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The Garrison Library of Gibraltar
Country Life


The Rock of Gibraltar was commonly adored as a symbol from a distance and despised as a military base on closer inspection. I was fortunate enough to have time to get to know Gibraltar well enough to find it completely fascinating. Far from being claustrophobic the rocky peninsular (even during the period of complete isolation from Spain) grew in depth and complexity as you discovered its history, its neglected monuments and component communities. Gibraltar is a veritable city state, fiercely proud and nationalistic on the outside, but riven by numerous social, ethnic and professional factions within.

The dominant old merchant families of Gibraltar were divided between those of Spanish, Genoese, Maltese and Moroccan Jewish descent. There was friction between the so-called UK based citizens and the indigenous Gibraltarian workers, between the right wing and the left wing, between the RAF, the Fortress, the Garrison, the Royal Navy, the Governor, the Chief Minister, between the Hawks and the Doves and of course most famously between Spain and Britain.

The Garrison Library stood apart from all this. It was a neutral zone, an area of quiet scholarship, the headquarters of the Gibraltar Chronicle (one of oldest English language newspapers in the world) and a place of quiet hospitality. It has a distinguished collection of over 35,000 volumes including many rare travel books from the 18th and 19th century. Close to both the Convent, the Governor's Palace, the Almeda gardens and the bars of Irish Town, it yet stands secure within its own grounds. The back garden of the library with its terracotta paths and tree shaded terraces is like a zone apart, possessed as it is by the vines of a vast wysteria. In cavernous darkened rooms fierce but silent games of bridge were fought out, there was a seperate lending library for the less precious books, tea could be taken in the garden and at noon after Church drinks were served by a liveried waiter. This service had ceased by 1981. In the evenings it was often used for parties; drinks for the officers from a visiting fleet, a resident foreign consul might use it to a host a national day or for a farewell party. Within the closed world of Gibraltar the Garrison Library was both the Royal Geographical Society and the Travellers Club - but without the latters reputation for blackballing.

I loved it and used it well. Gibraltar was the background from which most of the early British travel accounts of North Africa were researched and written. Men such as William Lempriere in the 18th-century or Harry Mclean in the 19th-century. It was at the shelves of the Garrison Library that I first learned about the last crusade led by the doomed boy-king of Portugal, about the loss of 'English Tangier' to Sultan Moulay Ismail and about the heroic defence of the Rock itself against the combined forces of France and Spain in the dark years of the American War of Independence. There were also less well chronicled tales from the Last War. Of secret observation posts dug into the cliffs which would continue to monitor shipping in the Straits less the Rock ever fell to the Germans, of a secret tunnel to a hidden cove where the Governor could be safely evacuated by submarine, of the summary clearance of the indigenous population by military decree in 1940 and the covert wartime links with Tangier. The International city of Tangier was throughout the 40's and 50's the mirror opposite to Gibraltar: a safe haven for spies, refugees, smugglers and for the exchange of currency and identities.

The Library will soon be able to celebrate 200 years of continuous use, having first opened its doors in 1804. It is an endearing and an enduring institution, with its slate roof, white harled upper walls, its well-cut grey masonry, solid lintels and its two storeys punctuated by 18th-century sash windows. It is handsome, it is harmonious but it does not dance before your eyes. The glory is all within. There is no need for a restoration program, for it is all here, complete in all its original solid Georgian joinery, with its fine doors and angled reading desks, its sturdy library chairs and green leather armchairs, elegant free-standing book cabinets and splendid cast iron fire buckets. The floors are paved either with stone or Spanish terracotta with cork for the silent reading rooms. Over the years portraits have been given, or commissioned, prints and lithographs have been collected, journals amassed, books given and it has also provided a safe home for relics from the now defunct Calpe Hunt and the Gibraltar Jockey Club. Another item no longer in use is the sand glass which set a uniform standard by which each reader was allowed to 'hog' the Times.

