The People of Gibraltar
1911 - The D’Amatos - Café Universal - Gibraltar Part 1

Tourist Poster (1930s)

General Sir Charles Harington Harrington - known to just about everybody as Tim because  . . .  . . well it isn’t a particularly interesting story but apparently his fellow officers gave him his nickname when he was twenty years old after they had heard of the conviction of an Irish Nationalist called Timothy Charles Harrington.

More to the point “Tim” Harrington was Governor of Gibraltar during the Spanish Civil War. He was one of that rare species of Governors of the Rock who actually seems to have been quite fond of the place and its people. Unfortunately he also happened to be a staunch admirer of Adolph Hitler and his countrymen. 

“Tim” Harrington visiting the German pocket battleship the Deutschland

In his biography which he published in 1940, Harrington wrote the following, perhaps a good indication of his political naivety.
. . . here were the sailors of H.M.S. Hood . . . . and the sailors of the Deutschland going about arm in arm, the greatest of friends, playing football, and visiting cafes and cinemas together. Our sailors will do that with the Germans, for whom they have the greatest respect, and with no one else. I always say that if the sailors of both nations could have been sent, as I saw them, round the capitals of Europe, there would be no danger of war

Hood team on the left, Deutschland on the right - HMS Hood was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941

He also happened to admire General Francisco Franco and deeply regretted never having met him. 

For the Gibraltarians the Spanish Civil War became something more than just somebody else’s problem as early as 1936. Thousands of people fled the immediate Campo area towards the safety of Gibraltar as Franco’s troops made their presence felt in no uncertain manner. 

Camps were set up at North Front and elsewhere to look after these unfortunate refugees who were invariably identified by the press and in many a photograph as Spanish whereas in fact a very large number of them - perhaps more than four thousand - were registered British Gibraltarians who had at one time or the other decided to quit their overcrowded home town to live just over the border in La Línea.

Many of the refugees took up residence in some of the hulks in the harbour. Some hid in caves while large refugee soup kitchens were set up in North Front. There was a steady stream of fishing boats from la Atunara ferrying people to Catalan Bay.

Refugee soup kitchens at North Front (1936)

In Spain General Queipo de Llano was now Franco's top man in Andalucia. His nightly broadcasts from Radio Sevilla were notorious for his unpleasant exhortations.
Si encontráis un rojo, pegarle un tiro en la nuca; y si no seis capaz, mandármelo a mi, que yo se lo pego . . . . Los buscaremos hasta los fines de la tierra y si están muertos los volveremos a

General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano

His broadcasts must have sent shivers down the spines of the refugees crowding North Front as he ranted and raved about the retribution his troops would inflict on them. This charming character once turned up in La Línea demanding that refugees still in Gibraltar return to Spain in order to work for the salvation of their country - instead of patronising local bars to look up the skirts of their dancers. It was from here that he made his much publicised threat that he would soon be riding up Main Street to Government House on a white charger. 

The Trocadero Bar  - just a few houses up from 256 Main Street where I was born - The 1930s bars that catered mostly for visiting naval seamen were far too expensive for the refugees to indulge in looking at the legs of dancing girls  (1950 - Bert Hardy)

Britain had officially declared herself neutral but perhaps not surprisingly the Colonial Authorities were invariably anti-Republican and pro-Franco. Governor Harrington banned the civilian use of arms and passed what was known as his “Impartiality Ordinance” - a useless attempt to encourage local civilians not to takes sides - especially as it was obvious to everybody which one was favoured by the authorities.

It would take more than this kind of nonsense to make Gibraltarians take any notice.  The poorer working class people were pro-Republican - rich merchants and the middle classes tended towards the “Nationalists”. Pro-Republican supporters gathered at popular local watering holes such as the Café Imperial and Petit Bar and also rather surprisingly at Amar’s Bakery.

 Yehuda Benzimbra - a direct descendant of the founder of the business, opened his house to many a Spanish refugee. Far from patronising the local bars, these people would dearly have loved to return to their homeland but were too frightened to do so. Eventually Amar’s Bakery became a sort of transit camp as more and more people took advantage of his hospitality. 

Local scouts’ parade at Commercial Square - with Amar’s backery just visible - appropriately on the left

Benzimbra was a merchant and certainly no political activist. No doubt he sympathised with the Republic, but his was probably a humanitarian gesture. When he died many years later, his funeral had a massive cortège of grateful people from La Linea.

The focal point for the pro-Franco Nationalists was a tobacconist shop in Market Lane. Far more popular in this respect was the Café Universal at 153 Main Street.  “El Universal” was a largish pub by Gibraltar standards with a long bar at one end and a small orchestra pit and stage at the other. Imported Spanish bands and dancers - usually referred to as “tangistas” - would entertain some of the more free-drinking members of the Cafe’s clientele - Gibraltar’s Royal Navy visitors. 

Upstairs was the more upmarket Embassy Night Club where the entertainment - at least Pre-WWII - tended to be somewhat more exotic - such as - for example - women’s jazz bands. At the time of the Spanish Civil War both properties were owned by the brothers Biagio and Angelo D’Amato. They were originally from Malta.

