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Convict Labour

Ref: Info Point

Further Information

In October 1842, two hundred convicts arrived in Gibraltar in aboard the ship HMS Owen Glendower, a 42-gun frigate, from Chatham. Their appearance followed from an Order in Council of April 1, 1841, which provided for the establishment of a Convict Station in Gibraltar. The reaction by the indigenous population to the establishment of a Convict Station was initially “barely tolerated; its existence was deemed a nuisance and the prisoners looked in the light of day little better than so many wild animals.”1

From 1842 to 1875, Gibraltar became a half-way penal station for convicts employed in carrying out Public Works before being sent to Australia to complete their terms of confinement. At first they were housed aboard the prison Hulk Owen Glendower, but later cells were built within the Naval Yard itself and the frigate was converted into a hospital ship for the convicts. Many convicts were Irishmen, due largely to the vast amount of crime caused by famine conditions which afflicted the country during this time. The last convicts shipped to Australia arrived in 1868. Nevertheless, convicts continued to be sent to work in Gibraltar until 1875. The prisoners were shipped back to Great Britain and Ireland after their terms had expired. 

Sutherland and Hayes , two of Gibraltar's convicts.

In the early 1860’s convicts were employed in a diverse, but essential number of public works including dredging and building of the new wharf at Ragged Staff, the enhancement of Rosia Pier, carrying out repairs to Wellington Front, building the steps leading to the Heatshield monument  as well as carrying out much needed maintenance repairs to the Cathedral.2

Convicts lived aboard hulks moored in the harbour. They were not allowed to associate with the local population. Any form of unregulated communication with prisoners by the indigenous population was actively discouraged through fines and possible incarceration in the civilian prison.3

> When one escaped the town bells would ring constantly until he was recaptured. Despite these stringent regulations, many convicts were to be found working in the carpenters’, smiths’ and fitters’ shops, often working side by side with civilians.4

Prison hulk HMS Owen Glendower middle right (George Washington Wilson collection)

Prison hulk HMS Owen Glendower from the Alameda (Bandy collection GNA)

During 1869-71, a total of 355 convicts were transferred to Gibraltar from the penal establishments of Chatham, Portsmouth, Portland and Brixton. Initially, the convicts assisted in military and naval works and defence fortifications. Later, they contributed to improving the health of the troops by building tanks for water storage and clearing the gates of the sewer drains. To assist with the Imperial Government’s naval needs, convicts were engaged in hewing stone for the New Mole. To this effect over one hundred convicts worked at the Europa Quarry (now Little Bay) where they were engaged in blasting, quarrying and loading punts with stone conveying them by sea to the extension work on the New Mole. These convicts often worked side by side with hired workers extending Gibraltar's New Mole from its original 300ft to over 1300ft once completed.5

In total more than 700,000 tons of rock from Camp Bay and Europa Bay quarries was used to construct the foundation bed and breakwater for the mole extension. Whilst at Camp Bay some convicts were invariably employed in other construction schemes -  including building a drain below water-mark, where water was to be pumped up to the Buena Vista Barracks via a steam engine. Convicts were also responsible for constructing the curved-shaped buttress that supported the wooden stairs leading into Europa Bay quarry.

Construction of the New Mole (George Washington Wilson collection)

Wooden stairs and buttress wall Camp Bay Gibraltar

Arthur Griffiths, brigade-major at Gibraltar and Comptroller of Convicts in 1869, described his first sighting of the prison gang in distinctly maritime terms. He wrote: ‘They might have been a pirate’s or a slaver’s crew; their costume was nautical, a tarpaulin hat, round jacket, wide duck trousers and low shoes.’6

Despite the extensive use of convict labour in Gibraltar it was ultimately found that the cost of feeding, housing, caring and guarding hundreds of convicts cost Government £21,500 just to produce work valued at £19,000. By the early 1870’s the convict population began to decline as cheaper manual labour from Malta was brought in to replace much of the work undertaken by convicts, often at a fraction of the price. On the 25th of May 1875 the convict establishment at Gibraltar was finally closed.

Convict jacket.

Convict trousers.

Leg irons in use until 1847.

Convict Labour Image