Monday, April 18, 2016

The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity: the building of Gibraltar's Protestant church

by Jacqueline Reiter

When I visited Gibraltar last year for some research, one of the buildings on my list of "things to see" was the Protestant Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. I mostly wanted to say hi to Sir George Don, the Lieutenant-Governor of Gibraltar during the time I was researching (he's buried there). It's also a mighty pretty building in its own right.

Monument to Sir George Don

Fortunately, the history of the building cropped up fairly regularly in my research over the next few days. The lack of a large Protestant church until the 1830s reflects Gibraltar's cosmopolitan background. British, Genoese, Jews, Spaniards, Catholics, and Protestants all rubbed shoulders in Gibraltar's hot, narrow streets and alleys. The Protestant contingent of the town was very small, about 13%, limited mostly to the British soldiery and some of the British mercantile families.[1]

There had been a Catholic cathedral in Gibraltar since before the British arrival in 1704, and the Jews had had a synagogue since 1724, but the Protestants had nothing of their own. The more prosperous townspeople had the opportunity to join the Governor for divine worship in his private chapel attached to his official residence. Even so, if they and all the highest-ranking military officers showed up at the same time, the place was a bit of a squeeze. 

The Governor's Chapel (on the right)

In 1820 the leading Protestant citizens appealed to Don, who laid their request for a Protestant church before the Colonial Secretary.

The Colonial Office expressed interest, and the proposal went as far as drawing up an elaborate financial estimate of £5000, but the minute the Treasury officials saw this figure they panicked (this, you must realise, in the straitened post-Napoleonic period of strict government-sponsored financial retrenchment). The petition was filed at the back of a drawer somewhere and forgotten about for eighteen months.

Fast-forward to 1822. Don, the Lieutenant-Governor, handed the active superintendence of Gibraltar over in November 1821 to the actual Governor, the Earl of Chatham. Chatham was well-connected and influential, and the Protestants thought he might just pull a few strings for them.

They were not wrong. Chatham was a keen proponent of Christian morality in the garrison under his command. He forbade trading, drinking and gambling on Sundays and personally chaired Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge meetings. Sponsoring a Protestant church was right up his street.

He wrote to Lord Bathurst, the Colonial Secretary, in July 1822 proposing a solution to the problem of cost. Chatham knew of an old, derelict Barrack Office-owned storehouse in Gibraltar known as "White Cloister". Land in Gibraltar was precious and expensive, because it all belonged to the Crown and was, therefore, transferable generally only by leasehold, with express permission from Whitehall. Chatham thought selling "White Cloister" would produce more than enough money both to build a new barrack store and provide the missing £5000 for a church, if it were built "without all the Ornaments proposed in the former plan".[1]

After receiving Bathurst's go-ahead in October, Chatham conferred with the Chief Engineer, Robert Pilkington, on a plan that would be practical, aesthetically pleasing, and (above all) cheap. Pilkington drew up several plans which he laid before the Governor. The design Chatham selected was, as Pilkington observed, "a feature of Building familiar to the Eye in this Country, yet ... obtaining the required Accommodation, and for a limited Sum of Money": a low, square building in a "Moorish style" for 1300 people, with separate entrances at each end for civil and military worshippers.[2]

Interior of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity

The proposal was sent to the Colonial Office in February 1823, and laid before the Treasury in May. Possibly it took this long because Chatham, in a moment of typical absent-mindedness, forgot to send the plan along with the estimate.[3] Meanwhile, the sale of the White Cloisters went through and produced an even larger sum than Chatham had hoped. All that was needed now was final approval to build, and Chatham was confident enough to inform the important Protestants in the garrison that they would soon be able to start building.

He had spoken too soon. In March 1824, in response to the deafening silence from Whitehall, Chatham reminded Bathurst that "His Majesty's Protestant Subjects in this Garrison have been most anxiously waiting for the final decision on the subject of the Church which I was authorised to give them hopes would be granted them".[4]

This dispatch (received on 8 April) nearly gave the Treasury officials a heart attack. Faced with the need to make a final call, the Treasury suddenly remembered all sorts of obstacles. It had now been fourteen months since Pilkington had drawn up his plan: a new plan would now be needed, preferably on a more pared-down scale, because a church for 1300 people was surely too big for a population that was predominantly Catholic and Jewish. Faced with the prospect of paying an annual stipend to a government-appointed clergyman, the Treasury declared the best solution would be to add galleries to the existing chapel attached to the Governor's residence, and withheld their permission to commence building.[5]

Chatham was not impressed with this unexpected back-pedalling. Further correspondence ensued in which Chatham pointed out, in increasingly clipped language, that White Cloisters had produced enough money to make the Treasury's financial fears unwarranted. In February 1825 the Treasury Board caved in and, on 22 February, informed Chatham "that there no longer exists any difficulty in carrying His Majesty's Gracious Intentions ... into effect".[6]

Building on what would become the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity began in June 1825. One of the last things Lord Chatham did before returning to England was to lay the foundation stone. Invitations to the foundation ceremony were issued on 30 May to the prominent merchants and citizens of the town.[7] 

Copy of the invitation to the foundation ceremony for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Gibraltar National Archives, Local Correspondence 1818-29)

On 1 June Chatham and Don marched out with the military and civilian authorities to the spot where the church was to be built, through a lane of troops composed of the Welsh Fusiliers and the 64th Regiment of Foot. Two brass plates, one with Chatham's name and one bearing Don's, were affixed to the foundation stone. A box containing coins and a Coronation Medal was laid beneath it.

"His Excellency went through the customary ceremony of using the trowel and mallet," the Gibraltar Chronicle reported, "and the whole concluded with prayers suited to the occasion".[8]

The cathedral was completed in 1832, a lasting monument to Don and Chatham's period of active partnership – and a slap in the face of government penny-pinching.


[1] Marc Alexander, Gibraltar: conquered by no enemy (London, 2008)

[1] Chatham to Lord Bathurst, 26 July 1822, Gibraltar National Archives Military Secretary's Office 1819-27

[2] Robert Pilkington to Chatham, 8 February 1823, National Archives CO 91/80

[3] "The Plan did not accompany the Dispatch": pencilled note on Chatham's 14 February dispatch to Lord Bathurst, National Archives CO 91/80

[4] Chatham to Lord Bathurst, 17 March 1824, National Archives CO 91/81

[5] Treasury minute, 13 April 1824, National Archives CO 91/82

[6] George Harrison to Chatham, 22 February 1825, Gibraltar National Archives Dispatches to Gibraltar 1825

[7] Gibraltar National Archives, Local Correspondence 1818-29

[8] Gibraltar Chronicle, 1 June 1825


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. "The Late Lord" will be published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at, and can be found on Twitter as

1 comment:

  1. I was surprised to see a memorial inside the Cathedral as the gentleman had the same surname as mine, John Hanson Beasant. He died at Wind Mill Hill in 1812. We hope to go back in 2021 and would love to find out if he was actually buried at Gibraltar. Very interesting place.


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