The People of Gibraltar
1784 - Giovanni Maria Boschetti - Decidedly British

Domingo, Sibelia and Newbery - Zino, Josefa, and Juana
Doña Maria and Doña Isabel Espinosa

Giovanni Maria Boschetti was born in Graglio near Bergamo in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy. Despite this he is often registered as having come from Milan. He probably instigated this anomaly himself. It would have been entirely in keeping for a man like Giovanni to promote himself as a citizen of Milan rather than that of a remote and unheard of village in the rural north. In the late 18th century, and in spite of the incompetence of the succeeding governments of the Visconti. the Sforza, the Spanish and the Austrians, Milan was already as well known as it is today.

I am not sure what Boschetti did as a young man but his various successes in later life suggest that he must have been either a mason, an engineer or at the very least involved in the building trade in some form or the other. What I do know is that in 1784 he travelled to Genoa and from there sailed to Gibraltar. It was probably the best decision he would ever make in his life. He was 25 years old.

A view of the Rock more or less as Boschetti would have seen it when he first arrived. There were around 3000 people living on it at the time. When he died in the 1830s the population had gone up to 15000   (1797 - G.B.Fisher) (See LINK

As mentioned in a previous chapter, John Drinkwater (see LINK) has left us a vivid description of what the town looked like when Boschetti first set foot on the Old Mole. It was in ruins. As he walked through the gates at Water Port he would have been horrified at the derelict condition of Villa Vieja. Further on and into la Turba there was hardly a house that was habitable. Even in the South most of the houses were simply shells.

To make matters worse, even those houses that had not been damaged by enemy fire had been stripped of wood during the Great Siege in order to build huts on the Black Town. An understandable vandalism. Less so were the actions of both soldiers and officers who had stripped the buildings of wood so that they could use it to keep themselves warm.

Main Street after the Siege. The view is probably from the center of the town. The picture on the left looks south the one on the right, North  ( 1793 - Capt Thomas Davis )

The rebuilding of the town after the Great Siege retained the old Spanish street patterns - this incidentally much to the disgust of John Drinkwater who thought it was a decision 'much to be regretted'. He was convinced that the destruction caused by the Spanish cannons was a good excuse to reorganise the place on a more rational basis. The truth was that it was hard to follow any other strategy than those set by the topographical constraints of the Rock itself and the cost effectiveness of using the old Spanish foundations.

Plan of the town of Gibraltar before the Great Siege ( 1762 - Tomas Lopez )

Plan of the town of Gibraltar a few years after the Great Siege
There is hardly any difference between the overall plan of the town before and after the Great Siege   
 ( 1799 Barbie du Bocage et al )

To a modern visitor the vernacular architecture of Gibraltar could easily be mistaken for that of a comparable town in northern Italy but a closer look reveals that many houses contain features that suggest otherwise; here and there one can find classical Georgian sash windows, Regency ironwork, Spanish verandas and a surfeit of heavy British, military inspired stonework.

The similarities between certain streets in Italy and those of the Rock are really only evident in their narrowness and those ubiquitous wooden Genoese shutters. It is a feature which one can almost certainly lay at the door of Giovanni Maria Boschetti and which immediately identifies him as the man most responsible for giving Gibraltar its unique style; a hodge-podge of Mediterranean and British architecture surrounded by massive fortifications which - being none of his business - he left strictly alone.

Old photograph of a rather emptier than usual Main Street with plenty of Genoese wooden louvered shutters on display. (1868 - George Washington Wilson ) (See LINK

Boschetti must have been quite successful during his first four years on the Rock as in 1788 his younger brother Domingo arrived from Genoa, presumably to give him a hand. It was the classic ploy - the eldest male of the family emigrated, had a good look at the lie of the land and if he liked what he saw, asked somebody else from the family to come over. The first painful stirrings of the Napoleonic Wars must have been an added incentive for Domingo to move.

In fact when one considers the eventual success of the Borchettis it seems surprising that nobody else from the family decided to join them. Perhaps there were no other siblings, no waiting wives, their older parents unwilling or unable to make the final move. In the 1791 census they are the only members of the family to appear on it. Giovanni Maria was 32 and Domingo 28.

