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Defensible Barracks

Ref: HLBP1/010

The British defensive strategy in Gibraltar predominantly focused on keeping enemies at a distance through the use of artillery. There were few inner lines of defence to address the risk of an enemy getting through the outer line. However, the southern tip of Gibraltar, Europa Point, was long felt to be potentially vulnerable to a surprise attack from the sea and was heavily fortified with gun batteries, perimeter walls and scarped cliffs.

In 1841, Major General Sir John Thomas Jones KCB recommended in a report on Gibraltar's fortifications that provision should be made for close defence of the batteries at Europa Point, which he identified as a possible invasion route. He recommended that "all barracks should be either bombproof or fireproof, and to a certain extent defensible." To that end, he designed a defensible barracks block which could be used both as a place of relaxation and as a fortification. Its front was pierced with loopholes to facilitate rifle fire, while the walled courtyard at the rear was protected by caponiers projecting out from each wall. The walls themselves were also pierced with loopholes. Thus the Defensible Batteries became the exception to the rule on Gibraltar that the defence of the place depended upon keeping the enemy at a distance with her guns and her outer skin of fortifications.1

Plan of Defensible Barracks, 1861.

The building was capable of withstanding small arms fire and a direct assault, but was still vulnerable to a naval bombardment. It was strengthened some years later, possibly in the 1870’s, by the construction of a New Defensible or Bombproof Barracks, built on the curtain wall between 1st Europa Right Flank and Woodford's Left Flank. The new barracks stood between the existing Defensible Barracks and the sea, with its massive stone wall providing shelter for the accommodation casemates.2

The complex therefore consists of two elements; the Defensible Barracks constructed following the recommendations of Major General Sir John Jones of 1841 and the adjacent Bombproof Barracks which were built much later. The Bomb house which is recognizable for its spectacularly vaulted ceiling contained a number of casemated rooms with a courtyard and perimeter wall supported by three small caponiers. The later Defensible Barracks were designed as accommodation blocks for the soldiers who would man the fort and surrounding defences consisting of casemated accommodation with a massive looped holed wall around the top facing out towards the small beach below which protected the accommodation casemates from bombardment from the sea.

Europa Flats showing the Defensible Barracks circa 1866 (James Hollingworth Mann)

The new Bombproof Barracks do not appear in James Hollingworth Mann’s photograph’s taken around the late 1860’s or 1870’s and later published by G. W. Wilson and Co. Neither does it appear in a site plan for the Europa adult school dated to July 1876, so construction for the Bombproof Barracks would have started only after this date – possibly during the 1880’s. The new Bombproof Barracks first appears in the 1908 OS map.

Site plan for the Europa Adult School, dated July 1876.

According to the Gibraltar Directory, the Defensible Barracks remained in use up to 1918,3 after which it appears to have been de-commissioned, as was the nearby Brewery Barracks. The buildings now became stores for the army and engineers. It would remain so for the next 50 years.

New Defensible Barracks (Bombroof Barracks) as shown in the 1908 OS map, Gibraltar.

In the late 1930’s there had been three service schools: Castle Road School, Buena Vista School and Line Wall Road School. The Second World War, however, brought an end to education for Service’s children in Gibraltar as all civilians, including Service’s families were evacuated.4 With the repatriation of the civilian population in 1946, responsibility for education, regardless of religion, was to be provided by the Director of Education and the Gibraltar Government. Two new schools now provided basic education for services children – a primary school, St. George’s School in Line Wall Road (1946) and a junior school, St. Christopher’s School at Hargraves (1953). In 1957, St. Christopher’s moved to premises in Town Range (now St. Mary’s School). Later, a third school for infants was opened at Europa were more barracks were being built.5

During the 1960’s the question of education of services children in local schools became a bone of contention particularly with respect to ‘the shortage of suitably qualified teachers to serve in Anglican primary schools, and growing accommodation difficulties now make it essential to consider some alternative arrangement.'6

St. Christopher’s School (top) and Defensible and Bombproof Barracks (centre) early 1970’s.

