The People of Gibraltar
1930 - “El Montegiu” - Gibraltar’s Sea Bathing Pavilion

On the 15th of May 1930 the Montagu Bathing Pavilion was opened to the public . . .  or perhaps I am wrong and that was just the day that the place was inaugurated by the Governor Alexander Godley who was accompanied by his wife and, I am sure, by dozens of colonial administrators, military brass, hangers-on of every hue and colour as well as, of course, members of the City Council who were the instigators of this new fangled idea. The ordinary man and woman of the street probably only managed to test the water - so to speak - the very next day, a Friday.

Governor Alexander Godley and his wife

And new fangled it certainly was. The abhorrence towards the very idea of both sexes swimming around together lingered on even in Great Britain and the Montagu did indeed allow public mixed sea bathing. Not the first in Europe, but certainly among the first. It was also touted as being an extremely up to date and hygienic establishment.

The Pavilion took its name from the nearby Montagu Bastion on top of which were the Montague Gardens which were opened to the public in 1920.

Montegu Gardens

The rocky area in front of the baths has a long history as a suitable place for bathing.

Bathing Place in Gibraltar      (1818 - Thomas Ender)

Crop of a late 19th century photo (J.H. Mann)

The first photograph shows men bathing in a “beach” just to the south of the Old Mole and more or less in front of the white building on the right on the second photo.

This one shows the Casemates at the bottom, Old Mole to the right . . . and two very similar white buildings facing the sea. The one on the right was once the site of the Tarik Baths otherwise known as los Baños de a Penique for obvious reasons. It was then rebuilt and became los Baños de Betty - it was apparently run by a Mr Balbuena also known as El Betis.

The site of the black building between the two white ones would later became the Montagu Bathing Pavilion. I am not sure what the second white building on the right was for but my guess is that it was also a bathing facility similar to the one on the right, this one for the use of the ladies.

The new Montagu Bathing Pavilion was designed by the City engineer - Mr. W. H. Pearce - with the actual work carried out by “his department under supervision” - in other words mostly by arbañiles from La Línea. The cost was £9 000 - which sounds quite low even taking into account the passage of time. Perhaps the low wages paid to the Spanish workers had something to do with it.

On offer were no less that 200 cubicle, 100 for males and 100 for females - or rather gentlemen and ladies as they would have been referred to at the time. Refreshments, snacks and the like were also available.

After my family had returned from the Evacuation I was an infrequent visitor to the “Montagu Public Mixed Bathing Pavilion”. It had soon become known in the far more succinct local parlance as “El Montegiu”- and although not too many people still living in Gibraltar today might agree with me, in the late 1940’s I would guess that it could easily have been classified on the Guinness Book of Records as one of the most dangerous bathing pavilions on earth.

As I remember it

For a start the slipways were covered in slimy seaweed making it as slippery as an ice-rink. I never saw anybody actually break a leg but I seriously hurt myself quite a few times and I wasn’t the only one. There must have been a few serious accidents.

Seaweed covered slipways

The Montagu raft removed for the winter - during the summer months it would be anchored about 50 or so yards in front of the main building

I still carry scars from diving too deeply from the ladies diving board - for which I should have got the Victoria Cross as boys were then forbidden on pain of death to go anywhere near the female section - so much for mixed bathing. I must suppose that they cleaned it up after I left.

A refurbished Montagu as most people will remember it - but not me.

On the whole my friends and I tended to avoid it. If by chance we need to cool off in the sea in summer - and we seem to have needed to do this on a daily basis - I would visit one or other of our three beaches on the eastern side of the Rock. Only when the weather was too rough to contemplate swimming on the east side would el Montegiu be worth considering. And even then as we were all members of the Calpe Rowing Club which was actually next door to the Pavilion we usually ended up there instead.

Side view of the Montagu from the Calpe Rowing Club - extreme bottom left with white posts

Despite all this I still kept a soft spot for the place and in 1987 I was sad to learn from afar that when land reclamation work was taking off in Gibraltar yet another of the Rock’s odd institutions - the Montagu Bathing Pavilion - was demolished to make way for something perhaps more useful to some, but surely far less nostalgic to many. 

The end of an era

Finally something of a postscript - who was the “Montague” in Montagu Bastion - which is where the Montague Bathing Pavilion got its name?  Here is one of my daftest theories.

1. The Duke of Marlborough of Malbru se fue a la Guerra fame, married Sarah Jennings
3. Sarah (top picture) was Queen Anne’s lover
4. Rooke et al took Gibraltar in August 1704
5. Marlbru won the Battle of Blenheim in August 1704
6. Sarah convinced Queen Anne to give Malbru Blenheim Palace
7. Sarah convinced Queen Anne that Rooke would get zilch
8. Ralph Montagu had a son called John the 2nd Duke of Montagu (bottom left)
9. Sarah had a daughter called Mary (bottom right)
10. The 2nd duke of Montagu married Mary in 1705
11. Sarah convinced Queen Anne to honour her son-in-law
10. Queen Anne agreed and had a major bastion in Gibraltar named after him
11. Poor Rooke . . . no bastions named after him

However  . . . . elsewhere some unknown historian reveals that Ralph, the first Duke of Montague was the fellow who was supposed to have been honoured. Perhaps Sarah decided it would be easier to convince the Queen to honour her brother-in-law instead. But the truth is that I don'treally know one way orthe other. 

Ralph Montagu, Marquis of Monthermer, the 1st Duke of Montagu