Whatever the reason, by the beginning of the 19th century both of them must have been very rich individuals. The Napoleonic Wars that may have driven the younger Boschetti from his homeland did wonders for the economy of Gibraltar. The Peninsular War ( see LINK ) was simply the icing on the cake. Spain became an ally and the frontier was passable - with a concomitant increase in both trade and smuggling. More than one Gibraltar merchant gorged himself on the purchase of enemy prizes, buying their contents for peanuts and selling them for a fortune while their friends bought captured ships on the cheap and turned them into immensely profitable privateers.

Little wonder that Borchetti had his hands full when it came to work. Even the Governor was feeling extravagant. In 1804 General Henry Edward Fox decided that it might be a good idea to extend and refurbish O'Hara's Cottage, a rather small house on the Southern area of the Rock. During his term of office, General Charles O'Hara, a womaniser of the first water, had enjoyed having two mistresses in Gibraltar. He kept them apart by the simple expedient of having one at the Convent and the other in a delightful pied- à-terre that he built specially for her. This then was the place that Fox asked Boschetti to apply his skills. The result was a rather attractive cottage which is still extant today and has been used ever since as the summer residence of the Governors of Gibraltar - with or without their mistresses.

Governor's Cottage probably looking more or less as when Boschetti handed it over to Governor Fox. 
( 1828 - H.A. West ) (See LINK

Extensions and refurbishments of small residences used as Governmental perks were not the only official work to come Borchetti's way. Fox had become impressed by Giovanni Maria's skill as an engineer as well as with his competence as a contractor. Despite a prior fiasco concerning the construction of four large freshwater reservoirs near Ragged Staff, the Governor used him frequently on sundry Government building initiatives.

The history of the reservoir project finds it origins in Gibraltar's dismal record as a Naval depot at the end of the 19th century. When the Earl of St. Vincent - at the time a rather reluctant resident on the Rock - he was ill - suggested the construction of reservoirs to supply water to the Royal Navy he ran into some heavy red tape.

The Admiralty agreed with St Vincent but were unable to get permission for the chief engineer - Colonel Fyers - to get on with the job. One way or the other the project was delayed for over six years, one of the main stumbling blocks being that nobody had considered where on earth the million odd bricks required to build the things was going to come from - the nearest possible source was as far away as Malaga. Although impossible to verify it is quite possible that it was Boschetti who identified the serious lack of proper planning and that it was he who came up with the solutions to finish the job.

In 1808 he got his big break. His contract was extended and he was asked to build a brand new Victualling yard for the Royal Navy, a complex affair that would consist of a large storage area, a cooperage and a small pier. The initiative for this work also came from the Earl of St Vincent. His attitude towards the Rock can be summed up by his opinion of it as a Naval base - it was, he said, only capable of supplying his ships with chickens.

The final cost - including the four tanks - came to around £87000 and a lot of people - not just Boschetti, made a lot of money out of it- not all of it honestly . But the new yard was built and it remained the largest in the British Empire - perhaps even the world - until late into the 1830s.

As regards the 'honesty' of both the merchants and the authorities, perhaps it is best to quote the British Admiral Lord Collingwood. He was writing to Sir Hew Dalrymple, the Governor of Gibraltar at the time:

The Admiralty Court at Gibraltar appears to me to be very oddly constituted, and certainly wants regulation. Anybody may be judge there; for legal knowledge does not seem to be a necessary qualification. One day, a merchant is trying causes in which he himself is a party; the next day, a military officer is discussing and explaining knotty points of law, and deciding important questions of property, which he is not qualified to do, either by the course of his studies or the habits of his life . . .. . 
It can safely be assumed that people like Boschetti with their well honed entrepreneurial skills, would have been able to make full use of such a casual approach to the law - in what was, after all, one of the most important decision-making venues for businesses at the time.

The Victualling Yard - on the left - and the wharf  ( Tito Vallejo)

One other curious anecdote concerning the new Victualling Yard refers to the inscription at the top of the entrance. It read and still reads - "G III D G M B &H R". The supposed interpretation would be 'George III Deo Gratia Majesta Britanicus & Hibernia Rex'. 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 Tito Benady commented in his article on La Organización de la Base de la Royal Navy en Gibraltar en el siglo XVIII one wonders at how many sleepless nights Boschetti must have gone through before he arrived at a formula that satisfied him.

