The People of Gibraltar
1943 - Journey to Gibraltar - Robert Henry - Gibraltar


The Algeciras ferry with the Rock in the background   (1960s)
The ferry boat that goes across the bay from Algeciras to Gibraltar is captained by an old Spanish sea-dog, who wears a white linen suit too large for his bony frame, a yachting cap, and brown shoes. The stub-end of a dead cigarette remains fastened to his upper lip during the odd minutes that the journey takes. In the early morning the steamer is filled with Spaniards, who go over to work each day in the dockyard, returning before nightfall with a loaf of white bread and a quarter of a pound of sugar, and once or, twice a week they may take home a ration of tobacco. 
A few women also go over on this boat to prepare early morning cups of tea for the inhabitants of this fortress town, which between dusk and dawn is mainly a stronghold of males. The view from this little ship in the rosy dawn is as beautiful as anything it is possible to imagine. Schools of porpoises romp and play all round the vessel, their giant fins heeling out of the water. A few fluffy clouds, that will presently lift, hang above the mountains behind Algeciras and San Roque sleeps peacefully on rugged clefts.  
The white houses of Ceuta, on the opposite coast, are beginning to turn a delicate pink below the towering Monte Hacho, and the Spaniards will tell you that in past ages the two continents were connected, because the geological formations of Gibraltar and of northern Africa are of limestone, while the mountains on the Spanish mainland are of sandstone. 
I suspect Henry is confusing El Hacho - which is anything but “towering” - with Jebel Musa - known to the British in Gibraltar as Apes’ Hill and  which is considerably higher than the Rock and lies somewhere to the west of Ceuta.


The Rock from Monte Bermejo with Ceuta and the Hacho on the opposite coast to its left and Jebel Musa just behind it     (2013 - With acknowledgement and thanks to J. Javier Garcia)
An old man, whose face has become brown and wrinkled by the ardour of successive summer suns, asks me if I can really see the difference, and I answer politely that it really does look as if a mountain range has become broken, with part of it disappearing into the sea. A smile spreads over his features, as if discovering that I was more intelligent than he took me for, and as if to clinch his theory he adds that the monkeys of Gibraltar are Barbary apes, and that the Barbary partridge is found on the Rock, but not in Spain. 
Our little steamer put in at a jetty almost exactly opposite La Linea, from where a steady flow of Spaniards, far more than from Algeciras, flow into the Rock each morning. The workmen and the older women arrive first, and then the younger women and the shop-girls, some of them with bewitching eyes that, for all their softness, are quite capable of flashing steel in this town, where the other sex is in such majority.

Young ladies from La Línea crossing the frontier during the war   (1940s)
The military policeman at the iron gate at the jetty wears a khaki shirt and shorts. All the soldiers in the garrison, from major-general to private, are dressed alike, and the only way to discover their rank is to look at their shoulders. The Air Force are also in khaki but the Navy wear white. Such an exhibition of hairy knees is a little disconcerting at first for anybody coming from a country which is no less hot but where people dress normally, but one has only to look at some of those sinewy arms and necks burned a dark chocolate to realize how healthy it is for them.

Main Street  (1943)
Gibraltar’s Main Street runs in a more or less straight line from Market Square. There is none of the blinding whiteness of the Spanish town. Main Street is a dirty brown, with a faintly Victorian heaviness, in spite of its verandas and porticos, and the eucalyptus-trees that give shade. 
Heavy lorries, motor cars, and an occasional Bren gun carrier rumble along, keeping up a groan of metal from which only the shriek of the horns is absent, and to replace it army drivers hang the palms of their hands on the sides of their vehicles. There are a few Maltese carriages and push-carts filled with lemons, brought by the Spaniards from La Linea, and just once in a while you will see a horse and cart bringing in hay for fodder. 

Selling melons in the market    (Date unknown)
To anybody who has come from Europe the shops are full of surprises. They are both very rich and very poor, and are unlike those in any other town in Europe. You can see more bars of chocolate than it would appear possible for a well-fed garrison to be able to consume, and the London civilian gapes at this prodigality. English cigarettes, costing only two shillings for fifty instead of five shillings, as at home, are stacked ceiling-high at the tobacconist.  Bananas cost two pence halfpenny each, and there are oranges, lemons, black figs, and large Victoria plums. There are branches of the great Indian stores from Calcutta and Bombay, that before the war did a roaring trade with the cruise ships and ocean-going liners of every nationality continually putting into port.

