The People of Gibraltar
1736 - Henry Cowper - La Calle Comedia

Joseph Cassola and John Baptista Viale - James MacGlynn and Joseph Ashbourn
Mary Asborn, Ashbourn, Rumbly - Henry Lynch and Peter Lynch
Charles Nicholas Forward - James Montressor and Henry Cowper’s Children
Elizabeth Cowper and John Turnbull - William Boyd and Thomas Field 
David Carvalho and John Hynd - Robert Anderson

You would have thought that as one of the few rich 18th century property owners on the Rock, writing an article on Henry Cowper would have been short and sweet - a few words on his personal and financial history and that would have been about it. Not so. 

Let me explain. Cowper was born in Gibraltar in 1736 - although some say it was in 1735 and in England. In 1758 he married a very young British girl called Frances Blinston with whom he produced numerous children. By the time he was in his middle-aged forties he had become both a well known goldsmith and the owner of six properties. Together with a couple of other locals, Joseph Cassola and John Baptista Viale he was for several years the fourth largest property owner in Gibraltar. 

But there is one little detail that adds spice to the story - his association with one of the more photogenic areas in the old part of town known as Castle Street. The locals called it - and many still do - Calle Comedia. In the 18th century the word "comedia" referred to stage productions generally rather than to theatrical comedies and the reason behind Castle Street’s alternative name was that once upon a time - as they say - there was a theatre somewhere along this street which belonged to and was run by Henry Cowper.

Castle Street - Calle Comedia   ( Early 20th century )

The presence of such an establishment in what was at the time universally depicted as a culture-free civilian society is in itself worthy of comment. Even more so is the fact that it was not just owned and run by a local man but that he appears to have been an active impresario. The precise location of the theatre is hard to determine but it almost certainly started life within one of his previously mentioned six properties. How he managed to get hold of this particular piece of real estate is a story in itself. 

According to local historian Anthony Lombard, an official list of houses, lands and tenements dated 1713  records a certain James MacGlynn as having built himself a house on a bit of wasteland which cost him £80. His widow Mary who seems to have inherited the place after his death, remarried but her new husband Joseph Ashbourn didn’t last long either and Mary became a widow for a second time. More importantly from my point of view - she kept the house.

When General Humphrey Bland (see LINK) took over from William Hargrave (see LINK) as Governor of Gibraltar in 1749, one of the first administrative chores that his London masters had ordered him to carry out was the setting up a formal court of enquiry into the legitimacy of property ownership in Gibraltar. Mary Ashbourn - or Ashborn as she appears on the minutes of the Court of Enquiry - must have thought it prudent to lay legal claim to her ex-husband’s property which she identified as being named “Fives Courts”. 

Mary “Ashborn’s” claim - Among other things the claim suggests that the building she calls Fives Court - or Courts - was constructed anywhere from 1713 to 1749       ( 1749 - From Bland’s Court of Enquiry )

Mary’s claim is less straight-forward than appears at first sight. Who exactly did she mean by her “late Husband”? MacGlynn or Asbourne? If the ground on which the house was built was indeed given to one of them by Colonel Stanhope Cotton - an occasional Commanding Officer in the Garrison rather than a Lieutenant Governor - then it can’t have been MacGlynn as Cotton was first appointed in 1716. To complicate matters still further, Mary, who must have been quite a lady, remarried yet again. She was now Mrs Mary Rumbly. History, however, repeated itself and she became a widow for a third time. 

Then in January 1764 she executed her Last Will and Testament. She was just in time as she died a month later. Childless, she left all her considerable wealth to Henry Lynch, whom she describes as a “well beloved friend”. This gentleman - if one might call him that - described himself as from “Galloway in the Kingdom of Ireland’. Perhaps of more importance is that he was or soon became the owner of a three-masted, lateen-sailed xebec - the Flying Fish - as well as a settee called the "Trayal". 

During the Great Siege of Gibraltar (see LINK) which began in 1779, both his ships regularly managed to break the blockade bringing in bullocks, sheep, wine and other supplies from Algiers. He was nevertheless an unusual blockade runner in that most of his cargo from Britain was ordnance for the Garrison rather than food supplies. His fame was such that even today many in Gibraltar still think that a well-known if rather narrow alleyway near Main Street called ‘Lynch’s Lane’ was named after him. 

