The People of Gibraltar
1817 - Exchange Library of Gibraltar - The Response

Not long after the creation of the Garrison Library, the locals set up their own version in an out of the way side street. In a parody of its military counterpart it also proved too small to deal with its growing number of publications. One hundred and sixty of Gibraltar’s merchants came to the rescue by raising enough money to construct a stylish new building on what was then - and still is - a prime site.


The Exchange Library under construction in 1817     (Thomas Ender)   (See LINK)


The Exchange and Commercial Library   (1840s - J.M. Carter) (See LINK)

In 1817 in the presence of the Lieutenant-Governor George Don his senior staff and a military guard of honour, a foundation stone was laid somewhere on the east side of Commercial square. The press noted the presence of the Governor and his acolytes but the real honour of the day belonged to the civilians and in particular to the merchant princes of the Rock - although most of these at the time were actually expats from various parts of the UK.


George Don  (See LINK)


The Exchange building    (1820 - Henry Sandham)     (See LINK)


Auction Square     (1825 - Felippo Benucci)   (See LINK)

The book list was somewhat less impressive. The library held fewer than 3000 books as against probably ten times that number in the Garrison Library. For a while I would say that the words “Exchange” and “Commercial” parts of its name probably took precedence over the “Library”. That this was so is confirmed indirectly by the author of the 1844 Old Inhabitant’s Handbook - written by an old inhabitant, who presumably knew what he was about - who included an illustration of the building and named it the Exchange and Auction Mart.


(1844 - Old Inhabitant’s Handbook)   (See LINK)

Nor was the American peripatetic minister - Andrew Bigelow - perhaps among the first foreign tourist to visit the Exchange overly enthusiastic.
There is a Commercial Library, it is true, but it was established, or certainly is retained, as a mere matter of form, — the books being 'wisely kept for show;' and the few residents who resort to it, are attracted thither by the newspapers which are spread daily upon the table. As for literature as a topic of conversation, it appears to be seldom introduced.
Among the usual club rules was one which stated that Proprietors keeping Hotels or Lodging Houses would not be allowed to invite people to the Library. It makes one wonder at the quality of the tourist trade at the time.

It is a curious anomaly that the Garrison Library has tended to be viewed by local residents as a somehow grander heritage than the Exchange and Commercial Library. Yet the former was always more of an exclusive club than anything else whereas the latter developed into something of historical importance. 


Over the years it became more than just a place where the well-off could meet to do business, catch up with the latest news or just simple improve their minds. The Library Committee was at first elected by the its subscribers, but later any local householder wishing to participate could do so and as time passed it soon found itself at the center of the world of local politics. 

It has often been argued that the civilian library was created in a fit of pique. The exclusively military nature of the Garrison version meant that for many years after it was created it was out of bounds to locals - no matter how rich or influential. Perhaps, but it is an argument that fails to take into account that the great majority of the local population could neither read nor write in English - in fact many of them were illiterate. They were far more likely to have been unaware of being discriminated against, possibly dismissing the creation of the Garrison Library as yet another example of the eccentricity of their Colonial masters. 

On the hypothesis that it was just the rather more educated merchants who had taken umbrage - who were they?  A catalogue of the books held by the Exchange published in 1823 - ironically printed at the Garrison Library - includes a List of Proprietors. 





The Rock from the Bay - Ralph Lowe was one of the Proprietors  - Ticket No 110     (1828 - Filippo Benucci )  

Although having an English sounding surname is no real criteria for guessing the immediate origins of anybody it is I think significant that out of those 146 names only 9 can be identified people whose families had originally immigrated from Genoa and other parts of Europe and a mere 4  from Gibraltarian Jewish families.

Which immediately leads to another question - if most of the merchants in the early days of the 19th century were not just rich but British, why did the military go out of their way to  make them so unwelcome.

Local historian Tito Benady once suggested that the reason why the merchants were excluded was due to a class change that took place in the British army during the 18th century. Before that a goodly portion of the upper echelons of the military were made up of people who were in it for the money. One has only to real about the activities of past Governor’s of Gibraltar such as William Hargrave - and there were many like him - to realise that getting their hands dirty making money was never a problem - even if it meant hobnobbing with the merchant classes of Gibraltar.