Main Street - the Exchange building to the right   (Early 1950s)
So profitable was this trade that the owners of these stores actually made Gibraltar their home. Their wives lived with them, and wore sarees in the street, and many employed eight or nine Indians to serve behind the counter. A few had branches also in Tangier. They sold ivory work and French perfumes, lipsticks, and eau-de-Cologne. Only one Indian remains in each shop now, and the stocks have dwindled, though some still have a surprising amount of French perfumes, which the soldiers buy to send home to their wives and sweethearts.
There are a few drapery stores, where multi-coloured lingerie in poor artificial silk hangs on paper dummies, with a few cotton dresses and some pseudo-Spanish shawls and imitation mantillas. There are stationers’ shops, where the troops buy air-mail paper and the officers buy cheap novels. The British newspapers arrive six weeks late, and the limited number of weeklies is snapped up by the officers’ messes.  
One is mildly surprised at the amount that a woman can still buy in this male stronghold, though Europe is rapidly coming to the stage when it will be all make-up and no clothes. The men are forbidden to buy silk stockings to send home, and this rule leaves a rapidly diminishing stock for the few women buyers.  
Many of the shops are closed, and cobwebs hang over the doors unless the accommodation has been taken over by the military. A wealthy Moor had a curiosity shop, but he thought it wiser to retire at the outbreak of war, and spend the last years of his life peacefully in North Africa. A firm of saddle-makers was closed when polo came to an end, and it is now trading between  La Línea and Gibraltar on behalf of the Government. 
Many present-day Gibraltarians are of Genoese descent, and some are very wealthy. A few are of vague French descent, like the watchmaker who has to close his shop three days a week to work on the orders he has taken for repairs during the other three, for labour is very short, and whereas he had many workmen before the war, he is now all alone. 

Gache and Co - still working as opticians at the time of writing - My own house was 256 Main Street, only a few doorways towards the viewer from the Hotel sign   (1950s)
Hair-dressers from La Linea arrive in the morning to open their shops where, unable to converse with the British Tommy, they silently shave his hair to the requisite height at the back of his head for nine pence. A few naval outfitters from Chatham or Davenpert still carry on business, as they probably do also at Malta; there are cafes where soldiers and sailors congregate in the evening to listen to a ladies’ orchestra and the Cafe Universal says: “We will supply drinks free to all en Victory Day, so keep smiling, but to supply these drinks please avoid glass-breaking, as replacements are difficult.’

A pre-war Cafe Universal
Once a week at eleven o’clock in the morning the sirens sound for half an hour’s gas-mask drill, when every soldier must carry on his work wearing this terrifying appendage and even the police en point duty directs traffic  looking like prehistoric apes. I even saw a Spanish costermonger stop selling a banana to a passing girl to put his on.
It is the noisiest street in the world a strident symphony of pounding lorries, aeroplane engines overhead, great shaking roars as the sappers excavating up in the reek explode dozen sticks of gelignite; and, as evening comes, the heavy tread of a seething mass of sailors and soldiers and airmen wearing out the macadam in the street as they sing Auld‘ Lang Syne or Roll Out the Barrel. 
It is a dusty street because of the wind that blows through it from the sea. The pavements are littered with cigarette boxes and chocolate wrapping, and every night it looks like Southend after a bank holiday. The Gibraltarians, who must pay women from Spain to make their beds and to cook their meals, queue up at the post office to send registered air-mail letters to their wives and sweethearts in distant lands.
English currency notes have been withdrawn from the Rook for the same reason that they are not recognized by the Treasury in neutral Europe. They are replaced by Gibraltar notes, but our silver is accepted. Until the Spanish civil war the peseta and the pound were both legal tender, and the shopkeepers kept their accounts in the two moneys. In those days the