Lynch’s Lane  ( 1924 )

The truth is that it was almost certainly named after yet another rich British merchant called Peter Lynch who was, among other things, the Danish Consul in Gibraltar and no doubt the kind of man who would never have soiled his hands owning - far less commanding - a privateer.

Also according to Andrew Lombard, Lynch eventually sold the place to Henry Cowper in 1777 for $1200 dollars. Curiously despite the fact that there could hardly have been time for such an entry, Cowper already appears on the 1777 census as the owner of a property described as “Tennis Court etc”. The building was also identified as being in Castle Lane - which was one of the many alternative names by which Castle Street has been known over the years. I am assuming that by “Tennis Court” Cowper was referring to the originally named Fives Court.

From the 1777 Census

Another of Cowper’s properties is rather ambiguously described in the same 1777 census as “a building in the High Street under the Hospital”. 

My guess is that this was probably a large house and yard which had previously been claimed by Charles Nicholas Forward at Bland’s Court of Enquiry. Forward described it as “a house at the upper end of Castle Street (sic), with a yard”. When he sold it to Cowper the complex appeared on the deeds as the “New Fives Court”. Could there have been more than one fives court?

From the minutes of Bland’s Court of Enquiry  (1749 )

The entire property was quite large by Gibraltar standards as it occupied almost the entire eastern side of Cornwall’s Parade with Castle Street to the north and a narrow little cul-de-sac - later known as Benzimbra’s Alley - to the south. 

Henry Cowper’s property in Cornwall’s Parade as shown on a map produced by Gibraltar’s Chief Engineer James Montressor in the mid eighteenth century ( 1753 ) (See LINK

Cornwall’s Parade also known as either the Green Market or Plaza de las Verduras looking south - Part of the “Old” Fives Court complex appears on the left    ( 1820 - Henry Sandham )  (See LINK

Castle Street from Bell Lane - Northern section of the Fives Court complex on the right   ( 1833 - Frederick Leeds Edridge ) (See LINK)

A modern artist’s impression of what the entire facade of the Fives Court building in Cornwall’s Parade might have looked like in the early 19th century - The artist has taken his cue from Frederick Leeds Edridge’s painting of Castle Street shown above

I am not sure when or who first decided to convert the Fives Court into a theatre. Mary’s 1749 claim stated that the original house was only “now enclosed as fives Court(s)” which means that in theory it could have been either one of MacGlynn, Ashbourn, Lynch, Forward - or indeed Mary herself. It certainly could not have been Cowper as the theatre was already going strong well before he bought the place from Lynch. Whoever it was by 1772 the theatre was already very popular. Richard Twiss, (see LINK) a British merchant who visited the Rock that very year had this to say about it:
There is a small theatre, where I had the pleasure of seeing 'High Life Below Stairs', and 'Miss in her Teens' extremely well performed: the actors were military gentlemen, who entertain themselves weekly in this manner: the actresses are so by profession. 
In other words it seems to have been mainly used by members of the Garrison who enjoyed putting on amateur productions. Farces were obviously the “in” thing at the time. Miss in her Teens was written by David Garrick and High Life below Stairs, is a farce by James Townley which includes lines which would be considered as rather politically incorrect nowadays. 
I would have forty servants if my house would hold them. Why, man, in Jamaica, before I was ten years old I had a hundred blacks kissing my feet every day.

The Theatre’s Royal Arms discovered during the redevelopment of the property in 1935 by the then owner Elias Levy   ( From Anthony Lombard - Fives Courts )

Twiss also mentions a girl called Jane McKenzie who was 39 years old and was later listed on the 1777 census as one of Mr. Cowper’s servants. She may have been one of the resident actresses. Several other single English girls are also listed as living in his various addresses. Their professions are given as ‘maidservants’ but no mention is made of the families they may have been working for. The most charitable guess is that they may also have formed part of Cowper’s stable of ‘actresses’. 

