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Grand Casemates Barracks & square

Ref: HLFP3/013

The Grand Casemates is a building in Casemates Square that was originally a fortified barracks and casemate built in 1814 giving the esplanade its current name - Casemates Square. Its former names were la Barcina or la Esplanada. Grand Casemates Barracks was strategically positioned to protect Grand Casemates Gates, formerly Waterport Gates, which was the main entry point into Gibraltar by sea. To the north, stood Landport Gates, the only land entry point into the city. Grand Casemates Barracks replaced the former casemated barracks built below Grand Battery.

Once a sandy beach, it was here in 1160 that the Almohad ruler Abd al-Mu'min ordered the first foundations for a settlement – known as the City of Victory (Medinat al-Fath) – to be built. This area was used by the Muslims to beach their galley’s. The Moors strengthened the northern approaches to the town with a castle on the slopes of the Rock, from which walls ran down to the shore of the Bay of Gibraltar.

After the siege and capture of Gibraltar by Castilian forces in 1309, King Ferdinand IV ordered an atarazana (from where the English word arsenal is derived), or galley house to be built here, the foundations of which were excavated in the 1990’s and have since been preserved for public viewing. These excavations revealed that the original atarazana had been 40.8 metres in length, almost the entire width of the present day square – an impressive achievement by medieval standards. The atarazana is the earliest construction that has been found anywhere in Casemates Square and would have remained in use until it became redundant in the days of larger Spanish galleys. It was probably at this point that the old galley house would have become useful as a store for grain or other similar function although its use was not recorded. It was then that the area of La Barcina became cluttered with small civilian huts and animal pens. Some sources point to a small chapel built next to the galley house although no name and no reference to this building appears in the Bravo map of 1627. To protect his new dockyard, Ferdinand IV ordered the Giralda Tower to be built at the west end of the Moorish wall in or around 1310. The city however, was recaptured in by the Moors in 1333 and Gibraltar would remain under Moorish rule until August 1462 (eighth siege). The old Spanish Giralda Tower was later converted into the North Bastion by the Italian engineer Giovan Giacomo Paleari Fratino in the 1560’s.

17th Century map of Gibraltar showing the area of La Barcina.

Luis Bravo de Acuña map of 1627 showing the old Galley House in La Barcina (Casemates Square)

Luis Bravo de Acuña map of 1627 showing the old Galley House in La Barcina (Casemates Square)

Casemates Excavation galley house.

The esplanade just south of the tower which originally enclosed the whole of La Barcina is now Grand Casemates Square. The Moorish Sea Gate (Puerta del Mar) strengthened by the subsequent Spanish Sea Gate (Puerta de la Atarazana) provided one of the three access gates to La Barcina, the shipbuilding area that is now Grand Casemates Square. The others were the Land Gate (Puerta de Tierra now Landport Gate) and a southern gate, the Barcina Gate, through a wall that no longer exists. Within the esplanade stood a church, roughly behind the galley house. However, no name exists for this small church or chapel referred to by the local historian George Palao, however, Portillo mentions in his writings that on this spot stood the Hermitage of St. Sebastian, very old and probably built by Christians but not the sacristy.1 It was once thought that when this church was pulled down, the highly decorative doorway was preserved and placed at the entrance of what would later become St. Jago’s Barracks, but this theory has now been debunked.

During the early British period the strengthening of the Rock’s fortifications became a military priority. The north of Gibraltar was particularly strategic because of its proximity to the Spanish lines and any land attack would naturally have to be launched from this direction. The large galley house, with its thick 2.5-metre walls was an ideal building in which to store ammunition. It became a Shot House and was so solidly built that it withstood bomb damage inflicted upon this structure during the 13th siege in 1727, at a time when most of the houses of La Barcina were destroyed. By 1753 the original Shot House was flanked by a Shot Pound and a large yard. The area was so devastated that most of it was levelled in 1713, leaving only the shot house, which survived until it was severely damaged and pulled down after the Great Siege. Thomas James describes the clearance operation thus:2

‘There were, in my time, two gardens of great benefit to the garrison: within side of this Land port gate to Water port, is a piece of ground termed the esplanade, with a large store-house, and an enclosed yard for shot and shells: this store house was built by the Moors for their galleys, now possessed by the Ordnance: on this esplanade are some few houses belonging to the inhabitants. In the time of the Spaniards, this spot of ground was laid out into streets, but the houses being in ruins from the bombs thrown by the enemy in 1727, it was thought more advisable to clear the rubbish away, which was done in 1731, to widen that part of the old mole called the bomb battery… ‘

British 1953 Montresor map showing position of the Shot House and yard.

British 1753 Montresor map showing position of the Shot House and yard.

