A Maltese architect played an important role in the construction of the Valletta Opera House in the 1860s but has received only scant recognition and mention in the saga regarding its rebuilding.
Salvatore Fenech PA (perito agrimensore), the son of Alberto and Maria née Bezzina, was born in Lija on October 16, 1816. He married Maria Borg and his descendants include architects, lawyers and doctors of the well-known Fenech family, of whom I form part being his great grandson from my mother’s side. He died in Birkirkara on August 10, 1885 and is buried in the crypt of St Helen’s Basilica.
He also took part in the construction of the old Market Place.
His story comes out in the report from the Select Committee on the New Opera House printed at the Government Press in 1863 and found at the National Archives.
This Select Committee was appointed on April 15, 1862 to examine and report on “the system adopted by local government for the construction of the New Theatre…”; “the reasons which led to the present demolition of the New Theatre…”; “whether any individual was legally and morally responsible to government for what has happened…”;and “the examination of the facts in order that the council may rest satisfied that the public money is not wasted…”.
It was found, among other things, that the chosen British architect, Edward Middleton Barry, had employed a Mr Dale as clerk of works of the new building to carry out punctually the plans of June 18, 1861. “In the meantime, the works had progressed under Mr Dale’s superintendence, and a portion of the cellarage had already been constructed although without a plan of this floor – the architect not having made any plan of the cellarage.”
Mr Dale was later described by this same architect as “a half educated clerk of works who has had no experience whatever in theatres, with a head never strong and who knows absolutely nothing about theatres and is also ignorant of all architectural considerations”.
“On November 19, 1861, a Mr Dunnage replaced Mr Dale. No plan of the cellarage was made up to this time.” The work continued under Mr Dunnage’s superintendence, and it was after November 27 that it was found that the work done was of such bad quality that “it could hardly fail to attract the attention of an ordinary observer”.
On November 23, 1861, Salvatore Fenech, as an architect, was asked “to measure the works for the purpose of paying another sum to the contractor, Francesco Mangion”. Mr Fenech, in his report, informed the Collector that the work was of bad quality. Later, on December 9, 1861, he submitted a written report of greatest importance, stating that “the stones were not thick enough, the filling was irregular, the excavations and wells were similarly filled, the cement was scanty and bad mortar was used”. He recommended that at least part of the work done was to be demolished. Mr Fenech was later asked to compare the work with the plan.
On February 13, 1862, he submitted a report indicating “deviations from the plan of June 18, 1861”. Later, Mr Fenech “received from Capt. Brett, private secretary to the Governor, and from Sir Adrian Dingli the charge of superintending the works”.
“The Committee deemed it proper to remark that, from this period, the works appeared to be carried on in a regular manner under the superintendence of Mr Poulson (as Clerk of Works sent by Mr Barry) and of Mr Fenech (as representative of the Department of Public Works)”.
It is indeed significant that the Governor Lt Gen. Sir John Le Merchant, in a note dated October 20, 1864, issued from The Palace, Malta, and sent to Mr Fenech, land surveyor, Land Revenue Office, Malta, stated that:
“During the six years and a half I have been Governor of Malta the services of Mr Fenech have been prominently under my personal notice more particularly in connection with the construction of the New Market and Opera House.
“And I am happy of the opportunity to record my high sense of his underrating honesty, professional ability, practical knowledge and excellent conduct.
His professional services have been very useful to this Government”.
The Maltese community should, in my opinion, show some form of gratitude to this outstanding gentleman for his valued involvement in the erection of Barry’s Opera House. This can only be done by an inscription in marble affixed to the ruins of the Opera House.