Main Street in the late 1920s - Cafe Universal on the left

Date unknown but almost certainly from the early 1930s

Maltese immigration into Gibraltar which began more or less during the more prosperous years of the 19th century faced considerable opposition from the local population.  Throughout the 1870s Dr. Scandella - the Roman Catholic Bishop of Gibraltar and who should have known better - had gone out of his way to refer to legitimate Maltese residents as 'the scum of that people', 'the dregs of society, 'habituated to vice', 'a public disgrace' and both 'worthless' and 'filthy' - and this even though research by local police magistrates at the time proved again and again that the Maltese were by no means any worse than anybody else.  

John Baptist Scandella - Vicar Apostolic of the Diocese of Gibraltar  (1880s)

Unfortunately Scandella's persistent propaganda was eventually regarded as gospel truth by a large number of the local population. Admittedly the majority of Maltese immigrants were poverty stricken individuals who mostly ended up as manual labourers of some sort or the other - many were paid up members of the coalheavers, one of the if not the most unpleasant and badly paid jobs going in Gibraltar during the early decades of the 20th century.

The gentle passtime of coaling - Gibraltar Harbour  (Late 1920s)

At face value the appropriate 1911 census entry for Biayo (Biagio) and Angel (Angelo) who were both born in Valetta - appears to suggest that these two might have formed part of Bishop Scandella’s “worthless” Maltese - 17 year old Angelo is identified as a being able to write but not read - a combination of attributes that I find hard to understand. No bones about Biagio - he was 21 years old and completely illiterate. 

Biagio was a married man - although there is no mention of his wife in any of the documents available to me. His home address was No 3 Carreras Passage - not exactly one of the most sought after addresses in town.  Children are not mentioned but his brother Angelo lived at the same address.

The narrow alleyway of Carrera’s Passage in the 21st century

I really don’t know when they first set foot on the Rock but it may have been shortly before the census was taken. At the time there were 261 Maltese men living in Gibraltar, the third largest contingency of British residents after the locals and UK citizens. 

But despite their lack of literacy these two were already doing quite well for themselves. Biagio was already an “employer” and Angelo was “working on his own account” although I am not quite sure who Biagio employed or how Angelo earned his living. One likely theory is that both brothers started off as bum boat operators selling fruit and souvenirs to tourists on liners anchored in the Bay. Good business men as they eventually proved themselves to be, they may even have ended up owning a min-fleet of these small boats allowing them to employ others to do the job for them. 

Bum boats in the Bay of Gibraltar

I doubt whether they had already managed to get their hands on the Cafe Universal which had been owned by a local publican, Frederico Bado, at least from the 1880s. The Bado family were still owners of the Waterport Street or Calle Real tavern in 1911.

(1899 - Lutgardo Zaragoza - Guia de Gibraltar)

Bado's Cafe Universal - Celebrating Edward VII’s visit to the Rock  (1903)

About twenty years later the D’Amato brothers had become importers of spirits from the UK in direct competition with the largest spirit merchants in Gibraltar - Saccone and Speed. They now owned the Cafe Universal and the Embassy. 

A curious photograph in that Saccone and Speed is advertised above the Cafe Universal door nearest the camera (1930s - Roisin)

The story goes that during the Spanish Civil War the D’Amato’s not only encouraged Nationalists to discuss their politics on their property but were also selling supplies to Franco. Their excuse - as they explained later - was that they were simply entrepreneurs and were not into politics. Their main objective was to make a profit - If somebody was prepared to pay good money for something - they sold it.

Besides, there were a large number of Gibraltarian merchants that were doing exactly the same thing. M.H.Bland was certainly one of them. The company was perhaps the largest ship owners and repairers in Gibraltar. The best hotel in town, the Rock Hotel, was theirs.  

Once, during wage negotiations that were intended to end one of the many coalheaver’s strikes of the era, the then principal owner of the company was informed that  the  men would  go back to work  on his ships, providing  the  agreement was signed by  both  him  and  the  Workers' Union. He refused. Apparently he was not prepared to sign any document of any sort. It would be an intolerable affront to his dignity to do so. 

Smith-Imossi  &  Co - another local coal bunkering giant - also showed considerable sympathy for the Nationalist cause throughout the conflict. Their investments in the Rio Tinto mines near Huelva were badly affected by the Civil War. These well-known mines - today a multinational company - were owned and run by British nationals who lived like lords on one side of the town and separated themselves from the mines and the people who worked them by an impenetrable wall. It was a kind of apartheid that enabled the company to use ecologically disastrous ore extraction methods that allowed for high profit margins.

Ore processing - Rio Tinto mines - Huelva (Early 20th century)

When the Civil War ended Smith-Imossi were quite preparred to help to the Nationalist regime to restart the business by offering to pay for the return passages and expenses of all the employees who had fled from Huelva. 

Another was John Mackintosh - touted by both local and British authorities as Gibraltar’s greatest benefactor. He could easily afford to be as he ran some of the largest money making firms on the Rock - the Gibraltar Coaling Company, the British Coal Company, the Imperial Coal Company, John Peacock and Co . . . and I am sure to have missed a few. 

