The People of Gibraltar
1714 - Best Hotel in Gibraltar-(1760s-1850s)  The Griffiths 

The Rock in the 1770s     (Dominic Serres)

In 1769 a certain Margareth Griffiths arrived on the Rock. She was 28 years old. Two years later her eldest son William Griffiths was born in Gibraltar. In yet another census taken in 1791, Margareth appears minus a husband as a fifty year old mother of three children. Even more to the point she was registered as a “tavernkeeper”.

Margareth Griffiths and family (1791 Census)

No mention on the census as to who might have been the father of Margareth’s children but a certain William Griffiths born in 1739 appeared on a list of members of the local United Grand Lodge of Freemasons. Arthur Webber junior also appears on the same list. They probably knew each other quite well. They may have met through business deals as they were victuallers and ship chandlers respectively.

Arthur Webber, Ship Chandler - William Griffiths, Victualler   (List of Freemasons of the United Grand Lodge)

William Griffiths would have been about two years older than Margareth when the 1791 census was taken. I suspect he was probably not on it because he was - sadly - already dead.  In 1793 it was Arthur Webber who died, in his case in London. In his Last Will and Testament he left his wife Margaret:  
. . . . a messuage or dwelling house and premises situate in Gibraltar in the Province of Andaloucie (sic) 

Arthur Webber's Will

I suspect the “messuage or dwelling place” may refer to the King’s Arms. If so she did not hold on to it for long. She sold it to William Griffiths’ eldest son - William Griffiths II - although it hard to decide exactly when she did so. The late 19th century would have been ideal for William. The town was slowly recovering from the damages caused by the Great Siege and William Griffiths II who was a mason by trade would have prospered. It might have been enough to allow him to become wealthy enough to be able to afford to buy the King’s Arms.

On the other hand it might not have been exactly the ideal moment to invest in an hotel. During General O’Hara’s stint as a Governor (see LINK) which came to an abrupt end in 1802, military discipline deteriorated to such an extent that a large number of civilians decided that they had had enough and that the time had come to return Gibraltar to Spain. 

A plot was hatched, a large proportion of the Garrison’s officers and men were bribed . . . and then the conspiracy was almost immediately uncovered by the authorities - a monumental anti-climax. Some of the soldiers involved - perhaps the worse for wear with drink had argued among themselves and had given the show away. O’Hara’s rather one-sided response was to arbitrarily expel a thousand civilians who were suspected of having been involved. The Griffiths family were obviously not among these - although all of them were Gibraltar born they were of British stock and hardly likely to have wanted to return the Rock to Spain,

In almost every general history book of Gibraltar that I have come across this episode is covered by a single paragraph. It is casually dismissed as having been hatched by Manuel de Godoy, Spain’s incompetent Chief Minister, with the help of a few Parisian Jews. The only reason that they managed to get the Garrison on board was because they were mostly Irish. 

Miguel de Godoy - Príncipe de la Paz   (Francisco Goya - detail)

I have always had the feeling that this unique event in the history of the Rock should have been dealt with in much greater depth. As far as I can make out if the plot had succeeded - and it very nearly did - the Rock would have been British for less than a century and Gibraltar would have probably become a footnote in the history books of both Britain and Spain. To get things in perspective, the Battle of Trafalgar - which took place a few years later and which in essence has very little to do with either the political or social history of Gibraltar other then very indirectly - is always dealt with in minute detail occupying  an entire chapter in most of the main-line histories of the Rock.

HMS Victory with the body of Nelson Towed into Gibraltar after the Battle of Trafalgar  (1850s - Clarkson Frederick Stanfield)    (See LINK)

The official response to the plot by “Head Office” in Whitehall was even worse than that of O’Hara’s. The military high command in London - in the shape of the “Grand Old Duke of York” of nursery rhyme fame - decided to appoint his brother, the Duke of Kent (see LINK), as a replacement to O’Hara. To give the man his due, York understood that the underlying reason for the entire fiasco was the lack of discipline in an almost perpetually drunken Garrison. 

Unfortunately almost immediately after his arrival Kent imposed a whole raft of draconian disciplinary measures which proved so unpalatable among the troops that it gave rise to a series of mutinies. One of these was a decision to close most of the pubs, taverns and wine houses on the Rock - of which apparently there were nearly 90. Was the King’s Arms one of these? Perhaps hotels were exempt but the truth is I don’t even know if it was open to the public +at the time. 

