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Nuns' Well

Ref: HLBP1/011

Nuns' Well is an ancient underground water reservoir located at the north-east corner of Europa Flats, very near the entrance to the Keightley Way tunnel linking Camp Bay to Europa Point. On the east side of the structure, the reservoir is accessed by stairs which lead to a door constructed at the underground level. The water reservoir includes a pair of large underground arched chambers into which ground water was permitted to drain. To date it has not been possible to verify when, or even who may have been responsible for constructing the underground chambers known as Nun's Well but there is little doubt that it represents the earliest evidence of the attempts to provide a water supply in Gibraltar.

In 2019, the site was cleaned up and landscaped with picnic tables and benches provided. Works included the installation of a timber post fence around the site which was seen as necessary to protect the underground cistern from the persistent problem of vehicles which were parking on the surface unaware of the ancient structure and void below.1

During the course of 2020, the Ministry for Heritage carried out Phase II of the restoration project: draining out and removing all the rubbish that had accumulated inside the cistern and installing a floating pontoon to allow for visitor access into the well itself. Nuns’ Well was inaugurated by the Minister for Heritage, the Hon. Dr John Cortes on the 10th March 2021 and is now open for public viewing.

Planned refurbishment and beautification of the Nuns’ Well site by the Gibraltar Heritage Trust 2019

Planned refurbishment and beautification of the Nuns’ Well site by the Gibraltar Heritage Trust 2019

The name Nun’s Well is a misnomer. There were never any nuns here or at the Shrine. It is however marked as such in several old maps of Gibraltar. One possible explanation for this confusion is the fact that the Shrine, just a few hundred metres to the north, was dedicated to Our Lady of Europe and the British associated the area which venerated the Virgin with Nun’s. George Palao put forward another theory: that the name the cistern at Nun’s Well was a corruption of the cistern at Inan’s Wall in relation to a defensive wall built nearby on the orders of the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan Faris.

 The southern plateau known as Europa Flats was later called by the Spaniards ‘Tarfes Bajos’, whilst the Windmill Hill above was known as ‘Tarfes Altos’.2 In any event, the structure represents some of the earliest evidence of an artificial water supply in Gibraltar.

Pedro Barrantes Maldonado mentions the well in his 1540 ‘Dialogue’ claiming that the cistern was Moorish or older:3

‘In the area of the Tarfes and the Corral de Fez, no drinking water can be found, except that of a cistern (aljibe), which in those parts is found, where rainwater is collected, built during the time of the moors or gentiles, with twenty arches and pillars underground, which is very notable and superb; and from this water those who live in those parts take advantage’.

Evidence in support of the view that the structure was older than the Moorish period was provided by the expert opinion of Mr. B. Drissi, Inspector of Antiquities for the Government of Morocco and an expert on Moorish architecture who visited the site on the 18th March 1971. He concluded that it was definitely of an ‘earlier period than the Moorish Dynasties.4 Palao who carried out some further research on the site agreed, and suggested that the structure could have been Visigothic, Roman or even earlier and must have been associated with some kind of settlement or village at some early period of Gibraltar’s past.5

Such is the design and layout of the underground chambers that even its original purpose has often been confused. In the Map of Gibraltar drawn in 1799 by Jean-Denis Barbié du Bocage the location is described as bain des maures [English: The Moorish Baths] but that again is a misnomer as the purpose of the underground structure was to serve as a cistern. The Spanish engineer Cristobal de Rojas also includes the structure in his 1608 map of the Rock referring to it simply as sisternas. Palao suggested that the structure may well have been used for irrigation although he admitted that no exit from the cistern in the form of pipes or channels had yet been found. Curiously, George Palao in his investigation found that there were only twelve brick columns supporting the structure. Yet the oldest map reference available of the Nun’s Well, a sketch by the Dutch Map maker, Anton Van den Wygaerde dated to 1567, seems to show a structure with 20 pillars of which not all support arches, whilst the Spanish historian Ignacio López de Ayala observed that twenty-two pillars support the roof.6 Moreover, Ayala specifically describes the shape of the chamber as being a trapezium [trapezoide] with a length of 78 feet; width of 48 feet and 42 feet respectively; height being 8 ½ feet.

