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Exchange Building

Ref: HLBP1/025

The Exchange and Commercial building also known as the Exchange and Auction Mart today houses Gibraltar’s Parliament located at the very centre of the city, straddling both Main Street and Commercial Square. It was formerly the House of Assembly until the 2006 Constitution when the former name was replaced with the Gibraltar Parliament to reflect its increased sovereignty. In 2013 works to revamp Gibraltar’s Parliament chamber included the installation of an integrated digital sound and recording system with cameras for on-line streaming of proceedings of the meetings of Parliament. Further alterations, including an external lift to serve the gallery of the Parliament as part of Government’s commitment to upgrade access for those with disabilities to public buildings have been proposed by Government.

The present building which today houses Gibraltar’s Parliament was erected by public subscription by the Exchange Committee in 1817 and served as the Exchange and Commercial Library. It was built on ground that was formerly part of Commercial Square. The Exchange Committee was the first prominent representative body of the civilian population pursuing civil rights in a predominantly fortress environment and it also became the forum of petitions to the Governor.

To the West of the Exchange Building stands the City Hall, formerly the private residence of Aaron Cardozo, a wealthy Jewish merchant who was one of the prime movers in the construction of the Exchange Building and are of similar architectural style to complement each other on either end of the Square.

The Square itself was once known by various names ‘El Martillo’ [English: The Hammer] as it was the place were prizes were bought and auctioned. It was also known as the Alameda but later changed to the Almeida, which is the Portuguese name for Alameda (presumably because it was easier for the English to pronounce) and Commercial Square. Colloquially the square was, and is still generally known by most locals simply as the Piazza.

During the Spanish period the Square was known as the Plaza Mayor and was the city’s commercial and cultural hub. At one end stood the hospital of Nuestra Señora de la Misericordia, on the site of the present City Hall.1 At the other end, opposite the present Parliament building stood the Ayuntamiento [Municipal Offices] where the present Caruana shop is located. This municipality was flanked by a small church or chapel believed to be Las Angustias which is said to have stood at the junction of City Mill Lane and Main Street (now Mothercare).2

Luis Bravo de Acuña map dated 1627 showing the Plaza Mayor. The square would have been much larger than what it is today.

The Exchange and Commercial building was built in response to the Garrison Library, built by the British Officers of the garrison who denied membership to civilians, regardless of personal wealth or influence. In response, a number of Gibraltar’s leading merchants and gentlemen formed their own library in Bedlam Court in 1807. However, such was the popularity of this new library and meeting place that in 1817 money was raised by public subscription from some 160 of Gibraltar’s leading merchants to construct the present building, which now not only housed a library, but also an auction room, becoming the social as well as economic hub of the Rock’s leading citizens. Giovanni Maria Boschetti is listed as one of its major financial contributors and he was charged with its construction - the Genoese louvered shutters of this grand building bearing all the hallmarks of Boschetti’s architectural style.

The Exchange Committee became a powerful lobby throughout the 19th Century with the first political advances taking place during the governorship of Sir George Don, which started in 1814. The Exchange Committee initially focused on furthering the interests of merchants based in the fortress, however, the Exchange Committee later evolved into an organ that provided for a local voice in government, although of itself it had no real powers. In order to reinforce its authority, all Gibraltarian householders were invited to participate in the elections of the Committee of the Exchange and Commercial Library, regardless of whether they were subscribers or not.3 The Exchange and Commercial Building has therefore been involved in Gibraltar’s political and social development in one form or another for over 200 years.

Construction of the Exchange Building 1817 Commercial Square.

List of proprietors of the Gibraltar Commercial Library

Although there was not an explicit role for the local population in Government, Governor Sir George Don. Don was a great promotor of advancing Gibraltar’s civil rights and encouraged the influential lobby of the Exchange Committee to take up a more active role in the colony’s affairs. Soon the committee assumed the role of the unofficial, yet necessary, representative body of the civilian population. It was to act as the mouthpiece of the local community in public and political affairs until the City Council was established in 1921. In the 1820’s, men like Aaron Cardozo, James Oxberry, and Charles Glyn voiced the local view and on occasions journeyed to London to air their grievances in Whitehall and Westminster.4

The increasingly influential role of the Exchange Committee, drawing support from the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, would be crucial to pushing back against General Sir Robert Gardiner, Governor of Gibraltar (1848-1855) unconstitutional attempts to reverse many of Don’s far-sighted civil advancements in Gibraltar.

Commercial Square by F. Benucci 1825.

Commercial Square by John Carter 1840 showing the original gabled roof.

