The People of Gibraltar
1805 - Susannah Middleton

Captain M, Nelson and Driver - Miss Leake, Reeves and his wife

In 1805 Captain Robert Gambier Middleton was posted to Gibraltar to run the Naval Dockyard as Naval Commissioner. He was appointed by the newly promoted Lord of the Admiralty, Charles Middleton the 1st Baron Barham. The fact that Barham was Captain Robert's uncle will no doubt have made it easier for him when he was interviewed for the job.

Lord Barham, First Lord of the Admiralty and Captain Middleton's influential uncle (John Downman)

One of Captain Middleton's first responsibilities would have been to oversee repairs to Nelson's Victory which had been seriously damaged during the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Victory being towed back to Gibraltar after the Battle of Trafalgar (Clarkson Stanfield)
( see LINK )

There had been a near mutiny on board when the authorities had suggested that another ship take the admiral's body - traditionally supposed to have been kept fresh in a cask of spirits of wine - back to England on another ship because it would take too long to repair his flagship. According to the historian Sir William Jackson 'the Dockyard again worked miracles and she was given a jury rig in time'. Captain Robert would almost certainly have been heavily involved.

1805 - The Battle of Trafalgar. Despite the British victory the enormous damage to the ships of Nelson's fleet must have kept Captain Robert very busy indeed (Unknown)   LINK

Middleton brought his young wife Susannah with him but her correspondence back home reveals that she was not enamoured with the move. It was the first time she had been away from home and over a period of three years she wrote nearly 60 letters to her sister in England, Miss Marion Leake.

Early nineteenth century engraving showing the Dockyards above the New Mole where Captain Middleton worked. The first couple on the engraving might be local civilians but the other two could easily be Mrs Middleton and her husband. What is almost certain is that the gardener is of Genoese descent (F. Benucci)     ( see LINK )

That Susannah had chosen to live abroad with Captain Robert is unusual. Unlike other naval wives whose husbands were serving on ships, Susannah was not left behind in England but instead was able to experience at first hand what life was like for the naval officers stationed on the Rock. 

Apropos, one of Susannah's more charitable tasks in Gibraltar had been to ease the plight of a certain Mrs Reeves who was the wife of one of her husband's subordinates. Mr. Reeves had apparently all but abandoned his wife and children in England. It was Susannah - with the help of her husband and her sister in England - who arranged for her to receive £10 which were deducted from Mr. Reeve's wages in Gibraltar.

More work for Captain Middleton. HMS Belleisle being towed into Gibraltar after the Battle of Trafalgar by the frigate Naiad  (Unknown)
When Susannah first arrived on the Rock she was suffering from a bout of ill health as a result of a miscarriage and one of her first letters home reveal her depression at the loss of her baby. 'I can’t help thinking' she writes ' how differently I expected to be employed about this time.'

But there was no baby to look after and her subsequent letters provide us with an insight into the life of a young naval officer's wife in Gibraltar during the height of the Napoleonic wars. They also reveal that even if she had been in the best of health she would still have felt homesick and desperate for company. She found it hard to cope with what must have been a rather unfamiliar environment One of her most consistent complaints was that she often had to wait well over a month for a letter from home.

Despite all this Susannah led a reasonably active social life. Although she was unable to tackle the mile-long trip to town - there were no markets or shops in the South - quite a few of her husband's naval colleagues visited her home regularly. Just after the Battle of Trafalgar Gibraltar was jam packed with naval personnel waiting for their ships to be repaired. Although she never mentions it, Captain Middleton must have been extraordinarily busy.

Early nineteenth century engraving showing ships with battered sails and dismasted men-of-war awaiting repairs off Gibraltar after the battle of Trafalgar. (Unknown ) LINK

Gibraltar in the early nineteenth century from Eastern Beach - a strange environment for a lady from rural England  (Eigenthum after Verleger)    LINK

Susannah responded to major political events in much the same way that any young recently married woman might today. She was obviously worried about the war and the threat of French invasion, but her letters are always far more down to earth with trivial concerns about the behaviour of her servants and of local gossip. On the whole she seems to have been unlucky with her maids. She had continuous problems with them - some even to do with their love lives.

She goes into considerable detail about everyday aspects of her life with her husband, whom she quaintly referred to as Captain M, and seems to have spent quite a bit of her time running the house which she even more quaintly calls her 'farmyard'.

She was in fact referring to Mount Pleasant, her husband's official residence and according to many, one of the most attractive places on the Gibraltar. According to Sarah it was 'the only pretty place on the Rock' possibly because it was surrounded by orange groves, lemons and fig, as well as a locust tree and a couple of oaks. It occupied thirteen acres in all, a huge area by Gibraltar standards.

Nevertheless the word 'farmyard' may not have been as inappropriate as it sounds. The Middletons kept no less than five dozen fowls, twenty ducks, sixteen turkeys, three geese and several hens wandering around the place.

