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The Main Guard

Ref: HLBP1/018

The building known as the Main Guard has a long and interesting history. It is the Headquarters of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust and is composed of offices, meeting room and library on the top floor and shop, stores and patio on the ground floor. The façade of the building that gives onto John Mackintosh Square today retains much of its original built fabric, the ground floor built before 1753 and the 1stfloor probably added after the Great Siege. It is delicately detailed with a central colonnaded loggia on two stories in the Doric order.

A prepared report by the architect J. S. Langdon described the condition of the Main Guard before the proposed repairs and alterations were carried out as follows:1

An interesting feature is the enlarged spacing between the central columns on the ground floor which was carried out as an alteration to the original in 1924 to allow the fire engine to be driven into the building when it was used by the Fire Brigade. These alterations also included the replacing of the original raised timber ground floor with a solid concrete floor (the original air bricks for the raised timber floor are still evident), the removal of the inner wall of the ground floor loggia, the heightening of the central wall arched opening and the replacement of the original ceilings with corrugated steel sheeting.

The condition of the façade is not bad considering the number of years of neglect and unsympathetic alterations, such as the enclosure of the ground floor loggia, telephone and electricity cables and brackets. Beneath thick layers of paint, the plaster or stone mouldings are still evident and the original casement windows, as seen on the Carter prints, are still in place on the upper floor.

Although it is not clear when exactly the building was constructed, the first references to it date to the middle of the 18th century.

We know that Dr Robert Poole, for example, visited Gibraltar in 1748 and stayed in a hotel on the "Parade", probably on the south junction with Main Street, where Griffith's Hotel was later situated. He writes:2

"A little below my lodging is what is called the Grand Guard House, which is one of the neatest buildings in these parts, though it is but low, being not but one storey high, which indeed is the common height for the buildings in the city... Before the guard house, a little upon the Parade, is the whipping post, where almost every day soldiers are brought to feel the scourge..."

At the time John Mackintosh Square was known as The Parade due to its function as a parade ground. In a plan of the parade made in 1750 by Thomas James (published in 1770) the building is clearly shown, labelled "Main Guard Room" with soldiers mustered outside it. It is also present in the Montresor 1753 plan and referred to as "The main guard". The building consisted of two rooms or offices at the front on either side of a foyer and a barrack room at the back. A small patio at the rear can also be observed.

Thomas James map of the parade 1750.

James Montresor’s 1753 plan.

James Montresor’s 1753 plan.

The building was almost certainly severely damaged by the bombardment doing the Great Siege - its proximity to the King's Bastion (which took the brunt of bombardments) would have certainly meant this was the case. The second storey which can be seen on the building today was probably added when it was rebuilt.

The two-storied building, with soldiers on guard, is shown in the Carter print of the Commercial Square (1830).

Carter print of the Commercial Square (1830).

According to Dorothy Ellicott ‘...a young officer of the 28th (now the Gloucestershire) Regiment, by the name of Marsham, occupied his leisure by adorning the walls of the Main Guard with a series of little pictures, described as being ‘clever, amusing sketches’. Lady Airey was so impressed when she saw them that she commissioned the artist to execute large mural paintings all around the patio at the Convent’ (Lord Airey was Governor in Gibraltar between 1865 and 1870).3

In the late 1860's, Henri Regnault, one of France's most promising painters, had befriended a number of Officers and was a regular visitor to the Main Guard. He painted three pictures for them, and these hung in the building for many years. Ragnault returned to France to fight in the Franco-Prussian War, and was killed in the last 1885 battle.

The 1885 Gibraltar Directory describes the Main Guard:

"The Main Guard, a plain building, stands in the Commercial Square. On the ground floor are the Men's Guard Room and the cells... On the upper storey is the Officers room."

According to the 1896 Gibraltar Directory it was still being used as a Guard House. However, it seems to have fallen out of use by 1911 after the Military Foot Police vacated it. Kenyon, writing in 1911, refers to the Main Guard in the past tense; evidently it had by then ceased to be a Guard House. He mentions that the 'Black Hole', or punishment cells had been nearby, possibly under the Haven.4

Between the two World Wars the building was used as the City Fire Station. The premises at the Main Guard were made available to the City Council in December 1920 by the War Department for use exclusively as a Fire Station and on condition they would be immediately surrendered if they were needed for War Department purposes.5 The City Fire station had previously been housed at what is now 6 Convent Place which was considered inadequate. Alterations were nevertheless made to the building to suit this new purpose, such as the removal of the wooden floors on the ground floor so as to support the weight of the fire engines. In total the Council spent £500 fixing the leaking roof and converting the Main Guard for use as a Fire Station.6 However, conditions were cramped and a proposal was made in 1923 for an extra storey on the building and a remodelling of the façade.7 The premises at the time consisted of a barrack room on the upper floor where 7 men slept, three on a room on the ground floor, and one man on the telephone room. The Fire Brigade Sergeant and his family occupied a small bedroom, a living room and a small kitchen. The men had no sitting room, recreation room and the dining room was too small for 11 men.8

A drawing of the building with a proposed extra storey has survived but the work was not done because the cost of adding the extra storey was £1,550, which was then more than what the Council could afford.9

Architectural drawing of the proposed new Fire Station at the Main Guard with an extra storey and remodelled façade.

As a result of the failure to fund the original modifications a trimmed down proposal of improvements at a cost of £700 was prepared and agreed between the City Council and War Department. A loan was raised and to secure security of tenure over the premises the War Department agreed to grant the City Council a 14 year lease, with effect from 1st August 1925.10 Crucially, the appearance of the Main Guard did not alter substantially as the trimmed-down scheme did not include an extra storey or remodelling of the façade. The modifications, however, included a garage for the first fire engine and built by Dennis was purchased in 1924 by the City Council for the Fire Brigade. Its replacement, G2561, also built by Dennis was supplied in 1935.11

Fire Tender G2561 and crew outside the Main Guard Fire Station.

Fire Station personal group photo outside Main Guard 1920's

When the new purpose built Fire Station was built at Alameda permission was sought, and obtained to house the ambulance and night driver and also certain public health functions at the Main Guard. The City Council then proposed to build the entire Public Health Department on the site of the Main Guard. City Engineer W. H. Pearce drew up a concept drawing showing the design of the new Public Health Department which would have been constructed in the Art Deco style.12 However, the War Department were by then considering to convert the Main Guard into married quarters. After some negotiation a compromise was reached and the Main Guard was exchanged for Glen Rocky, a property off Europa Road, close to the Naval Hospital. The Fire Brigade moved out to its new premises the following month, March 1938.13

On the 19th August 1938, Peter Russo, Chairman of the City Council sent a copy of W. H. Pearce’s drawing for the proposed new Public Health building to the Colonial Secretary. The drawing echoed the style of the new Fire Station at Grand Parade, which he also designed.14 The proposal never materialized due to the deteriorating relations with Nazi Germany which was to slid Europe into a new World War in 1939 together with the prohibitive cost of erecting such a large building which caused the whole plan to be moth-balled.

W. H. Pearce’s concept drawing for a new Health Department in the Art Deco style, 1938.

After World War II the building was used for some time as a public bath-house until its use was changed again in the second half of the 20th century to Government of Gibraltar department offices, namely for the payment of public utility bills and road licences.

The first floor of the Main Guard became home to the Gibraltar Heritage trust in February 2001. After a major renovation in 2014 the entire premises were restored to its former appearance, adding to the unique setting and heritage value of John Mackintosh Square. The second floor was then incorporated by the Gibraltar Heritage Trust to house the offices, meeting room and library.

The Main Guard Image