The People of Gibraltar
2019 - Patios de Gibraltar - Introduction

I was born in Gibraltar in 1938. Two years later I managed to annoy the British authorities who classified me as a “useless mouth” and threw me out of their European colony. I was sent to Casablanca where I was promptly thrown out once again, this time by the French. Back home just for a few weeks, I was ordered to leave for a third time. My destination was Madeira where I remained until WWII came to an end and then returned to Gibraltar.

In 1961, I didn’t wait for anybody to throw me out and left of my own accord - all told I have only lived in my home town for 17 years - 7 of them in my family’s home in Main Street, and 10 in a flat in Alameda House, Red Sands Road. To the best of my knowledge, neither one nor the other has ever been known by anybody as a “Patio”. So much for my credentials.

That slim house with its entrance to the right of the fellow leading the cart was 256 Main Street

The Alameda Housing Estate - known locally as “lo Humfri” - Alameda House is the one on the left with the large eucalyptus tree in front of it - The third balcony from the top on the left hand side belonged to my home at No 45.

Most dictionaries suggest that the word “patio” refers to either a paved outdoor area adjoining a house - or a courtyard within it open to the sky.  Both are definitions that describe a particular feature of a house - such as having a patio instead of a garden.

However, in Gibraltar as in Spain and elsewhere, it is also used to describe a building or group of buildings which contain a paved outdoor area or a courtyard which are used communally by people living in neighbouring houses. In other words these “patios” and those I intend discussing in this essay should really be referred to as “patios de vecinos”.  

For example my house in Main Street had its own indoor courtyard - but it was never known as a “patio”. Yet just next door connected to my house by a passageway there was another large open courtyard surrounded by flats belonging to several neighbours or “vecinos”. The entire complex - not just its courtyard - should have been known as “el Patio de vecino de la Guantera” - much too much of a mouthful for any self-respecting Gibraltarians who therefore abbreviated it to “Patio de la Guantera”.

Photograph taken from what was then the Club House Hotel in John Mackintosh Square with the Exchange building in the foreground  - Many of the houses that appear on the upper slopes of the Rock were probably “patios”   (Pre 1880)

Historically most of the more well known local “patios de vecinos” were occupied by the less affluent members of our society. Many of these houses could best be described as both overcrowded and unhygienic,  where local “patio” owning landlords were allowed to exploit their tenants with scant regard for either health or safety.

And yet I suspect that the idea of the patio appealed to the naturally gregarious nature of our immigrant ancestors many of whom were Genoese, Spanish, Jewish, Portuguese or Maltese to mention just a few. They were well suited - in fact probably accustomed - to this type of accommodation. It made life for the newly arrived immigrants more tolerable than it would otherwise have been.

Perhaps for all these reasons the patio soon formed part of the social history of the Rock. Life was tough, work was hard to come by . . .  but these people and their families stayed on. Which is lucky for me as otherwise I might never have had the pleasure of being a Gibraltarian.

But let me take it from the beginning.
From an architectural point of view much of the town was destroyed or badly damaged by heavy naval bombardments during the take-over by Anglo-Dutch forces in 1704, and the two subsequent sieges of which the 13th - the Gunners War of 1727 - practically demolished the district below the Moorish Castle area known as Villa Vieja.

The 13th Siege of Gibraltar    (1727)

Early and mid 18th century visitors such as John Durant Breval - 1720s - and Robert Poole - 1740s - had little to say about the state of the houses. The further destruction of the fabric of the town caused by enemy fire and by wood plundering British troops during the Great Siege would have left very few of the original Spanish houses standing.

The Great Siege (1789 - 1783)

Main Street Gibraltar after the Great Siege - top looking north - bottom south   (Thomas Davis)   

By the early 19th century attempts were made to repair and rebuilt - but still using more or less the same foundation plans that dated right back to the days of the Moorish occupation. John Drinkwater, the man who wrote the definitive book on the Great Siege was not impressed.
Since the peace of 1783, the greatest part of the town has been rebuilt and (which is rather to be regretted) on the old foundations.
Some of the larger projects carried out after the Siege are attributable to Giovanni Maria Boschetti, perhaps the best known local architect Gibraltar has ever had - even though he was from Milan and was perhaps more of a builder than an architect.

Boschetti has often been credited with the introduction of those ubiquitous wooden Genoese shutters which are partly responsible for Gibraltar unique architectural style; a hodge-podge of Mediterranean and British architecture surrounded by massive fortifications which being none of his business Boschetti left strictly alone.

