The People of Gibraltar
1470 - The First Hospital in Gibraltar - La Misericordia

Hospital de Nuestra Señora de la Misericordia    (Adapted from 1977 - George Palao) 

Early one summer morning on a calm levanter day in 1704, Juan Antonio García - just up from a good night’s sleep - suddenly became aware that something was not quite right. He could sense - in fact he could hear - that there were more people out and about in the main Plaza of the town of Gibraltar - over which his rooms had a perfect view - than was normal at that time of the day. Nor was his sense of foreboding eased by the fact that he had slept rather well that night - two sisters of his friend Vicente Villalta had visited the hospital the previous day and had replaced his bed linen with wonderfully  fresh and well aired sheets.

Juan Antonio was Majordomo - or head steward - of the Hermita, Orfanato y Hospital de la Señora de la Misericordia and it was with growing irritation that he realised that what would have been a busy day ahead might be seriously disrupted. His plans to visit Pedro de Robles about rents owing  to the hospital on a house in the nearby Calle del Muro would have to be put on hold as would that to la Casa de Cuenca once owned by the family of Inés María Cuenca.  It was with her that he seriously needed to discuss certain rather complicated financial arrangements.

An imaginative painting of the Rock and harbour in the 17th century    (Peter Van der Velde)

Instead he decided to visit Francisco de Anaya whose rooms were practically next door to his. Anaya was well known as the man responsible for the upkeep of the statue of Nuestra Señora del Carmen - pride of the Brotherhood of the same name and which had its place of honour in the hospital’s own chapel. No joy there though - Francisco knew even less than he did about what was up.

As a steward of Gibraltar’s main hospital Juan Antonio was a man of some importance - at least locally - as the Misericodia was at the time one of the two main hospitals on the Rock the other being the Hospital de San Juan de Dios previously known as Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados. (See LINK

Hospital de San Juan de Dios    (Adapted from 1977 - George Palao)  

San Juan de Dios had for many years been used as an isolation hospital for people suffering from anything that at the time was thought of as a contagious disease - such as syphilis for example. According to Alonso Hernández del Portillo (see LINK) who was probably the first person ever to write a full history of Gibraltar:
Hay mas en esta Ciudad . . . hospital donde se cuidan las enfermedades de bubas y llagas . . . . Nombrase este hospital Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados . . . . 
But it was the Misericordia - the older and almost certainly the first general hospital on the Rock - that probably took precedence in so far as the ordinary man in street was concerned. San Juan was “en el quinto pino” - as Juan Antonio himself would have put it. In other words conveniently out of contagion’s way somewhere up the Rock. The Misericordia on the other hand - as Portillo also confirmed, was in the middle of town:  
. . . . en la Plaza Mayor donde está un hospital nombrado de la Misericordia, donde se curan muchos heridos y enfermos de diversas enfermedades, excepto de bubas, (syphilis)  con mucha caridad; y es muy antiguo; y se crían niños expósitos (foundlings). . . . 
 Unfortunately the harsh realities of history would prove that Juan Antonio’s position of importance would count for little. Even as the rest of the day progressed it must have became more and more obvious to him that the town was under serious attack from forces that his town would be unable to repel. In fact it was not very long after a large fleet of Anglo-Dutch men-of-war had completed their bombardment of Gibraltar and obtained its subsequent surrender that Juan Antonio along with just about everybody else opted to leave their home town. Neither he nor they would ever return. 

1704 - The Taking of Gibraltar  (J. Hulett - detail)

And that - in crude fictionalised form - is all I know about Gibraltar’ first hospital. The people mentioned did exist. Whether they acted in the manner I have suggested is hard to tell but they very well may have.  Gibraltar was indeed captured by Anglo-Dutch forces in 1704 (see LINK) and the local population did leave their home town almost to a man, woman and child.

But that is it - I don’t know when it was first founded, I don’t know whether it was run by a particular religious order and and if so which one and I am certainly not sure as to where one would have found it in town. Let me take that last one first.

The general nature of the Hospital de la Misericordia’s functions is reflected by the many names given to it by sundry historians over the years. Its specific remit to look after foundlings ensured that it would also be referred to as an orphanage as well as at one time or another as a hospital, a hermitage, a convent and a chapel - and the home of one or more of Gibraltar’s many “Cofradias” or “Hermadades”- all of which tends to suggest that La Misericordia must have been a large building offering a variety of both secular and religious services. 

Probably one of the oldest extant plans of the Rock    (1567 - Anton Van den Wyngaerde - adapted)  (See LINK)

That La Misericordia hospital was older than Los Desamparados is indirectly confirmed in Anton Van den Wyngaerde’s plan of the Rock and town as shown above. La Misericordia appears on it labelled “B” - although unfortunately nowhere near the Plaza mayor - while Los Desamparados is not shown at all as it was inaugurated in 1567, coincidentally the same year in which Wyngaede drew his plan.