John Mackintosh

During the last days of the Civil War, Mackintosh and Smith-Imossi & Co sent lorry loads of food to Madrid to assist the Rebels who had just entered the City. Biagio and Angelo were certainly in very good company.

From the left, Angelo D’Amato, Agustin E. Huart and Biagio D’Amato

I am not sure of the date in which the above photo was taken, but it is an interesting one. During the Gibraltar City Council elections of 1936 two councillors were elected from the pro-Nationalist Right - Peter Russo and Carlos Pou - and two pro-Republicans - Agustin Huart and Anthony Baldorino. Huart was not just a supporter of the legitimate government in Spain - he was also a committed left-winger who had spent his whole life promoting workers rights.

In 1919 he travelled to London with a group of workers to demand the right of self-government for Gibraltarians. They were rebuffed by British Government officials with the usual argument - Gibraltar was a fortress and self-government was therefore both dangerous and inappropriate - it wasn’t going to happen. 

Huart, however, may have taken heart from the fact that Sir Archibald Hunter - the Governor of Gibraltar a decade earlier - had made exactly the same point - but with such gross insensitivity that even the most obsequious of local merchants found it hard not to feel insulted.  

Archibald Hunter and wife

Things came to a head at a meeting held in the Garrison Library a local institution created in the late 18th century by a veteran of the Great Siege - Captain John Drinkwater.  It was run by military officers for well over 200 years for their own amusement. Ironically local civilians were not welcome.

The Garrison Library (1846 - J.M. Carter - but it hasn't changed all that much since)

Sir Archibald must have started the meeting with what would have been a rhetorical question - Self-government? Over his dead body. It was his right as Governor of the Fortress of Gibraltar to tell the population what they could and what they couldn’t do. 

And by the way, native police constables, telephone operators and cab drivers could not speak English properly, many could only speak Spanish. In fact he thought that English was spoken much better by Kaffir-rickshaw men in Durban and certainly not even as well as by donkey-boys in Suez or Cairo. He believed that in time of war the locals would abandon the Rock like rats and he proposed getting rid of them to make room for workers brought in from India. As regards sanitation, the streets were filthy, the roads were in poor condition, and civilians had a nasty habit of throwing rubbish, including excrement, straight out of their windows. 

It was also his opinion that the drink sold in the bars was adulterated and a menace to soldiers and locals alike - which makes one wonder whether the D’Amatos could have been one of the many Hunter might have had in mind. 

The end result was that two local merchants - William Sallust Smith and John Porral - were chosen by their peers to go to London where they managed to persuade the British Government to recall the Governor.

John Porral and William Sallust-Smith on their way to London to get rid of Hunter - and a crowd of local well-wishers at Waterport urging them on

Huart was probably just a boy at the time but by 1911 he must have known that Hunter’s scathing critique was probably not all that far off the mark - but as a staunch left-winger, he interpreted things quite differently. 

If the Gib police were rubbish it was because the British had failed to train them properly, if many Gibraltarians didn't know how to speak English it was because they were not English. And if the locals did chuck stuff out of their windows, well they had also being doing much the same thing for years in the poorer parts of London and elsewhere. Nor did the authorities ever raise a penny to improve housing and ease overcrowding for the poorer community.

It is pretty obvious that Hunter didn't like Gibraltarians but it would be a mistake to think that he was some sort of exception. Here is a quote from a contemporary article in the London Morning Post which encapsulates how the British establishment viewed the local population at the time.
The civilian’s claim to a right to interfere in the government of the place (Gibraltar) is about on par with that of a handful of persons being allowed to board a ship to sell their wares and then demanding that because they are on deck they are entitled to take part in the navigation of the ship.
Nevertheless it was as a result of public pressure led by Agustin Huart and the unions, that Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien - the governor at the time - dissolved the old anachronistic Sanitary Commission and inaugurated the Gibraltar City Council in 1921. There were four elected seats open to local residents, and Huart was voted in as a Councillor where he remained until the Second World War.

Horace Smith-Dorrien

The photograph shown above with three smiling individuals in which two more or less apolitical bothers stand on either side of a well known left-winger leaves the viewer with way too much to speculate on. Whatever that might be I am certain Huart wasn't there to ask them to buy a couple of tickets for a raffle in aid of the Socialist party.

By the end of 1937 the war was taking a back seat in Gibraltar as most of the action was in the north as the Nationalist slowly advanced on Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere. Meanwhile in the south Harrington would have been pleased to notice that at least in Spain his predilection for law and order was more than being ensured. Whether he realised that this was being achieved by systematic political repression involving the deployment of large contingents of all types of policemen and para-military corps - including the ubiquitous Guardia Civiles . . .  that is another story. 

Spanish Guardia Civiles

When the Civil War finally ended there was a sense of relief in Gibraltar. It didn’t last too long. On the third of September 1939, Britain and Gibraltar were at war with Germany. 

1911 - The D'Amatos - Café Universal - Gibraltar Part 3