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Demolition, restoration and redevelopment at Grand Harbour

French Creek: Palumbo Malta Shipyard/Yacht Yard, Boiler Wharf

With no room for further expansion in Dockyard Creek, the Admiralty turned to French Creek, with its larger water area and shelter from most prevailing winds. The problem in 1859 was that this was where merchant ships were built and repaired; the slipways and most of the privately owned stores that lined the waterfront made it a most valuable asset for the mercantile community, which could not be expropriated with impunity. It was left to Sir Adrian Dingli to engineer the takeover by wheeling and dealing and undertaking to build a new port for the mercantile community at Marsa.

The first dock in French Creek was started in 1865 on War Department land that included some fortifications. The dock was completed in 1871 as No.3, the Somerset Dock, named after the First Lord of the Admiralty. By the time the second dock, No.2, Hamilton, was completed in 1892, also on the Senglea side, the mercantile community had long given up on French Creek. The construction of the docks necessitated the destruction of fortifications deemed obsolete by the Royal Engineers.

Worse was to follow at Għajn Dwieli at the turn of the century. The idyllic bay disappeared, as did St Paul’s Gate in Għajn Dwieli Curtain, other demi-bastions and a cavalier tower. The new docks were to service the new dreadnoughts – Britain’s answer to German expansion at sea. Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the works in 1904; the Father of the German Navy had no comparable facilities in the Mediterranean Sea. The works were beset by huge difficulties – water ingress from the landward side, not, as one would expect, from a leaking coffer dam at the mouth. The docks and breakwater works heralded an unprecedented economic boom; when the work was completed, the island descended, not for the first time, into penury.

With hindsight, it is clear that the money spent on the docks in French Creek was a wise investment that contributed to British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean in war and peace. All the docks continue in service, albeit with post-colonial modifications. After the demise of Malta Shipyards in 2010, the docks devolved to Palumbo Malta Shipyard and Palumbo Super Yacht Yard.

One of the facilities in French Creek that was left out of the transfer to Palumbo was Boiler Wharf, which extends from Senglea Point to No. 2 Dock. The name is derived from the old Boiler House that was destroyed during World War II. After 2010, Boiler Wharf was revamped to serve as a cruise ship quay on days when their number exceeded capacity at Valletta Cruise Port. On such occasions, passengers have to be ferried by tender to Valletta. In 2015, the four cranes that lined the wharf since the 1960s were demolished; there is now an uninterrupted vista of the bastions and Senglea.

In French Creek, the Corradino waterfront remained virtually unchanged since 1859. The wharves zigzagged from the entrance of the creek to Għajn Dwieli: Parlatorio, Canteen, Boathouse. In the 1970s the commissioning of Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) and the impossibility of further enlargement of Għajn Dwieli docks led to a decision to build a 300,000-ton graving dock at Corradino. The new dock was built with the assistance of the Chinese government; No.6, also called the China Dock, is one of the largest in the Mediterranean. Its construction was a bold and wise decision that augmented the various facilities available at the Grand Harbour.

French Creek is now, generally speaking, much cleaner than it used to be. Palumbo Shipyards function on a different business model; shipyard labour is now highly mobile and there are far fewer men at the yard at any given time compared to the thousands that used to work there at the time of the Admiralty and Malta Drydocks.

Magazine/Laboratory Wharf and Corradino to Fuel Wharf

In 1977, Magazine and Laboratory wharves were reconstructed as multi-purpose quays, with Admiralty assistance, after Parlatorio Wharf was ceded by the Royal Navy for the construction of a 300,000-ton graving dock. It was a good investment; together with Fuel Wharf, at nearby Ras Ħanzir (literally, Pig’s Head Cape/Point), the quays handle most of the cargo in Grand Harbour: grain, cement, fuel oil, project cargo, vehicles, 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) and roll-on/roll-off (RoRo). It is the only area in the harbour where multiple users compete for space and where forward berthing planning is advised.

Valletta Gateway Terminals operate RoRo/TEU berths that are served by level luffing cranes and a container gantry crane bought second hand from Le Havre. Kordin Grain Terminal operates the huge grain silo, offering storage of various cereals in bins, serving the local market and Mediterranean ports. Not far from the silo is a recently constructed bulk cement facility. The quay also has discharge points for storing oil fuel in underground tanks and a facility for servicing tuna farms.