Portillo’s reference leaves little doubt that la Misericordia was built on the Plaza - but exactly where within the Plaza is harder to decide and has been the subject of much speculation.  In 1627, the Spanish engineer Luis Bravo de Acuña (see LINK) produced a detailed plan of the town in which it is possible to identify two alternative sites for the Misericordia. 

Alternative sites for the Hermitage of the Misericordia  (1627 - Luis Bravo de Acuña - detail )

By the 1750s - by which time Gibraltar was no longer part of Spain and had subsequently become a British fortress, the Plaza had been renamed the Parade. Colonel Thomas James in his History of the Herculean Straits (see LINK) in which he describes Gibraltar during the mid 18th century offers a plan of the Parade which at that time was used as such by the Garrison. 

The Parade  (Published 1777 - Colonel Thomas James)

James’s plan includes several details that are worthy of note.

1. The entire eastern alternative for the Misericordia has been converted into a Barracks
2. “Y” was a fountain on the south west which was constructed in 1694 and was still in use right up to the 20th century - As such it does not appear on Bravo’s plan and suggests that the building that may have been the western alternative for the Misericordia must have been at least partially demolished to create it
3. What was left of the building was converted into a “prison”
4. A “Barracks” and an ambiguous “Slaughter House” appear just off the western side of the square and to the north.

An almost contemporary plan was also published, this one by Gibraltar’s Chief Engineer of the day - James Montressor or Jas as he was called by his friends.

The Parade     (1753 - James Montressor - detail)    (See LINK)

Captions that appear elsewhere on Montressor’s very large plan of most of the town identify the entire block on the eastern side of the square  - containing perhaps in excess of 30 rooms  - as being set aside as quarters for Captains and subalterns of the Garrison - in effect an officers barracks which James had identifies simply as “barracks”. 

On the western side the fountain and the prison are similarly placed but the “Barracks” and “Slaughterhouse” captions have been replaced by a single building identified very ambiguously by Montressor as a soldier’s barracks. In 1790 George Bulteel Fisher (see LINK) identified this building more prosaically as the local “butchery”. (See LINK) It had been built and used as a slaughterhouse during the 17th century in Spanish Gibraltar.

(1790 - George Bulteel Fisher ) 

There is no doubt, however, that barracks were a problem in 19th century Gibraltar - the Garrison was enormous and the town simply didn’t have the necessary facilities to cope. In 1769 Colonel William Skinner (see LINK) - Chief Engineer at the time - went out of his way to report that between 1726 and 1746 - dates which are well before those in which the plans mentioned above were published:
. . . . chapels were rebuilt for Soldiers’ Barracks, viz., La Vera Creuze,  (Vera Cruz) La Misericordia, the Hospital (San Juan de Dios) and Santa Clara. . . 

The next person to touch on the topic of the la Misericordia was Gibraltar’s Catholic bishop - John Baptist Scandella. 

Bishop Scandella   (Unknown)
He mentions a “Hermitage, Hospital and Foundling Asylum of our Lady of Mercy" in an article in the Gibraltar Chronicle (see LINK) dated the 9th of April 1868. He suggested somewhat categorically that:
. . . it must have been of considerable dimension and importance. It stood on the Great Square, probably on the site of the present Club House. After 1704 it became a debtor’s prison.  
The Club House Hotel - and a distressingly ugly temporary fountain inaugurated by the Lady Airey, the Governor’s wife in 1868 - The building is in use as the City Hall at the time of writing

I don’t know where Dr Scandella got his information from. Why did he place it on the western end?  The existence of a debtors’ prison, however, is well documented. In 1720 the first proper British court was set up on the Rock - an event that has gone down in history as Gibraltar’s First Charter of Justice. It was in effect the beginning of Gibraltar’s legal system. 

Far too esoteric to go into here but the new regulations required the setting up of a debtor’s prison. The place that was chosen for this was the Misericordia building. As far as I can make out both of the mid 18th century maps by Thomas and Bravo show a prison on the west side of Mackintosh square - but none on the east. Perhaps this may have influenced Scandella’s choice - but of course a prison is not necessarily one for debtors. 

In fact its proximity to a “Blackhole” - a Calcutta style dungeon where all and sundry were unceremoniously dumped for all sorts of misdemeanours - suggests it was just an ordinary civilian prison - or one that dealt with unruly women as suggested on a plan produced by a Spanish officer, Field Marshal Don Juan Cabellero, during or just before the Great Siege.

Plan of the town of Gibraltar   (1779 - Juan Caballero - detail)

In 1950 local historians Dorothy Ellicott (see LINK) and her husband quoted Scandella in one of their publications. They also specified that in 1753 - the date of Montressor’s plan - a survey records that:
. . .  a barracks for 94 soldiers, approximately 100 feet by 20 feet, to the north-west of the City Hall site on the present Line Wall Road, with a note to the effect that it had been condemned. . . . The building had columns in its center and three wide entrances. Was this the chapel of the Misericordia? There is reason to think so, and to imagine that the rough plan of 1627 should have placed it north of the main building instead of south of it. It would account for Colonel Skinner statement that this chapel became a barracks. No barracks has ever stood on the site of the City Hall.
From this I can glean the following: 

1. That the Ellicotts were unaware of the existence of a slaughterhouse or butchery 
2. That they considered the Misericordia as the building on the right of the several building shown on the west side of the 1627 plan - rather than the entire complex.

Another well known popular local Historian George Palao, however, was in no doubt. 

The 16th century hermitage, hospital and asylum must have been of considerable dimensions and importance and stood at the western-most end of the Great Square (John Mackintosh Square) near the aqueduct and fountain where today our city hall stands. . . A 1627 plan of Gibraltar shows a rectangular building of some considerable size with a smaller lower building to the south, having a tower and a small spire surmounted by a cross.

Plan referred to by George Palao (1627 - Luis Bravo de Acuna - adapted)  (See LINK)

Palao may have come to the conclusion that an institution that was not just a hospital but a hermitage, chapel and a foundling asylum could conceivably have consisted of a complex of buildings rather than just one - hence his sketch of the place as shown at the start of this article which was undoubtedly based on Bravo’s plan.

However, Tito Vallejo, another local historian who also tends to know what he is talking about, opted for the one on the eastern side. But as far as I know his judgement is based on the fact that it is the more imposing of the two buildings. In this he is supported by the Spanish Campo de Gibraltar historian Juan Manuel Ballesta Gómez who also knows more about Spanish Gibraltar than most and certainly more than I do. He also is of the opinion that the facade of the building know as the Misericordia was on the east side of the Plaza - but offers no references whatsoever to back up his statement.

But there is another bit of information that might tip the scales in favour of the eastern option.

1627 plan of the town in which the only buildings depicted inside La Turba area of the town are those at “E”  which is labelled as La Puerta de Mudarra   ( 1627 - Luis Bravo de Acuña)

La Puerta de Mudarra  (see LINK) - once one of the main sea gates into town - is described by Portillo as follows.
Otra (puerta) dicha de Mudarra que con licencia del Rey Católico la mando hacer un caballero Corregidor llamado Luis Mudarra el año 1513; esta está EN LA PLAZA, y sirve de mirador para ver los navíos y galeras que vienen por la mar y para otros servicios.
Is it possible that those buildings on the west side of the Plaza were linked to the commercial activities of the Gate and have nothing to do with the hospital?

After all that I am still not at all sure of the exact location of the Misericordia - which is a pity as it was undoubtedly Gibraltar’s first hospital and regardless of which alternative one chooses, either building could be described as one of the biggest extant at the time. 

So let me move to the next question - who ran the Misericordia? I am afraid that unlike the Hospital of San Juan de Dios I have been unable to find any information on its history, development and subsequent demise. Charles Montegriffo, a local medical historian writing in the British Medical Journal in 1978 about the history of hospitals in Gibraltar incredibly doesn’t even mention it! A similar institution, the Foundling Hospital in Florence, was founded in 1445 although its chequered history makes me hope that the one in Gibraltar was never run on the same principles.

Madonna of the Foundlings - Ospedale degli Innocenti di Firenze, Florence   (c. 1446 - Domenico di Michelino)

Closer to home is the Iglesia de la Misericordia in Jimena de la Frontera which was renovated in the 16th century but is not recorded as having ever been either a hospital or a foundling asylum. A similar hospital did exist in Seville but it was built in the mid 17th century, 

Finally the Hospital de la Misericordia in Madrid was founded in 1559 and was run by the nuns of St Clare. The building of the Monasterio y Convento de Sta Clara in Gibraltar was once found on la Calle Real - not a million miles from the Parade. Unfortunately it was founded in the 1580s - too late to have been involved in the original Misericordia.

Let me end my thoroughly inconclusive article with the following thought. Several historians are of the opinion that regardless of where the hospital may have been built it was founded in the 15th century. Taking into account that Christian forces recaptured Gibraltar in 1462 this means that the hospital may have been one of the first major Spanish buildings erected on the Rock. Or could it have been - as was the case for other Spanish churches and chapels - the site of an even older mosque?

Waterport Street - now Main Street (see LINK) - the entire taller block on the right hand side of the street may possibly occupy the site of the Misericordia - if it was indeed once to be found on the eastern side of the square  (1860s - J.H. Mann)  (See LINK)