The People of Gibraltar

1845 - The Loreto Nuns - 1. Arrival

Bishop Henry Hughes and James Speed - Miss Masina and the Shea family
Lieutenant General Sir Robert Wilson and Mother Angela Kelly
Sister Vincent Clinch and Sister Seraphia Rorke
Sister Placida Byrne and Josephine Underhill

On the evening of Tuesday December 16th 1845 the paddle steamer “Royal Tar” approached the commercial anchorage at the north-eastern end of the Bay. The moon was just on the wane and anyone on deck would have made out quite easily the silhouette of the Rock and the dim flicker of lights in the town. Bishop Henry Hughes, the Vicar Apostolic, was returning to Gibraltar. 

The paddle steamer Royal Tar

Amongst the other passengers aboard the “Royal Tar” was a group consisting of “a servant and five nuns”. The ship had left Southampton eight days earlier with a consignment of 
 . . hams, bacon, cheese, rounds of corned beef, Dorset butter in crocks, fresh ditto in half-pound print . . . porter and ale in quart and pint bottles, sherry in wood, claret . . .   
and a variety of other goods, all of which were proudly advertised in the Chronicle (see LINK) a few days later as being on sale at Mr James Speed’s shop in Waterport Street. English people in Gibraltar would be buying their hams for Christmas; Gibraltarians, mainly descended from Genoese, had different Christmas traditions.

Although the “Royal Tar” arrived on the Tuesday the passengers did not disembark until the following day. At that time vessels with a draft of anything more than about ten feet were unable to berth at the Commercial Mole at Waterport and the “Royal Tar” would have had to anchor west of the quayside.

 The Commercial Mole at Waterport ( Mid to late 19th century )

She probably arrived near or after Evening Gunfire (five o’clock on that day, according to the Chronicle) when the Port would have virtually closed down for the night. At Second Gunfire the gates of the garrison – Waterport, (see LINK) Landport (see LINK) and Southport (see LINK) – were locked, sentries were posted and no-one would have been able to enter or leave the town until the following day.

Early on Wednesday morning, December 17th, passengers were up on deck as a light Levanter mist gradually dispersed in the winter sunshine and every detail of the grand backdrop was revealed. Towards the west Europe and Africa approached one another almost appearing to touch; to the north in Spain lay the gentle slopes covered in small-holdings that produced fruit and vegetables for the ‘Campo’ area, rising into the brown hills covered in scrub, and climbing up into the purple mountains of the Sierra Morena, famous for bandits, highwaymen and smugglers (see LINK) . . . .

Directly south, on the coast of Barbary, the ancient town of Ceuta was clearly visible twelve miles across the Strait. West of that towered “Mons Abyla”, Gibraltar’s twin, the other Pillar of Hercules. Eastwards rose the steep cliffs of the Rock of Gibraltar itself, ranges of batteries rising from the sea, tier upon tier, extending along the entire sea-front. Every niche in the rock face bristled with artillery.

The Saluting Battery in Gibraltar with Mons Abyla in the distance  ( 146 - J.M. Carter ) (see LINK

When they were ready for disembarkation the passengers waited for the dozens of rowing boats crowding in the water about the ship ready to ferry them ashore. The Loreto nuns, the Bishop, a surgeon, a group of ten Army officers and men, a Miss Masina and a child, and the Shea family (father was at one time Spanish Consul in Gibraltar) were rowed  ashore later that morning. On the sea journey from Southampton there would no doubt have been conversations amongst the passengers, those who had lived on the Rock explaining to the newcomers what Gibraltar was like and how it functioned.

Wednesday 17th was a clear winter’s day with a temperature of . . . approximately 13º Celsius – and though the weather was good there had been a severe storm a few days earlier when a troop ship bound for Jamaica had suffered damage and her departure was consequently delayed. . . .

As the Loretto Sisters – they still spelled themselves with two t’s – and the other passengers were being rowed towards the jetty they would have seen that the entire town was surrounded by a massive wall just a few feet in from the shore line. They disembarked near the Water Gate, the only gate through which civilians arriving by sea were allowed to pass. Somewhere near the Water Gate they might have read the notice stating: 
No persons will be permitted to enter or leave this gate between the hours of eleven PM and four AM. 
All civilians entering or leaving Gibraltar needed special passes, and undoubtedly the nuns would have had permits of residence requested by the Bishop and authorised by the Governor. Only a very limited number of civilians not born in Gibraltar were allowed to reside in the town. 
Here at Waterport the nuns’ identification papers would have been examined by an official from the recently established Police Office, porters would have arranged for the collection and delivery of their luggage and no doubt someone was sent to meet and escort them by carriage. 

They were accompanied from the mole through the only route, a long and very noisy vaulted passageway built into the city walls. In the confined space the echo of rumbling carts was deafening; it encouraged shouting competitions amongst the crowds of pedestrians moving between the town and the mole. 

Men called out in a variety of languages, dialects and colloquial speech. The pandemonium subsided very slightly as they left the tunnel, entered Casemates Square and continued into the heart of the town along the narrow Waterport Street and Church Street towards the Cathedral. The main street was crowded with men, women and children, sailors and soldiers, horses and carts, dogs, goats, donkeys and mules. In a “Handbook to Spain” published in 1845  (see LINK) the passenger from the steamer arriving at Gibraltar is warned that he will be . . .
tormented by cads and touts who clamorously canvass him to put up at their respective inns, all second rate and dear.
At the main entrance to the Cathedral a small crowd had gathered and various dignitaries were ready to receive and welcome the nuns to Gibraltar. His Excellency the Governor, Lieutenant Lieutenant General Sir Robert Wilson, together with Bishop Henry Hughes (who must have preceded them) and the Junta of Elders waited to greet them formally. 

Lieutenant General Sir Robert Wilson - and not much of a governor either  ( Vanity Fair ) (See LINK)

The Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned  (1875 )

The Cathedral bells rang in welcome and the troops lined Waterport Street up to the Cathedral. . . . Mother Angela Kelly, aged twenty-six, had been appointed Superior, and she and Sisters Vincent Clinch (twenty-eight) and Seraphia Rorke (twenty-one) were all teachers. Sister Placida Byrne (twenty-four) would look after the house. There was a fifth Sister of whose name and age we have no definite record, but she may have been Josephine Underhill who was thirty-two in 1845 and who was Canadian by birth.