The People of Gibraltar
1735 - The Spanish Aduana - Four Corners at Gibraltar

The Spanish Lines

Before 1704 (see LINK) there can't have been a border between Gibraltar and its hinterland - and therefore no need for any frontier controls. But even after 1704, there was no formal frontier on the isthmus as the Spanish interpretation of the Treaty of Utrecht (see LINK) was pretty blunt - not an inch of the land beyond the North face of the Rock had ever been ceded. The entire isthmus belonged to them.

The 13th Siege of Gibraltar - (1727 - Unknown)

After the 13th Siege, came the 1729 Treaty of Seville (see LINK). The much misinterpreted affair of the “600 toises” has often been wrongly attributed to this Treaty which actually makes no mention of Gibraltar. The confusion is understandable. Just after the end of the 13th Siege the Spaniards began to rebuild their defences on the isthmus, which resulted - among other things - in their occupying the Devil's Tower. (See LINK)

Lord Portmore - Governor at the time - protested but the Spaniards insisted that under the Treaty they were entitled to do whatever they wanted on the isthmus. Several months later the British complained yet again. Spanish troops were still occupying the Devil's Tower as well as the Torre del Molino which lay somewhat further north. The Spanish response was similar to the previous one - they had every right to be there under the Treaty.

The disputed towers (1727 - Antonio de Montaigu de la Perille)

However, as a surprising gesture of goodwill the King of Spain issued a Royal Ordinance which ordered his troops to retire to a line 600 toises - about a thousand meters - from the base of the Rock. Less welcome to British ears is that his protocol made it abundantly clear that by doing so he was not surrendering his sovereignty over the isthmus. That, he insisted, was something that would be impossible for him to do.

In other words there was no Spanish concession as regards British claims over the isthmus. The Treaty of Utrecht remained in force. In the final analysis the most important concession from Britain's point of view was an extension of the Assiento slave contracts - in which Britain would obtain some sort of monopoly in the slave trade. There was a hell of a lot of money to be made moving slaves across the Atlantic and the financial gains involved were far more important than whether a small, relatively useless bit of wasteland in the middle of nowhere belonged to one party or the other. The matter was therefore never brought up in the Treaty of Seville and the Spaniards have continued to interpret Utrecht as before ever since. It belongs to them. 

Nevertheless the Spanish King’s “goodwill” led to important frontier consequences. The Spanish military did keep the King’s word - they retired from the isthmus and more or less refrained from encroaching any further. It meant - and here is the crunch - that when they decided to build La Línea de la Contravalación - a huge defensive construction that ran right across the Isthmus (see LINK) - they did so more or less 600 toises from North face of the Rock. The work was completed in 1735.

La Linea del Campo later known as La Línea de la Contravalación - Note entrance in the middle    (1735 - Juan de Sobreville)

It also meant that some sort of an entrance in the middle of the defensive line that joined the Plazas de Armas of Santa Mariana and San Benito must have became - almost by default - the semi-official land frontier post into Spain from Gibraltar as it now became practically impossible to get through a line of fortification without somebody on the Spanish side asking for the reason why. 

To get to the Spanish Customs from Gibraltar one travelled north up a track that would later be known somewhat unimaginatively as “the Road to Spain”. Historically there were three tracks leading from Gibraltar to other towns in Spain - Camino de las Algeciras on the west side, Camino de Malaga on the east and Camino de San Roque in the middle.

(1726 - Diego Bordick)

Whether the “Road to Spain” followed the old San Roque track or whether it was created specifically because of the positioning of the Spanish Customs I have no idea - but the Road to Spain is certainly the shortest distance from the British to the Spanish Lines. 

Whatever the case the road and the Spanish customs post were quite busy throughout the 18th century as visits by members of the Garrison to the wonderful gardens of the Orange Grove, the ruins at Carteia and the inns of San Roque were very popular at the time. 

The Orange Grove at the top, Carteia bottom - The Rock visible on both  (1770s - Francis Carter) (See LINK)

The Great Siege, (see LINK) of course, put paid to this comfortable state of affairs but I would say that immediately as well as long after the hostilities had ended the frontier and customs post continued as before.

An imaginative engraving depicting the Great Siege - Whatever its shortcomings the engraving suggests that just about the last thing on anybody’s mind was where they should  place their customs posts.  (Unknown date and artist)

In 1810 during the Peninsular War the British dismantled La Línea de la Contravalación but the “official frontier” - those damned 600 toises again - continued more or less where it had been before. As for the location of the customs post I suspect it must have remained close to its previous site. When the Calpe Hunt (see LINK) came into existence in the early 19th century it should have become an even busier crossing place than before but my guess is that the members of the Hunt were permitted to ride into Spain via the western beach and allowed to give the official customs a miss. 

