The People of Gibraltar
1867 - The Relle and Wills Families - Gibraltar - Part 1

The North Front of the Rock - On the left just by the base of the cliff were the slaughter houses, on the middle right the cemetery and the kennels - on the extreme right the British lines and the entry into town, large cattle pens and hutments used both by civilians and the military - Not exactly the most welcoming of sights     (Mid 19th century - F. Frith - R.P. Napper)

In 1857 a young man from Prussia called Moritz Frederick Relle made an important decision - he decided to join the army - specifically the 1st Battalion of the 25th Regiment of the King’s Own Borderers - in other words a unit of the British Army. It was a decidedly unusual choice for a Prussian to say the least.

Moritz was born in 1834. He and his father Johann were from Draschwitz, near Zeitz in the province of Sachsen. His mother Rosine nee Landmann was also from Sachsen. She was born in Dorna, Wittenberg. They are the types of places which are hard to find on non-German maps.

I know very little about Moritz during the twenty odd years he spent in Germany as a young man other than that he seems to have been good at music. Although I don’t know where or when he studied the subject - during which time he graduated as a professor of music - I do know that that by the 1860s he had already published several of his own compositions.

Moritz's career as a musician seems to have taken a very specific direction after his move to England. While still only in his late twenties he was appointed Bandmaster of the 1st Battalion, perhaps with the rank of a warrant officer or drum sergeant. In January 1858 his regiment left Dover for Gibraltar.

Uniform of a sergeant of the 1st Battalion of the 25th Regiment of the King’s Own Borderers   (1860s)

While stationed on the Rock, Moritz met Emily Woods the daughter of John and Mary. John Woods was an Irish Roman Catholic and was employed in the Marine Police section of the local Port department. His wife - also a Catholic - was Gibraltar born. Her maiden name was Mary McDonald. Moritz must have fallen for Emily in a big way. He married her very shortly before he and the 1st Battalion left the Rock for Malta in 1862. She was still one month short of being 15 years old on their honeymoon night - or at any rate on the day of their wedding. It was probably not a classic "shotgun" affair as the local census records suggest that their first child was born five years later in 1867.

What the evidence, such as it is, does suggest is that he did not take Emily with him to Malta. Nor was she with him when the Battalion returned to England in 1864 - and she certainly did not accompany him to his next posting in Canada. It was while he was in Montreal that he composed some of his better known music. His St Laurence Waltzes for Piano are curious in that they were dedicated to Lt Col. P Robertson Ross, the man in charge of the 1st Battalion and owner of nearly half of the entire Moidart peninsular in Scotland. It would certainly have been worth Relle’s while to encourage any possible patronage both from a military and a musical point of view.

Moritz also managed to find time to write an article for Boose’s Military Journal which was edited by a bandmaster of the Scots Guards in the 1850s and became very influential as regards military band arrangements. Moritz’s article was called The Spanish Beauty Quadrille – Military Band Parts.

Other music composed by Moritz during this period includes The Royal Mountain Waltzes, one of, if not the earliest known compositions about mountains - all of them inspired by Montreal’s very own Mount Royal. Another was the St Valentine’s Gallop for the piano and the suitably titled Farewell Waltzes as the regiment returned to the UK in 1867.

Published in the 1860s - still available today

Just prior to leaving, in 1866 he was presented with a ceremonial conductor’s baton for his involvement in the Crystal Palace Concerts in Montreal. According to John Relle - a direct descendent of Moritz who now owns the baton - it is inscribed as follows:
“Presented to Moritz Relle Esq. Bandmaster 25th Regt K.O.B as a Token of Esteem & Respect by the Professional and Amateur members of the ORCHESTRA and CHORUS of the Crystal Palace Concerts Montreal May 11 1866”

“The Crystal Palace” was built for the Montreal Industrial Exhibition of 1860. It was an important exhibition hall at the time

Almost certainly Moritz Relle conducting at the Montreal Exhibition   (Canadian Archives and Library)

Once back in the UK Moritz decided to change regiments. His choice of the 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment of Foot will no doubt have been influenced by the fact that it was about to be sent to Gibraltar.  It is perhaps something of a coincidence that my great grandfather Francis Thomas Letts - a sergeant in the 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade - was also in Montreal during the 1860s. He also returned to Gibraltar and settled there with his Gibraltarian wife more or less at the same time as Moritz. My guess is that they must have known or at least known of each other during their lifetimes.