Twentieth century postcard of the Mount

On a typical day, after her husband had left for the Dockyard at nine she would go to her poultry yard and collect any eggs she could find. Then, she would take a leisurely stroll along a long narrow pathway which ran parallel with the Rock with vineyards on one side and fig trees on the other. It had, she wrote, a beautiful view of the shipping in the bay as well as the towns of Gibraltar and San Roque.

The kind of view Sarah would have enjoyed on a clear on the Mount (George Pechell Mends)

Sarah was not just a writer but a reader. And so apparently was her husband. She mentions a book he had given her that had been borrowed from Nelson. Following the principle that the only worthwhile books in one's library are those that others have lent us this was one they did not intend to return: Nelson was dead and nobody was going to ask for it back.

A contemporary view towards the North which had probably become quite familiar to Mrs Middleton during her stay (Unknown)

Taking what she writes at face value one would think that the local population didn't really exist. The assumption must be the she had little contact with them and even less inclination to socialise with them in any way. On one occasion, however, she describes how one of her servants called Driver - who was probably English - helped their butcher kill and prepare a ‘great hog’. Nothing was left to waste with plenty of 'sausages and black pudding' being set to one side.

She also found it entertaining to give her sister tips on how to cure chickens, make duvets and preserve butter for long journeys . One idiosyncratic piece of information that she offers is that in Gibraltar animals could only be killed for food when the wind was blowing Westerly - otherwise the meat would go bad very quickly. One more thing to blame the Levante for.

A page from one of Susannah Middleton's letters to her sister Miss Marion Leake. In it, among other things, she writes about the 'natives of this place', by which she means other British people like herself who have been on the Rock for a while (Susannah Midleton)

Her social activities, however, take pride of place with lengthy descriptions of innumerable balls and dinners, and plenty of gossip and scandal concerning the naval and army officers garrisoned in Gibraltar. As one British Museum researcher pointed out it is easy to imagine some of the characters and events she mentions occurring in the pages of a Jane Austen novel.

But not quite. On one occasion she tells her sister that she had enjoyed a recent ball where despite the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol, 'there was no quarrelling or fighting and everybody was in good humour which has never been the case at any ball before or since.'

Another page from Susannah's letters to Marion in which she complains about the drinking habits of her 'friends'  (Susannah Midleton)

It was the usual story - the British Army and the Royal Navy were bored. For them Gibraltar had little to offer - other than getting drunk. One must presume that Susannah only hobnobbed with officers. The implications as to what the other ranks must have been up to as regards drink doesn't bear thinking about.

Another view of the new mole and dockyard. If Mrs Middleton ever saw her husband's workplace from the upper Rock we will never know. She certainly never wrote about going up there  (Unknown)
Yet another complaint is the impossibility of buying suitable gowns in Gibraltar and having to rely on packages being sent out to her from England. The local fashion, she scorns was at least two years behind that in England.

Writing after a particularly memorable Christmas party in which they had invited some friends, she still notes that she would have gladly exchanged it all for her sister’s company - even though Christmas day that year was, she thought, 'the most beautiful I have seen for some time, it was quite like summer in the middle of the day.'

More or less contemporary map of the Gibraltar of Susannah Middleton (Unknown)    LINK

Mrs Middleton's lack of interest in the local population is par for the course and the extent of her involvement with them seems to have been limited to her dealings with her servants. During her stay the civilian population of the Rock ranged from around 6000 to 8000 souls. A large number of them must have been indispensible for the running of the place but she never mentions them. She was not alone of course. As had always been the case in the past, other than officers and a few well-off British merchants and their families, everybody else was considered as beyond the pale. They were simply servants or service fodder.

Locals dressed in what passed for traditional costumes although it is almost certain that the majority of the locals did not dress like this. Whatever dress they did put on, however, Susannah Middleton obviously tended to avoid them (Unknown)

However, Susannah did have one reasonable excuse. Her arrival in Gibraltar coincided with one of the first serious outbreaks of yellow fever. ( see LINK )  It meant that like her compatriot, Miss Sarah Fyers - another English young lady who was in Gibraltar at the time and left us a diary with her thoughts on the 1804 epidemic among other things - the Middleton's probably lived in an encampment at 'lower Europa . . . where the doctors think we are safe . . the air being so pure here'. The town itself seems to have been generally in a very poor state with the dead piling up waiting for somebody to come and bury them.

View of the Rock from the west bank of the isthmus. The huts are probably 'fever houses' used as lazarettos for people showing symptoms of yellow fever   (Unknown)

This is also probably the reason why she makes no mention of trips to Spain. The Civil Hunt
( see LINK ) - precursor of the Royal Calpe Hunt - for example, had just started to get going and friendly relations with Spain during the Peninsular War meant that travel by foot - or by horse - through the frontier was possible at the time. All unnecessary quarantine restrictions had been removed.

By 1807 she was beginning to get worried about her husband's next posting. She feared the possibility of Captain Middleton being sent to Halifax. She had been counting her days on the Rock and very much wished to return to England.

Fortunately for the Middletons, when the time came to leave, the Captain was posted back home. By December 1808 Susannah was probably able to celebrate Christmas once more with her sister and the rest of her family in Hertfordshire.