In 1967, the decision was taken to build two new schools for services children. One school was to be sited at New Camp and to be known as New Camp School and the other at Europa and known as Europa School. The schools were scheduled to be ready for opening in 1969.7 New Camp opened as scheduled but the building at Europa being affected by the closure of the border and the shortage of labour and materials did not open until September 1971 with the official opening in June 1972. Prior to the official opening, the Headmaster, Mr. Arthur Wall requested that the name Europa School be changed to St. Christopher’s School which was granted.8

Opening of the new S. Christopher’s School, June 1972.

The move to the new school however, coincided with new Gibraltar comprehensive school system which now raised the transfer age of children from the Middle School’s to twelve. This change, and the need for further specialist facilities resulted in the new purpose-built school being considered too small for the school’s needs. The Defensible Barracks opposite the school was identified and converted to provide the specialist facilities as well as extra teaching spaces the school required. The facilities provided by the Defensible Barracks opened in 1973.9

Teaching spaces inside the Defensible Barracks

As numbers grew to well over 500 students, more teaching spaces were required and the Bombproof Barracks, conveniently placed between the Main Building and Defensible Barracks, was very imaginatively converted and became the main specialist areas for science, art, home economics, and the library, whilst the Defensible Barracks provided the extra teaching bases.10 With these changes, St. Christopher’s became a First/Middle School which included Gibraltarian Protestant children who were admitted to the school by prior arrangement with the Gibraltar Government.

In 1991, following the departure of the last resident Battalion on the Rock (The Royal Green Jackets), together with further reduction of the Royal Navy and RAF establishment resulted in the amalgamation of both St. George’s School and St. Christopher’s at Europa. By then the combined numbers of children was around 200.11

St. Christopher’s school continued to provide education for services children at Europa for another twenty years until the School buildings and associated lands, including the whole of the Defensible Barracks complex was eventually transferred by the MOD to the Government of Gibraltar as part of its 2011 Lands Agreement. The following year the school vacated the premises moving to Four Corners to become St. Christopher's Early Years Foundation Stage Unit. Meanwhile, all other services children were to be integrated into local schools as from September 2012.

Following the formation of a new Government by the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party in 2011, the vacant site was quickly identified as a suitable location for the creation of a University in Gibraltar. Plans for the University were officially launched in October 2014 with construction work beginning soon after. The University of Gibraltar was formally established in July 2015, at a cost of approximately £10 million to build. The University was officially opened on the 21st September 2015 by Gilbert Licudi, Minister for Education and Fabian Picardo, Chief Minister.

Restoration works at Defensible Barracks prior to conversion into the University of Gibraltar

The Defensible Barracks complex today hosts most of the University's teaching spaces. The Bomb House houses the library, computer suite, conference hall and the University administration centre. The ten vaults which formed part of the Defensible Barrack building have been converted into lecture rooms. Both structures are joined by a purpose-built modern atrium. On either side of the atrium are two new constructions with a student cafeteria and a training kitchen for the faculty of hospitality on one side and a research laboratory for the faculty of life and earth sciences and a simulation suite for the faculty of health studies on the other. On top of the defensible barracks, the southernmost building a restaurant was opened as part of the faculty of hospitality but which is open to the public enjoying unrivalled and unobstructed views of the Straits and Africa. The whole campus complex consists of approximately 5,137 square metres.

New atrium at the University of Gibraltar

In 2015, a Group Heritage Award was awarded to the University of Gibraltar for the conversion of the Bomb Proof Barracks into a 21st Century higher education facility. The citation for the award reads as follows:12

‘This area of barracks, and defensive walls have been unified in such a way as to provide the facilities required for the University, whilst retaining and exposing the significant historical monuments and at the same time accounting for the often harsh environment at Europa Point.'

Defensible Barracks loopholes interior.

Defensible Barracks loopholes exterior.

Defensible Barracks Image