Ayala was full of admiration for the construction claiming that it was of Moorish origin or possibly older: “To the Eastward, and near the Virgen de Europa, was an admirably constructed Cistern or tank for receiving water; so magnificent and of such noble architecture, that it is difficult to divine whether it was the work of the Moors, or of more ancient times.”7

Ayala’s full text in Spanish reads:

Al levante de la virgen de Europa se ofrecía el admirable edificio de la cisterna, aljibe o recogimiento de agua, tal i tan magnífico, i tan grandiosa arquitectura, que no es fácil adivinar si fue obra de moros o más antigua que ellos. Es su forma irregular, de figura trapezoide; larga de setenta i ocho pies; lata 6 ancha cuarenta i ocho, y cuarenta y dos; i la altura es de ocho pies i medio. Para sostener el terrado, que lo cubre tiene veinte i dos pilares de ladrillo, i se baja a él por una escalera del mismo material. Obra, cierto, que fue abierta y levantada por hombres de gran curiosidad; porque está cavada en peña viva, i en todo aquel sitio no se halla otro suelo con espacio tan igual y tan profundo. Tiene labradas las paredes y el pavimento de ladrillo, con fortísima argamasa, cual era menester para retener el agua que se desprende desde las alturas, i se recoge en el depósito. Conservase en éste casi todo el año; pero son muchas las quiebras con que el tiempo lo destruye.8

Drinkwater’s account is almost identical to Ayala’s: “Towards Europa advance is a Moorish bath, called by the garrison, the Nuns well. It is sunk eight feet deep in the rock, is 72 feet long, and 42 feet broad, and, to preserve the water, has an arched roof, supported by pillars.”9

Anton Van den Wygaerde sketch of the Nuns’ Well, dated to 1567

Anton Van den Wygaerde sketch of the Nuns’ Well, dated to 1567

The British however, made little use of the tanks until 1753 when the Governor, Lt. General Thomas Fowke repaired and reopened the cistern to supply the troops with fresh water. But the water was no longer pure as it contained minute leeches which made the soldiers sick as described by James who was present in Gibraltar at the time when this event occured: “The reservoir breeds the leech, and soldiers who have drank it have complained to the physicians of their apprehension of a decay as they had occasion often to spit blood, for the small animalculae of the leech, having adhered under their tongues, there grew, and sucking for sustenance, caused the discharged of blood: which at first not knowing the cause of such a discharge frightened some of the men not a little.”10

George Palao’s sketch of the Nuns’ Well (1979).

George Palao’s sketch of the Nuns’ Well (1979).

It is not known whether the British, in their distaste for everything ‘Popish’, arrogantly refused to wash the walls with quicklime to prevent contamination, although recent photographs of the Nun’s Well suggests that the walls were indeed white-washed this appears to have been done by the Scouts in 1984 in an effort to clean out the cistern which had become polluted with oil.11

Francis Carter who visited Gibraltar in 1771 and published his book “A Journey From Gibraltar To Malaga” in 1777 described the state of the Nun’s Well thus: . . .  “we find at Europa point a piece of Moorish antiquity worth mentioning. It is a reservoir sunk near eight feet in the stone, but a labour truly Herculean, seventy feet long and forty-two broad; it receives the rain from higher ground about it, and during winter is almost full; to preserve the water from injuries of the sun, it has an arched covering supported by ten brick pillars on each side in the Moorish style; the water is notwithstanding very bad and full of worms.”12

Interior of Nuns Well with white-washed walls 1

Interior of Nuns’ Well.

Interior of Nuns Well with white-washed walls 2

Interior of Nuns' Well.