Richard Twiss also mentions the theatre en passant in a story which has nothing to do with Cowper but which I cannot resist quoting below:
Not the least singular figure to be seen . . . at Gibraltar was an old Greek captain, who made a voyage to America many years ago, carrying a cargo of wine which went to a bad market. On his return to Gibraltar . . . the poor Greek was thrown into prison, whence he only escaped with the loss of his reason. He still continues in Gibraltar, wanting both means and inclination to get away from the scene of his misfortunes, and living rent free in a little hovel upon the flat roof of the theatre.  
Nor will he associate with any creature except with dogs, of which he has a whole family. In the night season, while the strumming of the orchestra below, the rant of the players, and the rattle of the castanet come faintly to him, he sits upon his threshold and holds communion with his friend the moon; and when the noontide heat drives him from his hovel, he seeks the shade below, and moves from side to side keeping in the shadows. . .  
It chanced one hot morning, as I was emerging from my lodgings that he was sitting in the shade of the doorway. The place was private, and I found some excuse for opening a conversation. But I made a bad choice in putting him in mind of America; for he presently grew enraged, swore like a trooper at the American merchants, calling them, in not very genteel Spanish, all the rogues he could think of. He vowed that he would go to Greece, fit out a ship, and sink every American he met.  
Gathering himself up out of the dirt, he drew his red cap over his brow, and strode off followed by his dogs, as if bent on the immediate execution of his purpose. He was a fine-looking veteran, with a muscular frame, a manly face, and long red moustaches. Upon the whole, he would have made no contemptible figure on the deck of a rover. But, poor fellow! His imbecility will defend us from his revenge; for he will never be able to tear himself from the society of his faithful dogs, nor from his friendly hovel on the top of the theatre.

The Rock from the Bay more or less at the time of Richard Twiss’ visit  ( 1773 - Dominic Serres )

Later - although I don’t know how much later - Italian Opera Buffa companies periodically paid the place a visit as local residents eventually began to take an interest in theatrical shows - although that bit about the “castanet” mentioned by Twiss suggests that non-British productions may have been taking place in the theatre sooner rather than later.

But let me return to the “Fives Courts” the very existence of which is something of a puzzle. The oldest fives court I can find in Britain is in Warminster School and dates from about 1780. It seems surprising that Gibraltar should boast a court that was older than this one. The fives-court in the Palace of Versailles is often mentioned in the same breath as the one in Gibraltar and that of course is probably much older - a somewhat ridiculous comparison in any case as it doesn’t explain very much. Louis XIV probably built the one in Versailles but as mentioned previously I still have no idea who was responsible for the one in Gibraltar. 

Also perplexing is the fact that the people most likely to have used such a facility would have been members of the Garrison. How likely is it that a civilian would have invested in building such a court? - Would the military authorities have allowed the thing to be privately owned? Was it they who ordered the place to be built?

Another problem is that despite the available maps I find it almost impossible to identify exactly where the court or courts were within the building complex. A fives court is not particularly large and it is hard to imagine that there would be enough space to construct a theatre inside one of them. But even if more than one had been knocked into shape I still find it difficult to identify where its entrance was along the Castle Street side of the complex.  
Another theory is that the theatre was not built on the site of the courts. This is given some credence by a document dated 1812 confirming the sale of the property to the Benzimbra brothers. In it the theatre and the “Ball Room” are described as separate from each other. 

The 1777 census describes Cowper’s wife Francis as a 33 year old at the time the census was taken - a figure which suggests that she was an unlikely 14 year old when she married him.The census also shows that their family now consisted of eight children: Penelope (b c1761), George (b c1763), Mathew (b c1765), Elizabeth (b c 1767), James (b c1769), Henry (b c1767), Frances (b c1773), Thomas (b c1776)

“The Destruction of the Spanish Battering Ships” during the Great Siege   ( 1783 - William Hamilton )

When the Great Siege began two years later in 1779 Cowper opted to remain in Gibraltar for the first few years of the conflict - presumably he wanted to keep an eye on his expensive properties during the conflict. He was wasting his time. According to a certain Mr. Cornwell (see LINK) - another local resident who also stayed put during the Siege:
 . . . . in regard to the sufferings of the inhabitants from this fire, (the bombardment by the Spaniards) it may easily be conceived that those of them who possessed the greatest property and houses the town were the most considerable sufferers - of these the principal were William Davis, Esq. a Mr. Kelly, Mr. Daniel, Mr. Pearson, Messrs Lynch’s, Messrs Hind and Co. Mr. William Boyd, Mr. Henry Cowper . . . . . 
According to added-on information on the 1777 census Henry and his family remained on the Rock until 1782 after which he probably went back to England. I am not quite sure what he was doing there but he must have spent some time with several of his fellow Gibraltar merchants - John Turnbull, William Boyd, Thomas Field, John Hynd, David Carvalho, and Robert Anderson - drafting a “humble petition and memorial” to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. 

