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Gibraltar Museum including Moorish Baths

Ref: HLBP1/001

The Gibraltar National Museum located at Bomb House Lane opened in 1930, and most of its collections are associated with Gibraltar’s military and social history, art, natural history, anthropology, and archaeology. These collections include documents, books, journals, maps, plans, photographs, and unpublished letters and diaries. The museum Library also has a reference collection that includes volumes, journals and digital collections.

The building that comprises the Gibraltar Museum were once two adjacent military quarters, Hereford House and Ordnance House the latter being the residence of the Assistant Director of Ordnance Stores. Within lay the remains of a medieval Moorish bath house which is now fully incorporated into the Gibraltar Museum.

The Moorish baths are located within the museum’s basement level and built in the 14th century during the rule of the Merinid Dynasty during the reign of Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman, Sultan of Morocco who captured Gibraltar from the Castilians in 1333. It is therefore contemporary with the Moorish Castle Tower of Homage and other constructions made by the same Abu Al-Hassan.1 It is generally assumed that these were private baths, dated to around 1355, and assumed to have been enclosed within the palace complex of the Moorish Governor of Gibraltar.2

However, Moorish occupation of this site predates the 14th Century. In 1996, restoration works at the Museum uncovered a double arch way and further excavations down to the natural gravels revealed a house occupied by the Almohads in the early part of the Islamic occupation of the Rock. These are the only existing remains of an Almohad construction in Gibraltar.

The Moorish Baths

The Museum’s Gardens also contain a water conduit dating to the Spanish period (1571) which run off an aqueduct bringing water from wells collected from the Red Sands, south of the town. This water would have run through the rooms and into a cistern under the interior patio. Within the Museum itself walls of 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century construction is recorded.

Spanish water conduit and aqueduct dated 1571

Bravo’s (1627) plan, for example, showed a large house on this site, with grounds to its south where the present museum garden and the pool of the Bristol Hotel are situated. It showed elements of what appeared to be Muslim structures including a square tower at its north-eastern corner approximately in Bomb House Lane directly opposite the Deanery. The southern façade of the building shows a large archway which led to further archaeological excavations on site. According to Alonso Hernández del Portillo this was the estate house (mayorazgo) of a Juan Serrano in the early 17th century. Indeed, the small square in front of what is today the Gibraltar Museum was called La Plazuela de Juan Serrano and the narrow street from it to Main Street was known as la calle que va a la Plazuela de Juan Serrano.

When the British took the Rock the majority of houses in the town had a single storey. This building was exceptional in having two and considered as one of the best houses in Gibraltar at that time.

In 1705, it is known that Jews met in private houses or in a warehouse in what is now Bomb House Lane which could well possibly refer to this very building. This is supported by Montresor’s (1753), plan which indicates that military personnel commandeered this building from 1712 onwards. During the British occupation, most of the bath’s buildings was used as stables, approached by a ramp. The westerly Room 1 was filled in to road level and used as a coach house and much later as a garage.3

By 1753 the property was divided into four distinct properties housing the Clerk of Survey (4 rooms), Store Keeper (7 rooms including baths), the Clerk of the Cheque (2 rooms) and an extension built in the NW corner consisting of a further 2 rooms. According to Montressor this last extension was built in 1748 ‘from the ground’ by order of the Board of Ordnance and used to house extra Clerks.4 As the residential quarters of the storekeeper of the Board of Ordnance, which included the enclosure of the old Moorish Baths as a store, it became colloquially known as Bomb House and the side street Bomb House Lane. The legend in the Montresor map specifically names the properties listed as:

No. 4 – Store Keeper

No. 5 – Clerk of the Survey

No. 6 – Extra Clerks

No. 7 – Clerk of the Cheque

Demarcation of the four properties - 1753 Montresor map

Lt. Col. Thomas James of the Royal Artillery visited the dwellings around a decade before the devastation of the Great Siege and described them thus:5

‘The storekeeper and ordnance clerks dwellings, commonly called the bomb-house, was once a fine Moorish building: I take it to have been the residence of their governors, because I have seen the same kind of structures in Spain, and never but one in that style in each town: and that which is peculiar, is the top of the house, which is a flat oblong terrace; round it is a wall of three feet high, and on the wall are stone pillars that support a roof: there houses are much higher than any other building in the town, and command the whole: this upper apartment is at prevent a dwelling room, the spaces between the pillars being filled, and now has windows, and a door place. The cellars remain in their old state, one of which I take to have been the family mosque; the inside is an oblong square, and round the centre are pillars that support a handsome cupola.

Round the architrave is an inscription, but so defaced that I could not make anything of it. This house, when we took the place, was quite entire, and very large; and the complete remains of the Moors, as a dwelling, in the town; but the changes it has since undergone, have almost diverted it of its ancient beauties; ancient I call it, because it might have been built soon after the coming of those people in seven hundred and eleven ...’

