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Garrison Library and Gardens

Ref: HLBP1/015

This venerable institution originated on 31st July 1793 on the instigation of Captain (later Colonel) John Bethune Drinkwater, author of ‘The History of the Late Siege of Gibraltar,’ published in 1786. Apparently, the latter had suffered many long hours of boredom during this long siege due to the total lack of adequate supplies of newspapers and other reading material available locally. On his return to the Rock in 1793, he determined to remedy this lack of facilities for his brother-officers and after repeated efforts, Drinkwater succeeded in instituting the project thanks to the personal support of both the Governor of Gibraltar Sir Robert Boyd and his Deputy, Lieut.-Governor, Major-General O’Hara, ‘both of whom so highly approved the scheme that the former gave as a donation £100, and the latter £30, which he afterwards liberally increased so as to become the most munificent Patron of the institution’.1

Captain John Drinkwater Bethune (1762–1844).

Lieutenant-General Charles O'Hara.

Colonel William Fyers (John Hoppner).

Membership of the library increased dramatically as increasing numbers of Naval Officers became subscribers coinciding with Gibraltar’s emerging strategic importance as Britain’s main naval base of operations in the Western Mediterranean. One subscriber and early supporter of the scheme being Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent, who as a naval officer had been present at the relief of Gibraltar in 1781.

Books continued to be purchased and such was the success of the library scheme that by early 1799 it became clear by the ever-growing number of subscribers that a move to larger premises was becoming a practical necessity. Representations were made for the erection of a purpose-built edifice to house the ever-growing library collection. Cost for erecting such a purpose-built library was estimated at around £1,200 of which over £500 was raised. In February that same year, the newly appointed Governor, General Charles O’Hara, already a keen supporter of the scheme, took the liberty to write to HRH Prince Frederick, Duke of York, Commander in Chief of the British Army, to assist in the matter. The Duke of York in turn approached the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, who readily approved the idea, and more importantly, committed the British Government to the execution of the whole construction. By May 1799, the Duke informed O’Hara of the Government’s decision and further ordered that the entire amount of £562 12s, which had been ‘so handsomely and so liberally subscribed in aid of the purpose, may be returned to the subscribers’.2

Conveniently, a vacant site overlooking Gunner’s Parade (now Governor’s Parade) was identified for the erection of the new library. According to the Spanish historian, Ignacio López de Ayala, writing in 1782, this site had once formed a garden belonging to the Spanish Governor. The open space in front of which ‘yielded sufficient grass to supply, throughout the year, his own horses and the cattle employed in the public works’.3 Later, part of the garden area was leased and became known as Huerta Riera [Riera’s Orchard] after the market gardeners, Miguel Riera and his son Patricio who were working this piece of land in the mid-18th century. The Riera’s were an agricultural family who grew fruit and vegetables from various orchards, one above Gunner’s parade and another near Landport, the produce of which was then sold from their shop in Whirlgig Lane (now City Mill Lane). Montresor’s 1753 map shows an area described as an Inhabitant’s Garden, above French Parade (as it was known before being called Gunner’s Parade) which would suggest this was indeed the site of Huerta Riera described later by Ayala. Patrick Riera also owned property at Irish Town as shown in the 1777 population census but neither he, nor the rest of his family, returned to the Rock after the Great Siege. More than twenty years later, and with no claim to the land, it was this vacant plot, and a much larger plot known as the ‘Governor’s Garden’ which was to be gifted by the Government to the trustees of the new library.

Plan of the town (1753 - James Gabriel Montressor)

The design for the building in typical Georgian style was undertaken by Captain William Fyers (later Lieutenant Colonel), who was the Commanding Officer of the Royal Engineers. Fryers was also the third librarian succeeding Captain Barlow after Drinkwater had departed the Garrison. The construction work began in 1800 and took four years to complete.

The completed edifice consisted of two storeys whose exterior rendering included white harled upper walls, well-cut grey masonry, and solid lintels gracefully adorned with impressive Georgian style sash windows finished off with a slated, grey roof.

It was an attractive and harmonious building set against the backdrop of the Rock, overlooking the Bay of Gibraltar from its strategic elevated position. A marble tablet with the following inscription was placed in the centre of the facade:4

Erected by command of his Majesty,
Commenced, A. D. 1800,
Under the auspices of General Charles O’Hara,
At that time Governor of the Fortress;
Completed A. D. 1804,
Under those of the succeeding Governor,
His Royal Highness,
Duke of Kent and Strathem, K. G.
General of His Majesty’s Forces, &c.,

Garrison Library by Frederick Leeds Eldridge 1832.

Gunner's Library at Gib from Artillery Bar by Lieutenant H. A. West 1834.

Letters Patent dated 29th June 1820, under the hand of the Governor of Gibraltar, Sir George Don, granted the property upon certain trusts to the President and Committee forever. The property and its contents continued to be owned by the officers of the Garrison until September 2011, when it was transferred to the Government of Gibraltar. The Library contains over 40,000 volumes, many of great historical and intrinsic value, including the only known copy of the Gibraltar Chronicle reporting on the Battle of Trafalgar of October 1805.  The Library also encompassed the Gibraltar Chronicle Printing Works which had been set up in 1800 and was responsible, since 15th May 1801, for the printing of the Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper. A short bulletin, however, was published on the 4th May under the heading ‘Continuation of the Intelligence from Egypt’ and sold by H. and T. Cowper which brought news, including the names of the casualties in the Egyptian Campaign which had begun on the 2nd March 1801.5 The report consisted of four pages, three of which were in English and French. The news of Nelson's victory at Copenhagen appeared on the fourth page. A second edition was printed on 8th May 1801.