Over the years, Corradino has been altered to such an extent that it is easy to forget that this was a site of early human habitation; of at least six prehistoric temples only one is extant. The rest were destroyed during the piecemeal acquisition of land by the Admiralty for the construction of a naval prison, sports facilities and the Corradino Lines or entrenchment, a massive defence work stretching from Ras Ħanzir to the Cottonera Lines.

Apart from the extant temple, there is a gunpowder magazine from the time of the Order of St John at Ras Ħanzir. There used to be an important landing place here at the start of the road to Tarxien. There was also a water distillation plant, huge water reservoirs, called tanks, and Tessi’s House, with its walled fruit gardens.

Until 1893 there was also Spencer Monument, an obelisk made of local hardstone; this could be reached from the Parlatorio, another landing place. Some of the steps that used to lead to the monument remain, except that they now lead to a dead end. Where Corradino meets French Creek, Mgr Casolani built coal stores which he sold at once to the Admiralty. British ship repairers/engineers Horn and Turner set up business in the vicinity before they were forced to relocate to Marsa.

Spencer Monument was moved to Blata l-Bajda, ostensibly to deny enemy fire direction for the guns; however, this was when the first underground ordnance magazines were excavated below the monument and RN sailors were prohibited from visiting for views of the harbour. The extensive network of underground and surface magazines was operated under controlled conditions by Royal Navy Armament Depot (RNAD). Magazines were listed by alphabet but there was also a Spencer Magazine as a reminder of the obelisk.

The RNAD operated a miniature underground railway. Staff worked under strict supervision and wore special clothing to avoid accidents; an explosion would have devastated much of the harbour area. The amount of ordnance stored at any given time was not known but could be guessed given the size of the Mediterranean Fleet.

Kordin Grain Terminal was built partly on the site of Spencer Monument. When completed in 1985, it was advertised as the place where lethal ordnance had been replaced by life-sustaining bread. As originally planned, cereals would be imported in large bulk carriers and stored at the grain terminal for transhipment in smaller vessels to Mediterranean ports with limited facilities.

At Fuel Wharf, just off Ras Ħanzir, a prescient Admiralty saw that oil would soon replace coal as the motive power for ships; the first surface and underground fuel tanks were erected/excavated there before World War I.

Marsa: power stations/Malta Shipbuilding Company/Menqa

Although modern Marsa was created after the mercantile community was evacuated from French Creek, its origins are much older. Marsa was the likely estuary of the river port of Qormi. Before construction of the new port began in the 1860s, it was possible to loiter on the sand flats, walk to Paola on a causeway and, at low tide, probably collect mussels and dig for worms. The mud flats disappeared with the new harbour; drainage canals and land reclamation controlled annual flooding and cut off Qormi from the sea. When the new port was built, the centuries-old mud was dredged down to rock bottom, preventing ships from anchoring. Jetties had to be built for ships to moor; there is still a Jetties Wharf at Marsa.

Jesuits’ Hill, where two power stations were later built, straddles two basins; it was here, a site of habitation from antiquity, that Gian Franġisk Abela set up the first known collection of ancient artefacts. Abela later bequeathed his villa and collection to the Jesuits. Over the years, cultivated fields covered what remained of the villa. By the time the power stations were built after the war, the only reminder of the place was the name: Jesuits’ Hill.

Nevertheless, Marsa continues to yield surprises from the past. At the Menqa, excavations yielded human remains from a cemetery outside the walls for the burial of slaves from the time of the Order. The place is known as Xatt il-Qwabar, the shore of the freshwater crabs (Qwabar could also be the plural of tombs). Between the two basins is Bridge Wharf, named after the retractable bridge, broken up after the war, at the entrance to the Menqa, also known as Lighters Basin.

Marsa harbour names resonate with history. The name itself derives from the Arabic for harbour. Then there are the names of wharves connected with trades and places: Jetties, Coal, Church, Shipwrights, Lighters, Flagstone, Timber, Bridge, Mill, Gun and Wine.

The fortunes of Marsa have seesawed over the years. Hardly any merchandise is unloaded there anymore. However, there is a thriving ship repair industry whose origins go back to 1874 when the new harbour works were declared complete. There was even a graving dock owned by the brothers Zammit. The site is now a facility for the importation of cattle on the hoof. Marsa ship repairers use floating docks instead of graving docks as in French Creek. Marsa is also where a new harbour suburb, named Albertown after the Prince Consort, was built; the project never took off.

