The People of Gibraltar
2018 - Hawkers, Vendors and Menders - Gibraltar - Part 1


Vendor selling the traditional Gibraltar street food known as “Calentita”    (1882 - Kate E Gough)   (See LINK)

When my family returned to Gibraltar after our enforced WWII evacuation to Madeira in the late 1940s we moved into our original pre-war home at 256 Main Street. The house had been severely damaged by an enemy bomb and we were soon placed on a priority Government list for families awaiting new housing.


Main Street - George’s Street to the right and Cathedral Square and the Bristol Hotel to the left - 256 is the three storied house on the left hand side just next to that with the fancy glass covered balcony    (1950s - Bert Hardy)   (See LINK)

Unfortunately and for various reasons - the main one being that the British Authorities had not foreseen what would turn out to be a monumental housing problem - more than half of the returning local civilian families found themselves in the same situation as ourselves. A careless mistake but there was very little we could do about it.

However . . . in 1951 the naval armament ship the Bedenham, (see LINK) exploded in Gibraltar harbour killing several people in the process. It also destroyed - among many other bits of property elsewhere - the entire top section of 256 Main Street. We moved up to the top of the waiting list and a short while later I found myself living in 45 Alameda House, Red Sands Road, (see LINK) where I spent the next few years of my life before leaving the Rock for good in the 1960s.


Alameda House, the only block of flats within the Alameda Housing Estate with an odd “V” shape - our balcony on No. 45 is on the left, four floors up, with a good view of the Fire Station and a huge eucalyptus tree in the middle section

All of which means that my personal experience as regards contemporary local street sellers is extremely sketchy to say the least. I was too young to really either notice or be involved with them - and in any case very few hawkers bothered to work Main Street and even fewer thought it worth their while to try to sell their wares at the Alameda Housing Estate - or Lo Humfri to use the local patois.(See LINK)

Nevertheless in general terms I would say that local street vendors have been part of the scenery in British Gibraltar almost from the beginning of the 18th century and right through to the middle of the 20th.


A couple of water carriers with their donkeys and barrels in the background in Governor’s Parade   (c1820 - Henry Sandham)   (See LINK)

Soon after Gibraltar was captured in 1704 by Anglo-Dutch forces (see LINK) the civilians were mostly noticeable only by their absence as almost the entire original Spanish population had left the place. 


The capture of Gibraltar   (1704)

But nature abhors a vacuum and less than a decade later Gibraltar’s first British military engineer - Captain Joseph Bennet (see LINK) - was making his feelings felt to the appropriate Secretary of State - the Earl of Dartmore.
 . . . in a short time after the place was declared an open port, (see LINK) many people came from all parts to reside in it . . .  The Jews come daily and in great numbers from Barbary, Leghorn and Portugal to inquire into every particular circumstance of the place. 
The Garrison needed both food and supplies and ironically the people Bennet was complaining about were trying hard to fulfil those needs. Most of them were in fact the first civilian locals of the Rock. They have been universally dismissed in many general histories of Gibraltar as “rogues and camp followers”. Perhaps, but even rogues and camp followers need food and other essentials to survive, both of which were no doubt very often provided by peripatetic vendors - in other words the very first hawkers and street vendors of the Rock. 

Shortly after Bennet’s intervention, a military inspection of the place brought about the appointment of a victualling merchant responsible for the requirements of the Garrison. The person awarded the contract was Thomas Missing - whose name on reflection seems quite appropriate. He was a resident of Portsmouth and rarely if ever visited Gibraltar. 

He was appointed because he was already the victualling agent for other British garrisons, all of which had made him extraordinarily rich and had allowed him in turn to exert all sorts of pressures on the London commission charged with selecting a ‘suitable’ candidate for Gibraltar. They chose him.

One would have supposed that the appointment of an official to look after the Garrison’s needs would have more or less done away with the need for camp followers. It did nothing of the sort. Instead the authorities were faced with regiments in open revolt and very close to mutiny. Deductions were about to be made to their pay to defray the costs of the new victualling system - something that was certainly not to their liking. As a consequence there was hardly a pause in the number of Bennet’s “Jews” and others who continued to enter Gibraltar.

If Missing was in it for the money, then so was Captain Bennet’s bête noir - Thomas Stanwix, Lieutenant-Governor of Gibraltar from 1711 to 1713. Stanwix was probably the first Governor to realise the advantages that could be obtained from Queen Ann’s decision to make Gibraltar a free port. All sorts of rates, rents, taxes and dues would continue to be charged - the only difference being that they would end up in his own pocket rather than that of Her Majesty’s Exchequer. 



Queen Anne

Under his governorship there was little change as regards the number of civilians living on the Rock - in fact civilian population numbers probably went up, despite uneasy reservations from London as to the kind of people responsible for the increase. They were neither British nor Protestant.  The “Moors” came, sold their goods and then went back home to Morocco, but Barbary Jews and Catholics from Spain and elsewhere found it relatively easy to remain on the Rock as illegal immigrants. All this with the connivance of the military authorities - in other words the Governor. It was a situation that would persist for decades and was never really resolved.

