The People of Gibraltar
1714 - Best Hotel in Gibraltar-(1714-1780s) Arthur Webber 

Main Street - The old Exchange more or less hidden on the right    (1950s - Still from a  video)

The Emporium general store on the left, Lipton almost in the center of the photograph in the building  that appears to be at the end of the street but isn’t, the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned just next door to it and the Exchange Library’s eastern facade hidden by kiosks, stalls and trees on the right. Some of these are still there, some are not.

I could go on as the postcard-like photo above is a badly-coloured study in nostalgia, a snap-shot of a Gibraltar more or less as I remember it in the 1960s.  But something that does not form any part of my memories is the yellow painted building just behind those trees on the right. I never gave it a second’s thought then and I still haven’t the foggiest idea what it was used for in the 1960s. It would have been a different story had I been born a few centuries earlier as I would have then easily recognised the building as one of the first and best hotels in town.

As early as 1714, somebody called John Hayford bought a house from Colonel Congreve, who was at the time the Lieutenant- Governor of Gibraltar - as well as a scoundrel of the first water. He certainly did not have the right to sell the house as all property in Gibraltar technically belonged to the Crown.

From 1728 List of properties   (As transcribed by Tito Benady)

Although I know very little about Hayford I do know who his wife was. She was born in England and her name was Priscilla. Soon after John had either divorced her or died, Priscilla married   another local - Arthur Webber - who was born during the very last few years of the 17th century and must have been among the first lot of British immigrates to settle in Gibraltar. 

Webber was one of a smallish number of British civilians who had chosen to settle in Gibraltar. It was something which was much approved of by the Colonial authorities in London. Their wet dream was - and would be for many years to come - that their newly acquired fortress would be populated by loyal and honest Protestants rather than what was actually beginning to be the case - an endless stream of foreign immigrants thought of by the administration as thoroughly unwelcome papists.

    Humphrey Bland  (See LINK)

In 1749  a new Governor, General Humphrey Bland, set up a Court of Enquiry to investigate the legality or otherwise of local property titles. The idea was to rectify the corrupt sale of real estate and land as carried out by people like Congreve and his equally dishonest successors.

A large number of locals shunned the Enquiry - many of them had never had the chance to own the property they lived whether legally or otherwise. Not so Arthur Webber who was by now living with Priscilla in Hayford’s house. The building stood on the south east corner of the Grand Parade - today known as John Mackintosh Square (see LINK) - and Church Street - today part of Main Street. (See LINK) He must have been about 50 years old when he decided that it might be prudent to make sure that his involvement in the ownership of his wife’s property was officially acknowledged.

Arthur Webber’s claim     (1749 - Bland’s Court of Enquiry)

General Bland approved Webber’s claim, recognising that he had repaired and rebuilt the place during the 1730s, a decade in which General Joseph Sabine was Governor of Gibraltar.

Joseph Sabine

The 13th Siege of Gibraltar, which took place in 1727 - a few years before Sabine took over -  was a short but destructive engagement between Spain and Britain in which the combatants’ batteries and defensive lines probably suffered more than the town itself. Nevertheless it might have been as a consequence of damage caused by Spanish cannons that had obliged Webber to spend his money rebuilding the house.

The Thirteenth Siege of Gibraltar    (1727 - Christian Freidrich von der Heiden)

Another local who decided that it might be worth his while to give Bland’s Enquiry a try was Angelo Fasha. He was keen to get the Court to acknowledge his legal right of ownership to a house he had bought “on the east side of Main Street.”

Angelo Fasha’s claim   (1749 -  Bland’s Court of Enquiry )

Fasha got what he wanted but his claim also revealed that his Main Street house faced the King’s Arms - the first mention that I have been able to find of an establishment with that name and of which there is strong evidence to believe was the property Webber had claimed on the strength of his marriage to Penelope.