In 1802, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and fourth son of King George III (and the future father of Queen Victoria) was appointed Governor of Gibraltar. A strict disciplinarian, Prince Edward received instructions from his brother Prince Frederick, Duke of York to restore discipline at the garrison which had deteriorated excessively during O’Hara’s term as Governor. At first the Duke did nothing, but after he heard reports that two Spanish women visiting Gibraltar had been raped by drunken soldiers he decided to act. Seeing drunkenness as a major cause of the laxity and riotous behaviour, the Duke closed thirty, and later twenty more of the ninety wine-houses, mostly the ones in the back alleys and near the barracks.13

He then granted a plot of land at Nun’s Well to Mr. Ninian Douglas to set up a brewery at Europa called Brewery Yard, next to the Nun's Well with the intent, we can only assume, of using the water collected from the cistern for brewery purposes. The idea behind the brewery was to “supply wholesome liquor to the troops” as opposed to a kind of bad wine, called black-strap sold in the local establishments. It was therefore hoped that the introduction of good malt liquor would diminish amongst the troops the use of ardent spirits.14

Once his brewery was up and running he further ordered all the remaining taverns out of bounds for soldiers except three; listed in the Garrison Orders as The Three Light Infantrymen in Naval Cooperage Lane, The Halfway House – also known as The Three Grenadiers - between Southport and South Barracks, and the Three Guns in Cannon lane.15

These public houses were then instructed to stop serving spirits such as gin and rum and restrict themselves to the sale of the local Bristol Beer brewed at the Duke’s Brewery at Europa Point. This and the overly severe discipline he imposed on the troops caused a mutiny which forced the Duke to be recalled to London despite his protestations in 1803. The Gibraltar Directory of 1890 asserted that after the departure of the Duke the Rock speedily recovered its former character, fifty additional wine houses were opened for the accommodation of the troops, and Gibraltar again presented an aspect of brutal debauchery.16 The Duke’s Bristol Beer was rejected with a vengeance and no sooner had the Edward departed that the brewery went out of business.

The following year the Brewery at Nun’s Well was demolished and the Italian architect Giovanni Maria Boschetti was commissioned to construct a barracks in its place. The cost for the Government of converting the Brewery into a Barracks was over £14,000. According to Garrison Orders:

The detachment of the Queen’s 13th and 54th Regiments now at Europa and Windmill Hill will occupy Douglas’s Brewery at 4 o’clock this afternoon this converting the place into Brewery Barracks.

Within twenty years many other military buildings were added around the barracks as a 19th Century painting by an unknown artist suggests. Dr. John Hennen Medical Superintendent to the Garrison describes the area of the barracks thus: “The Brewery Barracks are the most southerly on the rock: they are occupied by the Ordnance, and consist of a mass of stone buildings of one story; they are dry and airy, but cold in the winter months. These barracks lie on the eastern side of that part of the rock called Europa Flats, 110 feet above the level of the sea. The roads laid out on these flats, by Sir George Don, have rendered them of very easy access, and the cool breezes which constantly perflate them, together with the expansive prospect, have rendered Europa quite the summer promenade.”17

Brewery Barracks

Brewery Barracks (the larger building to the right) artist unknown

E. R. Kenyon, writing in the early 20th Century (whilst the site was still used as a barracks) described the interior as follows: “Its roof is carried by rows of square brick arches, and the tank is now divided into two portions, one under the wings of the barracks which has been converted into a church, the other under the open yard of the barracks. The partition wall is shown by plans to have been in existence in 1815, while James’s description shows that it did not exist when he wrote. Probably built as a foundation for the barrack wall above it, and therefore built either in 1802-03 when the brewery was built, or in 1804-05 when it was taken into use as a barracks. The entrance seems to indicate as having been in the middle of the North Wall”18

Brewery Barracks remained listed as a barracks in every Gibraltar Directory up to 1918 but both the Brewery, and the Defensible Barracks would subsequently be omitted from the list the following year. It is probable that the need to accommodate extra military personnel extended the serviceability of these by now over a hundred-year-old accommodation for a few more years. The buildings, however remained in use by the military being converted for other functions including a church called the Europa Garrison Church also known as St. Barbara’s Chapel located on the southern side which had been erected above what is now the entrance to the Nun’s Well. St. Barbara being of course the patron saint of the artillery and of mining which reflected the strong presence of the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers in this area.

Brewery Barracks – photographed from the lighthouse 1860 (George Washington Wilson Collection University of Aberdeen)

Brewery Barracks – photographed from the lighthouse 1860 (George Washington Wilson Collection University of Aberdeen)

1907 Ordnance Survey Map showing position of the Nuns’ Well in relation to Brewery Barracks

1907 Ordnance Survey Map showing position of the Nuns’ Well in relation to Brewery Barracks

After the war Brewery Barracks was no longer required by the army and was instead used by the Ministry of Defence as stores. The building to the south which housed the Chapel was according to Lionel Perez used by the wives of the Officers of the Middlesex Regiment then quartered in the area of Europa Flats.