O’Hara, York and Kent

The authorities eventually recalled the Duke of Kent but unfortunately there was far worse to come. In 1804 the first of two lethal waves of yellow fever (see LINK) wiped out at least six thousand people - five thousand of them civilian residents of the Rock. Intermittent epidemics in 1810 and 1811 were slightly less virulent but in 1813 another 1400 lives were lost, including that of the Governor at the time, Lieutenant General Colin Campbell. In 1814 another 100 odd each of both the military and the civilian population also died. 

Colin Campbell as a young ensign

Ironically the Napoleonic and Peninsular Wars that took place from 1803 to 1814 ensured that one of the nastiest decades ever to have been experienced by the population of Gibraltar also turned out to be one of the most prosperous in the commercial history of the Rock. 

At least one result of all this turmoil was that the general bureaucracy that was a feature of Britain’s colonial administrators may not have been as much of a priority as had in the past. Lists of residents from 1791 to 1814 for example are few and far between making it hard to find out who stayed, who left and who returned when it was eventually safe to do so. 

Perhaps I can blame the above on the fact that there seems to be no record of the date of the marriage to a girl called Anne by William Griffiths II. A guess based on the birth of their eldest son William III in 1794, suggests that it may have been in c1793. It must have been a very successful marriage as they ended up having no less than seven children over a period of nearly 20 years. Their youngest son Robert William was born in 1814. 

Around 1817 and happily bypassing much of the turmoil described previously, William juniors eldest son - let me call him William Griffiths III - married a young English girl called Penelope. He was 23 she was only 17 years old. About a year later in 1818 their eldest son John was born in Gibraltar. Two generations of the Griffiths family had somehow or other managed to survive O’Hara’s drunken troops, a major conspiracy, the Duke of Kent’s closure of most of Gibraltar’s pubs and the yellow fever epidemics. 

Less happily William Griffiths II died that same year. 1819 and 1820 editions of the Gibraltar Chronicle (see LINK) indirectly confirm that it was he who had bought the King’s Arms from Mrs Webber. It was now owned by “the heirs of William Griffiths - deceased” and William III had already begun to advertise for tenants for the hotel.

Following in the footsteps of both his father and the Webber’s family, William apparently decided against sampling the joys of being a landlord. Instead he almost immediately rented out the place to a Mr. R. Hardy - and then later to a Mr. Gill. The inn was now being referred to as the King’s Arms Tavern.  Whether coffee was still on the menu I have no idea.

By this time the inn was probably prospering - at any rate the building was now three stories high and had acquired a large lion and unicorn sign - symbols of the United Kingdom but in those days probably more associated with King rather than Country - hence the “King’s Arms” name. 

The sign on the side of the building is that of the King’s Arms - the small sign on the northern facade is illegible    (1820s - Henry Sandham)   (See LINK)

Looking north, the King’s Arms on the extreme left - No signs but what appears to be an entrance into the hotel from its Main Street side    (1820s - Henry Sandham)

A copy of the Property Register of 1823 confirms that William Griffiths III - now 30 years old - was the owner of property identified as No 281 found at the corner of Commercial Square - its north side facing it with its east side towards Church Street. The document also confirms that it was originally owned by Arthur Webber as validated by the Bland Enquiry of 1749.

William Griffiths on the property register of 1823

The plan shows that the King’s Arms was a slim L-shaped building and had retained its much longer east facing facade. Curiously the neighbouring building once upon a time and perhaps still owned by Mr William Davis had by then lost its frontage to Jenkins Lane.

Not that William would have been all that interested. His second son William Robert had just been born and he had followed this up by placing an advertisement for a house in the Gibraltar Chronicle identifying himself as William Griffiths of the King’s Arms. His family was certainly getting bigger and the hotel was doing well.  All of which might explain why William’s made the decision to give the King’s Arms a new name. In 1824 there is a first mention of the “Griffiths’ Hotel” in a February edition of the Gibraltar Chronicle. 