The house with the Church Street sign - or any of those immediately to its right or left - may have occupied the site of Angelo Fasha’s property - The artist may even have sketched his drawing from a ground floor window of the King’s Arms      (1820 - Henry Sandham)  (See LINK)

In 1748 the theologian Robert Poole (see LINK) visited Gibraltar and left us his general impressions - and a short mention of his “lodgings” which he claimed were in an “airy place” facing the parade:
A little below my lodging is what is called the grand guard  house,  which  is  one  of  the  neatest  buildings  in  these  parts,  though  it  is  but  low,  being  but  one  storey high, which indeed is the common height for the  buildings in the city. . .
No name given to his “lodgings”  but the mention of the “grand guard house” almost certainly identifies Poole’s inn as Arthur Webber’s “house” which it would seem he had put to use as some sort of an inn known as the King’s Arms. The “grand guard house” - later known as the Main Guard House - must have been brand new when Poole visited. It had indeed been originally designed as a single-storied building but Poole’s description does not make it entirely clear whether his “inn” was also single storied.

Top - a one story Main Guard House - Bottom - the two story version that replaced it    (top - 1753 - James Montressor (See LINK)   (Bottom - Modern sketch - unknown) 

Webber’s neighbour was Mr. William Davis who was probably a friend or at least a friendly acquaintance of Webber as his testimony during the Bland enquiry was supportive of his claim and revealed at least some knowledge of his private affairs. William Davis’ property occupied the space between Webber’s and the Main Guard and extended southwards right across the block with frontage to Jenkins Lane - today called College Lane - an east to west passageway just south of the Parade.

Webber’s property seems to have been a much narrower affair with most of its facade facing north and offering good views of what was in effect the center of town. It was a major hub of military activity - including the administering of corporal punishment - with varying degrees of violence - to the misbehaving rank and file. A much used whipping post could be seen just to the west of the Main Guard Room. Civilians were by no means exempt and pillories, for example, were often set up to deal with miscreants of both sexes.

The Pillory    (1970 - George Palao)

Nor were the views towards Church Street lacking in interest. Whirligig Lane - today’s City Mill Lane - was so called because of the use of a cage-like contraption known as a  whirligig which was in effect a tube large enough to fit a person. It was suspended on a couple of swivels at the top and bottom. The offender was placed inside and the cage spun round at speed by a couple of soldiers for a period of time. The result was that the unfortunate who happened to be in it  became very giddy and extremely sick - all of this no doubt much to the amusement of visiting guests who had in effect an all-round grand stand view.

The Whirligig    (1970 - George Palao)

Plan of the Parade with the whipping post (W) to the left of the Main Guard - Whirligig Lane on the right just off Church Street   (1753 - Thomas James)

During his stay Poole’s landlord offered to act as his guide. The offer was accepted but it seems improbable that it might have been Webber - a property owner and a man of some standing - that had offered to show him the local attractions. Webber may have owned the King’s Arms but it is unlikely that he personally looked after the inn which he probably rented out to somebody else.

Arthur Webber is nevertheless something of unknown quantity. His wife Priscilla almost certainly outlived him and appeared as a 72 year old lady on a list of inhabitants taken in 1777. The Arthur Webber that also appears on the list as a 30 year old is presumably her grandson.

Webber Family      (1777 List of Inhabitants)

Arthur Webber Junior was born in 1742 and by the time he was 22 he was already a Freemason after having joined the local United Grand Lodge in 1764. He may have inherited his description as a merchant by joining and perhaps taking over whatever might have been his father’s business ventures. The Freemason list describes him as a ship chandler and it is possible that it was his father that had initially set up the business.

List of Freemasons of the United Grand Lodge

As regards Penelope, it seems unlikely that the 72 year old grandmother and widow would have spent most of her later life living in the “King’s Arms” especially when she had at least another two far more attractive options available to her both of them being properties which had also been successfully claimed by her husband during the Bland Enquiry.

The first was a house built between the Governor’s Gardens and another owned by Elizabeth Jesser. The second was probably even better. This was a house near South Barracks which had been built and enclosed with a garden by William Skinner, the chief engineer of the Garrison during the 1740s. The property was described by an 18th century visitor to Gibraltar (see LINK) as:
Mrs Weber's pleasant house . . . . on an eminence near the new barracks; between which and the Naval Hospital is the vineyard . .

