The People of Gibraltar
1820 - The Women in Red from Gibraltar

After its capture from Spain by Anglo-Dutch forces in 1704, Gibraltar was very much in the news during the next couple of centuries and for a variety of reasons - but never for its national costume. In fact it probably never really had one - presumably for the simple reason that its population after the take-over was made up almost entirely of immigrants who were originally from Spain, Genoa, Portugal, Barbary, Minorca and other places - including the odd ex-pat from Britain. If they bothered to wear a national costume at all it would have been one from their original home country.

Officers of the 7th Royal Fusiliers in Gibraltar - and their men - From left to right, an unknown officer, Captain Sir William O'Malley, the Hon. Ivor Talbot and, possibly - Honourable Charles Luke  ( 1844 - Unknown - detail )

The above painting shows British officers and men waiting to go on parade underneath the entrance of a barracks in Gibraltar’s Grand Casemates Square. However . . . the important thing to note is the following - that the British Army had a curious penchant for bright red, that the quality of the red wool they used was very good, and - last but not least - that over the two hundred years starting from 1704 to the late 19th century there were a hell of a lot of British soldiers stationed on the Rock - perhaps as many on average as 5000 men on any given day - all of them in uniform.

So what does this have to do with the title of this essay? Well, perhaps nothing at all but let me speculate.

( 1820s - Pharamond Blanchard )

The title of this attractive engraving from an 1820s painting by Pharamond Blanchard is - “A Spanish woman from Gibraltar” and she is wearing a very distinctive red costume.

In 1820 Henry Sandham, (see LINK) a Royal Engineer who spent a few years stationed in Gibraltar, carried out a series of pencil sketches of different places in Gibraltar. Despite the lack of colour, women can be identified on at least four of them wearing the costume shown on the previous engraving. 

Church Street    ( 1820 - Henry Sandham - Detail )

The above sketch shows a short section of Main Street just south of the Exchange and Commercial Library which was once known as Church Street. It was drawn from more or less the southeast exit of Commercial Square and shows City Mill Lane and Pitman's Alley on the opposite side of the street. The single lady on the picture is almost certainly wearing a red hooded lady's coat.

Plaza de los CaƱoneros    ( 1820 - Henry Sandham - Detail )

Plaza de los CaƱoneros  or Plaza de Artilleros - meaning more or less the same thing - was the old local Spanish name for this square, a reference to the Royal Artillery Barracks on the right  hand side which does not appear on the sketch - although what looks like a pair of gun carrying carriages can be seen on the left. Today it is known as Governor’s Parade. (See LINK).  More importantly  . . . the woman on the left is wearing the same distinctive red cloak.

The Square     ( 1820 - Henry Sandham - Detail )

“The Square” was officially known as Commercial Square - today’s John Mackintosh Square. In its heyday, all manner of goods were sold in the square by auction - so much so that the colloquial name for it became "el Martillo" - a reference to the hammers used by auctioneers. (See LINK)  A lady wearing her "red" coat looks on while well dressed gentlemen hang about waiting to bid for whatever it is they had come for. 

Plaza de las Verduras   ( 1820 - Henry Sandham - Detail )

Another one - La Plaza de las Verduras was the local descriptive name of what was essentially a fruit and vegetable market - the meat market being elsewhere. (See LINK)  Going further back into the Spanish era, the south side of the square was then known as La Plazuela de San Juan de Letran in honour of the church by the same name that once stood there. It is today known as Cornwall’s Parade. Right in the middle of the picture Sandham includes yet another lady dressed in “red”.

But what about something in technicolor? No problem there are quite a few examples. 

Also in the mid 1820s, a contemporary of Sandham - a British office Thomas Staunton St Clair, (see LINK) was also stationed on the Rock for quite a few years. During that time he seems to have taken every opportunity to use his skills as a water colourist to produce a large number of paintings of the Rock. One of these was that of the two ladies in what he called "walking dress". 

