The People of Gibraltar
1825 - Coalheavers of Gibraltar - No Laughing Matter

On the 10th of October 1825 the packet ship Royal George entered Gibraltar Bay without a sail in sight and under her own steam - an appropriate cliché as she was the first steamship ever to arrive in Gibraltar. The locals probably watched with some amusement at the sight of this strange vessel anchored in their harbour - but they soon began to realise that the arrival of the Royal George was no laughing matter.

The new replacing by the old  ( 1840s - 1845 - Anton Vilhelm Melbye )  (See LINK)

In fact as far as I can tell the degree of financial and social upheaval caused directly and indirectly by the advent of the steam ship has never been properly researched - we only have the official point of view - "aqui no pasa nada." 

With the arrival of steam, shipping companies were now able to circumvent Gibraltar altogether as they travelled through the Straits carrying goods to other Mediterranean ports. Malta was by far a more convenient place to stop - if at all necessary. 

However . . . several decades later the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 changed everything. It made it more convenient for ships travelling through the canal to the Far East to make a stop at Gibraltar in order to replenish supplies. It meant plenty of business for the local victualling agents and - perhaps much more significantly from an economic point of view - Gibraltar became an important coaling station - not just for merchant ships but also for the Royal Navy.

Coaling in Gibraltar Harbour

John Miller Adye (see LINK) governor of Gibraltar from 1883 to 1886 wrote the following in his Recollections of a Military Life, giving us a rare mention of a relatively new species of Gibraltarian - The coalheaver. 
Ever since the days of the great siege it had been the custom to close and lock up all the gates of the city at sunset, and to prevent any communication with the outer world until the following morning . . . One consequence of this extreme vigilance was that all vessels arriving after dark had to remain at anchor for many hours before their wants could be supplied.   
A deputation of merchants represented to me that great advantage would arise if the detention could be avoided. Their request seemed reasonable enough, and as on inquiry it appeared that their wishes could be met by permitting a few coal-heavers to leave the city at night, orders were given accordingly; and the result not only obviated the inconvenience, but led to an increase in the vessels visiting the port, thus adding considerably to the harbour dues. (See LINK

 John Miller Adye

At the risk of stating the obvious, from the above the following can be deduced. Eventually there would be more than just a few coalheavers working nights, harbour dues would hit the ceiling and the workers would not benefit by a single extra penny for working antisocial hours.

A coaling party  during dinner hour - the sailors at the coal receiving end must have felt some sympathy for the local civilian heavers - I hope so anyway

It should be borne in mind that prior to 1914 there was no trade union legislation and of course no trade unions in Gibraltar. Nor was there any form of protection for those employed in the tobacco industry or for shop workers. Those people who worked in the more dangerous and accident-prone occupations such as dockyard workers and coalheavers were at a distinct disadvantage. 

Not surprisingly in the late 19th and early 20th century Gibraltar suffered from a constant shortage of labour - particularly manual labour. This shortfall was traditionally made up by employing people from the neighbouring Spanish town of La Línea. Coalheaving was no exception. From the employers point of view if their local workers didn't like their working conditions or their low pay they could leave whenever they liked - there were plenty of men elsewhere who were more than willing to take their place. 

Coalheavers enjoying the midday sun  - unlike mad dogs and Englishmen, they had no choice in the matter (Late 19th century)

Nevertheless the tendency in the literature to insist that the great majority of the coalheavers were Spanish is somewhat misleading. For example in 1888, much to the dismay of the British administration and to that of the local upper-crusts nearly 1000 people from Malta managed to immigrate to Gibraltar. For them the only jobs available were the most unpleasant ones. Heaving coal around was definitely one of them. 

In 1890 we begin to get a glimpse of just how unpleasant and badly paid the job was - the coalheavers went on strike and several of them were sentenced to three months imprisonment for allegedly intimidating co-workers. Infuriated local working-class people took to the streets in protest and it proved necessary for the British authorities to deploy a large detachment of troops simply to move the convicted men from court to jail. Meanwhile the Governor, safely and conveniently ensconced in the nearby Convent, read out the Riot Act. The coal merchants were delighted. 

These gentlemen had convinced themselves - and almost certainly their colonial bosses - that the only reason they were having trouble with their underpaid workers was because of the influence of anarchist agitators in Spain. The usual arguments of 'reds under the beds' that would be bandied about in future years were already part of the relationship between many of Gibraltar's employers and their workers. 

In 1898 the coalheavers went on strike again and personally vented their anger against the coal merchants, some of which were injured. Among these was James L. Imossi of Smith Imossi and Sons. Troops were called out once again and the Governor - Sir Robert Biddulph - settled the dispute by the kind of mediation that involves the threat of military force. 