My Great grandfather Francis Thomas Letts and his wife Rosa nee Bottaro   (1867)

Certificate of Baptism of my grandfather John Francis George Letts dated 1867 in Montreal

Moritz regiment arrived in Gibraltar in 1867 and was quartered at Grand Casemates. In 1868 he joined - or possibly rejoined the Masons. The 278 Lodge of Friendship records ledgers identify him as 30 years old although he would have been 34 in 1868. His address was still at the Grand Casemates but it can’t have been for very much longer. According to the local 1868 census he had moved that same year to his father-in-law’s house at No 4 North Front Camp by which time his first son John had been born.

278 Lodge of Friendship   (1868)

Casemates Square with the roof of the main barracks on the right - The Port Office, perhaps James Woods place of work, is the one on the extreme left of the two story buildings facing the Square - Around this period my other Grandfather Diego Gomez added a terrace to his home in Crutchett’s Ramp - Could that scaffolding have had anything to do with it?     (Unknown - Mid 19th century)

The 83rd Regiment of Foot left Gibraltar for India in 1870 and the odds are that Moritz decided to quit the army at that point in order to stay on in Gibraltar. He exchanged his soldier’s wages for that of a teacher of music and as far as I can make out his family life was a happy one. What is perhaps harder to understand is why he continued to live with his in-laws in their North Front Camp for as long as he did. The very name of the place would have been unappealing to anybody who knew Gibraltar reasonably well.

I am not sure of the precise location of the North Front Camp, but it must have been located on the sandy isthmus often referred to locally as the Neutral Ground which separated the Rock from the rest of Spain. This area was at the time on average only about 3 meters above sea level with beaches facing the Bay on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. My guess is that the Camp would have been on the western side.

During the 17th and 18th century it had been considered as a relatively salubrious place - the water from its wells were supposed to be particularly good - and by the mid 18th century several locals had built themselves a collection of semi-permanent wooden huts with a population of a few hundred people. The temporary nature of these dwellings was the result of the usual military imperatives that have always dominated civilian activities on the Rock. Residents of these huts were only allowed there on sufferance as the Governor had proclaimed himself entitled to demand the removal of the village and its inhabitants arbitrarily - often with less than forty-eight hours notice.

Close-by was the frontier with Spain and a chance for British born visitors to have a field day insulting what they considered to be the dilapidated state of the Spanish side of the isthmus. From the slovenly appearance of the troops - 'ill-clad and noisy' to the state of decay of the ruins of the fortresses of Santa Barbara and San Felipe - which had been destroyed more or less by mutual consent in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars - no details were spared.

By the time Mortitz Relle had decided to move to Gibraltar the North Front had ceased to be considered an attractive place to live in. It had become Gibraltar's dumping ground. The Eastern side Beach was particular disagreeable as it was an easily accessible place for getting rid of unpleasant waste. The nearby slaughterhouse with its huge heaps of offal and other residues associated with such places contributed to the generally offensive smells and sights that assaulted people's senses.

Butcher's houses, mule stables, and sheds for large numbers of cattle contributed to the generally unlikable environment as did the presence of a cemetery, the Calpe Hunt foxhound kennels and the huts for the washing of hospital bedding.

An unpleasantly water-logged isthmus close to the North Front on a dreary day - The fence possibly hides some of the North Front Camp mentioned above   (1866)

It was a state of affairs that led commentators such as the American writer Andrew Biglow to wonder as to how anybody could choose to live in Gibraltar - and not just in the North Front area. Very few of them, he believed, could possibly be content. It was, he thought, a spot virtually as ‘remote as the Pitcairn Islands’,

This then was the place that Moritz Relle appears to have decided to settle down in for the rest of his life. On the whole his decision to choose to live with his in-laws is easy to grasp. It was then and has generally been ever since, very hard for newcomers to obtain any kind of living accommodation on the Rock. He probably couldn't find a suitable or spacious enough property either in town or in the south for what would very quickly become a very large family.

There was also the added inconvenience of being a foreigner who technically speaking would not have been allowed to buy property - not that that had stopped anybody with sufficient money from doing so. On the other hand, why on earth his father-in-law - who must have been a relatively well-off government employee - stayed put for as long as he did in the North Front Camp is harder to understand. Perhaps the house came with the job.

And a large family Moritz’s certainly was as he lost little time in producing another five children to keep Moritz company. Emily, John Frederick, Mary, Herman and Luisa each arrived at what appears to have been carefully calculated two year intervals. Curiously, according to the 1878 census at least two of his children were not born in Gibraltar. Herman is registered as having been born in Spain in 1875, Mary in Malta in 1873, and although no mention is made of it in the Census there is evidence that John Frederick was born in Alexandria in 1871.

One rather implausible suggestion is that he did not resign from the 83rd when they left, but followed them with his wife on what must have been a very slow boat to India, staying for a while in Malta and in Alexandria and then finally leaving the Regiment and returning to Gibraltar. Luisa born in 1877 fails to appear on the 1881 census or on any subsequent ones which suggests she did not survive early childhood.

