The People of Gibraltar
2017 - Neutral Ground, North Front, Four Corners y la Verja

Gibraltar is a peninsula but is rarely described as such either locally or elsewhere. Nor is the word isthmus mentioned all that often to describe the narrow strip of land that joins the Rock to the Spanish mainland.  Medieval historians, however, mention the area frequently usually making the point of describing it as a sandy area.
Y  esta entrada estrecha . . . es llano, de arenales, y luego se ensancha la tierra  dentro en el mar, porque á la mano izquierda, como entran, está la sierra de Gibraltar, por los antiguos llamada Calpe ( 1540 - Pedro Barrantes Maldonado, (See LINK
 . . . los arenales blancos que están a la banda del norte de la Ciudad  (1620 - Alonso Perez del Portillo) (See LINK

Portillo’s arenales blancos identified simply as “Sands” by William Skinner Gibraltar’s chief engineer - The term “North Front” is applied to the north face of the Rock rather than to that part of the isthmus right in front of it    ( 1740 - Williams from Skinner - detail ) (See LINK)

Nowadays, however, those “arenals” are no longer the dominant feature of the isthmus and over the years the locals and others have adopted specific words and phrases such as the Neutral Ground, North Front, and Four Corners, to describe various sections of it.


The Neutral Ground
Let me start with the Neutral Ground - a term which of course didn’t exist before 1704 when Anglo -Dutch forces famously - or infamously depending on your point of view - captured the Rock in the name of the Archduke Charles of Austria in 1704. (See LINK

By the time Gibraltar had become British under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 (see LINK) the entire isthmus had already became a bone of contention between Spain and Britain. The former insisted that the Treaty covered only the city of Gibraltar and its fortifications. The British, on the other hand maintained that it was impossible to defend the Rock properly unless they were able to control at least a small section of land along southern end of the isthmus. Their argument included the claim that they were already using the Devil’s Tower (see LINK) which stood a few meters from the Rock for defensive purposes. This impasse persisted right up to the 13th Siege which took place in 1727.


Spanish plan of the isthmus created during the 13th Siege in which it was proposed to mine the north face of the Rock - The isthmus itself is referred to as “la lengua de Tierra”.   ( 1727 - Antonio de Montaigu de la Perille )

Just after the ceasefire that ended the 13th Siege of Gibraltar - and two years before the Treaty of Seville was signed in 1729 (see LINK) the Spaniards began work intending to increase the strength of their fortifications on the isthmus.

Lord Portmore, the Governor of Gibraltar at the time protested but the Spaniards insisted that under the Treaty of Utrecht they were entitled to do whatever they wanted on the isthmus. However, as a rather surprising gesture of goodwill the King of Spain issued a Royal Ordinance which ordered his troops to retire to a line 600 “toises” - about a thousand meters - from the base of the Rock. 

The King’s diktat has been misinterpreted over the years both by the British and by Gibraltarians. They claim that it acknowledges their right of ownership of almost the entire isthmus. Unfortunately the King made it very clear that while he had generously allowed his troops to retire this did not mean he was surrendering Spanish sovereignty over the isthmus. 

Although it is hard to prove I suspect that this was the moment in which the concept of a “neutral” area between the Rock and Spain came into existence. It was a curious choice of words. From a Spanish point of view, the isthmus belonged to Spain. The British on the other hand were convinced that the Treaty of Utrecht had ceded not just the Rock but at least a good portion of the isthmus as well.

According to E.R. Kenyon (see LINK) an old manuscript with the heading “Occurrences at Gibraltar when Lord Tyrawley was Governor” suggested that in October 1756:
Great inconvenience arising from burying in the Red Sands which were almost covered with graves, Lord Tyrawley sent out the Town Major and Camp Colourmen to mark out a Burying Place without Landport towards the Devil’s Tower designing that both soldiers and sailors should bury there for the future . . . . the burials began today  (November 1756)
“Without Landport” (see LINK) was in effect outside the confines of the Rock and on to the Neutral Ground. Robert Walpole in his biography of George III put an interesting and quite different perspective on the moving of the cemetery to the “north of the walls”. To quote George Hills:
He was (in Gibraltar) just one year, but in that year this ”singularly licentious man” spent enormous sums on fortifications, and by establishing a cemetery north of the walls encroached, in Spanish eyes on Spanish territory.
Generally I still find it hard to pin-point the dates in which the terms “Neutral Ground” and the Spanish equivalent “Campo Neutral” first came into common usage. Perhaps the oldest mention can be found in Francis Carter’s (see LINK) Journey from Gibraltar to Malaga published in 1772 but perhaps referring to Gibraltar a few years earlier:
. . . on the neutral ground are many hares, who feed in the gardens . . . 
The Great Siege began in 1779 and ended in 1783 and three of its better known contemporaries who wrote about their experiences during the conflict all used the elusive words “neutral ground” to describe the isthmus. 

