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Thursday, 4 August 2011

“I Removed my Straw Trilby and Gave a Polite Bow, as the Lady in Question was None Other than Queen Victoria” Or: A Victorianist’s Maltese Travelog:

Miss Amateur Casual and I have recently returned from a holiday to Malta, but no Victorianist is ever truly on holiday when visiting a former British colony, and to my delight, the influence of the British Victorians can still be seen today, if you look for it.

I have picked out a couple of examples, some of which I was lucky enough to see, whether in their full glory or a mere glimpse.

The Opera House Ruins
In the capital of Malta, Valletta, can be seen the ruins of an old building which, according to the map I purchased for a scandalous amount of euros was the Royal Opera House. The ruins looked extremely old, as you can see on the right, but after a little bit of research it transpires that they are not as ancient as I first thought, and the Opera House was first built there in 1866, after being designed by none other than the third son of famous English architect Charles Barry, Edward Middleton Barry. Edward’s other works include Burnley Grammar School, built in 1860, Birmingham Free Public Library, built in 1861, Charing Cross Hotel and the replica of the Eleanor Cross in London, built in 1865, and, perhaps most famously, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, opened in 1858 (upon which his designs for the Valletta Royal opera House was based)
E. M. Barry’s original designs for the Valletta Opera House had be changed because the steep, sloping streets adjacent to the site where the building was to be, had not been taken into account. The neighbouring street, Strada Reale, was fitted with a terrace to level the land out a little.
Building started in 1862, and four years later, the Opera House, with an overall capacity for 1,295 people spectators (1,095 seated and 200 standing) opened on 9th October 1866.

Six years after the grand opening, the Opera House was struck by disaster when, in May 1873 there was a fire. The outside of the theatre remained in tact, but inside, the heat of the fire had swept through the building destroying almost everything. The heat had been so intense that the interior stonework had calcified.
Back in its Glory Days
What was to happen next? Nobody was sure. Should they demolish the Opera House? Was it safe to rebuild? In the end, it was rebuilt. The rebuilding process took as long as the original build, and on 11th October 1877, the Royal opera House in Valletta staged its second grand opening, eleven years and two days after its first, with a performance of Verdi’s ‘Aida’.

Whilst the Opera House’s ‘second coming’ lasted a lot longer than its first, its life was still ended prematurely, when sixty-five years later, in April 1942, it was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombers, and never rebuilt, which is why the Opera House is still in ruins today, and looking so ancient.

Whilst we were in Valleta, we noted that building work on the entrance to the city was taking place, a project which the information posters advertised as being entitled ‘The City Gates’. Whilst the artist impressions of the finished project looked nice, it seems that the Maltese people are vehemently opposed to the work, which has been agreed by the Maltese parliament, seemingly without consulting anybody.

The project involves building a brand new parliament building, tearing down the existing city gate and turning the ruined Royal Opera House into an open-air performance space. Whilst all that remains of the Opera House now are the steps which once led up to the entrance hall, battered and graffiti-covered parts of wall surrounding a litter and weed-infested concrete square, my personal opinion is that the Opera House as it currently stands serves as a fitting tribute, first and foremost, to the efforts of the island during World War Two, for which it was awarded a George Cross, and secondly, to the rich history we Brits share with the Maltese people, but then, I suppose people with a fondness for history can be a little sentimental about such things.

Also in Valletta, as we strolled down the main street on our way back toward the bus station, I was met with a familiar face. Of course, out of respect for this lady I removed my straw trilby and gave a polite bow, as the lady in question was none other than Queen Victoria, carved elegantly in marble and sat upon a plinth in front of the Maltese National Library in Republic Square.

The Queen
A little bit more research on her majesty informed me that she was not – as I had originally assumed – the work of a British Victorian, shipped to Malta during height of the Empire, but of a Sicilian named Giuseppe Valente. Victoria was sculpted in Palermo, and then travelled to Malta, where she was unveiled as part of the celebrations to commemorate her golden jubilee in 1887. Republic Square, where the marble Victoria finds her home, is known locally as Pjazza Regina – Queen’s Square.

Whilst traveling on one of the new Maltese busses (Second-hand Arriva busses replaced the quaint antique busses synonymous with Malta a little over two weeks prior to our visit – a god-send in terms of air conditioning but not much to look at) Miss Amateur Casual wondered whether Malta had any rail system to speak of. My answer, which was purely a guess, was that I suppose they did not require one, the island being quite small, and most places seemingly easily within an hour or so drive of wherever one may find oneself. Miss Amateur Casual also commented on the vast amounts of hills on the island, which would make a project such as a rail system extremely difficult, requiring extensive tunneling on land not too far above sea-level.

In sense, we were correct, but after observing what we assumed to be a dried up river (essentially a large trough in the ground, overgrown with trees, bushes and grasses running through the middle of a town) I purchased a book on Malta’s history from a local shop, and, sure enough, there was once a small railway on the island, but it no longer exists. More ghosts.
The Malta Railway was only tiny – a single line, which ran from the current capital city of Valletta, to the old capital city, the walled, medieval fort town of Mdina (pronounced im-deena, we were told by our guide book)

The train line was first proposed in 1870, in order to shave two and a half hours off the three hour traveling time by horse and cart between the two cities. The Malta Railway Company was set up to plan and carry out the works. The planning and design took a long time, and the Malta Railway Company turned to the British engineering firm of Wells-Owen & Elwes from London, to design the railway.