This was a fellow who hobnobbed with Governors and Admirals and was responsible for some of the major building projects on the Rock during the turn of the century. In 1804 the Governor Henry Edward Fox got the ball rolling by asking him to demolish the Douglas Brewery in Windmill Hill and convert it into a barracks. Fox also asked him to refurbish and redesign his predecessor’s small pied-a-terre in the south - which he did by converting it into the building which became known as Governor’s Cottage. 

In 1808 he got his biggest break when the Royal Navy commissioned him to build a brand new victualling yard and in 1815 as instructed by the Governor George Don he completed the conversion of the Blue Barracks into a new civilian hospital.

From the left, Fox, Don and Boschetti

All in all I think it is hardly possible that somebody like Boschetti would have been involved in any refurbishing, reconstruction or improvements to any of the patios and houses within the poorer quarters of the Rock. Some will have adopted those Genoese green shutters but that would have been about it. Inside, many of these buildings were essentially hovels.

Top - Genoese shutters in mid 19th century Main Street
Bottom - Genoese shutters in late 19th century

The bottom postcard - despite the caption - actually shows Serruya’s Lane. Serruya’s Ramp ran at right angles to it. Serruya’s Lane was known colloquially as "Calle Peligro" almost certainly because it was Gibraltar’s red light district.

In the somewhat less overcrowded down-town Main Street, however, rebuilding and repairs seem to have proved reasonably effective - as confirmed by visitors such as Thomas Walsh in 1803.
The town . . . . contains some very excellent houses; among the best of which are the governors', known by the name of the Convent, the lieutenant governor's, the chief engineers, commissioners, general Wemy's, Mr. Cardosa's (sic) and several others. There is one principal street leading from South Port to Water Port; all others are extremely small and narrow.
Walsh’s “small and narrow” streets were mostly those that led to the upper reaches of the town with plenty of rented accommodation for the poorest of the poor. This district was known locally as “la Buena Vista” - a name that can only be considered ironic in the sense that those residents with the worst houses in town had ended up with the very best views.

Many of the tenants were originally seamen who had crewed the boats that had contributed so much towards Gibraltar’s remarkable prosperity during the Peninsular War and of which very little had come their way. Several decades after Walsh’s visit, the war a distant memory, a new era of prosperity arrived in Gibraltar. It was fuelled by coal and as merchant shipping and visits by the squadrons of the Royal Navy increased so did the wealth of the ultra-rich, local coaling merchants.

Meanwhile the houses and patios of la Buena Vista were taken over by a new set of poverty stricken tenants such as the coalheavers who had the honour of being the worst paid people in town. Even in the 1960 when I lived on the Rock, the term “la gente de la Buena Vista” was often used to describe anybody who was considered by the local upper and middle classes as beyond the pale.

Three imaginary Patio style buildings demonstrating the type of drainage system used and consequent problems (Adapted from drawing on an 1865 Report)

Several imaginary small, roofless patios within much larger
buildings   (Adapted from drawing on an 1865 Report)

 According to Richard Ford writing in 1855, Horatio Nelson - who “dearly loved the old Rock”, - once confessed to Aaron Cardoso, a local merchant friend, that he:
 . . . hoped that all the small houses at its back might be burnt; “perhaps if half the town went with them it would be better.” . . .
It was the upper eastern half he was referring to.

John Galt - in 1811 - was also pretty blunt. 
Nothing, however, can be more miserable than the appearance of the civil inhabitants of the town, whether Moors, Jews, or Christians. They live crowded together, in habitation resembling barracks rather than houses, which are as filthy as their persons.
My guess is that many of those buildings “resembling barracks” would have been the precursors of some of the patios of Gibraltar of later years.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1804 and recurring outbreaks right up to 1828 - with estimated deaths of around  8 000 mainly civilian residents - had been a good  enough incentive to make the colonial authorities take notice of the appalling conditions in which much of the poorer members of society had to put up with. Much of this concern was ironically based on the misconception that yellow fever was contagious.

Theories were discussed, reviews were ordered, articles and books were published and letters were written - General Don even took time off from helping his wife create Gibraltar’s rightly admired Alameda Gardens so as to improve the town’s practically non-existent sewage system.  But nothing much changed.  Those brand new drains were not quite as effective as the Governor would have wished.

