very impractical to deliver the water to ships anchored to the south in the Bay. A south east wind would make it almost impossible.  The usual response by the Royal Navy to all these difficulties was to get their water in Tetuan.  Jervis was not happy with this arrangement. In 1797 he took pen to paper and wrote to the Admiralty.
I wish to call their Lordship's attention to the actual state of Gibraltar, as it relates to watering a large fleet. The sheets of water that pour down from the Rock during the rainy season, used formally to deposit in the red sand and form a perpetual source; since parades and military roads have been made over the sand, it rushes down to the parapet of the Ragged Staff and carries with it large quantities of loose sand, which have in a great degree chocked up that little useful mole, insomuch that boats can only enter at high water. . . . 
I beg leave to submit to their Lordships' consideration the great utility of forming large reservoirs for water on the margin of the Rosier (sic) Bay . .  casks might be fitted in the launches by means of spouts and hoses.

Ragged Staff area ( Early 19th century ) 

St Vincent also discussed his ideas with Captain Inglefield, Gibraltar's navy commissioner, of whom he did not have all that good an opinion as can be gleaned from the following correspondence with Earl Spenser:
Commissioner Inglefield is an honest man and sufficiently intelligent, but pompous, flowery, indolent, and wrapped up in official forms   . . . he has, however, corrected many gross and abominable abuses and peculations, practiced under his predecessors. 

Captain John Nicolson Inglefield  ( Samuel Shelley  )

Which of course begs the question - who exactly was responsible for all those abuses and why did nobody do anything about it. Jervis, however, seems to have considered that the finer points of these problems were none of his business and moved on.

Permission was finally given for the construction of his "large reservoirs for water on the margin of the Rosier Bay" . . . . and immediately hit several serious problems. The geology of the place chosen to build them was all wrong and it proved almost impossible to make them water-tight. Responsibility for the construction of the tanks had been given to Giovanni Maria Boschetti, (see LINK) a local architect and contractor who had already carried out several successful assignments for the authorities. They trusted him to make a good job of this one and he certainly did so. 

By 1804 Captain William Otway, Commissioner of Gibraltar Yard was able to inform the acting Governor Sir Thomas Trigge that:
 . . the late heavy rains having above half filled the Great Tank at Rosia: I think that His Majesty’s Ships may take water from thence whenever Your Excellency has reason to suppose that there is a probability of the Wells at Ragged Staff becoming dry.
Otway also remarked on:
 . .  the necessity of having some Careful Person constantly to reside on the Spot for the care of the Works, and for whom some sort of habitation must be built  . . 
And he was right. In fact it took more than a century for three buildings known as Rosia Cottages to be made specifically available for these "careful people" who would hardly have ever had an excuse for coming in late for work as they were built right beside the water tanks.

But it would also take a while before Nelson became fully convinced that Gibraltar could be counted upon as a consistent supplier of fresh water. As late as November 1804 a postscript to  letter signed by "Nelson and Bronte" - the last a reference to his title of Duke of Bronte - ordered one of his captains to move through the Straits and gave him the option to water at Tetuan - and this even though it was winter when water should have been available from Ragged Staff.

Signed by Nelson who was still finding it hard to write with his left arm

Meanwhile the tanks remained open to the elements and it was not until 1808 that they were appropriately roofed.  Two hundred odd years later they were still in working order and were described as such by William Serfaty - a local historian and architect.
The level of the bottom of the tanks is high enough to empty out to ships or lighters berthed at Rosia Harbour by a sophisticated gravity feed running under what is now the road to Camp Bay. The entire structure was built without access to Portland cement. The construction is excellently executed in brick and sand-lime mortar with a complicated finish to waterproof the tanks.  
The vaulted roofs of the tanks are a wonderful sight, and also serve to provide a sloping catchment surface (which catches the light beautifully), directing water to the appropriate settlement tank, from which it is then directed to storage tanks. It was important to keep the water pure, so the system was kept secure, and access to the catchment roof restricted to the employed personnel by the provision of a high wall which has kept the site out of the public eye all these years. 

Inside the Rosia water tanks

There are also old MOD drawings which give the dimensions of the tanks.