It all grew out of one young officers passion for books. Back in 1793 the 18 year old John Drinkwater (them immersed in researching the Great Siege of Gibraltar from 1779-82) campaigned for a library. His scheme was ignored by his brother-officers though there was clearly a real need. The surviving Garrison Order Books from this period attest to the boredom and furiosity of garrison life as revealed in an endless litany of floggings. Floggings for drunkeness, floggings for insurbordination, floggings for sodomy, floggings for this, that and the over. Seven regiments were crammed into the barracks of the walled town, while much of the peninsula of Gibraltar (especially its pretty bathing beaches and mountain summits) were off-limits with most of the trees cut down to improve the field for artillery fire. Drinkwater went to the top. His scheme was kick-started into action by the enthusiastic backing of the Governor, General Sir Robert Boyd, who started off the library subscription list with a personal gift of 100. With the backing of the chief, the library quickly snow-balled and within a year Drinkwater had accumulated 460 books with another 600 ordered from London. The next thing that was needed was somewhere to keep them. Frederick, Duke of York (the second, military inclined son of George III) was approached by the deputy governor, who in his turn broached the subject to the Prime Minister, William Pitt in May 1799. The Duke must have chosen the time well, perhaps somewhere between the 3rd and 4th bottle of port. Pitt decided the library project was totally in keeping with the Liberal Spirit of the Age, and decided to underwrite the whole project. In a rare act of Treasury generosity he also instructed that the subscriptions that had already been collected be returned to their donors. Work was started the next year and completed in 1804. It is an impressive achievement but even more so when you remember that this coincided with the period of Pitt's Second Coalition (1799-1802). Despite the great naval victories of St Vincent and the Nile, this was the period when Napoleon was busy knocking off Pitt's European allies, one by one, with the victories of Marengo and Hohenlinden.

The land for the Garrison Library was donated from out of the grounds of the Governor's palace. It was a paddock for the grazing of house cows and the Governor's horses. Lieut-Colonel Fyers, in command of the Royal Engineers at Gibraltar, surveyed the site, drew up a design of the building, sent an estimate of the expense and having cleared it with London superintended the entire work. The wrought iron railings, balconies, Welsh slates and fire baskets were shipped out from Britain as ships ballast. The characteristic solid grey limestone was quarried from the east face of the Rock of Gibraltar as well as being shipped across from a Spanish quarry outside Algeciras. Lieut-Colonel Flyers, for all his combined skills as builder-surveyor-architect-engineer, clearly lacked the common touch. In 1799 he and his fledgling library committee ordered the burning of the three most popular novels of the day, considered immoral and indecent, despite a protest letter 'signed by most of the officers in the several Regiments". Of the three best-selling bodice rippers of the late 18th-centruy: The Child of Nature, The Memoirs of the Chevalier Faublas and Mathew Lewis's fearsome gothic novel, The Monk , only the latter remains in print today.

Even before the library was habitable a printing press had been shipped out from England to produce the first issue of the Gibraltar Chronicle on 4th May 1801. The headline of the day was 'Continuation of the Intelligence from Egypt' and four years later it recorded a worldwide scoop in being the first paper to record the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson on 24th October 1805. Thereafter the Gibraltar Chronicle has been content to remain a local gazette, its liveliness hindered by the fact that the editor was a co-opted military officer from the Committe of the Garrison Library. It was a job that my father delighted in, though in 1990 it was finally thought proper to recruit literary talent and make it a civilian post.

In 1804 the Garrison Library was officially opened by the Duke of Kent (the Duke then serving as Governor of Gibraltar revealed himself as an obsessive disciplinarian and soon had to be recalled). Honour was done to the two founders, Drinkwater and Flyers, whose portraits were hung in the reading rooms. A terrace was then built so that bands could play in the summer and an extension soon added, the upper floor used for concerts and regimental dances, the lower floor for offices. A raquet court and billiard rooms came next, with offices for the printing press and accomodation for the library staff plus one or two failed drinking club ventures. The Library steadily aquired a useful portfolio of property in the surrounding area which was later to be profitably rented out. This heritage has now been spent and a multi-storey hotel has been allowed to rise directly opposite. Modern Gibraltar, a centre for off-shore banking and financial services contains within itself continous pressure for real estate developments. The Garrison Library is not government property. It remains as it was first founded, a trust, owned by the present and serving officers of the garrison. As the British military presence declines ever further, new guardians will be required to preserve its future. It is hoped that local heritage and historical societies, suitably backed up by an influential outside institution, could progessively become involved.

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