The entrance to HM Victualling Yard in Gibraltar - 'George III Deo Giovanni Maria Boschetti & Hibernia Rex!

Fox's predecessor, the Duke of Kent, (see LINK) had also found it helpful to make use of Bochetti's many talents. During his ill-fated program of military reforms the Duke issued no less than 169 new regulations of which one of the least popular was the closing down of most of the taverns in Gibraltar. To make matters worse he forbad the sale of spirits to military personnel and forced the taverners to restrict themselves to the sale of a new and dreadful concoction known as Bristol beer.

When it became evident that the scheme would never succeed Boschetti was asked to demolish the Bristol brewery and build a barracks in its place. The cost to the Government was over £14000, most of which was pocketed by Giovanni Maria.

Quite a few years later at the request of General Don (see LINK) he undertook the conversion of the Blue Barracks into a hospital of which later he was appointed as one of the six governors who administered the place. (See LINK) It would be called the Colonial Hospital until the name was changed to the St. Bernard's. (See LINK) It is also hardly surprising to learn that Boschetti decided to change his own name as well. Considering the kind of people he had to deal with John Mary seemed far more appropriate than Giovanni Maria.

The Colonial Hospital

As a result of all this work - together with his private sector commitments - Boschetti found himself with enough money to start buying up property, including one particular piece of old Gibraltar real estate. In pre 1704 days two wealthy sisters, Doña Maria and Doña Isabel Espinosa donated their residence to the church. The end result was the creation of the Franciscan Convent of Santa Clara - a place that ended up large enough to support seventy-five nuns. It stood at the junction between Main Street and Tuckey's Lane. After the British takeover of the Rock, the Nun's fled to Jimena and the place was converted into a barrack. It was known as Bedlam Barracks when Boschetti  eventually bought the place from the British authorities. 

His investments were not restricted to Gibraltar but extended to his home town of Graglio and to neighbouring districts such as Cadero, Armio and elsewhere. But it was in Gibraltar itself where he spent most of his money. Tito Vallejo in an article in his Streets of Gibraltar has been able to identify the purchase of houses from James Benton and from James Geddes, two Gibraltar merchants of no mean wealth themselves. In 1807 he also bought up two crown properties and yet another house from Moses Bensaquen, an equally well known local merchant.

In fact over a period of years he managed to accumulate a large block of properties which covered the west side of Governor's Street between Cornwall's Parade and Hospital Steps. Not long after the entrance to these properties came to be known as Boschetti's Passage. When it was decided to repave the dangerously steep lane and convert it into steps the name was changed to Boschetti's Steps.

Shortly 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.

In 1817 in the presence of the Lieutenant-Governor General Sir 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 local residents and in particular to the merchant princes of the Rock.

One of the principle movers - and major financial contributor - was John Maria Boschetti who was there representing the Catholic ‘Elders of the Church.’ The place was called the Exchange and Commercial Library. (See LINK) In the late 20th Century it was converted for use as Gibraltar’s Parliament Building.

The Exchange and Commercial Library as Boschetti would have known it. Despite its formal appearance the windows have Genoese louvered shutters - as do most of the houses surrounding what is Gibraltar's main square  (  1846 - Capt J.M. Carter ) ( See LINK )

Boschetti - it is worth mentioning - was one of only a handful of the hundred and fifty odd contributors who did not have an English surname. In fact as late as 1823, by which time the 'proprietors' of the Commercial library were busy compiling a new set of rules by which to run the club, the only other non-British residents who were considered rich enough to be considered as members were people such as Aaron Cardozo, (see LINK) Solomon Benamor, Antony Francia, Joseph Porral and Judah Levy. Sir John Mary Boschetti - as he was now known - was in good company.

This knighthood is something of a mystery as there is no record of him having received one from the British Government. There is, however, another explanation. In the early 1820s - and again according to local historian, Vallejo, on whose research much of this chapter is based on - Boschetti was appointed First Consul to the Papal States. When General Don, the Governor of Gibraltar at the time asked London for official recognition of the appointment , the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh refused on the grounds that Protestant Britain did not recognise the temporal sovereignty of the Pope.