View from the “new Almeda Gardens” (sic)   (1826 Filippo Benucci)

In 1821 Theodore Dwight in his “Journal” about his tour in Italy describes in some detail a small, unnamed hotel in Gibraltar which had been built as an almost stereotypical patio:
The house is owned by an Englishman; and the only entrance, (such the universal scarcity of room) is through his little shop into a court-yard, scarce twenty feet square. In the Spanish fashion, the house is built round this little open square, in one corner of which were two women at their wash-tubs, in another, the stable of a she-goat, (the family cow), and in a third, flight of stairs leading to the upper apartments. 
These we mounted at the peril of our necks, and were introduced into two chambers, eight or ten feet square, one of which was lighted through the door, and the other through a square hole capable of being covered only with a swinging shutter made of a palm-leaf netting.
In 1837 Richard Montgomery Martin in his monumental 10 volume British Colonial Library, was another who identified the prevalence of houses with “court-yards” or patios in Gibraltar. 
In the principal streets the houses are generally three to four stories high, built after the English model; in some parts the Spanish, or probably Moorish, construction prevails, there being a central court-yard, into which the rooms of the dwelling open;
Nearly 20 years latter Richard Ford would still be able to write that the houses in Gibraltar in 1855 :
. . . .  the rent of which is very dear, are built on the stuffy Wapping principle, with a Genoese exterior; all is brick and plaster and wood-work, cribbed and confined, and filled with curtains and carpets, on purpose to breed vermin and fever in this semi-African hotbed; calculated to let in the enemy, heat . . .
By now the “Buena Vista” society - the word “society” is probably quite appropriate - will have coalesced around a more or less identifiable area on the higher eastern slopes of the town. As suggested by the two plans shown below the upper boundary would have coincided with Calpe Road, the western with Castle Street with Willis’s acting as an equivalent to Main Street.

Plan of the upper town, with the northern section of Buena Vista enclosed in red

Plan of the upper town, with the southern section of Buena Vista enclosed in red

In 1865, cholera intervened and things went from bad to worse - as can be confirmed by a quick glance through a lengthy report on the epidemic issued by the newly created Sanitary Commission with recommendations on how to avoid a repeat performance. Their descriptions of living conditions in Gibraltar’s “courts, ramps, yards and patios” echoed those of Ford - their lower floors were usually dark and lacking in ventilation and were:
. . . . badly constructed, heaped almost on top of one another, many of them damp and dangerous to life . .  with very great overcrowding . . the drainage  . .  very bad, or none at all.

Black dots represent deaths from Cholera of which as shown considerably more occurred in the higher eastern section of town occupied by the poorer residents   (Adapted from a plan on an 1865 Report)

A crop of the above plan shows the predominance of deaths in the top north eastern corner of the town - top left on the plan

Curiously, the single dot on the top right section of the cropped map reflects the fact that this area was the site of a single, substantial mansion with a large garden. It was owned by the very well-off Arengo family and was appropriately known locally as Arengo’s Palace - the very antithesis of a patio in what was essentially “Patio" land.

Arengo’s “Palace” on the right with pediment and five decorative statues (1883 - Frederick William J. Shore)

Altogether the report mentions the word “patio” 26 times but it is often hard to determine whether it is referring to actual courtyards or to specific houses of multiple occupancy which may or may not have featured any kind of courtyard as such.

For example quite a few of those rather romantic looking red tiled houses that surround the “Palace” in the above painting were probably patios. The long building on the extreme left semi-hidden by trees and in front of the Moorish Castle clock tower is one of them.

Also in 1865 a sanitary engineer identified the address of a long two story unnamed patio as No 23 Danino’s Ramp - east of Willis’s Road - and describes it as having 22 single rooms with no kitchens - each occupied by separate families of about 7 people each on average.

Parallel to it were two similar but single storied patios - Nos. 24 and 26 also unnamed - which were built so close to each other that families could only access their homes though a very narrow passage which in turn excluded all ventilation.  All the residents, male and female, had no option but to use the single communal “toilet” at the end of the passageway - a large hole with an iron grid over an unbelievably filthy open drain.

It is of course very tempting for a Gibraltarian to blame the Colonial administration for its lack of action and the poverty of its attempts to resolve some very serious accommodation problems during the 19th century - and in my opinion they would have been quite entitled to do so.