Tank No. 1 60m long X 4.5m wide X 6.5m high
Tank No. 2 60m long X 4.5m wide X 6.5m high
Tank No. 3 60m long X 4.5m wide X 6.5m high
Tank No. 4 55m long X 4.5m wide X 6.5m high
Tank No. 5 58m long X 4.8m wide X 6.5m high
Tank No. 6 58m long X 7.2m wide X 6.5m high

A tribute indeed to Jervis - and to Boschetti and his workers.

But to return to the problem of the victualling yard - or yards as there were originally two. One was at Waterport (see LINK) near the Old Mole (see LINK) the other at the White Convent in Irish Town. Both yards were owned by the Admiralty and both had been damaged during the Great Siege and although efforts had been made to repair the Waterport yard it was still well within the range of Spanish guns. In any case the wharf itself was a thoroughly inappropriate one for warships - in fact according to Jervis it was:
The vilest wharf in the Universe . . . . The facing stones of the wharf crumbled away and lying under water, to the ruin and destruction of all our boats, none of which can approach until three-quarters flood. 
The solution - argued Jervis - was a simple one. Sell the yards and build a new one in Rosia Bay well to the south of the town and out of range of enemy ordnance.  Jervis eventually managed to persuade his superiors that this was the right thing to do and a decision was taken to start work in 1799, too late for him to see the results of his suggestions as the construction of the new yard was delayed until 1807. 

As regards the agent victuallers, the authorities decided that they should continue to live in their old more or less derelict accommodation until the new yard became available. James Cutforth, the agent in 1801 had endless trouble persuading his bosses to repair his house which was in serious danger of collapsing.  

One other curious anecdote concerning the new victualling yard refers to the inscription at the top of the entrance to the new Dockyard. It reads: G III D G M    B &H R & 

One interpretation could be 'George III Deo Gratia Majesta Britanicus & Hibernia Rex &'. But it is far from being an accepted formula for this type of inscription and the theory is that Boschetti manipulated the wording so that the G M B part of it would represent his own initials. As one local historian half jokingly suggested Boschetti must have gone through several sleepless nights before he arrived at a formula that satisfied him - and posterity.

In 1799 one of St Vincent's favourite officers - Captain Jahleel Brenton (See LINK) wrote to his father:
My dear Sir . . . . Lord St. Vincent arrived at Gibraltar a few days before we left it. His Lordship is not well. . .  his behaviour to me has if possible) been kinder than ever; he appeared pleased with our exertions, and has, I believe, given me some good recommendations to his successor, Lord Keith. I believe I may deem his lordship one of the best friends I met with, and should he become premier at the Admiralty, which is by no means impossible, I hope we shall all feel the good effects of his patronage. 

Captain Jahleel Brenton   (1802 - Smith of Barbados )

Jervis was indeed not well - apparently among other things he suffered from gout. He left Gibraltar and his post for good that same year. Those heavy and humid levanter days can't have helped much. Two years later he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. Brenton had to wait until 1831 before he was promoted to Vice-Admiral - which probably says more about Lord St Vincent's personality than of Brenton's naivety. 

And that as they say, should have been that - except that in the case of the water tanks there was a sting to the tail. At the beginning of the 21st century local government proposed getting rid of the tanks in order to build private accommodation that would be given the name of "Nelson's View". Poor Jervis. Who on earth had ever heard of him. As for Boschetti - well he was just another "native".

Locals who were interested in preserving as much as possible of Gibraltar's naval heritage did not take kindly to what they rightly considered to be an act of vandalism. A court case ensued in which the following arguments were offered by the historian Lionel Culatto as to why they shouldn't be destroyed. 

1. The building was constructed before 1840 – it should have been listed and protected
2. The tanks were exceptional structures. Their brick walls covered a huge area and an innovative use had been made of materials such as hydraulic lime
3. This type of building was very rare - not just in Gibraltar but anywhere
4. It was part of a unique surviving example of an early 19th century victualling yard
5. It was an important example of work by a local architect, Giovanni Maria Boschetti 
6. There were important cultural and historical connections with the building
7. It was an important part of Gibraltar’s massive naval heritage

To no avail - In 2006, the tanks were destroyed and "Nelson's View" was duly built. 

The old Naval Hospital on the left, Parson's Lodge beneath the seagull and in front of it the Victualling Yard - the area to the right of it shows the water tanks being demolished to make way for "Nelson's View"