( 1826 - Thomas Staunton St Clair )  

The following is Staunton’s lengthy but informative description of his painting.
Small as the town is on the Rock and few as are the inhabitants, still there are some individuals here within the Garrison who live here and die in it. The forefathers of these settlers were fishermen from the Town of Genoa in Italy who years ago migrated and settled in Gibraltar. 
The sketch shows two of their descendants in their Walking dress consisting of a large scarlet cloak edged with Black Velvet worn with a cape over the head. They always use large paper fans which like their neighbours the Spanish women they handle most gracefully while young as much for flirtation as for any other purpose and manage them with considerable dexterity. 
Under the cloak their dress consists like most other European countries of a bodice petticoat and apron all made from English manufactured cotton and the young women generally make use of coloured shoes. This sketch was taken on the Line Walls not far from Cardozos house (see LINK) shortly after my landing in September 1826.

Woman in red   (1830s - Commissioned by Commodore Mathew Calbraith Perry )  (See LINK)

In 1829 a certain James Williamson (see LINK) who was employed as a surgeon by the owners of the ships of the Falmouth Packet Ship Service wrote about his experiences in his - Journal of a Voyage to the Mediterranean. 
In Gibraltar the mixture of females is as peculiar as that of the males - and here the English and Spanish predominate. Nor is it difficult to distinguish between them - for the former wear bonnets, as at home, while the heads of the latter are covered simply with a black veil often of the most costly material. 
I observed also that here many of those women of the lower orders, wore very generally a scarlet coloured cloak, with a hood for the head, and trimmed all along with a broad edging of black velvet. 

Two young women of Gibraltar talking to a “Moor of Barbary”   (Possibly early 19th century  - Unknown )

During the 1830s, Frederick Leeds Edridge (see LINK), yet another British officer stationed in Gibraltar also produced a large number of watercolours of the Rock of which at least three include Gibraltar women dressed in red.

Calle Comedia - (Frederick Leeds Edridge)

The above painting is a partial view of the north end of Plaza de la Verdura - Cornwall’s Parade - with no less than four ladies in red. The artist was sitting by a window in Bell Lane just across Engineers Lane and facing Castle Street - which was and still is known locally as Calle Comedia. There was a theatre there somewhere on the right hand which is mostly taken up by a building known as Fives Court. (see LINK

The reason behind the “comedia” reference is that in the 18th century the word was used to describe stage productions generally rather than to comedies. The theatre belonged to a local silversmith called Henry Cowper.

The Garrison Library (see LINK) in Gunner’s Parade - That’s two more ladies in red on front of the library wall     ( 1830s - Frederick Francis Edridge)

From a building on the Line Wall looking north with the Spanish town of San Roque in the distance    ( 1830s - Frederick Francis Edridge) 

Definitely not one of Edridge’s best but perhaps another couple of ladies with red costumes - although I am not entirely sure on this one    

The Garrison Library in Gunner’s    Parade   ( 1830s - H.A. Turner )

Lieutenant H. A. Turner (see LINK), probably a contemporary of Edridge, also had a go at painting the Garrison Library. As a coincidence his version also includes a couple of ladies in red costume. 

Still on the same decade the South Africa born Lieutenant William Mein Smith (see LINK) - yet another military man who dabbled in watercolours managed to leave yet another two pictures with women from Gibraltar dressed in their national costume. On the first one -as shown below - has been cropped to make the lady the main subject o the picture.

Woman from Gibraltar in red costume    ( 1830s - William Mein Smith - detail )

Gunner’s Parade   ( 1830s - William Mein Smith - detail )

The above is an unrecognisable Gunner’s Parade, the Artillery Barracks with its canon ball deco on the right . . . . and of course . . . . yet another woman in red. In the mid 1850s the building in front of her - which looks like a workshop of some sort - would become St Andrews Presbyterian Church.