Further modifications and additions were made to the house from the 18th century onwards, particularly due to damage suffered during the Great Siege, leading to its present layout. According to Drinkwater part of the building was hit by cannon shot and burnt down and group of officers dining in the house at the time were injured - one of them, Captain Burke, the Town Mayor was killed as a result.

After the siege, the reconstructed grounds were divided into two distinct military quarters one of which became the official residence of the Assistant Director of Ordnance Stores from which Ordnance House derives its name. Throughout the 19th Century these properties remained in use as military quarters for the Officers of the Garrison.

However, by the early 19th Century property No. 7 situated at the north-west corner housing the area of the Moorish Baths appears to have been converted into a small museum with an entrance opposite the synagogue as can be seen in the 1908 survey map.

1908 survey map showing area of Bomb House Lane with a museum on the remains of the Moorish Building

1908 survey map showing area of Bomb House Lane with a museum on the remains of the Moorish Building

This museum can trace its origins to the Gibraltar Scientific Society founded on 19th October 1835 by Dr Edward John Burrows at his own house. The Reverend Dr. Burrows was at the time the Archdeacon of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and responsible for its consecration in 1838. In addition to being President of the Gibraltar Scientific Society, Dr Burrows was also Provincial Grand Master for Gibraltar and Andalusia from 1836-1861 and a few other members of the Society were also members, notably James Cochrane, Attorney General and later the judge in the famous Marie Celeste case. In all, the Society would hold 142 meetings during its seventeen years and seven months’ existence from 19 October 1835 to 25th May 1853, when the Society, without notice, came to an abrupt end.6

Five years after its foundation the Gibraltar Scientific Society became the Gibraltar Museum Society and since 1837 had acquired premises although its exact location is not known. The Society exhibited collections on Natural History and Antiquity. 7

Amongst the Society’s greatest find was the Gibraltar skull presented to the Gibraltar Scientific Society by its twenty-three-year-old Secretary, Lieutenant Edmund Henry Réné Flint in 1848; the receipt being recorded by a single line in its Minute Book. That record is the only known mention of the skull until its arrival in London in July 1864. The Society became the custodian of the skull from its presentation in 1848, to the Society’s demise in 1853.8 By then, the Society had integrated with the Garrison Library but had encountered severe economic difficulties as a result.

It is probable, from the evidence in the 1908 Survey Map that some of the Society’s historical collections had somehow not been entirely lost, but some had been preserved at Bomb House, perhaps in some of the very rooms which housed the Old Moorish Baths which had been cleared for this purpose. The fact that these premises were strictly out of bounds for civilians is probably the reason why for the next 50 years or so very little of the Gibraltar Museum is actually known.

In 1906 the English journalist James Edward Budgett Meakin, who wrote extensively about Morocco, was able to visit the Moorish Baths. He made no mention of the Museum but was hugely impressed by what he saw. In a letter to the Gibraltar Chronicle he stated that:9

“Except in the Alhambra there is nothing in Spain to compare it with; and in Morocco such baths may not be entered by Nazarenes or Jews, so that its interest is exceptional.” Don Leopoldo Torres Balbás, then considered one of the most brilliant architects and curators of contemporary history at the time, also examined the Baths in 1930. He later submitted a report to the Gibraltar Society claiming it ‘to be one of the best-preserved Moorish bath houses in Europe comparable only to the Alhambra’.10

The Moorish Baths taken around 1910 (photographer unknown)

The Moorish Baths taken around 1910 (photographer unknown)

That same year, on the 23rd July 1930, the then Governor of Gibraltar, General Sir Alexander Godley founded the Gibraltar Museum using two adjacent military quarters for this purpose. These two properties were transferred from the Colonial Government on the 30th September 1931. Some of the original exhibits included pieces of pottery from the region of Ur and artefacts bought or loaned from the nearby archaeological site of Carteia. A number of old paintings and military weapons were also on display. But the two most impressive items from the original collection was an Egyptian Mummy dating from 800BCE found floating in the Bay in 1930 and the 1:600 scale model of the Rock based on the 1865 survey of the Rock by Lieutenant Charles Warren which was accurate even down to the placement of the trees. This was the same Charles Warren who twenty-three years later was to head the Metropolitan Police as Commissioner during the notorious ‘Whitechapel’ murders of 1888. This 5-metre-long model was constructed by Captain. B. A. Branfill of the 68th Regiment in 1868 and had been displayed at the Rotunda Museum of the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich until 1828 before it was offered to the Colonial Government which set it up in Waterport, within the old passenger waiting room before it was transferred to the new Gibraltar Museum in 1932.