John Drinkwater (See LINK)
Feb 1780 - Garrison obliged to quit the gardens on the neutral ground
John Spilsbury (See LINK)
November 1779 - The gardeners continue to work on the neutral ground.
Samuel Ancell (See LINK
December 1779 - the enemy began a fire upon our outward works; they obliged the Garrison gardeners, who work on the isthmus (termed the neutral ground) to retire.

Map showing the garden plots on the isthmus seemingly overrun by newly built Spanish advance works   ( 1779 - Juan Caballero )

The Spanish Historian Francisco María Montero (see LINK) suggested that the term “campo neutral” was also in use at the time - although I would say that he probably took his cue from one or all of the British commentators quoted above:
Según el tratado de Utrecht la plaza no tenía otros limites que sus murallas, ni su jurisdicción pasaba de ellas; pero andando el tiempo se plantaron huertas para regalo de los habitantes en aquella parte del istmo en donde se fabricaron también las barracas y almacenes, y que se llamaba campo neutral en los anos de 1782.

A Spanish map showing the isthmus as it was in September 1782 includes the gardens mentioned by Montero. The English version on the right is almost identical but identifies the entire isthmus as “The Neutral Ground”

At the start of the 19th century the isthmus returned to more or less the same state as it had been the previous century. It was mostly covered in canes with sandy hillocks here and there dotting the overall flatness of the area. The vegetable gardens were back in business and one or two huts appeared on the western side occupied by fishermen.  There were no proper roads just a couple of tracks leading to the Spanish lines from the Bayside and Forbes Barriers and another from the later to the eastern Beach and Catalan Bay. (See LINK)


Map showing vegetable gardens and the two tracks to the Spanish Lines - the top one from Bayside, the bottom from Forbe’s Barrier. Despite its date of publication the plan shows the isthmus as it was sometime before 1810 by which time the Spanish Lines had been dismantled ( 1821 - Calmet-Beauvoisin )

By the late 19th and early 20th century the Spanish cartographers were becoming rather wary about how to equate political theory with the reality on the ground. In some cases the words Campo Neutral were accepted in others the area was not specifically identified as belonging to anybody and in others the section between the old Spanish and new British lines were captioned as a “Campo Militar Español.“


These sections are taken from three general Spanish maps of the Bahia de Algeciras ordered over the years by the Spanish authorities. From left to right:
1872, 1878 - both by the Dirección de Hidrografía  and 1929 - Servicio Hidrográfico de la Armada


The North Front - Puerta de Tierra


The North Face of the Rock        ( 1850 - R.P.Napper  Francis Frith )  (See LINK)

During the late 18th century the the term North Front” continued to be used simply to describe the north face of the rock  as evidenced by John Drinkwater:
The north front of the peninsula, which presents itself to the mainland, is of various heights . . .   . . . the north front, facing the Spanish lines, are both naturally steep and totally inaccessible. . .   
John Spilsbury  uses the term “North Front” - with capitals - to describe the entire range of defensive batteries found on that part of the Rock.
At l p.m. our North Front fired a round from right to left at the Mill Battery.

One of the earliest post-Great Siege maps showing some sort of barricade along the extreme southern section of the Rock face - perhaps a precursor of the British lines that would define the area of the Neutral Ground that would eventually be known as the North Front  ( 1808 - J. Stockdale - detail )

As the century progressed the land closest to the Rock was cleared of canes and levelled by the British. In effect - despite Spanish protests - the area on the southern side of the isthmus ceased to be a “Neutral Ground” in so far as the British were concerned. The newly coined name for this bit of rather surreptitiously acquired land was “the North Front.

I suspect that it took quite a few years before the words “North Front” were used by the locals who confusing tended to refer to it as that part of the isthmus that lay outside Landport Gates. At any rate members of my own family during the years preceding WWII still referred to it as “Puerta de Tierra”. 

During the early 19th century the various yellow fever epidemics (see LINK) forced the authorities to seek some sort of relief from the general overcrowding in town and set up large encampments on the isthmus . According to J. Hennen (see LINK):

. . . the whole of the Veteran corps, in which the disease appeared, (including the hospital establishment,) was encamped on the neutral ground.
Romaine Amiel an army surgeon during the epidemics suggested that there were at one time or the other no less than 4000 civilians encamped in the area. After the epidemic the British authorities continued to hold on to the portion of the isthmus on which the  encampment had once stood thus increasing the area of the North Front under British control.


The encampments at the the North Front    (1830 - Piaget et Lailavoix - Detail )

As the 19th century progressed the usefulness of this relatively flat piece of land became more and more apparent to the military authorities on the Rock who were always hard pressed to find suitable places for the kind of facilities that required relatively large areas of level ground. Sports grounds for football, and cricket, a full sized race course and kennels for the Calpe Hunt hounds (see LINK) were all a must for anybody who prided himself in being called British. More time, thought and money were also given to the old allotment areas and in the 1880s these were eventually upgraded to the Victoria Gardens.