By 1727, at the time of the Thirteenth Siege (11th February to 12th June), the platform wall had been further broadened to take better artillery with a total of fourteen guns mounted there and by 1762, it mounted seventeen 18-pdrs. In doing so, a number of casemated accommodation vaults were incorporated into the extended length of the curtain wall.  Following the report on the Rock’s defences submitted in 1768 by the Chief Engineer of Gibraltar, William Green, the original wall was further improved.

In 1770, Chief Engineer Colonel William Green began preparatory work for the construction of Grand Casemates as bombproof barracks on the square's northern flank. The casemates could easily accommodate over a thousand Officers and men defending North Bastion, Grand Battery and the nearby Northern defences. Construction of the Grand Casemates bombproof barracks was due to begin in the early 1770’s, but it was believed that other pressing construction works such as King’s Bastion, Montague Bastion and Orange’s demi-Bastion meant that by the time of the Great Siege of Gibraltar in 1779 no work had been started. Recent restoration works on the Grand Battery casemates has revealed part of the architecture of the original British casemates used in both the 13th and 14th sieges.

1770 - William Green proposal for casemated accomodation below the Grand Battery.

Recently restored casemated accomodation at the corner of North Bastion and Grand Battery.

Recently restored casemated accomodation below the Grand Battery.

After the Great Siege the British military decided to demolish all the buildings in the area of the present square which had suffered great damage, including the old Shot House. This opened up the area into an esplanade which could be used for public events such military parades and public executions. Construction of a purpose-built Bombproof Barracks began and completed in 1817 during the governorship of General Sir George Don. In 1815, just prior to the completion of the bombproof barracks, two gateways were opened in the wall at the Waterport, so that carriages could pass through in both directions at once.

Original 1814 façade elevation and section plans of the Casemated Barracks at Waterport (National Archives WO 78 5447)

Further military housing was built – Married Quarters behind the Officer’s Quarters towards the eastern end of the square and a Port Office was erected close to the western wall. In front of the Officer’s Quarters stood the gallows, right in front of where the present Café Modelo stands today. The last soldier to be hanged in the Square was Private Shaw in 1864. Towards the end of the 19th Century, trees had become a feature of Casemates Square. They lined the roadside from Casemates Gates to Main Street.

Last public hanging at Grand Casemates Square 1864.

During the 19th Century, Casemates Square became a muster and parade ground for the various regiments allocated to the Grand Casemates Square. The Parade Square was declared out of bounds for all civilians who were restricted to civilian lanes on both sides of the parade ground which led to both Landport and Waterport access points. On 24th December 1912, a Government Notice was issued to the effect that from the beginning of the following year, the Landport entrance to the City would be closed for the better regulation of traffic and the removal of obstruction in the public streets. This order had been approved by the Governor of Gibraltar, General Sir Archibald Hunter, who argued that the Grand Casemates Square was a private parade ground, allotted by the military authorities to the troops in those barracks. The proposed closure was received in great dismay by both inhabitants and Spanish dockyard workers as they would only now be allowed access via Waterport and Casemates Gates. Furthermore, Spanish workers would be required to leave the Dockyard via Reclamation Road (the present Queensway) and if they wished to enter the City to purchase goods or tobacco, as they usually did, they would have to do so via Waterport and Casemates.

The Chamber of Commerce protested to the Governor that this would have an adverse effect on shopkeepers and trade in general, but all memorials and complaints were dismissed out of hand by the Governor; subsequently this resulted in a deputation convening a meeting in London with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, setting out their grievances. By 26th June of that year, the Governor had been forced to resign and life resumed as usual on the Rock with access continuing to be allowed through the Landport Gate.

Casemates Square parade ground late 19th Century.

British army battalions would continue using the Grand Casemates barracks until the late 1950’s when the 1st Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s Own Regiment (West Riding) took possession of the new Lathbury Barracks at Windmill Hill. During the 1960’s some of the empty vaults where used for different purposes over the next ten years including a discotheque and a boxing club.

When the Spanish government began to impose the first restrictions on Spanish workers in Gibraltar in 1964 it was decided to look towards Morocco to fill the labour void. By the end of 1968 there were at least 1,300 Moroccans resident in Gibraltar and this more than doubled following the final closure of the frontier with Spain in June 1969. This number increased to over 5,000 by the mid 1970’s. Many came without their families and had to be accommodated in hostels set up by the Gibraltar Government. Facing such an acute shortage of housing accommodation the decision was taken to house around 2,000 Moroccan workers in the Grand Casemates Barracks. Grand Casemates Barracks continued to serve as a hostel until the early 1990’s by which time many Moroccan workers were voluntarily repatriated with the rest removed to other accommodation.

In 1995, a major beautification programme began. Grand Casemates Square was pedestrianized and a few years later Government took the decision to convert the former accommodation blocks into units for commercial use. Today, these units serve as restaurants, shops and exhibition halls.

Various views of the Grand Casemates Barracks late 19th and early 20th Century

Grand Casemates Barracks & square Image