Church Parade Europa Chapel late 19th Century.

Europa Garrison Church 1926 1

Europa Garrison Church 1926 (photo courtesy Tito Vallejo)

Europa Garrison Church 1926 2

Europa Garrison Church 1926 (photo courtesy Tito Vallejo)

Europa Garrison Church also known as St. Barbara’s Chapel during the 1960’s. The enclosure of the Nuns’ Well is to the right. (photo courtesy Tito Vallejo)

Europa Garrison Church during the 1960’s. The enclosure of the Nun’s Well is to the right. (photo courtesy Tito Vallejo)

It was around this time that Lionel Perez decided to write his University thesis on Moorish architecture which included a survey on Nun’s Well. This was the first, and only time that any kind of investigation has been carried out at this site up to that point. Such was the dearth of information available on this site that when Perez approached the Curator of the Gibraltar Museum for information he was told that although the museum was aware of the existence of Nun’s Well they had no further information to offer, not even its location. Only at the Ministry of Public Building Works Drawing Office at HM Dockyard thanks to the assistance of Cecil McEwen who used an old Ordnance Survey map dated 1869 did Lionel Perez manage to pinpoint the exact location of Nun’s Well.19

His investigations, carried out in 1964, included a water analysis of the water in the well which was carried out by the City Council. The results of the analysis proved that the water contained far too much salt which he compared as follows:20

Rain water 48/100,000 parts of salt

Distilled water 40/100,000 parts of salt

Nun’s Well water 133/100,000 parts of salt

A complete surface survey of the Well revealed the following measurements:21

Length 43 feet 3 inches

Breadth 42 feet 6 inches

Height 16 feet to the ceiling – 19 feet street level


Height 9 feet approx. (centre to floor)

Height 7 feet 5 ins pillar only

Breadth 7 feet 2 ½ ins

Perimeter 7 feet (pillar)

There were also two large slabs with the following measurements:

Length 9 feet

Breadth 3 feet 1 inch

Thickness 5 inches

Lionel Perez also found that the walls were plastered but not with cement or any material which had been in use for the last 50 years determining that the plastering was quite old. The bottom half of the walls were made of rock but the upper part was made of brick. On the south and north walls were inlets at about twelve feet high noting that the ones on the south wall appeared to be blocked. Two buttresses supported the west wall.22

Noting the discrepancy between his measurements and those offered by previous writers in antiquity who had visited the site Lionel Perez drilled three holes round the area. The first on the south side which revealed half an arch or vault. A second in the east wall for about 20 feet which returned no findings and the third somewhere to the east which proved negative. He concluded that the well probably extended on the south side to a distance of 78 feet but lamented that the finance needed to verify his point was simply not available as he estimated the cost to be around £300-£500 for such an undertaking. On the east wall he did not think there was anything to be found though he did state that it would give him great pleasure to be proved wrong.23

Access to the well had been through a manhole cover in the centre of the yard, which still exists today. However, Lionel Perez found a second access point in a second manhole cover outside the building which housed St. Barbara’s Chapel which was three feet deep and turned at right angles. This opening subsequently became the staircase that was built to gain access to the interior of the vaulted chambers.

Underground Water Tanks as existing in 1971 using Lionel Perez’s measurements. The location of the Chapel building is shown, as is the manhole leading to the main chamber.

Underground Water Tanks as existing in 1971 using Lionel Perez’s measurements. The location of the Chapel building is shown, as is the manhole leading to the main chamber.

George Palao also took an active interest in Nun’s Well during the early 1970’s drawing much of his own observations based on Lionel Perez’s earlier investigations. His own analysis reported that: “The system is supplied with water from the hill above during the rainy periods and drains south towards the Windmill Hill Flats acting as a natural water collection area and passing through a large geological fault in the cliff face there, the porous limestone rocks allow it to percolate into the cistern”.