It was a memorial which without actually saying so asked for compensation for the damage caused to their properties during the Great Siege. The memorial curiously contradicts Cornwell’s report that the destruction of their property had been caused by enemy fire. According to the memorialists:
The heavy bombardment which took place in April 1781, first obliged the inhabitants to abandon their houses; but the actual mischief done by the fire of the enemy was comparatively small  . . . . In the progress of the siege there was a considerable demand for timber and other building material for various uses by the troops: public stores were totally incompetent in this demand, and they were taken by the troops from private houses, without reserve every house was stript, and abandoned to consequent destruction.
By the time they returned two years later in 1784 Cowper’s wife Francis and three of his children - Elizabeth, James and Henry - were dead. In 1798 Henry made out his will. In it he described himself as a merchant perhaps acknowledging the importance of his trade as a gold and silver smith. 

Henry Cowper’s Gibraltar silver

In his will he left:
. . . his personal estate to his six sons, George, Mathew, James, Henry, Thomas and William and his three daughters Penelope Frances and Mary Cowper.
According to another Gibraltarian historian, Tito Benady, a Gibraltarian friend of Cowper called Phineas Toledano who was living in London at the time wrote to the Morning Post objecting to comments that had  been  made about Jewish “filth” being the cause of the yellow fever epidemic. Toledano had apparently received a letter from his friend Henry Cowper in Gibraltar in which he argued the very opposite - the  standard  of hygiene  of the Jews  of Gibraltar was such that  they  were  less affected  by  the  disease  than  their  neighbours. ( Search for scapegoats.)

Cowper may of course have been correct in his observations although I would have said that the Jewish population in Gibraltar would probably have been neither more nor less careful of their hygiene than anybody else living on the Rock at the time. Ironically a lack of cleanliness or otherwise would have made no difference as to whether anybody was more or less affected by the yellow fever epidemic than their neighbours. What I do find odd about Toledano’s testimony is that Henry Cowper - the oldest man on the Rock at the time - is supposed to have died there on the 28th of August 1803, quite a few months before the epidemic struck in 1804. 

By the second decade of the 19th century, many of Henry Cowper’s offspring were also dead. Only two of them - Mathew and William - continued to live in Gibraltar. The former is known to have described himself as an “Esquire” - in other words he probably never did a stroke of work in his life - whereas William thought of himself as a “merchant”. The rest of the surviving Cowper family, however, must have decided that their connections with Gibraltar were no longer of any interest and granted a power of attorney to Mathew in order to sell off their father’s properties on the Rock. In 1812 Mathew sold the “Old Five Courts” (plural) building to a couple of extremely wealthy local Jewish merchants called Jacob and Solomon Benzimbra.

A transcript of the site plan from the 1820’s Letters Patent Register    
( From Anthony Lombard - Fives Courts )

My guess is that the above plan can be interpreted as follows. In the early 1820s an exercise was undertaken by the Crown in order to grant title of all properties in Gibraltar. When a given title was approved by the Governor the property was given its own Freehold Property Number - hence the numbers that appear on the transcript.

Property 323 is almost certainly the “New Fives Court” which Nicholas Forward sold to Henry all those years ago. The fact that the owner is shown as Henry’s son William Cowper suggest one of two possibilities -  Either William bought the place from his siblings at some time in the past or he was just holding on to it until such time as his brother was able to sell it off. 

Property 324 owned by Mr Shakery may have been a small room or tenement which Mrs Mary Rumbly originally left to her friend the widow Ann Madden.

Properties 325 and 329 must be the “Old Fives Court” sold by Mathew to the Benzimbra brothers. In other words the most likely location for the theatre would be the property No 325.

Properties 327 and 328 . . . . I am afraid I have no idea who Abraham Hatchwell was other than that he must have been a member of the Jewish Hachuoel family originally from Spain and who settled in both Gibraltar and Mogidor.

As regards what happened next the answer is quite a lot as the building - still sometimes referred to as Five Courts - has survived the intervening 200 odd years.  Henry Cowper, his theatre and his family have all of course disappeared from the social history pages of Gibraltar.  But the local name for the street where the entrance to Henry’s theatre once was is still with us - La Calle Comedia. 

With thanks to local historian Anthony Lombard. Many of the more interesting details in this article were originally researched by him - Thank you Mr. Lombard.