Although Moritz was a protestant, all his children were registered as Catholics. The reason for this may have been that at the time, as it might still be today, Roman Catholics were allowed to marry outside their faith as long as their partner gave an undertaking to allow the children of their marriage to be brought up as Catholics. Presumably Emily or her parents wanted it so and Moritz agreed.

1878 Census

In 1878, Moritz - birthplace Prussia not "Russia" - was registered as a “professor” - presumably in music. He may have been doing well financially but the following year in April 1879 he sadly died of typhus fever. His obituary in the Gibraltar Chronicle was a warm tribute to the man and his profession.
It is with great pain that we record the death of Mr Relle, teacher of music who died at North Front after an illness of two or three weeks. Mr Relle, who was formerly Band Master of the 83rd Regiment, has for many years lived at the North Front during which time he has been employed in giving lessons in music,  and in the course of which he has won the respect and esteem of all with whom he came into contact besides the grief it will be to his family and friends the death of Mr Relle will be the cause of a serious public loss for it will be impossible to find in Gibraltar anyone gifted with the knowledge and love of music which he possessed. Mr Relle leaves a widow (the daughter of Mr Woods of the Port Office) and his children to mourn the loss of a loved husband and affectionate father.

Moritz Relle’s Obituary - (1879 - Remembered in 1979 - Gibraltar Chronicle)

A much loved man indeed. But there may have been more than one colonial official who would perhaps have shaken their collective heads in disapproval. From the very beginning of the 19th right through to its final decades Gibraltar suffered sporadic and deadly epidemics of yellow fever and cholera and although not recognised as such at the time, of typhus fever as well. But whatever the disease the authorities blamed it squarely on a perceived lack of cleanliness on the part of the locals - an illogical conclusion as regards yellow fever but not so for cholera or typhus.

As late as 1868, a very large number of local residents tended to live in 'patio de vecinos' sharing amenities such as courtyards and stairs - as well as toilets and water tanks. A single 'patio' in City Mill Lane, for example, was home sweet home to no less that 63 people belonging to 25 families.

A typical "patio de vecinos" in the 19th century

Most of these places were not just overcrowded - they were badly built and unsuitable for Gibraltar's climate. Richard Ford, a writer who was always scathing - and almost invariably wrong - about all matters concerning Gibraltar managed to get at least one of his observations right. He disapproved of both the outward architectural design of the houses - which he considered to be built on the ‘stuffy Wapping principle with a Genoese exterior’ - and their interiors, which he claimed were filled by their occupiers 'with curtains and carpets. So far so good but he then spoils it all by adding that the curtains and carpets:
 . . . . were there on purpose to breed vermin and fever  . .  fit only for salamanders and scorpions.
From a social point of view non-British born Gibraltarians have always been swayed by what is essentially a Mediterranean social perspective. There is always a clearly defined line drawn between one's personal duties and those that belong to somebody else. No doubt those encircled courtyards must have been both a mess and the source of endless friction, but what is absolutely certain is that by blaming the occupants for their dangerously unhygienic life-styles the colonial administrators were metaphorically washing their hands of their own responsibilities.

In other words they failed to recognise the real cause of the problem - which as far back as the early 19th Century had perceptively been identified by a senior garrison doctor who was in Gibraltar during one of its worst epidemics:
So long as ground rents remain high, landlords will make the most of the space they possess, and when avarice is in full operation upon the poverty, the wretched tenants will crowd together into small dark and ill ventilated cellars and corners of a very similar character, which so far from giving them accommodation, scarcely afford space for them to lie down. In fact when the weather is fine, the open street is much more desirable than many of the lodgings of the lower orders of the inhabitants of Gibraltar.
If Moritz Relle was anything like what I consider to be a stereotypical German, it is highly unlikely that he - or his Government employed parents-in law - would have put up with the type of squalor described above. But he did live in what was certainly one of the less salubrious districts on the Rock where even such matters as the control over possible contamination of the water supply would have been precarious to say the least.

Moritz was only 54 years old when he died. The story of his life - however unusual the fact that he happened to be a Prussian - could of course be dismissed as yet another of the many hundreds - not to say thousands and including my great grandfather - of military men who passed through Gibraltar over the years who decided to marry locally and make the place their home. But his legacy however slight remains not just part of the cosmopolitan make-up of the civilian population of the Rock but also part of my own personal history.

If you would like to find out how that worked out  . . .  please read the next chapter.

With acknowledgements to Alex Panyotti for his all the time-consuming research and support without which I would not have been able to write this article. Thanks again Alex.

1867 - The Relle and Wills Families - Gibraltar - Introduction
1867 - The Relle and Wills Families - Gibraltar - Part 2