The People of Gibraltar
1954 - Ruggiero Grech - 'Tobaila'

In 1954 Queen Elizabeth II briefly set foot on her colony of Gibraltar while on her coronation tour. She was transferring from her aircraft to the Royal Yacht Britannia. When the Spanish Government heard about the visit it immediately issued a protest and there were anti-British demonstrations in Madrid. The Spaniards followed this up by bluntly issuing a statement; they could not guarantee the Queen's safety in Gibraltar.

With his usual acumen Sir Anthony Eden - then Foreign Secretary - had not foreseen this reaction and it was left to the Defence Security Officer in Gibraltar to do whatever he thought necessary. Security was immediately and dramatically tightened and among other pressing matters, he decided to make sure that the few local eyesores and undesirables were conveniently hidden away for the duration.

One of these was Gibraltar's one and only tramp. His name was Ruggiero Grech but he was known locally by some as Tobaila, and - this being Gibraltar - as Tobaiba by others.

Caricature of Tobaila ( one of a series drawn by Eric Chipulina for an article on street characters of long ago published in the Gibraltar Chronicle )

Whatever his name, he was a veritable institution on the Rock and was frequently seen here and there shuffling along with his portable bedding; a sack full of straw which he invariably carried over his shoulder. As in those days passageways to houses were left unlocked - many passageways had no doors - he would simply settle down in one of them for the night. The next morning he would move off elsewhere leaving behind a distinctive Tobaila ‘aroma’.

He was the last of those Maltese immigrants that the good Dr. Scandella - bishop of Gibraltar - had referred to so inelegantly in the previous century as 'the scum of that people'. And yet he was - some people said - the black-sheep of a well-to-do Valetta family who still lived in Malta and who periodically sent him money to keep him at a distance.

It seemed an unlikely tale but whatever the case, he always had plenty of cash - despite the fact that he obviously never did a stroke of work. An inveterate gambler, he often challenged passers-by with,

'Ninio, ninio, juega cara o cruz?

Despite his many years in the area his Spanish was still very rudimentary.

Tobaila doing his bit for democracy asleep outside 'parliament' - only in those days it was the local health centre

An authentic 'Gentleman of the Road' he often disappeared for a while. In his earlier and fitter days, when the wanderlust took him, he never thought twice about taking a stroll to Malaga. But he was soon back. He probably missed the army rubbish bins which he frequently rummaged through for food. To servicemen stationed on the Rock he was known affectionately - or otherwise - by the alternative nick-name of 'Malaga Joe'.

Over the years the authorities had taken to carting him off every so often to hospital for treatment or for a general clean up. He was never very enthusiastic about either of these interferences with his normal life, and when he finally emerged from his ordeal, looking positively pinkish and invariably done up in a spruce white suit, the effects never lasted very long. In about a month he was back to normal.

Tobaila looking relatively spick and span - he had probably not long been released by busy-body authorities after a clean-up

Just prior to the Queen's visit, the authorities decided it was time for Tobaila to be subjected to another check-up. Gibraltar's one and only tramp out of the way, the Rock was ready to receive her majesty with open arms.