Robert Biddulph

Coal bunkering (late 19th century)

The advent of the Great War - with its corresponding increase in marine traffic in Gibraltar harbour - immediately increased the need for coal and therefore the need for more coalheavers. According to believable correspondence between the Governor of the Campo de Gibraltar and his bosses in Madrid it would seem that: 
En la primavera de 1915 se produjo el primer gran efecto llamada sobre la mano de obra de las provincias de Cádiz y Málaga. Obreros desempleados, con experiencia en labores de carboneo, estiba y desestiba o reparación de buques, se hacinaban en La Línea a la espera de una oportunidad para ganarse el jornal en la colonia inglesa. La Oficina Colonial británica calculaba que aproximadamente se emplearon 2.000 nuevos trabajadores españoles entre junio y diciembre de 1915.

Coaling a troopship at the beginning of World War I

The war, of course, took its toll and for once it was not just the workers who were forced to shoulder the economic consequences. A quote from a communication to John Mackintosh, the director of the Gibraltar Coaling Depot is perhaps appropriate:
 . . . the keeping up of the coal supplies here for British and Allied Shipping, and perhaps for neutral ships in the service of the Allies, is a war necessity, and should be treated on a non-commercial basis. 
" A non-commercial basis! Pero que dices!" Mackintosh and the members of the Depot were not amused. It meant that whereas they would be unable to sell the stuff at a decent profit, the Admiralty's main supplier - the London Coal Company run by Lambert Brothers - would be able to continue charging them for purchases at the going rate.

John Mackintosh

Little wonder then that after the war and right up to at the very least 1932, Lambert Brothers were doing very well indeed, thank you.

Perhaps this is a good moment to give the names of the companies who actually employed the overworked and underpaid coalmen. During the year ending June 1917, seven firms were involved; The London Coal Company, John Mackintosh, Smith, Imossi and Co, A. Mateos and Sons, MHBland and Co Ltd - run by the Gaggero family - The Anchor Line Ltd and Thos Mosley and Co.

Of these by far the most important was John Mackintosh later to be touted by both the local and British authorities as one of Gibraltar's greatest benefactors. Mackintosh also did business under various other guises such as the Gibraltar Coaling Company, British Coal Co., Imperial Coal Co. and John Peacock and Co. He also acted as commission agent for other well known Gibraltar firms such as, John Carrara & Sons, J. Lucas Imossi & Sons, Francia & Co., John Onetti & Sons, Y. Bergel and Joseph Rugeroni & Sons. Needless to harp on it but he was indeed a very, very, rich man.

Over this period these very well-off gentlemen - the belt-tightening advice from their colonial masters notwithstanding - shifted well over half a million metric tons of coal - every ounce filled into large bags which were then carried a considerable distance to be deposited wherever they were required - not on their own backs, of course, but on those of their employees who developed calluses on them from the rub of the wicker baskets used to transport the stuff. 

Hundreds of empty wicker baskets waiting to be filled

In 1917 the demand for coal in Gibraltar rose exponentially to over one million metric tons. At an estimated over 20000 tons a week, another 1000 Spaniards joined their brothers as coalheavers in order to ensure enough men were available to deliver the goods.

Not even a year passed by and the coalheavers decided yet again that enough was really enough. In 1918 1200 Spanish coalheavers went on strike. With a singular lack of solidarity for their co-workers, their Gibraltarian colleagues refused to join the strike. According to the Gibraltar Directory of the time they kept on working 'loyally'. It was suggested that they thought it might damage the war effort to do otherwise. 

Understandably refuelling naval and merchant ships which called at the port throughout the War was important both militarily and logistically and the strike was - from a British point of view - thoroughly inopportune and seriously threatening to the war effort in the region. But help was immediately at hand. Gibraltar had been under martial law since 1914 which in turn allowed the Royal Navy - with the Governor's full approval - to look at different options - including using German prisoners of war, who were held in Morocco, to replace the Spanish workers. The strike was eventually resolved, but the underlying issues concerning pay, representation and conditions were not.

In August 1918 the strike was renewed, and eventually the British authorities were forced to give way on the key demands for recognition of the workers’ representative body. Throughout this period, the British were concerned - although without any evidence - that these strikes were being instigated and exploited by German agents in Spain. 