Pollution from the power plants, with ingrained memories of soot, coal dust and oil residues, will soon become a thing of the past; the power stations have since been decommissioned and demolition of the brown field sites are in hand. At the South Western Basin, across the water from the power plants, the largest footprint used to be taken up by Malta Shipbuilding Company; this was Malta’s brief venture into large-scale shipbuilding. The site has since been earmarked for an oil and gas logistics base. After years of decline and post-industrial blues, Marsa offers great potential for mixed use development that could also include leisure facilities.

Deep Water Quay, Virtù Ferries terminal

In 1959, the part of the harbour between Capuchin Bastion and the Menqa underwent significant alterations with the construction of a deep water quay and grain silo. Primitive grain elevators were already in use at Mill Wharf, next to the town gas manufacturing plant of the Malta and Mediterranean Gas Company.

Along the waterfront, Bugeja’s Stores were home to Malta’s vintners Dacoutros, Coleiro and Vella (the other winemaker in the harbour was Delicata at Coal Wharf). Both Dacoutros and Coleiro operated small vessels for the carriage of wine. None of these winemakers are now in business; the factory of Coleiro Brothers is to be converted into a maritime centre for Virtù Ferries.

The new quay was built on steel piles by the Royal Netherlands Harbour Works. Two goods sheds and a grain silo were built on the quay, which took up a fairly large area of water space. The old road from Floriana to Marsa was relegated to the rear of the sheds and silo. Apart from the unloading of grain and break bulk cargo, tankers also discharged petroleum products for the Shell Oil Co. facility at Spencer Hill that was built at the same time as the quay.

Over the years, the Deep Water Quay (DWQ) was superseded by the TEU/RoRo revolution; except for a small section of quay the steel piles could not handle container loading. However, DWQ 5, the section facing Spencer Hill, became the harbour’s first RoRo berth, initially used by Tirrenia SpA and subsequently by Sea Malta. It continues to serve as such, albeit after significant alterations, as the terminus of the Malta-Sicily ferry operated by Virtù Ferries, on concession by Valletta Gateway Terminals (VGT), the operators of DWQ.

VGT recently revamped the DWQ; the sheds were roofed anew and the corroded piling repaired. It will be interesting to see how the upgraded DWQ will be used, apart from occasional break bulk work and cruise ship berthing. The grain silo is also obsolete; since the grain elevators have been demolished, there is no further use for the facility. Transport Malta headquarters were built on the site of the old town gas manufacturing plant. The building also houses Port Control, responsible for directing marine traffic in the harbours and contiguous waters.

Valletta Cruise Port/Valletta Waterfront

Cruise ship passengers berth within view of the storehouses built by grand masters Jean Paul Lascaris (1636-57) and Manoel Pinto (1741-73). Well before our time, the storehouses, whitewashed red and white, dazzled in the morning sun. There was a small chapel dedicated to the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. The stores were badly damaged during the war and, until fairly recently, were jointly used by the Victualling Yard and by the Customs Department as bonded stores.

In 1985, construction of a new quay revealed part of the keel of the Norwegian freighter Talabot which had been scuttled there in the war to prevent her cargo of ammunition from blowing up. The ship was owned by Wilhelmsen Lines, a company still in business that recently acquired office premises at Valletta Cruise Port.

The new quay was originally used as a cargo berth for break bulk/container and RoRo; cement, bananas, apples and timber used to be unloaded where cruise ships berth. The foundations of a modern cruise ship terminal were laid in 1992 with the opening of Crucifix Quay, opposite Lascaris Wharf, where the Gozo lateen boats used to berth until recently. Sometimes history repeats itself; when a new yacht marina is completed this year at Sa Maison, in Marsamxett Harbour, Gozo Channel Line will have to give up its berthing facility and return to Grand Harbour for its daily heavy lorry/TEU/RoRo trip.

In 1992, few would have thought that cruise ships of over 300 metres would dwarf Crucifix Quay, now known as Pinto 1/2. Later, in 2002, VISET was awarded the contract to build and operate the cruise ship terminal that would include the original quay and the former general cargo/RoRo berths. A laguna was created to separate the retail area from the ships. In the process, the original quay in front of Pinto Stores was uncovered to give a sense of what the place originally looked like. Valletta Waterfront was later re-branded as Valletta Cruise Port.

In 2009, the RoRo quay at the western end was demolished to facilitate berthing for 300-metre cruise ships. The company also restored the wharf and stores, and created a retail/catering/office hub as an ancillary business. In September 2015, a Turkish company made a bid for 31 per cent of shares in the company.