This daily newspaper continues to be published on a daily basis, although its editorial offices were transferred to Watergate House in 2006 and the printing works also moved to New Harbours. The first editor was a Frenchman named Charles Bouisson, who had been amongst the French Republican refugees who had fled from the besieged city of Toulon just before its capitulation.

The Chronicle was published weekly but a few exceptions were made for news of great importance such as the famous scoop announced within the pages of the Gibraltar Chronicle Extraordinaire for Thursday 24th October, 1805 which announced in both English and French the news of the British victory at Trafalgar and Nelson’s death.6

The Library continued its long association with the Chronicle for over 100 hundred years until finally in 2006 the editorial offices of the Gibraltar Chronicle moved to new premises in Watergate House, and the print works relocated to New Harbours the following year.

First edition of the Gibraltar Chronicle 15th May 1801.

By 1821 the first catalogue of books to be printed on the premises of the Garrison Library appeared although mention of ‘a new edition being printed in 1797 and that the Library copy be completed in manuscript, from which the Copy of each Subscriber may be completed at 3 Rials each7shows that printing and publication of a number books had been commissioned much earlier.

Visitors to the Library often commented on the fine collection of books found there. When Disraeli visited in 1830, he noted with surprise that both the Garrison Library and the Exchange and Commercial Library had copies of his novel, Vivian Grey. The books selected were chosen by the members of the committee and reflect the interests of the day.

The library in 1846 by Thomas Colman Dibdin.

Garrison Library 1868.

View of the “New Wing” of the Garrison Library (1880 - The Graphic - Sketches at Gibraltar - detail)

As the military strategic importance of Gibraltar as a Naval Base of operations grew towards the end of the 19th Century, so did the popularity of the Garrison Library. The Garrison Library was extensively used by Officers stationed at Gibraltar during WWI, including members of the American Fleet by 1917. In 1920 the Garrison Library was described in the US Navy's Guide to the Ports of the World as ‘the finest institution of its kind in any of the English possessions’. The same source claimed that by then the library contained at the present time nearly 40,000 volumes.8

View of the Garrison Library. The buildings in the foreground housed the offices of the Gibraltar Chronicle until 2006.

The printing office and the Chronicle were declared essential during the course of WWII and despite an initial inclination to close the Library due to a lack of staff, it remained operational. It is recorded that a number of books were lost with the sinking of HMS Ark Royal and HMS Eagle during WWII. Nine Officers lost a total of 24 books when the Ark Royal was sunk.8 As a precaution the deeds, records of historical interest as well as irreplaceable library books, Minute books and certain paintings were bricked up in the library basement, rather than risking loss by removal from the premises.10 In 2019, the original floor of the west facing side of the basement at the Garrison Library was uncovered during a major restoration project at the Library.11 The floor of terracotta blocks and limestone had been covered by a top layer of concrete, most likely laid by the Royal Engineers when they made the basement bombproof. The strong room at the end of the basement was probably also built at this time to house the more delicate and irreplaceable items. After WWII, the basement, including the strong room was abandoned and quickly accumulated with scrap metal and paper rubbish until the turn of the century when members of R.E.M.E (T.A) cleared it up.

Garrison Library original terracotta floor.

Apart from being a Library and printing works, part of the property was used as a Racquet Court (which gave the local name of ‘Balali’, i.e. ‘Ball Alley’ to the adjacent Library Ramp), the Mediterranean Club, Jockey Club, a billiard room, Mr. Aitken’s Prep School for Boys and even a carpenter’s shop and second-hand furniture dealers.

In December 1941, the Committee agreed for the Gibraltar Dramatic Society to use the Dance Room twice a week for play readings and the erection of a small ‘portable and easily removed’ stage whenever the room was required for other purposes.12 Since then the Library has been the venue for concerts, theatrical performances, exhibitions, receptions and conferences. It is still used by the Trafalgar Theatre Group which was originally established as the Naval and Dockyard Theatre Group in 1952. Another club that still meets at the Garrison Library is the Bridge Club.

A number of important collections are held here including many lithographs and art prints. Amongst its prized collections is the complete archive of the Gibraltar Chronicle as well as the repository for the Royal Calpe Hunt Archives including a number of minute books, correspondence, items of memorabilia and photographs. The Library also boasts a rare item indeed - an original copy of the Treaty of Utrecht as signed in 1713.

Gibraltar copy Treaty of Utrecht 1713 at the Garrison Library.

In 2015, the Library became an associate campus to the newly opened Gibraltar University. The Institute for Gibraltar and Mediterranean Studies. is headed by Dr Jennifer Ballantine Perera, Director of The Gibraltar Garrison Library.

The dragon tree (Dracaena Draco) in the library's front garden was said to date from the Spanish occupation when the plant was introduced to Gibraltar by mariners who brought the seeds from the Canary Islands. However, this myth amplified over time has no historical basis at all. The first photographical records of the dragon tree at the Garrison Library appear during the early 20th Century.

Old books and documents in the Gibraltar Garrison collection.

Garrison Library book shelf section with a number of books from the Library collection.

Garission Library reading room.

Garrison Library back garden and Georgian wrought iron spiral case.

Garrison Library and Gardens Image