(1749 -  Bland’s Court of Enquiry )

William Skinner

The Vineyard (see LINK) with South Barracks in the distance    (1844 - George Lothian Hall)  (See LINK)

A couple of years after Robert Poole visited Gibraltar, Thomas James (see LINK) in his  monumental History of the Herculean Straits included a plan in which he identified the south eastern corner of the Parade as a coffee house.

Coffee houses had become extremely popular meeting places in London during the early 18th century and no doubt one or more Gibraltar businessman would have been keen to follow suit. James’s 1750s plan identifies another two in Main Street close to the King’s Arms. All three sites were particularly good one as both the Exchange and Commercial building (see LINK) on the east side of the square and Aaron Cardozo’s  three story mansion on the west (see LINK) had not yet been built  and would not be for at least another fifty odd years.

Coffee house on the right hand corner of Gibraltar’s main square or Grand Parade in the 1740s/1750s        (1771 - Thomas James - detail) 

That these “coffee houses” were not simply upgraded taverns or pubs which had been given a more up-to-date or up-market name seems to be confirmed by several people who happened to be in Gibraltar at the time.  One of them was Lieutenant Percival Stockdale (see LINK) who was stationed on the Rock in 1756 during the interesting governorship of Lord Tyrawley:
 . . . on my landing at the water-port, (see LINK)  and going on to the high street (adjacent to which was the old parade; and where there were, then, two coffee houses, the one almost opposite to the other . . . . ) 
One of these “coffee houses” may have been the King’s Arms.

Lord Tyrawley on the left

A coincidence but Tyrawley can also be quoted as having once written the following to his theoretical bosses in London:
That Gibraltar is the strongest town in the world, that one Englishman can beat three Frenchmen, and that London-bridge is one of the seven wonders in the world, are the natural prejudices of an English coffee-house politician
I am certain that the military clientele at the King’s Arms - if it had any - would have certainly disagreed that they were prejudiced in having such opinions in so far as Gibraltar and the French were concerned.

A few years later Richard Twiss an English merchant visited the Rock and recorded his experiences in his book Travels through Portugal and Spain in 1772 and 1773:
We . . . passed the Spanish lines, and shortly after the English lines; entered the town, and put up at a very bad inn, where the beds were full of bugs, which were the first I had yet felt in Spain. The next day I changed my inn, and went to the King's Arms, which is a very good one, and contains the assembly-room. All the inns here are kept by British subjects. . . . Here are taverns, coffee-houses, billiard-tables, shops, &c. as in England..
In other words the King’s Arm’s days as a coffee house with lodgings may now have been a thing of the past. It had become a legitimate inn - and a rather good one at that. Whoever Arthur Webber senior or junior had rented out the place to was making a fine job of it.

A list of inhabitants of Gibraltar compiled in 1777 included a very large handful of people involved in the “Wine and Eating House” business - many of which were “tavern keepers” - but fails to name the establishments which they kept.  Any one of these might have been the landlord of the King’s Arms but I find it impossible to tell which one - if any.

From 1779 to 1783 the Great Siege of Gibraltar must have put paid to any further investment of money and effort into inns - and certainly not into coffee houses. My guess is that the destructive effects of nearly four years of enemy bombardments must have left the King’s Arms if not totally destroyed certainly very badly damaged.

Probably Main Street just after the end of the Great Siege - Top looking south - Bottom looking north    (1793 - Captain Thomas Davis)

Arthur Webber junior had certainly not stayed around to worry too much about his possible loss of property. In 1783 he was in London making arrangements to marry a younger woman. He was 41 and she was 25.

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 the following links:

1714 - Gibraltar’s Best Hotel - William Griffiths (1760s-1830s)
1714 - Gibraltar’s Best Hotel - The Jolly Hosteler (1830s-1840s)
1714 - Gibraltar’s Best Hotel - William Lequich (1860s-1910s)