On the evening of the 9th October 1919 a fire broke out in the Board Room in the south end of the Exchange building which then spread to the Library and three offices above causing part of the roof and ceiling to collapse. Furniture and books within the second floor were either burnt or damaged by fire and water. The Fire Brigade under the command of Major Berrow was quickly on the scene assisted by a fire party from HMS Comorant and a military one from the Royal Engineers. It was not until 5 a.m. that the fire was finally extinguished. The cause of the fire was never ascertained.5

Following the fire, the old gabled roof of the building which had burnt down as a result was replaced with a flat roof which completely altered its external appearance.6 The original plans submitted in April 1921 by Civil Engineer John H. Trenerry proposed to substitute the reinforced concrete roof and terrace in lieu of the pitched timber and slate roof which had burnt down the previous year. He also recommended rearranging the flights of stairs to the first floor in order to accommodate lavatory and sanitary conveniences on the half-way landing. Further alterations included the erection of a new flight of stairs giving access to the roof; to widen the entrance of the stairs on the ground floor atrium; to provide small balconies to the existing windows on the east and west elevations and a larger balcony over a porch on the west side whilst the existing lavatory on the ground floor was to be converted into a store. There was also a further plan to incorporate a new clock-house in the shape of the Castle and Key of Gibraltar on the roof which was met with no objections but which was subsequently considerably simplified during construction, presumably to reduce costs. The total cost of the works was estimated to amount to £4,600.7

Commercial Square market, late 19th Century.

Proposed elevations for the east side of the Exchange Building submitted by Civil Engineer John H. Trennery, Civil Engineer dated 13th April 1921.

Proposed elevations for the west side of the Exchange Building submitted by Civil Engineer John H. Trennery, Civil Engineer dated 13th April 1921.

Throughout the 19th Century and early 20th Century the library accumulated an impressive number of books. Enoch Cobb Wine, an American teacher of midshipmen aboard the U.S. Constellation described this library as “…small, consisting only of 8,000 volumes; but it comprises many of the choicest works in all languages of Europe. There is also a reading-room at the Exchange, supplied with the best English, French, and American periodicals, as well as literary as political…”8 An assistant Librarian to the Library during the 1930’s was a young Jewish student by the name of Joshua Hassan who would later lead the civil rights movement and become the first Chief Minister of Gibraltar. During World War II, the library was opened to all other ranks (also denied membership at the Garrison Library) serving in Gibraltar. There was, however, no proper supervision and the valuable collection of old books virtually disappeared.9

Crowds gathering outside the Exchange Building on the 11th July 1940 demanding the disembarkation of the evacuees.

Child Health Centre at the ground floor Exchange Building 1954

Public Lottery on the steps of the lobby of the Exchange and Commercial Building in 1954

The Exchange Building which overlooks John Mackintosh Square, was the scene of tense moments on the 11th July 1940 when crowds demanded the disembarkation of the Gibraltarian families returning from Casablanca. Two City Councillors and the acting president of the Exchange Committee were instrumental in convincing Governor Liddel to disembark.10 Other mass demonstrations and political rallies have been held on the Square over the years as well as a number of Civic events. During the late 1990’s the Square was completely refurbished.

In 1950, the Legislative Council took up residence in the building where it remained until its merger with the City Council in 1969, to become the House of Assembly established by the Gibraltar Constitution Order 1969. The first session of the House of Assembly was opened on the 28th August 1969 by the then Governor, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Varyl Begg. On 2nd January 2007, the Gibraltar Constitution Order 2006 came into effect. Under this new Order the former House of Assembly became known as the present Gibraltar Parliament.

Starting in October 1947, the lobby of the House of assembly became the venue for holding first local lottery launched in order to service the loan for the construction of new housing (Alameda Housing Estate - which was built at a cost of £4.5 million). The last lottery held in the lobby was held on the 19th November 2001. Since the 17th December, the draw has been held at Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation (GBC).

The rooms in the ground floor have served a number of purposes over the years; Child Welfare, Tourist Information Offices and currently cafeteria and restaurants.

The lobby of the building contains a tablet erected by the Exchange Committee with the names of those Gibraltarians who died in the First World War. It bears a bronze medallion with the portrait of Lt. Solomon Benzecry, which was the work of the talented local sculpture James Povedano. Other names on the tablet are; L. Bossano, J. Gustavino, L. J. B. Harrison, A. Jones, E. Oliveri, A. J. Ruggieri, A. Ryan, T. Stewart, J. Underry, H. Reading, M. A. W. Pitman and F. D. Piri. On the frieze opposite are the names of all who contributed towards the cost of the erection of the building in 1817.11

A bust and plaque memorial in memory of Gibraltar philanthropist and benefactor John Mackintosh was raised by public subscription and unveiled on the western façade of the House of Assembly building facing the square in April, 1974.

Façade and bust of John Mackintosh on the façade of Parliament House facing John Mackintosh Square, formerly the Piazza.

Bust of John Mackintosh Memorial to Lt. Solomon Benzecry and those who gave their lives during WWI.

Exchange Building Image