Nevertheless, Castlereagh appears to have taken the trouble to corresponded with Cardinal Consalvi - who was the Secretary of State for the Vatican - and some sort of compromise was reached. The net effect was that Boschetti did become the Papal Consul in Gibraltar and continued as such for a number of years.

Meanwhile Boschetti had become a veritable one man charitable band. Like most rich merchant's the world over he obviously thought it well worth his while to ensure his visa to heaven was up to date. In his case it was a question of helping both the poor of Gibraltar - and the local Catholic church.

Even after his death his charitable activities continued to have a welcome effect on the lives of the less well off residents of the Rock. In his will he bequeathed a very large sum of money - '3000 hard dollars' - to the British Poor and Protestant Orphan Fund in Gibraltar. It was a curious choice of organisation as he was obviously a devout Catholic. However, despite the name the BPPOF actually handed out money to both Protestants and Catholics. In any case he also left a rather larger amount to be distributed among the 'poor widows and orphans of the Catholic and Protestant persuasions.' He obviously believed in being even-handed.

Various historians are of the opinion that the colloquial phrase - 'La bolsa de Boschetti' which was once used by locals when referring to a source of unlimited wealth - finds its origins in the eagerly awaited appearance of the bags used to distribute the charity.

Whatever Boschetti's private life and religious fervour it probably did not stop him from producing children born out of wedlock - and there is evidence that at least one of his offspring may have been a bastard child. It would have been par for the course at a time when male immigrants were many and females were very few. 

More to the point, his position as Papal Consul and his personal generosity appear to have led the Pope to make him a Knight of the Holy Spur - or a member of the Militia Aurata to give it it's correct name. Superficially it was a great honour but in reality it was a meaningless decoration. During the 19th century the Pope had unwisely decided to cut down on his workload and had allowed the local curia the privilege of nominating recipients. The net result was that the Order became thoroughly debased as local priests handed out the medals to anyone who was prepared to fork out a small fee.

Not that all this would have ruffled any of Giovanni Maria's feathers. The important thing for him was that the order was recognised by the British authorities. It allowed him to use the word 'Sir' in front of his name.

Giovani Maria Boschetti aka Sir John Mary, wearing his consular uniform and sporting the distinctive eight pointed badge of the Order of the Militia Aurata ( Unknown )

All good things, however, always come to an end and in 1828 Borchetti made the mistake of picking a quarrel with a Francisco Sibelia, a sea captain of little consequence but also a subject of the Holy See. Sibelia apparently complained about Boschetti to the Papal Nuncio setting in motion a series of unforeseen events. The intervention of the Bishop of Athens led to the removal of Boschetti from his position as Papal representative and the appointment of the Genoese consul - a certain Mr. Vignola - to take his place.

A thoroughly incensed Boschetti turned to the Governor of Gibraltar for support and got it. General George Don, roughly the same age as Boschetti, had been Governor of the Rock for quite a while. (See LINK) History has been kind to him as he is credited with a whole raft of measures that undoubtedly made the Rock a far more agreeable place to live in; the creation of the Alameda Gardens, for example is a good example although it is by no means the best one.

General Don's Alameda. Giovanni Maria must have spent at least some of his spare time in these elegant Gardens. ( 1846 - J.M. Carter )

Unfortunately Don was also renowned for his visceral dislike of the local population, not exactly an unusual trait in any Governor of Gibraltar either before or after him. In Don's case, the reason for his contempt is easy to explain: he simply didn't like anybody who wasn't English. According to Vallejo during the discussions to identify those officials that would run his newly instigated legal system, he dismissed the possibility of appointing any local people out of hand. They were, he wrote, ' totally unfit . . . . , being men without education and devoid of the sentiments of Englishmen”,

General George Don, Governor of Gibraltar a good friend of Boschetti . He actually looked a bit like him   ( Unknown )

All of which makes it all the more curious that he seems to have considered Boschetti as a personal friend. Perhaps the answer lies in the character and personality of Giovani Maria. For a start - if his portrait is anything to go by - he was a man of considerable charisma and personality. He must also have been a reasonably educated man. Romaine Amiel, a surgeon in one of the British regiments and who eventually became Chief Officer at the Colonial Hospital was a good friend as was his wife Francisca. In fact they ended up as Godparents to his only daughter.

