Saturday, July 11, 2015

Gibraltar: The Perks of Location Research

by Jacqueline Reiter

I am very fond of tramping the ground trodden by my characters and research interests. Until now this has meant travelling reasonably locally, mostly to stately homes and towns in the south and south-west of England. Last month, however, I discovered a major perk of studying a man who was a Governor of Gibraltar: the opportunity to visit the Rock itself.

Rock of Gibraltar from the airport

I am about halfway through my biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham. Chatham was appointed Governor of Gibraltar in 1820, and was actually on the spot from 1821 to 1825, when he returned to England for his health. I needed to find out what he did while he was in Gibraltar, and there are few resources in England to tell me. My visit, therefore, was primarily to use the Gibraltar National Archives, but I was also curious to visit the place where my research interest had spent four years of his life.

In geographical terms, Gibraltar is stunning. It is, essentially, a large chunk of limestone that attached itself to the Iberian peninsula several million years ago. Even now the "Rock", as it is known, seems entirely separate from the Spanish mainland. The place is tiny, about seven miles long and less than two miles wide: during my five day visit, even though I spent nearly every day from 9 to 5 in the archives, I managed to walk the entire length and breadth of the place.

Tiny it may be, but Gibraltar is full of history and proud of it. Gibraltar's history is closely intertwined with that of Britain. It was taken from the Spanish by siege in 1704, and formally ceded by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Ever since, despite a number of wobbly moments, most notably the "Great Siege" by the Spanish from 1779 to 1783, Gibraltar has been British.

The place is very much a military garrison, and it shows. Recent land reclamation has expanded the size of the territory past the town walls, but the older town is clearly fringed with austere grey-bricked bastions, many of them dating back to the 1700s and beyond. The main part of the town runs along the backbone of Main Street, from the Governor's Residence, the "Convent", at one end to the Grand Casemates Square at the other.

King's Bastion and reclaimed land beyond

Many of the tightly-packed, colourfully-painted houses branching off from this street are painted with numbers to denote barracks. Side streets have a distinctly military flavour: Governor's Parade; Cannon Lane; Glacis Road.

Although the town is clearly old, it largely dates to the post-1783 period. The Gibraltar Museum has several pictures showing the devastation caused to the town by the various bombardments during the Great Siege. By 1783 there was barely a house with a roof on it.

Main Street in 1783 (Wikimedia Commons)

By 1821, the period I was researching, the place was nearly completely rebuilt, but there were ongoing initiatives. The Cathedral of Holy Trinity, the largest Protestant church in Gibraltar, was not begun till 1825. My boy Chatham, indeed, laid the foundation stone shortly before returning home.

Cathedral of the Holy Trinity

The Great Siege is, indeed, everywhere. Monuments to General Elliott, the governor during the siege, are scattered all over the town. Up on the scrub-covered and monkey-infested crest of the Rock itself is a network of tunnels dug by British engineers and artillerists, begun during the siege and completed over the next few decades. A portion of these are open to the public, and they are well worth a visit.

Inside the Great Siege Tunnels

The tunnels stretch for over a mile through the Rock, all man-made. Many advances in military engineering were made during the siege, including the development of a gun carriage designed to fire down a steep slope, invented for the express purpose of defending Gibraltar's siege tunnels against the Spanish.

Standing on one of the viewpoints atop the Rock, it is immediately obvious why Gibraltar has been such a strategic point for British seapower. It commands the enormous Bay on one side and the expanse of the Mediterranean on the other. The coast of Africa is clearly visible, even on a cloudy day.

Africa, from Europa Point

Here was a port where British ships could shelter and reprovision and keep a watchful eye over the activities of Britain's allies and enemies alike. This was the port to which the HMS Victory was taken for repairs after Trafalgar in 1805. The "Trafalgar cemetery" still exists, where many of the sailors who died as a result of the battle are buried.

Gibraltar was a very important military and naval post, and my boy Chatham was lucky to be the Governor of it. Unfortunately he appears to have hated it there, and never struck a rapport with the place. There were circumstances for this, of course, but I cannot help but feel sorry for it. Gibraltar is beautiful and deeply interesting. I was made very welcome there, and everyone I spoke to fell over themselves to assist me in my research. The highlight of my trip, however, was probably taking my laptop up to the top of the Rock and writing, with a view of the Bay spread out before me.

Perhaps the most inspiring place I have ever written

I am so glad my research took me to this marvellous place. I can't wait to go back.


Jacqueline Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She is currently working on the first ever biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, due to be released by Pen & Sword Books in September 2016. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at, and can be found on Twitter as


  1. I have to say, I've got a picture taken from exactly the spot your last one is from when I was up there in 2013 - except our cruise ship's in the dock. Truly stunning up there, nice contrast to the caves, like walking out into another world.

    1. I spent about three hours up there just writing, till my laptop battery gave out. I've never written so well or so fluidly before -- although I did end up sunburnt! ;-) (it was cloudy when I started writing, honest!)

  2. What an interesting post! I never knew so much about Gibraltar - must put it on my bucket list! It looks simply gorgeous.

    1. It is! Well worth visiting if you can manage. Quite unique, historically and geographically.

  3. We know it well as we have a friend with an appartment in La Linea, the Spanish town that shares the border with Gibraltar. The only place I know where you have to stop at a red traffic light - and then see a plane passing just yards in front of you as it's the airport! Very disconcerting for those that don't know this - made me jump, but I guess it's all changed now.

    1. Oh no, not at all. I walked to the airport from my hotel and had to wait at a gate while a 737 touched down just a hundred yards or so from me. Then when the gate opened I walked across the runway to get to the airport. I can safely say I have never done that before.

  4. We know it well as we have a friend with an appartment in La Linea, the Spanish town that shares the border with Gibraltar. The only place I know where you have to stop at a red traffic light - and then see a plane passing just yards in front of you as it's the airport! Very disconcerting for those that don't know this - made me jump, but I guess it's all changed now.


Comments with opposing viewpoints are allowed if they are not written in an unnecessarily confrontational or arrogant manner.