Compared with the rest of Malta, Sliema is, relatively speaking, a new town. Except for Fort Tigné and St Julian’s Tower there were few buildings of note on the peninsula extending from Mrabat Hill to Tigné Point and its polygonal fort, the ultimate fortification of the Order before the French occupation of 1798.

With open countryside and fields, it was not long before the peninsula drew affluent residents of overcrowded Valletta who chose it as a summer retreat.

In Vol. II, Chapter XX of Rajt Malta Tinbidel (1974), Herbert Ganado (1906-1979) recalled “the small marine village with some notable buildings” (in 1827), the suburb across the water that eventually eclipsed Valletta. However, it is to the two volumes by the late Winston L. Zammit that one must turn for the definitive history: Tas-Sliema fis-Seklu XIX (2000) and Tas-Sliema 1901-1950 (2006).

Imagine transport to Sliema before 1882: The rich travelled in carriages, the rest on karrozzini or the omnibus, and the poor by Shank’s Pony (karru ta’ San Franġisk), the euphemism for going on foot.

Sliema was reached from Valletta via Pietà and the new Rue d’Argens at Msida, and from there to Strada Marina and the link with St Julian’s via Prince of Wales Road. For those opting for the short sea connection there were the dgħajsas: one was rowed from Marsamxett to Fort Manoel and the eponymous island that straddles the harbour, or to Sliema by swarthy barklori (from the Italian barcaioli).

The population of Sliema grew exponentially with every decade from 324 in 1861 to 1,600 in 1871. The suburb still lacked modern amenities: a functioning water supply and sewerage system, electricity and a faster connection with Valletta, so near across the water, so far away if rowed by dgħajsa, and so discomforting and dangerous, especially when the sea was rough.

Sir Arthur Borton became Governor in 1878; he was a progressive administrator who, as he later averred on the day he inaugurated the railway in 1883, was certain that newer forms of travel would be the catalyst for a cultural and behavioural shift that would induce the Maltese to value time, speed and money so that a quicker pulse would beat through the island.

There is an interesting description of public works initiated by Borton at Sliema in an album presented by the members of the Malta Exhibition Commission to Chev. E. L. Galizia on the occasion of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886. The photographs were taken by Richard Ellis and the text was printed by Calixto Maistre.

Houses sprouted, literally speaking, overnight as if by magic.Houses sprouted, literally speaking, overnight as if by magic.

The author criticised the absence of a proper plan for the town: “It is to be deplored that the blocks of building constructed on private property by the landlords themselves have not been laid out on a regular design; had this been observed, its thoroughfares would have been better arranged and squares provided for its embellishment, all of which would have tended to render conspicuous a new town so much required as an outlet for the thickly, crowded population of Valletta.

The population of Sliema grew exponentially with every decade from 324 in 1861 to 1,600 in 1871. The suburb still lacked modern amenities

“Since 1880, the local government has not failed to carry out works tending to both the convenience and embellishment of the place. The very narrow wharf, in fact, skirting the village towards the creek, and over which the sea made, formerly, a clean sweep in stormy weather, rendering the traffic, at times, rather dangerous, has been so widened as to be converted into a spacious quay, planted with trees and provided with stone seats; and the road skirting this place as far as Fort Manoel has been reconstructed and remodelled.

“All the improvements were planned by the officer (E. L. Galizia) who designed and carried out the most important of all public works effected at Sliema, viz: the laying down of an aqueduct from the main of the Wignacourt aqueduct in Sda San Giuseppe, a distance of about three miles, to this suburb. It is, no doubt, a work of paramount importance, and of immense benefit to the inhabitants who previously depended only for rain for the supply of water.

“The scarcity of water, in fact, in the droughty season was so severely felt in that populous suburb as to move the local government to direct the Superintendent of Public Works to devise some remedy to this inconvenience and a sea water distilling apparatus was erected midway between the landing place and the fort, which, owing to the supply provided by the aqueduct, is now no longer needed. The aqueduct is already connected with many of the private dwellings and feeds several public fountains.”