The Vineyard and South Barracks    ( 1840s - George Lothian Hall - detail )

There is some doubt whether Lothian Hall is in fact responsible for the above painting - but it is a very appropriate one  - a view in the middle distance of the Vineyard, touted as one of the most pleasant place on the Rock at the time, a woman in red in the foreground and “red coats” parading near South Barracks in the distance.

In 1843 an Irish historian called Martin Haverty (see LINK) visited Spain and wrote a rambling travelogue about his experiences. The following is a quote from his section on Gibraltar:
Among the strange costumes of Gibraltar is the red cloak with hood always worn over the head, and broad black velvet borders or trimming, which is peculiar to the women of the poorer classes.

( Early to mid 19th century - Unknown )

Both the French and English captions on this engraving are ambiguous - but my guess is that the woman on the left is a servant and that - despite the wrong colouring - she is wearing a similar costume to the ones used by the women on my previous posts. If so it confirms Haverty’s assertion that this was the costume of the “poorer classes”.

During the 1840s and 1850s Richard Ford (see LINK) wrote what was probably the definitive 19th C hand-book for travellers in Spain in which Gibraltar also made an appearance. Unfortunately Ford, more often than not, uses the enduring ploy of the theatre critic; an insultingly bad review will always prove funnier and more readable than a kind one. He also confirmed the maxim that it possible to like a place yet detest the people who live in it. They were he wrote:
a mongrel, motley, dangerous population, bred and born in despotism, accustomed to the summary bowstring of the Kaid, or the cuatro tiros of the Spaniards
But he also wrote:
The ordinary out of doors dress of the females of the lower orders is a red cloak and hood, edged with black velvet
Richard Ford - dressed up and ready for Spain - He was rather keen on traditional costumes himself    (Unknown )
A short story - The Jews Legacy - A Tale of the Siege of Gibraltar - appeared in an 1895 edition of Blackwood Magazine. Probably written by a certain Captain Edward Bruce Hamley it carried the following description: 
Not far from him was an old woman, wearing the quaint red cloak trimmed with black velvet that old Genoese women wear in Gibraltar.

Yet another portrait    (Unknown)

The prevailing belief in Gibraltar - even nowadays if anybody does indeed think about it - is that the cloth used to make the cloaks used by local women came from material which was supposed to have been used in the creation of the red uniforms worn by many British army soldiers during the 19th century.

One school of thought is that they were made from remnants of or from old discarded uniforms. Another more extreme version is that the cloth was pilfered from army warehouses or sold illegally by those in charge.

I have tried hard to find a believable source that might confirm or otherwise any one of these possibilities but I can’t find any definitive proof one way or the other. In general terms I would suggest that the idea that they were made from uniform remnants is not all that far-fetched. The main problem with this theory is that the cloaks that appear on all the examples that I have seen always seem to suggest that they were tailored from full width bolts of material. 

Also the idea of skimping on the main item by having it made from old worn out scraps  while at the same time spending good money on velvet trimmings - an expensive material - seems rather dubious. The argument - sometimes offered by the odd commentators - that only the poor used this costume does not ring true either. None of the women look overly deprived. In fact the clothes they used under their cloaks - as well as their shoes - always seem in very good order.

As regards the pilfering theory, this would have entailed a whole series of either corrupt or blind quartermasters and/or their staff stretching back over an entire century - if not longer. But the clincher is that the numerous paintings suggest that the cloaks were very noticeably red and very different to what everybody else was wearing. Not all our administrative colonial masters were the sharpest knives in the drawer but I can’t believe that over such a long period of time somebody didn’t notice.

Finally here is a quote from Theophile Gautier 1840s book - Wanderings in Spain (See LINK) :
Some women of the lower class had red cloaks and hoods, which seemed to make the darker part of the crowd sparkle brightly, and to bespangle it with scarlet.
It wasn’t Gibraltar he was writing about - it was about the Spanish town of Jaen which is about 150 miles from Gibraltar . . . and not a "red coat" in sight.

So, as they say in Gibraltar . . .  quien sabe!

A modern red hood in Jaen  (Unknown )