But to be fair it is hard to sweep under the carpet the fact that most of the worst houses and patios were privately owned by local businessmen. In fact I would say that the very last paragraph of the report proper, suggests that it was the intention of the commissioners - mostly made up of the very same local businessmen - that such private ownership should be encouraged in the future.
The Board of Inspection beg to state for the information of your Excellency that an application from Mr. Domingo Danino for permission to rebuild two of the sets of premises has been referred to them, but they do not feel that they can do more than report the fact, with the remark that this application may indicate one means of obtaining the object which has been submitted to your Excellency, namely, the entire re-construction of all necessary buildings on a well considered plan.
That cholera revisited Gibraltar in 1884 killing at least 26 people - only serves to highlight the fact that the Sanitary Commission’s recommendations had not proved entirely satisfactory.

Moving on to the early 20th century, the civilian population of Gibraltar seem to have been surprisingly   unaffected   by   the   Great  War   although  I  am  sure   that   improving   the accommodation of the less well off natives was very far from being a priority for the Rock’s colonial authorities.

The sellers are almost certainly the wives or members of expat families with possibly not a single local in sight - The fact that the buyers are both military men is also not a coincidence

A couple of locals doing their bit - although not your common or garden sort of locals - Cecilia and Mercedes daughters of Sir Alexander Mosley, multi-millionaire President of the local Chamber of Commons

WWII was a different story. For a start a very large proportion of the civilian population was evacuated for the duration and the town was essentially taken over by a huge influx of military men. It meant, of course that once again little if anything was done to improve housing.

449 individuals - including my family - were evacuated to Madeira on what was essentially a rather small ferry boat - the MV Royal Ulsterman

In fact when the population returned from their exile many of them found that the homes they had left behind either no longer existed or had been condemned as too dangerous to live in. My own in Main Street had suffered considerable structural damage after having been hit by a bomb that had failed to explode.  Yet we were forced to continue to live there for many years after our return as there was nowhere near enough alternative accommodation.

The authorities had unpardonably misjudged the situation to such an extent that many a Gibraltarian family were forced to suffer the discomforts of living in a variety of hastily set up Nissen hut camps for many years.

Nissen Camp in the south -“Alameda Camp” - more popularly known as “la Bateria” - in front of the newly built Alameda Housing Estate - more popularly known as “Lo Humfri”

Nissen camp in the North Front

Nevertheless a lucky few did return to their old homes - very many of them patios which would have been considered as unfit for purpose if judged by modern health regulations.

It is perhaps hard for anybody reading this in the 21st century to understand the joy of returning home after a forced absence of over five years. I see it when I look at photographs of those who had just returned from the evacuation - but even more - I can feel it. Cramped quarters, outside toilets, rising damp, dilapidated fixtures and fittings, a lack of running water . . . . you name it - there were no complaints. They had made it back home at last. And there was no place like it.

Happy evacuees coming back home

It is I suspect, this joy, this feeling of belonging, that the nostalgia of present-day Gibraltarians for the “good old days” - as well as life in the patio system - finds its roots. There was no doubt a strong sense of community among Gibraltarians in London, Jamaica, Madeira or wherever. But I doubt whether it ever managed to match that of locals who lived in the Gibraltar's patios just after WWII.

The town of Gibraltar is still a relatively small and densely populated place - and it was considerably smaller and even more overcrowded in the past. Its inhabitants - regardless of where they happened to live, have generally been very familiar with their immediate surroundings. The poorer people - in other words the vast majority - knew everybody within striking distance, as well as where they lived.  It is probably the reason why there was a tendency to use names rather than addresses for the houses that they lived in - many of which were not even patios as such.

The criteria used to identify these were many and varied. Courtyards or houses might be named after the person who had built them - "Patio Schott"  - or perhaps the professions of the people who had made the place their home - for example "Patio de los Barrenderos".

Often it was simply a feature that made it stand out from the rest such as "el Patio de las Tejas Verdes" or "Patio de la Palmera" - or it was simply descriptive - "Patio de Adentro", "Patio de los Gatos". . and so forth.

A Gibraltar patio as imagined by local artist Gil Podesta

The links below should lead to separate articles on several of the more well known patios of Gibraltar. My criteria for inclusion are quite simple - if a place is still known or remembered locally as a “patio” in it goes. The list  is by no means complete - which is not surprising as there are no official records and I am almost totally dependent on my own memory and even more so on that of other people such as Anthony Aquilera without whose help I would not have managed.

Perhaps it is worth mentioning here that although much of what I have written above has focussed on Buena Vista there were plenty of other locations in Gibraltar in which patios were a commonplace - Flat Bastion Road and Rosia for starters - and even certain areas close to Main Street such as George’s Lane for example, also had their fair share.