An inscription was placed on the fountain in St Anne Square to commemorate the works.

The fountain in St Anne Square commemorated the arrival of the water supply to Sliema.The fountain in St Anne Square commemorated the arrival of the water supply to Sliema.

Intimations of a steam ferry service in July 1878 boosted house rents and apprehension by the barklori about the impending faster and safer crossing by steamboat. In 1856, the barklori charged two pence for the crossing, half a penny when the boat was full (maximum 10 passengers). Dgħajsas were rowed by two barklori; foreigners noted the odd method of rowing – one man pulled, the other pushed the oars.

The boats were hailed with cries of “dyso”. There are several visitors’ accounts of the men and their boats, and interesting trips made in these ancient craft which have been likened to Venetian gondolas. Twenty dgħajsas served the route in 1869 but more would have been needed given that by 1881 the population had risen to 3,685 people who lived in 1,398 houses and palaces, including Hunter’s Tower, Selma Hall (Capua Palace) and the Alhambra and Alkazar.

Houses sprouted, literally speaking, overnight, according to Ganado, “as if by magic”. The motto chosen for the town said it all: Celer ad oras surgo – quickly I grow on the shores.

On January 29, 1881, Julius (Giulio) Goldseller set up The Sliema Valletta Ferry Service Company. The company commissioned two steam ferries from a shipbuilder at Marsa. Maltese shipbuilders were renowned for sailing vessels, ranging from speronaras to barques. Ships were mainly built in French Creek until 1874 when the mercantile community moved to the New Port, or Portu Novu, at Marsa. Here they built the first steam-powered vessels, starting with the 17 gross-ton tug boat Sophie.

The sea water distilling apparatus at Tigné was a temporary solution to the town’s chronic water shortage.The sea water distilling apparatus at Tigné was a temporary solution to the town’s chronic water shortage.

Preparations for the service included the building of landing stages and police stations at Sliema at the corner of Strada Marina with Tower Road, and at Marsamxett. The original landing places were basic: a moveable, wide, wooden plank which led to a floating pontoon.

An elegant police station was erected at Sliema. The one at the Marsamxett landing place was dwarfed by the fortifications, and was consequently larger and with an overlying floor. Its façade overlooked the bastions and the open sea. Marsamxett’s bore ‘Police Station’; Sliema’s had ‘Marine Police Station’ on the pediment.

Houses sprouted, literally speaking, overnight, according to [Herbert] Ganado, ‘as if by magic’. The motto chosen for the town said it all: Celer ad oras surgo – quickly I grow on the shores

The Marine Police Department was responsible for the management of good order and traffic at the landing places. The department was reorganised a number of times over the years; it was placed under the Quarantine Authority in 1837, the Port Department in 1851, the Superintendent of Police in 1884, and the Customs Department in 1893. Marsamxett station was considered more important than Sliema, owing to the Lazzaretto and the port being also used by the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company to land passengers and mail.

The new ferries Ogygia, named after the island abode (Gozo), of the nymph Calypso of Homer’s Odyssey fame, and Melita, the ancient name for Malta, ran trials on June 6, 1882. The service was inaugurated on Sunday, June 11. The company also owned a larger ferry, Norina, also built in 1882, but which was probably used for excursions.

New regulations were published on July 1. Ferries started from the landing places at 20-minute intervals between 6am and 8pm from April 1 to October 31 and between 7am to sunset from November 1 to March  31.

The ferries carried 45 passengers and three crew members: master, engineer, and seaman. The single journey penny fare was increased by half a penny in bad weather, and a blue flag being raised at Marsamxett Police Station to indicate rough seas.

(To be concluded)

Sliema before the ferries: the narrow wharf was impassable in bad weather.Sliema before the ferries: the narrow wharf was impassable in bad weather.

Strada Marina was widened and planted with trees; at right the houses overlooking the water – Sliema’s ‘Little Venice’.Strada Marina was widened and planted with trees; at right the houses overlooking the water – Sliema’s ‘Little Venice’.

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