One other point would have been his ability to speak English fluently. He would have had to be exceptionally good if he was going to make Don forget that he wasn't an Englishman. All of these qualities allied to his wealth must have been the reason why he was the exception to Don's racist views.

It also meant that the Governor's staunch defence against what he considered to be his unfair dismissal as Papal consul would include a very revealing phrase. Boschetti might have been a foreigner but 'his feelings' were 'in all matters decidedly British.'

It was in a sense a far more personal complement than another one that Don had previously written about him. Boschetti was also - he wrote - a 'Genoese who early in his life settled in this place as a builder or architect and from small beginnings' had 'acquired, through honourable industry and talent, a very large property and' had 'become one of the principal landowners.'

And indeed he had. Don's petition may have failed and Boschetti, now an old man in his 70s took no further part in public affairs. But his properties in Gibraltar continued to keep their value ensuring him a comfortable old age.

As regards John Mary's private life, very little is known and it is only after reading the contents of his will that one can get an inkling as to what he got up to in his spare time. For a start it seems he never got married, or perhaps it would be better to say that nobody was actually quite sure whether he had actually done so or not. For example, after the usual charitable distributions and a bequest to a local priest, the Reverend John Baptista Zino, he left the bulk of his estate to his 'daughter or supposed daughter'.

It is an extraordinary statement that casts all sorts of aspersions not just on the mother - Doña Josefa Roldan - but on himself. Doña Josefa was from Malaga and the daughter in question - presumably his one and only offspring - was Juana Blanca Maria Francisca Boschetti. She was baptised in 1824 by which time Boschetti was already 65 years old.

The will was finally signed in 1832, two years before his death. His influence, not to say his affluence, was enough to run rough shod over post yellow fever regulations which forbad burials within the Catholic Church itself and he managed to get himself laid to rest within the precincts of the Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned on a hot summers day in July in 1834. Perhaps it was only fair that a man who had survived the epidemic of 1813-1814 which killed more than two thousand people should have been allowed to find his resting place where he most wanted it.

The Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned as Boschetti must have known it most of his life. He probably spent quite a bit of his time in the Moorish patio that can just be seen through the main entrance. It would have been an appropriate place to discuss his charity work with his good friend the local Vicar John Baptista Zino   (1801 - Rev Cooper Willyams) (See LINK

Doña Josefa must have died before him as there is no further mention of her. His daughter Juana on the other hand was left in the care of an aunt, Ana Roldan Moretti who was probably his wife's sister. Tellingly, it was Boschetti's specific wish that her education 'be of the most liberal description which her income will admit of in Gibraltar.' There was also the proviso that should Juana die without issue the trust which he had set up for her would pass on to his godson, John Maria Boschetti Newbery.

John's first three names must have been given to him in honour of the old man but the identity of the Newberry family is unknown. Astonishingly, Boschetti the elder seems to have hedged his bets and won - Juana never did have any children and it was John Maria Boschetti Newbery who ended up with all that hard earned cash.

The records show that young Newbery was born in Gibraltar in 1801 and that he returned to England almost as soon as he could lay his hands on his benefactors money. By the early 1830s he had married Agnes, a Scottish woman from Kirkcudbridge and a couple of years later Fanny his first daughter, was born in Broughton in Lancashire. Several other children later, they all moved to Orchard House in Ellesmere Park in what became their family home in Eccles , Lancashire.

1871 Census showing John Boschetti Newbery and his family

But despite their move away from Gibraltar and from the source of the real estate that must have formed part of their wealth, John must have continued to be keenly aware of exactly how much he owed his Godfather. On a notice published in the London Gazette of 1859 concerning the dissolution of a business partnership he actually calls himself John Maria Boschetti Newbery Boschetti.

Dissolution of a business partnership

Newbery died on the 22nd of September 1880. He left £140 000 in his will which today works out to about six million pounds. Giovanni Maria would have been proud of him.

John Maria Boschetti Newbery's obituary

As for a final epitaph to the original John Mary Boschetti the best I can do is to paraphrase Vallejo. If you want a memorial, just take a walk through Main Street, Gibraltar. You can be certain that many of the houses on either side were built by him - and they still look very much the same as they did more than 200 years ago.

Gibraltar ( 1850s - Vilhelm Melbye ) (See LINK