Soldiery were not much in evidence, and after lunch officers could walk about town in civilian clothes, and anybody who wished could cross to Spain, just as if there was no frontier. When Main Street was crowded it was due to the passengers from cruise liners and transatlantic ships. 
Market Square then justified its name. Meat came from Barbary, the Argentine, and Australia, and oranges musk-melons and figs and muscatels from Andalusia. Moors in turbans and caftans, seated cross-legged at their stalls, sold fowls, eggs, and Basket-work, and it was all as it had been since Sala wrote in the eighties:
"British artillerymen and linesmen, spruce orderly sergeants, and dandy officers in mufti; “girls of the period,“ and Spanish peasant and flower girls; Jews in high black caps and low black caps, or with yellow kerchiefs twisted round their heads, in gabardines trimmed with cat-skin, in long dressing gowns of chintz, or girt with heavy sashes of ragged red stall; Moors of Morocco in turbans white and green, in caftans and baggy creels, with faces now swart as Ethiopians, now white and red as Saxons, but scowling always at the Giaour (non Muslim); Arabs of Algeria in snow-white burnouses or braid of dark camel’s hair - smiling, affable, complaisant Moslems these, their French masters having taught them manners; fishermen from Cadiz or Tariia; English, American and Spanish sailors; loafers and rapscallions from Genoa, Malta, or Leghorn; with here and there an Indian Ajah, landed from a P & O steamer; a very raw curate, newly appointed to an Indian chaplaincy, and a wondering British tourist in a check tweed travelling suit and a white umbrella lined with green under one arm and “Murray” under the other - this is Main Street."
The international crowd has gone, although the Gibraltarians themselves are of mixed origin, becoming native to the Rock by a process of assimilation under the British flag. They speak the same language as the Spaniards who so proudly left Gibraltar in 1704 but there is very little Spanish blood in them unless occasionally when a British Tommy has married a girl from Spain, and the children have been brought up as Gibraltarians; for there is a say that when these mixed marriages occur the wives bring back the husbands to live under the Mediterranean sun, their wills being stronger than those of our own race. But nowadays such marriages are frowned on, and when they happen the wife is packed off to England, where she will have to remain until the end of the war.
It is not strictly true to say that there is very little Spanish blood left in Gibraltar and that the Tommies are responsible for what little there is. Military personal tended to marry local Gibraltarian girls and not Spanish one. Also, Gibraltar being a frontier town many a Gibraltarian succumbed to Spanish charms over the years. There were also quite a few Spaniards who successfully applied for residency thereby eventually becoming Gibraltarian. My Grandfather Diego Gomez was one of them.
But if Main Street misses the Jews and the Arabs and the Moors, there is something very virile in its jostling crowds of clean-shaven young Englishmen. If some of the sailors become merry at the end of a hot summer’s day, remember they may have been heroes less than twenty-four hours earlier, for the German dive-bomber haunts the Mediterranean waters. 
Main Street means a little shop-gazing and a beer at a local tavern, where the orchestra splits your ear-drums. It means the telegraph office and the registered mail counter; the policeman in Commercial Square dressed in traditional blue with long trousers and in a pre-war London helmet; the field post office in College Lane; Government House, where you mustn’t walk under the portico, though it takes up all the pavement; it means Barclays Bank in Irish Town, which is the only English bank in Gibraltar; Naafi on the right up Library Street, and the library itself against the background of the Rock, with the huge palm and the venerable dragon-tree in the garden in front, the big cool rooms, with leather arm-chairs and books to the ceilings, and the latest copy of The Times that arrives by air mail, and the weekly picture papers that arrive six weeks late by sea mail, and the novels and the thrillers, and the cool garden behind with bougainvilleas growing over trellis-work to keep the sun from those who wish to read in the open air.

The Garrison Library - an institution since the early 19th Century   (1830s - Frederick Leeds Edridge)
lies Government House, where the sentry wears shorts and a tropical helmet and a couple of murderous-looking Mills bombs in his belt.

Government House - known as the Convent - not sure whether this particular guard has a Mills bomb in his belt    (1940s)
Main Street means some more eucalyptus trees and the cheap open-air restaurant in a white courtyard, with vines growing over it, where savoury liver costs five-pence, cold ham and tomato ten pence, green peas five pence, baked potatoes two pence, and a fruit jelly three pence; and then come the garrison theatre and the naval picket house and South Port Gate, where an old man with a barrowful of fruit sells bananas and oranges, just as they were sold from barrows in Commercial Road before these things became but a memory in London town.

Click on the links below for more quotes and comments: