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Old Mole Head

Ref: HLFP3/026

This was the Rock’s original mole in Spanish time, extending westwards from the Plataforma de San Andrés [St. Andrew’s Platform], situated to the south of the Watergate in the Barcina walled area of the City (the present Casemates Square). It was defended by the main coastal fortifications, particularly by the Baluarte del Canuto [Canuto Bastion], also known as the Baluarte de San Sebastian [St. Sebastian’s Bastion]. The Old Mole was joined to the City’s defences by the Punta del Diablo, now the Devil’s Tongue and at the neck of this mole stood La Torre del Leandro [Leandro Tower].

It is unclear as to when exactly works on the Old Mole commenced; one of the drawings executed by Anton Van den Wyngaerde in 1567 shows what appears to be a simple breakwater, possibly made up of large rocks piled one on top of the other. However, this structure is located north of the Watergate rather than south west which is where the old mole would later be located when constructed some twenty years later. The Old Mole, by inference to its name, would appear to have been constructed prior to the New Mole, the latter situated in the southern area of the Rock, near to the present Police Headquarters in Rosia Road.

1567 Anton Van Den Wyngaerde showing a breakwater to the right of the Puerta de Mar. The Old Mole would be built to the left of the sea gate.

In 1587, the Genoese military engineer, Fabiano Bursotto, who had been engaged by the Crown to design new harbours in Palermo and Málaga, had visited the Rock in order to inspect the Old Mole. As a result of his visit, the area near to the mole was dredged properly due to the sand and waste which had accumulated and which made it unusable for shipping berthing there. The works were supervised by the Maestro Mayor of the City, Bartolomé Quemado, with the project continuing until, at least, 1591.

By 1604, the Old Mole was again in a dire state, especially following the damage caused by the winter storm. In this respect, another military engineer, the esteemed Sienese Tibúrcio Spannocchi was brought in to remedy the situation. A detailed plan of the Old Mole area, executed a year later, showed his proposal which was to increase its length by a couple of hundred feet. In 1605, a plan was developed to undertake the repairs on the Old Mole, the plan included extending the mole by a few hundred feet amongst other suggestions, unfortunately, a lack of capital meant practically no work was carried out. This apparently had dire consequences as on the 25th April 1607, a Spanish fleet under the command of Don Juan Álvarez Davila was heavily defeated in the Bay by a Dutch fleet commanded by Admiral Jacob Van Heemskerk. The fateful outcome of this naval battle, later known as the Battle of Gibraltar, was partly attributed to the fact that there was a lack of a proper mole in Gibraltar were the Spanish fleet could have taken shelter and this possibly contributed to the Spanish defeat of its armada.

1605 - Unknown - The New Old Mole.

1608 - Cristbal Rojas - Plans for the Repairs of the Old Mole.

The project would eventually be entrusted to Captain Cristóbal Rojas, an architect and engineer who had worked with Spanochi in Gibraltar as his student since 1586. In 1608, Captain Cristóbal de Rojas, was recalled to the Rock; he had already previously visited and examined the fortifications in December 1598 and surveyed the Old Mole in 1604. In due course, he presented detailed plans and proposals to improve the moles; these were submitted to the Duke of Medina Sidonia and approved by the King. However, these plans were later altered by other engineers working on the project, viz. Giovanni Battista Antonelli and Jeronimo de Soto. By 1609 Cristóbal de Rojas presented his design for the repairs of the old mole but nevertheless work on the old mole did not commence until 1615. Yet even as late as 1620 Philip III was forced to send another engineer, Julio Cesar Fontana to oversee the completion of the works started five years earlier.

1608 - Unknown - Perspectiva del Barcina and Muelle Puerta la Mar.

Alonso Hernández del Portillo, writing in the 1620’s, referred to both moles, in his writings, as follows: ‘This City possesses a bay and port which is among the better ones in Spain, so much so, that few others can compare with it and it is also better than most. It is very large and capacious for any number of armadas to be able to harbour there. It has a mole which is capable of sheltering vessels dealing in cargo; and another mole in which works on the Torre del Tuerto [Tuerto Tower] were commenced in the year 1519 and which works are continuing in the present day, the length of which measures fourteen brazas [translated as breaststrokes, being units of nautical length -14 of these equivalent to 84 feet]. King Philip IV visited it in 1624 and ordered that works should continue, the cost of which up to now has been in the region of 300,000 ducats.’ In 1627, Don Luis Bravo de Acuña was instructed to visit the Rock and carry out an exhaustive examination of Gibraltar’s fortifications. Among his recommendations, was his strong urge that works on both moles should be completed as soon as possible; these appear to have been finalised in the 1660’s.

At the Old Mole’s junction with the land stood the main Spanish arsenal, it was defended by coastal fortifications, particularly by the ‘Bastion del Canuto’. The Old Mole was joined to the town’s defences by the ‘Punta del Diablo’, at the neck of the mole stood the Leandro tower which would later be destroyed during the Anglo-Dutch attack in 1704.

1627 - Bravo de Acuña Muelle Viejo.

Painting of the Capture of Gibraltar by Anglo-Dutch forces in 1704 (unknown). The explosion in the background is often attributed to the destruction of the Torre del Tuerto, but most probably describes the destruction of the Torre de Leandro instead.

The Capture of Gibraltar from British Battles on Land and Sea, by James Grant illustrating the destruction of the Torre de Leandro in 1704.

Following the capture of the Rock by Anglo-Dutch forces in August 1704, the English estimated that it would take sixty heavy guns to guard against the possibility of an attack in front of the Old Mole, the sea facing wall and the South Front. It would further require a quantity of sandbags and hides in order to protect the shells, powder and grenades stored nearby with 250 shot required for each gun. That same year, it was proposed that the mole be lengthened by another 150 feet, mined and equipped with a new gun platform for twelve pieces of ordnance.

On the mole itself, the Devil’s Tongue Battery was built in 1720 with a total of seven 32-pdrs mounted there. During the 1727 siege, its parapet was rebuilt and re-moulded and the battery cannon was increased to twenty-two, although many of these were dismounted or damaged by the enemy bombardment. It was located 1,800 yards from the Spanish fort of S. Philip on the isthmus. This battery was located on the north side of the Old Mole facing north east directly towards the main Spanish Lines across the isthmus.

1704 - Col D'Harcourt Map of the Northern Defences.

Colonel Thomas James, writing in 1755, referred to the moles, as follows: ‘…to the southward of the town is a mole, in which you may be in five or six fathom water; and to the northward of the said town is another mole, called the Old Mole, but fit only for small craft, for there is not above six feet at low water. The ground between these two moles is very foul and rocky near the shore.’ In 1770, the Chief Engineer, Colonel William Green, recommended that a loose rubble dyke be built and two rows of wooden stakes or piles be driven into the sea bed in front of the mole to deter enemy boats approaching.

1727 - Spanish bombardment of Gibraltar, Johann Georg Puschner.

William Booth's diary describes the Old Mole and Quay thus:

Waterport which communicates to the Old Mole and Quay; its gate has a drawbridge with a Guardroom on one side and the Pratick house on the other; it was formerly a strand and very inconvenient for landing stores, but at the request and consent of the merchants then residing here, General Hargrave (who was only Commandant of the Garrison) had a Quay built in 1724 with large blocks to retain the filling it in necessary for the enlarging it, whose expence was defrayed by a Duty raised on every Butt of wine for sale in the Garrison: but in time the sea continually beating against this part, had laid it almost open again; General Bland on the addition of another Dollar on every butt of wine imported in the Garrison , without exception of persona had this Quay now repaired in 1750 by new facing the wall next the sea with square stone stairs ; the whole at present makes it as commodious as ye depth of water will admit of. There is a small covertway Palisaded and Glacis to defend this Quay; fronting the Guard to the Pratique house where is another Palisade which encloses this part from without with a Barrier that leads to the Old Mole this work was new built and repaired in 1730 and 1731.

Old Mole was built by the Spaniards and proved a galling Battery to them in the last Siege of 1727 which made them employ their Batteries vigorously against it, which they did and ruined most of the Parapet which was rebuilt in 1728 and 1729 (en Redans), in order that the cannon placed in the Embrasures should bear the nearer to the Town: an Old Building then was taken down to give more space and that part next Waterport was widened which gives room besides the 17: 24 pounder mounted in the Battery, for 16 platforms for Mortars , but at this present there are only four howitzers which can equally be made use of against the Land or Sea. The back wall of this Mole is so low that the Sea in high winds washes into it and has no Banguette, for the defences of small arms. From this Mole under the Line Wall as far as the Prince of Orange’s Battery is a covertway Palisaded and Glacis made to defend the landing there as there is space from the back of the Old Mole , of 200 feet in length, quite clear of rocks and sandy where boats commonly haul up, within this covertway and thro’ the wall is a postern , or small Gate with a communication into a spacious yard made use of for a Cooperage for the Navy, and adjoining to the Town; this covertway was now palisaded, with a Banguette , and a Sortie made in the Year 1749.

1782 - Gibraltar from the Old Mole.

Prior to the start of the Great Siege (1779-83), a strong boom of masts was laid from the Old Mole Head to the foot of the Landport glacis. Anchors were also dumped into the sea on the south side of the mole and sloping palisades were driven into the bank of this area in order to obstruct any possible enemy landing. In June 1781, a 13-inch mortar was mounted at the extremity of the mole so as to bombard the enemy camp at extreme range; this was only 1800 yards from the twenty-eight guns on the masonry Fort San Felipe in the Spanish Lines. At the end of the month, an experiment was tried out from there to augment the mortar fire. Five 32-pdrs. and one 18-pdr. were sunk into the sand behind the Old Mole and then secured with timbers so that they had different angles of elevation.

Vue perspective du siege de Gibraltar commence en 1779 par les Espagnols.

After the Great Siege, in January 1787, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Pringle proposed a number of modifications to the mole, including the cutting off of the Old Mole from its headland and building a fighting caponier in the ditch. The caponier is usually referred to as a projecting work with either a round or triangular face and roofed over to make it bombproof. It was designed to contain protected muskets or cannon capable of defending with flanking fire the work from which it projected. In the case of this proposal, it was to be shaped rather like an elongated pentagonal bastion with long flanks and would have embrasures for ten muskets firing from within casemates behind each face. There was to have been a further range of loopholes on the roof, giving two levels of close defence; however, the proposed works were never realised.

1816 - Gibraltar from the Old Mole Head, Whitcombe Sutherland.

Gibraltar From The Anchorage In Front Of The Old Mole, Lt. Col. Batty F.R.S.

In 1848, the Inspector General of Fortifications, General Sir John Fox Burgoyne, visited Gibraltar and recommended that all the guns on the mole should be turned round to fire south across the Bay to protect shipping as there was plenty of ordnance on the Grand Battery and the North Front to cover the Spanish Lines. In 1859, the Old Mole was reported as having the following ordnance: eight 8-inch guns, nine 32-pdrs., one 32-pdr. carronade and six 13-inch mortars. Years later, by 1886, the situation was as follows: six 13-inch LS mortars, six 8-inch Smooth Bore 65 cwt guns on Garrison Standing Carriages, six 64/32-pdrs. Rifle Muzzle Loaders, also on the same type of carriages, and one 8-inch howitzer.

1870's - George Washington Wilson, Old Mole and Waterport from Castle.

1870s - Gibraltar from Old Mole.

878 - Same view of Gibraltar from old mole.

An examination of the Old Mole indicates two distinct periods of building.  The earliest stage is close to the City Walls with the extensive use of red brick. The area closer to the Old Mole Head is constructed from large white block of Portland like stone dating to the 1840’s in line with the re-alignment and strengthening of the Line Wall defences.

Devils Tongue Baterry showing the older 18th Century red bricks used in its construction.

Old Mole Head showing the West facing casemates constructed with Portland limestone blocks.

In 1895 the Old Mole Head was absorbed into the new Gibraltar Harbour and the Devil’s Tongue Battery itself became landlocked following massive reclamation works, with the defensive role of the immediate area becoming redundant and the site was eventually abandoned. During the reclamation of the Queensway, the Devil’s Tongue Battery arsenal was removed to make way for new roadworks but the battery, magazines and embrasures were preserved.

Meanwhile, the commercial mole now extended west from the area of Waterport Wharf, Old Mole and Devil’s Tongue Battery. The breakwater included five jetties extending north and south as well as a western arm which paralleled the jetties. By 1902 the majority of the new harbour, later known as the North Mole had been completed. By then the Old Mole Head had been completely absorbed by the extensions to the North Mole.

Early 20th Century map showing reclamation works around the Old Mole Head.

In the early 1970’s the Old Mole was detached from the Devil’s Tongue during the reclamation for the Varyl Begg Estate. The Old Mole Head was transferred to Government during the land transfers of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The site was used to house the offices of various government departments including the Port Authority, HM Customs, Postal Services and workshops and foundry for the old Public Works Department. Part of the premises were also used as a depot for the refuse collectors and later for the St. John’s Ambulance. Meanwhile, the rest of the Devil’s Tongue Battery remained abandoned. The site was finally cleared in the mid-1980’s when it became a flower nursery-garden for the local firm Gibralflora.

Port Department Offices built above the Old Mole Head, L. Roisin 1930's.

In 2017, Government announced plans to relocate the two comprehensive schools to a new site at Waterport. Part of this construction, however, required the area covered by the Old Mole Head. Initial designs abutted the fortification and brought the exterior walls into the classrooms. After negotiations between the architects, Government and the Gibraltar Heritage Trust the new building was detached from the Old Mole Head and although the new structure would overhang over the fortification no structural load was placed on it. Despite a number of modern accretions, the Old Mole Head and Devil’s Tongue Battery still preserves some of the best surviving fortifications from the 18th and 19th Century which required sensitive restoration and preservation of the Old Mole Head due to its heritage value.  As part of the compromise between the Gibraltar Heritage Trust and developers, all modern accretions were removed and the two vaults within the mole have been sensitively restored. It is hoped this will allow the Old Mole Head Battery to become an iconic feature within the future Secondary School campus.


Old Mole Head before construction of the new schools.

New Westside Comprehensive School on site of Old Mole Head, 2021.

Old Mole Head Image