In 1919 there were workers' demonstrations in protest against the high prices of food and the low rate of pay. According to the author John Stewart:
The Governor addressed the people with soothing words with his troops drawn up behind him to emphasise the reasonableness of his address. Out of ingrained respect for him or fear, the people went home quietly. 
Unfortunately the Governor - Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien - misjudged the mood and with total insensitivity gave his rich landlord friends permission to raise their rents. The people protested yet again and their protests were noted. They were wasting their time.

Horace Smith-Dorrien

A couple of months later - the coalheavers were at it again. There was no further nonsense about mediation this time. Scab Moorish workers were brought in from Tangier under the protection of the British army. To add to the general unpleasantness several young men from Gibraltar who were not coalheavers also volunteered to do their work. It pains me to admit that my uncle Felipe Chipulina (see LINK) was one of them. The coalheavers were forced to capitulate after four months of hardship.

Coalheavers at work

In 1928 the men were on strike yet again. The owners had decided - for the nth time - to cut their pay. Once again in a repeat of the 1919 affair they were replaced by others and were once again forced to capitulate after four months. How on earth they managed to hold out for as long as this is hard to understand. However, whatever they did they must have done so in good heart. According to an American visitor to the Rock at the time:
A gang of coal-heavers with their noise-makers paraded all around in the rain this noon singing this Spanish song I’m going to learn. There is a gang parading about in Main St. now singing it—in the rain. Three minutes more of 1928. (See LINK
As is usually the case there are of course no proper records of how the poorer members of society coped during the opening decades of the 20th century - but however bad it was on the Rock it was even worse just across the border in La Línea de la Concepción.  Not that anybody with any authority in Gibraltar would have cared much.

There were, however,  questions in the House of Commons in which the Secretary of State for the Colonies was asked - among other things - whether he was aware of the coalheavers' dispute at Gibraltar; how long it has been in operation and the amount of reduction in wages sought by the employers. Also if any efforts had been made to bring about a settlement or if either side had requested arbitration - indeed if any of the Government representatives had been advised to use their influence for a friendly settlement. 

There was also a question on whether the Secretary of State knew how many Moorish workers had been brought to Gibraltar during the dispute and if approval had been given to relax the rule under which permits were necessary for those working or living in Gibraltar. All of which were answered in the following thoroughly unhelpful manner by the Secretary of State:
The coalheavers and trimmers employed by the Gibraltar coal merchants have been on strike since the 1st February as the result of a proposed reduction in wages, the amount of which I am not able to state. The employers have imported Moorish labour. I cannot say in what numbers nor whether the Colonial Government have been asked to relax any rules for this purpose.  
The Colonial Secretary of Gibraltar has taken an active part as intermediary between the employers and men. I regret that the information at my disposal does not enable me to deal with the other points raised in the questions, but I am asking the Governor for a full Report. 
And so it went on. Eventually sheer poverty brought about by the lack of available work forced many more Gibraltarians to join the ranks of the coalheavers than had previously been the case. Many of these new recruits were unaccustomed to such heavy work.  It was perhaps these newcomers who were responsible for setting in motion a curiously ironic train of events. The men began to fill their wicker baskets with less coal than they were supposed to. It allowed them to lessen the load, to deliver more baskets, and in essence earn themselves a bit more money.

The coal owners, all of them members of the all powerful Gibraltar Coaling Depot, were either unaware of what was happening or simply didn't care. Whatever the case when an audit was eventually taken it revealed that the difference between the income from sales and the cost of coal purchases had produce an almighty surplus. The owners were overjoyed. They made no effort to find out the reason for the excess and decided to split the money between the members of the pool.

One small fly in the ointment was that Mackintosh decided that the firm of Joseph Ruggeroni was not entitled to a share. Despite being a coal merchant he was not actually a member of the Coaling Depot like the rest of them. Some of the best legal minds on the Rock such as A.C. Carrara, A.R.Isola,, S. Triay and A.B.M. Serfaty  were hired, an expensive court case ensued, Ruggeroni lost, and the money was eventually shared out as originally decided - minus fees. 

The coalheavers received not a penny. In fact with an almost unbelievable lack of tack - and foresight - the owners decided immediately to cut down on labour costs by buying themselves a few new toys in the form of the latest bucket cranes and coal handling equipment. 

Cranes and coal on the North Mole

They should have saved themsleves the money. The end of yet another era was fast approaching.  Even before the start of the First World War, Winston Churchill, supported by Admiral John Fisher, had began to advocate the transition towards the use of oil as a fuel source for the Royal Navy. The coal merchants - clever and opportunist entrepreneurs to a man - would of course adjust accordingly - but for the coalheavers . . . the writing was on the proverbial wall.

Winston Churchill, and John Fisher