He went on to say that “the percolating ability of its construction is as perfect and efficient as ever, for water still enters the cistern chambers for at least six months in the year when it is often more than half full.24

He described the efficiency of the water collection in the chamber thus: “The water swells up through the several sumps of the smaller chamber (A) which is 42 feet by 19 feet and 14 feet high, having four barrel vaults of which three have a bored sandstone keystone to the arches. This chamber is very interesting in that it demonstrates the method of its sound construction in the strengthening at the side wall by means of a thicker brick on the springing of the arches.

After sedimentation here, the water would overflow into the Great Chamber (B) 42 feet by 43 feet and 16 ½ feet high, having vaulted roofs supported on sixteen piers and twelve small pillars (See drawing).”25

According to Palao the “state of this underground structure is amazingly in first class condition and does credit to its ancient constructors. Amid the arches there are traces of what appears to be an even older wall in the north-west corner. The red brick on edge floor appears to be the original floor finish although the two sets of sectioned stone splash slabs and the carved stone water outlets above are much more recent.”

Palao, unlike Perez did not offer a hypothesis to account for the missing 36 or so feet as described by Ayala. His investigation simply concluded that the water collected in the cistern was used for irrigation purposes. He could not, however, describe how the water flowed out of the cistern to irrigate the land as he found no outflow.

In 2008, geologist Freddie Gomez writing an article in the Vox newspaper stated that his research had shown that the Nuns’ Well did not fill up with water draining from Beefsteak fault but from rain, street flushing and sea spray during the strong levanter winds.26 A possible reason for this may have been the construction of the dam like structure built right at Beafsteak fault which could possibly have cut off the original natural water supply to the Nuns’ Well from the flats above. 

For his part Tito Vallejo offred yet another hypothesis: that Nun’s Well was a bath, but that this was a traditional Jewish Mikveh rather than a Moorish bath. His premise being based on the similarities of a Mikveh and the interior of Nun’s Well which includes two chambers – one used as a seeding basin; the other as an immersion pool both using running water as a source which was essential for a Mikvah.

It will probably require a full scale archaeological survey of the Nun’s Well to ascertain its true origin and usage. Until then this unique ancient structure will remain a mystery.

By 1971 the MOD found no further use of the area for military purposes and control of the site was passed over to the Gibraltar Government. On the 3rd November 1974 a meeting was held on site with a view to decide what restrictions should be put on the development of the area, in order to achieve its proper conservation as an historical site. Present at the meeting were Mrs D. M. Ellicott, Father Caruana, Brgadier (Rtd) A. D. Firth, Major M. E. Ballard, Mr. Bensusan and Mr. L. Perez. Amongst the main restrictions on the development plan agreed were the following:27

  1. The total area of the Well as defined by the walls of the Old St. Barbara’s Church and the low wall round the rest of the well to be retained as the main historical site.
  2. This should be landscaped in the form of a sitting area for the public on Sundays and holidays, and for tourists.
  3. The remaining buildings were not of historical interest, but contained arches and other features which it might be possible to blend in with the scheme of landscaping the Well area.
  4. Any building not required for the landscaping scheme should be demolished.
  5. A desirable feature would be that the public should have easy access to the interior of the Well, so that they could see what went underground. If possible this should be achieved without recourse to dangerous ladders. Perhaps electrical lights could be installed.

Subsequently all the buildings formerly part of the Old Brewery Barracks, including the Europa Garrison Church were demolished. A photograph taken in the 1970’s shows the retaining wall around the Nun’s Well which was the only structure left standing after demolition works were carried out.

Nuns’ Well in the 1970’s demarcated by the retaining wall.

Nuns’ Well in the 1970’s demarcated by the retaining wall.

It would take another ten years before some of the other recommendations taken by the Museum committee would be re-considered, including plans to build a staircase leading into the cistern. This coincided with the project undertaken by the Scouts to clean out the cistern and whitewash the walls.28 However, the beatification and plans to access the interior were again delayed.

In 1986 the Nun’s Well project was presented to the Royal Engineers for consideration. In May 1987 the Royal Engineers, 60 FDS on EX-ninth shot, carried out a site investigation (prior to the refurbishment of the site). Two conceptual drawings drawn by the Royal engineers were submitted for consideration with one of them being subsequently accepted. The following year the Royal Engineers constructed what is now the main building, which has a castle-like appearance. They also constructed the present staircase giving access to the cistern.