On the other hand the very opposite may have been true - the hotel was losing business. Four years later, an American traveller, Andrew Bigelow, visited the Rock and wrote with a few contradictory opinions about the King’s Arms in his Travels in Malta and Sicily with sketches of Gibraltar in 1827: 
But from these deafening sounds, from the elbowing crowds and choking dust, an escape is at last welcome; and with pleasure, I find myself once more in the enjoyment of comparative quiet, within my apartments at the King's Arms. . . .  
As for rents, I know not where they are quoted at more extravagant rates. The landlord of the King's Arms where I lodge, informs me that he pays three thousand dollars per annum, for the hire of his house ; and it is one, which, in point of commodiousness, would not in Boston rank much, if any, above third-rate inns.

Deafening sounds, elbowing crowds and choking dust    (1877 - The Graphic)

For some reason Bigelow still referred to the hotel as the King’s Arms rather than the Griffiths’. Perhaps it was too new a name and the old familiar one was still in use. But what was the hotel really like? - A peaceful refuge from a noisy and dusty town or not much better than a Boston dump? 

The truth is that making sure visitors and tourists would be able to obtain decent accommodation had never been part of the remit for the military authorities.  Market forces ruled the roost in those days. My guess is that the place may have just started to go to seed and needed a change in management. The exorbitant amounts that had to be paid to rent the place suggests that William Griffiths III had not as yet taken over the actual running of the inn when Bigelow came visiting but I suspect that something of the sort probably did take place at some point soon after. Up went the Griffith’s sign over the main doorway and William III took over as the resident landlord.

Large Griffiths’ Hotel sign over the main entrance - but the King’s arms signs have been left hanging on the Main Street side    (1830s - William Lacy - detail)

A couple of years later the change of name seems to have become a more permanent feature. According to a July 1829 edition of the Gibraltar Chronicle:
The members of the Gibraltar Yacht Club will hold a meeting at Griffiths’ Hotel on Friday 17th instant at 1 o’clock p.m. when any officers of the Garrison wishing to join the Club are requested to attend.
The Scottish travel writer, Henry D. Ingles in his Spain in 1830 more or less finishes off all speculation as regards the name when he gave a lengthy description of what he saw . . . . 
When I threw open the window of the hotel, and looked out upon the street, it seemed as if I had been suddenly transported to England. I saw English houses, English names upon the corners of the streets, English names over the shops, English faces, English dresses.  
But a more narrow inspection of the population, destroys the illusion; for it is of so motley a character, that if we can suppose one to be carried to Gibraltar, without having been informed of his destination, he would be utterly at a loss to imagine in what corner of the world he had been set down. That gentleman sauntering down the street in a surtout and black neckcloth, is an Englishman . . . 

“. . .at a loss to imagine in what corner of the world . . "   (unknown)
The two ladies who follow, are Spanish ; the light step, and graceful gait, would be sufficient to determine this; but the mantilla and the fan, put it beyond doubt: those two on horseback, are a British officer and an English lady ; the horse and the scarlet uniform fix the character of the one, and as for the other, the bright sunny face, and auburn ringlets, are sufficient, without the evidence of the riding habit. The three women crossing the street are neither English nor Spanish; their scarlet cloaks, trimmed with black velvet, distinguish them as Gibraltar women; or they might be Genoese. 

(1830s- Mathew. C. Perry)   (See LINK)

These men with turbans, ample trowsers, and crimson girdles, standing in a group under the piazzas, are Moors; . . . and these with bare legs, and sandals, and black caps and beards, sitting in the streets, are Barbary Jews, the common porters of Gibraltar : and that, is an English trading captain, easily known any where : and who can mistake the British tar, with his jacket and trowsers, and rolling walk, and the Andalusian, with his dark eye, and bizarre dress — or the kilted soldier, his sinewy limbs, and rough face, bearing the complexion of Scotch winds, and Highland hills ? All this is seen in less than two minutes from the window of Griffith's hotel. 

For at least the next thirty years the Griffiths’ Hotel would become something of an institution in Gibraltar.

With special thanks and acknowledgements to Alex Panayotti - Much of what I have written is based on his meticulous research. Thank you Alex.

For more on this topic please click on any of the following links:

1714 - Best Hotel in Gibraltar - (1710s-1780s) The Webbers  
1714 - Best Hotel in Gibraltar - (1830s-1840s) The Jolly Hosteler 
1714 - Best Hotel in Gibraltar - (1860s-1910s) The Lequiches