The area now demarcated as property of the Bristol hotel was handed over to the Gibraltar Government by the M.O.D on the 2nd November 1964 (Vide L.W 1750). A further smaller section was also transferred to the hotel on the 7th July 1966 (Vide L.W 1750). It is these two sections that now form part of the Bristol Hotel’s pool and gardens.

Technical Services Department Ordnance Map showing alterations to demarcated property.

Technical Services Department Ordnance Map showing alterations to demarcated property.

On the 1st June 1967 a section within the property previously assessed as a garage was handed over to the Gibraltar Museum and this section now forms part of the extension to the Moorish Baths.11

During this time the Museum Committee considered a scheme to embellish the Bomb House Lane frontage, prepared by the Chief Planning Officer, which also included a flower bed designed to project into the public highway with a view to avoid parking of motor vehicles in front of the museum, but the encroachment on the public highway seems to have been done without any official authority to do so. Some works were nevertheless carried out to the entrance of the Museum but permission to build the flowerbed was denied citing required use of the public highway as Government had no intention to pedestrianize the area at that time, despite the appeals of the Museum Committee.

Gibraltar Museum exterior works design dated October 1970

Gibraltar Museum exterior works design dated October 1970

On the 22nd April 1971 the Committee presented further plans to build a new entrance to the Gibraltar Museum entrance lobby and staircase which was to be handed over to the Gibraltar Government. The design work for the embellishment once again included the projecting flowerbed extension which had been rejected a few years earlier. This time the flowerbed extension appears to have been accepted and incorporated into the building façade as can be seen in the designs submitted above above and the photograph below.

Entrance to properties 18 and 20 Bomb House Lane

Entrance to properties 18 and 20 Bomb House Lane

In 1972 the Chairman of the Museum Committee began to pursue the possibility of acquiring the remaining MOD Quarters at Bomb House Lane adjoining the Museum emphasizing the need for extra premises to enable the Museum to fulfil its educational and cultural role more fully. One of these properties, known as Hereford House - identified as the flat above the Museum - was still used as a quarters by the military. The acquisition of these properties remained part of the Museum’s long-term plans but it was not until 1979, following representations to the Governor by the Museum Committee that the Regional Estate Surveyor wrote to Government stating that ‘although it would not be possible at the moment for the two Quarters to be relinquished fully, it might be possible to make available one ground floor and one first floor for the Museum’s use.’12 The estimated compensation payable to the MOD under the terms of the Lands Memorandum for the continuing use of the accommodation was set at £10,000. A further cost to the PSA for separating the rooms and internal re-organisation within the quarters was estimated to cost £2,000 whilst the cost of re-opening access from the Museum to the rooms and minor works within (to be undertaken and financed by the Museum) was quoted to cost £200.

It was not until the 1st January 1988 that the remaining demarcated MOD grounds which encompassed the two properties of 18-20 Bomb House Lane as well as the present exterior patio was finally transferred to the Government of Gibraltar (LDP 4021, PWD 880 (4)).13
In February 1995 a new entrance and cafeteria was proposed at the southern wing of the Museum grounds. A decision was taken, at an early stage of the planning, that the Museum would attempt to restore as much of the building as possible. It was during these excavations to the southernmost wall that a double arch was discovered which was not medieval Muslim but appeared to have been from the Spanish period. To establish the date of construction it was decided to widen the site of excavation and a charcoal layer evenly distributed between the 18th and 19th Century revealed evidence of a large fire which collapsed a large timber roof. Drinkwater had reported that the Staff-Quarter in Bomb House Lane, opposite the site of today’s Museum, was hit by a shell which burst on it on the 18th September 1781.

Gibraltar Museum proposed new entrance and cafeteria floor plans dated February 1995

Gibraltar Museum proposed new entrance and cafeteria floor plans dated February 1995

Further excavations undertaken in 1996 revealed a small and complete water conduction system. Its water flowed from south-west to north-east, almost certainly from the aqueduct which would have run along Line Wall Road into the area of the Baths. The water channel, which was 17th century, breached the base of the Spanish arch which was 16th Century. A further level revealed traces of ceramic dating to the 14th Century or Merinid dynasty making it contemporary to the Baths. Before reaching the geological layers, the archaeologists found an even older level of occupation. This was surprising as it was assumed from historical accounts that there would be no construction here before the Merinids. Yet below here there was earlier Muslim ceramic, belonging to the late 12th and 13th centuries, belonging to the Muwahhidun (Almohad) dynasty. What had been found was evidence of the very foundation of the Medinat, the City of Gibraltar of Al-Mumin! Clearly this part of Gibraltar must have been built up in the 14th century, as described by Ibn Marzuq, but at least some constructions existed in La Turba in the very beginning. Eventually, the archaeological team did reach the geological levels, the parent limestone bedrock with a cover, of course, of red sand.14

Gibraltar Museum including Moorish Baths Image