A new project for the beautification of the Nuns’ Well area was presented by the Gibraltar Heritage Trust in 2019. The restoration works was carried out by the Ministry for Heritage and included the refurbishment of the exterior enclosure as part of Phase I and the restoration of the cistern interior, including the construction of a floating pontoon for pre-arranged visits to the underground site as part of Phase II. The Nuns’ Well has been open for public viewing since March 2021.

Concept drawing for the Nuns’ Well site submitted by the Royal Engineers in 1987 prior to works carried out in 1988.

Concept drawing for the Nuns’ Well site submitted by the Royal Engineers in 1987 prior to works carried out in 1988.

Concept drawing for the Nuns’ Well site submitted by the Royal Engineers in 1987 prior to works carried out in 1988.

Concept drawing for the Nuns’ Well site submitted by the Royal Engineers in 1987 prior to works carried out in 1988.

1 Heritage Trust e-newsletter, February 2019.

2 PALAO, George: Tales of Our Past. Ferma, Gibraltar Chronicle Printing Works (1981)., p. 13

3 MALDONADO, Pedro Barrantes: Diálogo entre Pedro Barrantes Maldonado y un caballero extranjero en que cuenta el saco que los turcos hicieron en Gibraltar y el vencimiento y destruicion que la armada española hizo en la de los turcos, año 1540. Alcala de Genares (1566)., p. 67

4 PALAO, George: Gibraltar Our Heritage. Ferma, Gibraltar Chronicle Printing Works (1979)., p. 3

5 Ibid., p. 3

6 AYALA, Ignacio Lopez de: Historia de Gibraltar. Madrid (1782)., p. 34-35

7 AYALA. Opcit., p. 34

8 AYALA. Opcit., p. 34-35

9 DRINKWATER, John: A history of the siege of Gibraltar, 1779-1783. London (1905)., p. 36

10 JAMES, Thomas: History of the Herculean Straits, now called the Straits of Gibraltar: including those ports of Spain and Barbary that lie contiguous thereto. London (1772)., p. 327

11 PEREZ, Lionel: Moorish architecture in Gibraltar - Nuns’ Well, University Thesis at St. Mary’s College, Twickenham, 1964. Addendum notes on Nuns’ Well by the Gibraltar Museum Committee dated March 1984.

12 CARTER, Francis: A Journey from Gibraltar to Malaga: With a View of that Garrison and Its Environs; a Particular Account of the Towns in the Hoya of Malaga; the Antient and Natural History of Those Cities, of the Coast Between Them, and of the Mountains of Ronda. London (1780)., p. 48-49

13 GILLEN, Mollie: The Prince and His Lady: The Love Story of the Duke of Kent and Madame de St. Laurent in Georgian Halifax. Halifax (1970)., p. 146

14 GNA: The Gibraltar Directory (1890)., p. 15

15 Ibid., p. 15

16 Ibid., p. 15

17 HENNEN, John: Sketches of the medical topography of the Mediterranean: comprising an account of Gibraltar, the Ionian Islands, and Malta: to which is prefixed, a sketch of a plan for memoirs on medical topography. London (1830)., p. 130

18 KENYON, Edward R: Gibraltar under Moor, Spaniard and Briton. Methuen & Co. London (1911)., p. 17

19 PEREZ. Opcit. Diary extracts included with his report. Dated 7th April 1964., p. 1

20 Ibid., Diary extracts included with his report. Dated 21st July 1964., p. 3

21 ] Ibid., Diary extracts included with his report. Dated 26th July 1964., p. 3

22 Ibid., p. 3

23 PEREZ. Opcit., Report on Nuns’ Well. p. 4

24 PALAO, George: Gibraltar Our Heritage. Opcit., p. 1

25 Ibid., p. 1

26 GOMEZ, Freddie: Ground and Surface Water Supply. Published in Vox 20th January 2008.

27 Minutes of the Gibraltar Museum Committee held on site at 1700 hours on the 3rd November 1974 and attached to Lionel Perez’s Report on Nuns’ Well.

28 Gibraltar Museum Committee: Notes on Nuns’ Well dated March 1984 and attached to Lionel Perez’s Report on Nuns’ Well.

Nuns' Well Image