The carriages, too came from England, being built by Manning Wardle & Co. Ltd. from Leeds, Black, Hawthorn & Co Ltd. from Gateshead, and Beyer, Peacock & Co. Ltd. of Manchester.

Delays to the start of the project were brought about by problems in purchasing land for the track, some of which was occupied by houses and businesses, with whom the Malta Railway Company had protracted negotiations regarding the buying of the land. Eventually, the legal and practical issues were sorted out, the construction began, and on the 28th February 1883, crowds watched the first train depart Valletta station for Mdina. The railways were in business. The Malta Railway Company, however, were not to be so for much longer. In 1890 they were declared bankrupt, and the line they operated between the old and new capital was closed after only seven years of operation.
Two years later, in January 1892, the Maltese government re-opened the line, having made improvements and investments to it, and the Maltese railway was back up and running, better than before.

The opening decades of the 20th century, however, dealt deadly blows to the railways; in 1903 a tram service was set up in some areas of Malta, which took away a lot of the custom from the trains, and in the 1930’s, Malta began to use motorized busses to carry people around the streets.
The Vehicle that Condemned the Railway
The busses wiped out the railway trade, and sent the trams down too, and now, only relics of the old train lines exist – entrances to tunnels in hills, etc, and interestingly, when the railway closed, a lot of the railway track was surfaced with tar, and if you know where you’re going, you can still walk much of the old train tracks today.
Many of the busses were still in use right up to the middle of this year, along with other designs from later decades. Sadly, I never got to ride on an old bus. 

In the same year that the Malta railway began operation, heralding the onset of new technology on the island, an altogether more ancient phenomenon occurred on the tiny island of Gozo, just to the north-west of Malta. The tale was told to us by a local bus driver, taking us from the island’s capital, Victoria, to its port, so that we could catch the boat back to Malta. En route, we were to stop at an old church named Ta’Pinu. (part of the exterior of which can be seen on my holiday snap, below) The story was that in 1883, a forty-five year old local woman named Carmela Grima, who was a regular worshipper at Ta’Pinu church, was walking past and heard a woman’s voice urging her to come into the church to pray. Although she did so every day, she was not intending to on this occasion. Confused by the voice, she began to run away, but the voice called again, and this time Carmela realized that the voice was coming from inside the church. She went inside and the voice – which had come from the image of the Blessed Virgin – asked her to recite three Ave Maria’s.
Ta'Pinu Church

Carmela did as the voice asked and went on her way. Shortly afterwards she fell ill and remained confined to her bed for more than a year. After this time, Karmela revealed her secret to a friend, Francesco Portelli, who in turn told her that at the same time he also heard a woman's voice asking him to pray from within the chapel. Shortly after this mysterious call Francesco's mother was miraculously healed.
News of the events spread, and people came from all over Malta to pray for miracles of their own, and still do to this day.

I supposed that perhaps her illness had made her delirious and caused her to hear voices, but voiced this opinion solely to Miss Amateur Casual, who tended to agree.

On the way back to port after leaving the church, our amiable driver pointed out the ruins of some aqueducts built by the British in the 19th century to supply fresh water to the people of the island. Work started in September 1839, with former British Army officer, and Governor of Malta from 1836 to 1843, Sir Henry Bouverie in charge of proceedings.

The Obelisk
The Aqueducts took fresh water from a spring on Ghar IIma Hill (Ghar IIma meaning ‘The Cave of Water) and conveyed it to the capital city of Victoria where it gathered inn a reservoir for locals to collect. Work was completed in September 1843, as the first water, carried by the aqueducts, issued from a fountain in St. Sabina Square, Victoria

A monument commemorating this event still stands today, but unfortunately, I got no photograph of it myself.
(Thanks to Le Monde1 for allowing me to use his FlickR photograph of the obelisk monument to the opening of the aqueducts, much appreciated.)

Today, of course, the aqueducts are no longer in use, but stand – just like the Royal Opera House – as a monument to out interlinked history with the Maltese. Unfortunately, as we were on a bus driving past the ruins I was unable to get a photograph of my own, but below is typical of what they look like today.
Aqueduct Ruins
Of course, any former British colony will still bear some signs and harbour the odd ghost of British rule, and I enjoyed seeing the evidence of our Victorian ancestors in Malta conmbined with the influences of all manner of other times and cultures, from Arabic to Italian, from medieval times to modern day. The effects of being ruled by so many different countries and empires – such as the Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, French and British – all combined on these little, catholic islands to form a culture all of their own.

The red telephone boxes and post boxes which are scattered over the island, certainly make you feel a little at home, along with the fact that our Victorian ancestors were once there, building and engineering as only they could, to add their signature and a note of good wishes to the metaphorical guestbook of Malta’s history, and put a British stamp upon the islands which continues to echo today.


  1. Great article! Malta has more to offer the medieval and WW2 enthusiast, but has some Victorian stuff too.

    Good resource on The Malta Railway =>

    The old Maltese buses (oldest has chassis from 1919). English version of post at the bottom.

  2. Thanks, I agree with you about Malta's medieval and WWII historical pedigree, there certainly was plenty for enthusiasts of those eras. Appreciate the Malta Railway link!