By 1729 Stanwix’s successors seem to have surpassed him in their veniality. According to an early 18th century pamphleteer Gibraltar’s Governors and military commanders were now cashing in on everything that was cashable. In that peculiarly satirical style that was so common at the time and under the heading of “The Governor’s annual perquisites” - the pamphleteer suggested that earnings over and above his normal salary were running at the indecently high rate of roughly £20 000 p.a. which translates into more than three million quid in today’s money.

But perhaps more to the point is that the list included $500 - today incredibly worth £25 000 - which were the total contributions made by “Jews, hawkers and pedlars.” It is the oldest direct reference to street vendors I have come across so far. It also confirms that this particular way of life was now as commonplace in Gibraltar as it was elsewhere. More importantly, these people had now been promoted to recognised street sellers without anybody caring overly about their religious preferences.

Several years later, General Humphrey Bland - Governor of Gibraltar during the mid 18th century - advised his superiors that the civilian population of Gibraltar during his tenure was made up of:
Jews, Genoese, Spaniards, Portuguese, Irish Papists, Scotch pedlars and English bankrupts, the riff-raff of various nations and religions ready to commit any fraud in their power. . . 
 . . . . in other words it was still very much the kind of place where hawkers - let alone hucksters - would  have thrived.



Humphrey Bland

Unfortunately even during the later 18th and early 19th century census data must be taken with a pinch of salt. By the very nature of their trade hawkers or street sellers tended to be either day visitors or illegal immigrants. On the whole they were therefore unlikely to register voluntarily.

For example in 1816 I can find only 16 registered hawkers, most of them classified as Jews. In On the other hand in 1834 I can trace nearly 100 of them, the great majority of them “foreigners” from Spain and Barbary while Robert Montgomery Martin in his monumental History of the British Mediterranean Possessions acknowledges no less than 309 “hawkers and dealers” within a population of 15 000 people but fails to give their legal status on the Rock. Whatever that might have been hawkers were nevertheless still required to pay for their licences in advance.

Young street seller in Main Street - although I am not sure what he is selling   (1844 - Old Inhabitant - Travellers’ Handbook)    (See LINK)

By the mid 19th century just about every hawker and street seller in town was a Spaniard from the Campo area, bringing his or her wares or expertise into Gibraltar in the early morning and returning home late at night.  It was then - and continued to be for some time - hard work for very little profit. Water carriers and charcoal sellers were invariably men for the simple reason that you had to be extraordinarily fit and strong to carry out this kind of work day in day out - perhaps for your entire life.


Street seller of artificial flowers     (1822 - Kate E Gough)

Women and even young children were sometimes involved in selling fruit and vegetables and it was usually women who sold flowers - but not always. The truth is that whatever it was that was being sold, hawking was tough. Gibraltar may be a small town but its steep and intricate lanes, and its narrow alleyways, steps and ramps can make it a tiring place to move around in while laden with goods. 


Flower seller being searched by a British frontier official - Heaven knows what he was searching for - any contraband attempt by a flower seller would have been from Gibraltar to Spain and not in the other direction

Most hawkers used donkeys whenever and wherever it was possible to use these versatile animals. More often it was simply a question of lifting and carrying baskets of whatever goods you were selling, to wherever it might be possible to sell them. 


In 1925 licensed hawkers were required to wear badges on their arms - the vendor in the photo is selling oil.


Whether it was 1704 or the 1950s it was the kind of life one only subjected oneself to because there were no other alternatives. In many ways it is a historical curiosity that these people played such a prominent and visible part in the social texture of civilian life in Gibraltar. 

But there is an even greater irony. A very large number of the photographs included in this essay were taken by visitors who thought they were recording the lives of typical locals going about their business. Other examples taken by professionals for postcard publishers continue to perpetuate the idea of the picturesque “native” - in both cases missing the point. The great majority of the hawkers, vendors and repairers of the Rock were Spaniards - not Gibraltarians. 


The following links should lead you to photographs of Gibraltar’s street sellers and workers. Locations are given where they are guessable.  Dates range from late 19th to the early 20th century. 

I have also used a number of the photographs which come from the family albums of Julian Guilliano - most of them collected by his grandfather Joseph Richard Guilliano known to family and friends as Pepe. Each of them have been individually and appropriately identified in the links below. Thank you Julian for allowing me to use them.

2018 - Gibraltar’s Hawkers, Vendors and Menders - Part 1
2018 - Gibraltar’s Hawkers, Vendors and Menders - Part 2
2018 - Gibraltar’s Hawkers, Vendors and Menders - Part 3
2018 - Gibraltar’s Hawkers, Vendors and Menders - Part 4
2018 - Gibraltar’s Hawkers, Vendors and Menders - Part 5
2018 - Gibraltar’s Hawkers, Vendors and Menders - Part 6