Members of the Hunt on their way to Spain crossing the Causeway with the Inundation on the right - The British lines are probably inferred by the second large house to the right of the boats on the beach   (1835 - Lieutenant H.E. Allen)  (See LINK)

Spanish customs tended to take their duties seriously if the person going through customs was leaving Spain, perhaps less so if they were entering it. On the other hand illegal entry into Spain from Gibraltar was a major problem. Land contraband (see LINK) in all its forms was a more than daily occurrence, but bribery was rife and in any case the authorities simply didn’t have enough money to employ the required number of people to police the place. The following observations by a Swiss tourist visiting Gibraltar in 1837 are revealing:
The lines, or camp of St. Roque, consists of a number of wretched houses, situated at the entrance of the neck of land which joins Gibraltar to the coast, and which is enclosed by a line of towers; these are occupied by persons who are employed in the custom-house or the health-office; and there everything entering or leaving the place is submitted to a strict examination.  
It is a kind of revenge which the Spanish government exercises against the English usurpation of Gibraltar and the contraband goods which leave this town. I was obliged to take out a license, which cost me forty francs, a shameful imposition . . . .   
 . . No comparison can be drawn between the appearance of the soldiers, almost in rags mounting guard on the Spanish lines, and that of the Scotch soldiers, perfectly equipped, who are seen a few minutes after at the entrance of the English territory. (See LINK)
I suspect that a proper “Aduana” building was built among the ruins of the fort more or less on the same spot as it had been before possibly during the mid 19th century. It was later replaced by a new version which is the one I remember.

Entrance to and flag of the old Aduana    (1865 - Francis Frith) (See LINK)

The old Aduana building (1880)

The Spanish lines as defined by a fence - not exactly a major deterrent for determined smugglers - The people behind the fence are probably queuing to enter the aduana building, almost certainly the one shown on the previous photograph   (Late 19th to early 20th century  postcard)

Coloured version of the above postcard in which the artist decided that the fence deserved to be made to look somewhat more substantial 

The "new" Aduana building (1959)

The British Lines

The British took frontier controls very seriously indeed - much more so than the Spaniards who were - theoretically at any rate - fighting a losing battle against smuggling, a serious money-making business for the entire Campo area and of which UK based merchants in Gibraltar and the UK itself were the principle suppliers and profit takers. Spain could hardly have been interested in making any effort to stop immigration - hardly anybody other than Spaniards wanted to live in Spain anyway.

A couple of smugglers on their way to Ronda pursued - unsuccessfully - by Spanish customs men    (Unknown date and artist)

A far better choice for foreigners fleeing endless wars or simply searching for some sort of financial security was Gibraltar. Many of these people seem to have acquired the happy knack of being able to enter the fortress illegally - and staying there - regardless of whatever draconian regulations were put in force by the British authorities. 

I am sure that throughout the 18th century the British would gladly have thrown out all the non-British locals if they had been able to repopulate the place with expats from home willing to service the Garrison - which had been their preferred option from the start. When Queen Anne declared - illegally - that Gibraltar should become a free port (see LINK) - She certainly didn’t do it in order to make millionaires out of a few savvy Genoese and Jewish traders. 

The Rock of Gibraltar (1727 - Nicolls and Sutton)

Rather, Queen Anne and her government were hoping that it would attract the kind of home-grown British immigrants that they were after. It did up to a point, but most of them just came, made some easy fortunes and then packed their bags and returned to the UK - the place which most of them considered to be their real home. 

I am not at all sure where the British set up their frontier control immediately after the 13th Siege - near Landport gate perhaps? A better choice would have been a couple of strategically placed customs posts - one at the Bayside Barrier, the other at Forbe’s, each with roads leading to them from a single entrance through the Spanish Lines.

Possible customs posts at Bayside and Forbes  (1821 - Calmet)

The first evidence showing that at least part of the neutral ground was being taken over in the early 18th century by the British is when the Governor of the day - Lord Tyrawley:
. . . ordered the Town Mayor . . . to mark out a burying place without Landport towards the Devil’s Tower” so that soldiers and sailors might be buried there. 
By November 1756 burials were already taking place. I don’t know for sure but my guess is that the British had already encroached into a good chunk of the south-western bits of the isthmus well before this - perhaps making use of all those norias and wells, or simply to make use of the western beach that stretched northwards from the Bayside Barrier as a safe haven for local fishermen and their boats. 

In 1762 we were busy levelling the sands above the Bayside Barrier and the inundation - and by ”we” I mean Genoese and Jewish locals. It seems that the British were already more than happy to make permanent use of as much of the isthmus as possible - and not just for military purposes.

In 1765 horse racing took place for the first time in North Front on a newly laid course. That really must have pushed the British lines even further north. By the time of the Great Siege the whole question of frontiers became irrelevant but it is curious that for a while - at the beginning of hostilities - and despite the number of guns pointing at them from both sides - several mainly Genoese gardeners continued to tend their veggie plots right in the middle of the isthmus. 

Gardens right in the middle of the isthmus during the Great Siege   (1781 - J Cheevers)

The Great Siege ended in 1783 but surprisingly I don’t think the British claimed any further space towards the North. The fact is that there were no fences marking out anybody’s territory - a direct consequence of the various interpretations of the Treaty of Utrecht. This type of imaginary boundary tends to create problems - and it did. In 1805 Spanish soldiers actually managed to capture several British soldiers who were guarding the Devil’s Tower - always a bone of contention - well inside what the British considered to be theirs by right.

During 19th century the entire area occupied by the British seems to have slowly stabilised as the southern isthmus was gradually made use of for various purposes such as parade grounds, barracks, sports facilities, slaughter house buildings, timber yards and so forth. I would imagine that a more or less formal British customs post would also have come into existence almost certainly on the western side and close to the northern boundary of what the British now considered their territory.

(1831 - W.H. Smyth)

Who owned what on the isthmus was complicated by several yellow fever and cholera epidemics that struck in Gibraltar throughout the 19th century (see LINK). The British authorities blamed overcrowding among other factors and both in 1828 and 1854 the Spanish authorities generously allowed huts and tents to be set up on the eastern side of the isthmus and north of what had previously been accepted as the British lines. When the epidemics had run their course the British refused to budge thereby increasing their share of the isthmus even further.

(1830 - Piaget et Lailavoix - detail)  (See LINK)

Because most of this change took place on the eastern side of the isthmus it did not really affect the location of the British customs which remained where it had been before. The building that served this purpose was now known as the Passport Office.

The building in the distance with the red roof may very well be the "Passport Office" shown on the photograph below - it is certainly in the right place - The Road to Spain is out of view on the right hand side of the tavern or “chiringuito”   (1848 - Percy Carpenter)


Passport Office at the southern end of the “Road to Spain” (Late 19th Century)

Passport Office positioned where the Road to Spain met the British Lines - hence perhaps the origins of the local name of “Four Corners” - or Focona in local patois or Llanito     (See LINK)    (1880 - Gibraltar Directory)

In 1909 the appropriate British Secretary of State - as against the Governor of Gibraltar - decided that it required too many of his soldiers to guard the isthmus boundary at Gibraltar and ordered that a 7 ft high fence be built all the way from the Bay to the Mediterranean side of the isthmus. As far as I can make out this fence set out the de facto boundary between Spain and Gibraltar as it exists today.



The British Customs post - or Passport Office - seems to have remained in situ close to a gate in the newly built fence that opened out onto the Road to Spain. 

The old Passport Office presumably still in use just behind the 1909 fence - The trees on the left are part of the Victoria Gardens  which were laid out in the 1880s   (1930s)

Nevertheless, during the early 20th century it is probably safe to say that despite both customs buildings remaining in place as before people from Gibraltar were probably allowed to travel into Spain without having to bother too much about customs checks. Whether that was the same for Spanish workers entering the Rock is another story.

During the 1930s Spanish civil war, things probably remained unchanged as regards the sites of the customs posts on either side of the frontier but there was, of course, a considerable tightening of security by British as thousands of Spaniards suddenly became political refugees. 

There are plenty of 1936 photographs showing refugees crowding the gates created when the fence was put up in 1909. Nevertheless, although British guards and soldiers appear on them, no buildings as such can be seen on either the southern or the northern side of the fence. My guess is that the British Customs Passport Office - which must have been quite an old building by then - was just off screen in these photos and that the Spaniards had not yet built one of their own on their side of the fence - as they would do later.


The End of an Era

During WWII, the British built an airstrip on their bit of the isthmus and the Spaniards constructed a series of bunkers on the Neutral Ground facing the Rock. As far as I can make out there were no changes in the positions of either customs buildings. 

Once the war had come to an end, however, the Spanish authorities built a small passport office close to the gate next to the British customs control. I don’t know the exact date when this building first appeared on the scene but I personally must have had my pase de cuarenta visitas stamped hundreds of times there during the 1950’s and 60s so I suspect it was put up just after the end of WWII.

Pase de Visitas (1953 - With thanks to John Chiara)

Date unknown but that nissen hut suggests the 1940s - the customs office seems to have migrated to the other side of the road replacing the old Passport Building.

Neutral Ground with bunkers - the customs building is not the same one as shown on the previous photograph   (1960s)

In 1969 the Spanish authorities closed their frontier with Gibraltar. 

The Gibraltar side of the closed border  (1972)

The frontier reopened in 1985 by which time the entire concept of a Neutral Ground on the isthmus had finally come to an end as the Spanish Government set out on a building spree which pushed the built-up areas of the neighbouring town of La Linea almost right up to the Gibraltar fence - The old Spanish Aduana built near the ruins of La Línea de la Contravalación was left stranded and obsolete. It was later demolished during the restructuring of la Plaza de la Constitución. 

CIA map showing police and customs posts next to each other on both sides of the de facto boundary - the area marked as Neutral Ground was still in the process of being taken over by La Línea    (1989)

Although the old British customs building must have continued at Four Corners for a while - I am certain that the building has since been modernised - as has the Spanish one. But that belongs to another story  . . . which I think I ought to leave for somebody who knows more about it than I do.