During the early 19th there was a sea change when young men from aristocratic families who were probably useless at any other profession joined the army not to make money but because it “enhanced their social status”. The officers were simply a cut above the merchant classes - even if most of these were British born - and were not about to invite these people into what they considered to be private club - much the same and just as exclusive as those Gentlemen’s clubs such as “White’s” or “Boodles” which they or their families may have often frequented in London.


Officers at Casemates Square Gibraltar mid 19th century - One of them was a “Sir” and the other two others were “Hons”   (Unknown)

Whatever the reasons the Exchange Committee that ran the institution was noticeably apolitical during the first years of its existence - although they frequently found it convenient during negotiations over various matters with the authorities to claim to represent the entire civilian population of Gibraltar. The truth is that the Exchange committee simply looked after the interest of its own members which of course coincided with those of the more prosperous merchants in town. 

There were no elections involving the poorer residents and almost all other institutions set up either by the merchants themselves - the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce in 1882 or the various Sanitary Commissions created by the British authorities from 1865 onwards - were made up of the same or similar  gentlemen Even the notorious ‘Committee of Elders’ who attributed to themselves the right to intervene in all matters concerning the Catholics of Gibraltar included several members of the Exchange. 

The Chamber of Commerce incidentally, broke away from the Exchange Committee because it did not believe the later was doing enough to: 
 . . . benefit and protect the trading interests of its members and the general trade of Gibraltar”.
Tellingly its first President was not a Gibraltarian but a Manchester businessman - Benjamin Carver. The limiting factor from the authorities’ point of view as regards any kind of normal political emancipation was always the same one - Gibraltar was a fortress - and this took precedence over everything else. It led to several serious confrontations with more than one Governor of Gibraltar - Robert Gardiner in the 1850s (see LINK) and Archibald Hunter in the early 20th century come readily to mind. 


Robert William Gardiner   (1850s)



Archibald Hunter and wife   (1910s)

Both Governors were recalled after representations from the Exchange Committee but these local successes were not due to UK Governments acceptance of democratic political arguments but to the fact that the diktats issuing forth from these Governors were interfering with trade - and subsequent profits made by exporters in the UK

Working class attempts to enter the fray were normally futile and those who tried to do so were often open to ridicule by the British press, something that is nicely encapsulated by a report in the Guardian newspaper about a general meeting held by the Exchange Committee in 1880s while Gibraltar was under the threat of cholera. The meeting - as it was reported - was attended by:
. . .  the most select of the population . . . coalheavers, the most of them barefoot Maltese, some porters, and about a dozen persons most of them clerks in commercial houses dealing with coal.

Coalheavers    (See LINK)


The British sense of humour at its best?

In another Exchange Committee meeting in 1908 angry ratepayers discussed what they considered to be an unfair increase of rates and a demand for a larger representation of ratepayers on Sanitary Commission - the nearest thing to a City council that Gibraltar had at the time.

In 1917 a clock was donated to the Exchange by Gibraltarians who had emigrated to Argentine to commemorate its centenary. Two years later the building was damaged by fire which destroyed - among other perhaps more important relics - a number of portraits of past Governors of Gibraltar. By 1922 it had been rebuild and was opened once more for business by the Governor of the day - Horace Smith-Dorrien, a man famous for his bad-temper and his closure of most of the brothels in Gibraltar. For reasons of which I am not aware of the triangular pediment of the Library was removed and replaced with a flat roof - something which altered the character of the older building. 


Horace Smith-Dorrien

By 1921 the political scene seems to have moved on a bit when locals were finally allowed - at least up to a point - to elect their own City councillors. It is perhaps symptomatic of the importance of this event - as regards how it was perceived by the authorities - that there is not a single civilian on show - apart from the declaring judge in photographs that recorded the moment when the results of the first election were declared. 


The declaration of the results of the 1st City Council Elections - too many military men?

The return of the bulk of the population that had been evacuated during WWII accelerated political developments on the Rock and in 1950 the formation of a legislative council ended the Governor’s previous absolute authority on legislative matters. The Council took up residence in the Exchange building as did the local House of Assembly when it replaced the Council in 1969. This was followed by its own replacement by the present Gibraltar Parliament - a formidable change in the history of a building originally conceived as a riposte against the exclusivity of the Gibraltar Garrison Library.

If you feel that you would like to know more about the Exchange, please check the following links:


1817 - Exchange Library of Gibraltar - The Foundation Stone 
1818 - Exchange Library of Gibraltar - The Opening Ceremony 
1950 - Exchange Library of Gibraltar - El “Gordo”