Major infrastructural works are planned in future: the alignment of quays for 300-metre ships, the development of the old power station building (Malta’s first, dating from 1896) and the building of the atrium space on the site of stores destroyed in the war, currently used as a car park.

Valletta Cruise Port continues to look to the future, mindful of the fickleness of the cruise ship business (the recent terrorist attacks in Tunisia are a case in point). The company also works hard to develop its lucrative home porting business, whereby ships are turned round in a day, Valletta becoming the start/end of cruises. Recent legal amendments will allow shipboard casinos to remain open during overnight stays.

Some cruise ships are combining their Grand Harbour call with a visit to Gozo. Cruise ship companies have taken up this concept as they offer two different places on their itinerary that are only half an hour’s sailing away. The first cruise ships berthed at Xlendi but the larger ones now anchor between Comino and Mġarr.

Customs House, Barriera Wharf to Fort St Elmo

Until the advent of air travel the Customs House landing stage was the gateway to Malta. For thousands of emigrating Maltese, it was the last foothold prior to departure. This was the place where tears were shed, the last point of contact with relatives and the islands. Regiments also embarked here for bloody campaigns. The landing place also welcomed visitors: royals, men of letters, artists, ordinary people, many of whom came and stayed.

Much of the work carried out by the Customs Department at the magnificent building is now being done elsewhere. Plans for the building, one of the oldest in Grand Harbour, include its conversion into a boutique hotel.

The Customs House was built on reclaimed land on the site of a small inlet for galleys; the place was named Porto Pidocchio, the flea port, where the flea-infested slave rowers gathered. It is not only the slaves’ port that has disappeared but the Customs House landing place itself has been halved after modifications to Pinto 1/2 to enable a second 300-metre cruise ship to berth. Above the Customs House was the palace of the harbour master of the Order; this was demolished during the Crimean War to make way for Fort Lascaris. Some of the stone steps that led to the old building remain.

In 1979, the old fishmarket, a copy of the original destroyed in the war, was demolished to make way for the Valletta ring road. This used to be the Grand Harbour hub, where business was transacted and porters hired; it was also the steam ferry terminal to the Cottonera. Beneath the semi-circular structure housing the fishmongers’ stalls was a cannon made of marble that supplied water to boats; inscribed on the muzzle was the Latin inscription: ‘Why do you hesitate to approach, tiny boat? There is no fire in here. The shell is replaced by water’.

Barriera Wharf comprised a false screen of warehouses, also demolished during the Crimean War, that extended from the old fishmarket to the Barriera and the fumigation office below the Lower Barrakka Gardens. Barriera here refers not to a quarry but to a corridor of hardstone bollards and timber strands patrolled by sanitary guards to prevent communication with people undergoing temporary quarantine. A new fishmarket and block of offices were later built on the site. Both are now being considered for alternative uses.

Visitors ascended to Valletta, only to be accosted by beggars in a narrow stepped street sandwiched between the stores. Their cries of ‘Nix Mangiari’ (I have nothing to eat) is recalled in the street name: Nix Mangiari Steps.

There is a proposal to extend Barriera Wharf to add a third berth for cruise ships. The increased coach and motor traffic is likely to add pressure on Lascaris Tunnel, an important Valletta thoroughfare.

In 1979, the new ring road was driven through the area between the Lower Barrakka Gardens and Imgherbeb Point. The road continues to the old Sacra Infermeria, now a conference centre. Evans Building, east of the conference centre, was built on the site of historical buildings: the Nibbia Chapel, Chapel of Bones, University Anatomical Laboratory, Valletta Elementary School, itself built on the former Casetta - the Magdalen Asylum for women.

At Fort St Elmo Point is the eponymous breakwater, the larger of two structures built at the harbour mouth between 1903 and 1909. A twin-span steel viaduct between fort and breakwater ensured water circulation in harbour. This was destroyed during the war but has since been replaced by a single-span bridge. It is now possible to walk the length of the breakwater to the lighthouse for a magnificent view up to Marsa and reflect on the changing face of the Grand Harbour.

(Concluded)

Michael Cassar co-authored several books with the late Joseph Bonnici until 2009. He continues to publish books with a social, maritime and transport theme. Past subjects have included the Malta Drydocks, the Malta Buses, HMS Hibernia, Royal Navy tugs and Malta Tugs (in collaboration with Tug Malta). His latest book The Gozo-Malta Connection celebrates the 130th anniversary since the start of the first regular mail service between the islands and the 35th anniversary of Gozo Channel Line. For further information e-mail info@bdlbooks.com or mikscas@gmail.com.

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