The changing face of the “Neutral Ground”
Top shows the allotments still in use during the 1860s - ( Alexander Fisher )  (See LINK) - Bottom shows the advent of the Victoria Gardens post 1880 ( Unknown )


( 1930s - J. Roisin )   (See LINK)

Other less attractive but necessary features such as cemeteries and a new slaughterhouse (see LINK) were soon clamouring for space. The necessary removal of unwanted canes and the levelling of hummocks also meant that parts of the isthmus were also available for parade ground activities and the installation of target practice ranges. 

The definitive moment in the British encroachment of the isthmus was the construction of an airstrip during World War II. Whatever interpretation might be given to the Treaty of Utrecht a large section of the isthmus - now known as the North Front - was now de facto well and truly owned by the British.


Grassy area in the middle of the race course used as a temporary airstrip in the late 1930s


Construction of the airstrip    ( 1940s - Imperial War Museum )


The finished article - During the process of its construction the airstrip did away with the race course, the sports grounds, the Victoria Gardens and the Devil’s Tower



Late 20th century Spanish map showing  the state of play at the time I was living in Gibraltar during the 1960s.

As the British intrusion the old Neutral Ground and the subsequent increase in the area of the North Front continued apace it soon became necessary to transfer the checkpoints into and out of the Rock further north from its previous positions at Bayside and Forbe’s Barriers. A new police controlled frontier was set up further north on the eastern side of the isthmus in line with what the British now considered to be the actual border with Spain and in the meantime giving rise to yet another now well worn phrase associated with the isthmus - the Four Corners. It is still there - albeit unrecognisably so - and is still called by the same name. 



Four Corners


The Cross of Sacrifice WWI memorial with the Bayside Barrier to its left - During the early days of the 20th century this was where the British kept a the rather lackadaisical check on frontier movements of people and goods

I really don’t know exactly when the phrase Four Corners became synonymous with the police post at the frontier. What I do know is that the people from La Línea soon came to know it as “focona” - a word which became part of “Linense” (see LINK) - their own very local patois. None of which is at all surprising as a large number of tradesmen and workers poured into Gibraltar every day throughout the late 19th and right up to the middle of the 20th century.

In fact during the decades before the border was closed by the Franco regime in 1969 Spanish frontier crossers numbered in their thousands each and every day.  Not surprisingly the local Gibraltarian population soon picked up on the pronunciation and added it to their very own ever growing list of Llanito words. (See LINK


Map showing the reason for the name “Four Corners” - the British frontier post stood exactly where main road to Spain cut through the main road to Spain    ( 1920s - US Navy Ports of the World - detail )  (See LINK)  

It is perhaps unfortunate - but also very typical of Gibraltar - that the phrase had already been assigned for quite some time to describe a completely different location on the Rock - a small square not far south of the Casemates where Main Street meets Turnbull’s Lane and Crutchett’s Ramp.  There was little cause for confusion as the locals rarely used the English description. They called it “Cuatro Cantos” instead. 


Four Corners frontier crossing as I remember it   ( Netherlands Nationaal Archief ) (See LINK



From the bottom the airstrip and just beyond it the demarcation line between the British held North Front and the still undeveloped Neutral Ground to the North with Spanish pillboxes a reminder of the anxieties of WW II - Further north the proper Spanish Aduane on the left at the end of the road with the town of La Línea behind it     (Netherlands Nationaal Archief )

There were few changes after 1969 other than that hardly anybody went through the gates of Four Corners during the Franco blockade - although the British made a point of officially opening and closing them daily. They wanted to highlight the fact  that the change in circumstances was not of their making.


La Verja
During the next quarter of a century, the Spanish authorities finally decided that it was time to take over what was left of the Neutral Ground. The result was that La Línea increased dramatically in size as new buildings, parks and sporting facilities were constructed right up to Four Corners and the British Lines.  The fences that divided the towns of Gibraltar and La Linea were now almost within touching distance of each other adding a new Spanish word into the local  everyday vocabulary - “La Verja” -  the de facto border between Spain and Gibraltar.


21st century Spanish map of the area one of the few on which La Verja makes an appearance (2012)


The  Neutral Ground, North Front and Four Corners that I knew as a young man no longer exists and the political history of the entire isthmus will no doubt lead to other changes taking place in the future. At the time of writing the British Government is in the process of trying to withdraw from the European Union. Whatever the end result of these negotiations they will undoubted have an impact not only on Gibraltar but also on the isthmus that geographically if not politically joins Gibraltar to Spain.



On the left the isthmus in the early 20th century, on the right what it looks like at the time of writing