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The Maċina – from mast crane to boutique hotel

The sheers erected for Senglea Maritime Festival in 2009.

The sheers erected for Senglea Maritime Festival in 2009.

Waiting for the great event on the afternoon of February 27, 1927.Waiting for the great event on the afternoon of February 27, 1927.

With the Maċina mast crane’s new sheers in place, the wooden ones were removed from the building’s roof. Additional iron extensions on the roof reduced the need for support ropes and chains, although heavy cables were attached from the top of the sheers to iron rings at the rear of the bastion. A horizontal beam strengthened the ‘A’ frame.

The new sheers had a very short working life. By the time it was erected, part of the Dockyard was in the process of moving to French Creek, which was linked to Dockyard Creek by two tunnels: Short Tunnel and Church Tunnel. Work on a new graving dock in French Creek began the following year. It was completed as No. 3, the Somerset Dock, in 1871.

The Armstrong Mitchell 160-ton hydrau­lic crane (see ‘The rise and fall of Malta’s Armstrong Mitchell 160-ton hydraulic crane’, The Sunday Times of Malta, June 5, 2016) erected on Somerset Wharf in 1885/6, made the Maċina redundant; period photos confirm it as a ‘dead’ structure retracted against the bastion so as not to obstruct shipping in the creek. This made the sheers higher and even more of a harbour landmark.

Going out with a splash: the end of the Maċina.Going out with a splash: the end of the Maċina.

The Maċina and its environs were put to different uses. A signalling station was set up on the roof; semaphore signalling linked the Dockyard with Castille and the Palace Tower. The buildings from the Main Gate to Sheer Bastion were largely taken over by the Dockyard Police (the force later became the Admiralty Constabulary).

Here were cells, dormitories, a yard and search rooms. In the guard house by the water’s edge was the surgery. This was where naval dockyard law was enforced, and where doctors and nurses attended to injuries sustained at the workplace. There were offices for the King’s Harbour Master and pilots, for applications for marriage allowances and pensions, for foremen, chargemen, submariners and boatswains. It was a place that evoked mixed feelings among the men: necessary, useful, but which left no doubt as to who was in charge.

In his testimony on the troubles of June 7, 1919, J. Hamilton, president of the Imperial Government Workers Union at the Dockyard, alluded to the general discontent that led to the men’s participation in the riots. On that day the rumour mill encouraged the men to go to Valletta to protest, and there were posters and graffiti with similar messages on the walls. The men were irked at the high cost of living, higher wages paid to expatriates for equal work and discrimination in the award of work bonuses.

The 4,000-strong workforce of 1914 quadrupled during the Great War; in 1919 the number was down to 2,500. Some 1,500 were readmitted after the Admiralty had a rethink and sent more ships to the yard. The changed role of the Maċina from a mast crane to a meeting place was highlighted by Karmenu Ellul Galea in L-Istorja tat-Tarzna (1973); the Maċina no longer had an industrial function, but was where one aired grievances and got medical attention.

The Maċina as headquarters of the Malta Labour Party, 1980-1995.The Maċina as headquarters of the Malta Labour Party, 1980-1995.

Like the Maċina, the hydraulic crane in French Creek was immobile; ships or lighters had to be moved to the crane for lifting heavy loads. The situation was remedied in 1926 with the commissioning of Admiralty Floating Crane Lighter No. 4, also known as C.L.IV or ‘Clive’. It was built in 1916 by Armstrong Whitworth on the Tyne to a design by Cowans, Sheldon of Carlisle. In 1916, its 250-ton lifting capacity made it the largest self-propelled floating crane in the world. With a working radius of 100 feet and a height of 77 feet above the waterline, it gave the Admiralty unparalleled flexibility and reach throughout the harbour. A special berth was laid for it in French Creek next to Senglea Point. The crane soon became the latest harbour landmark in the inter-war years. Photographs of the air attack on HMS Illustrious in 1941 show the huge jib enveloped in clouds of smoke. It was sunk at its Boiler Wharf berth on the night of March 4-5, 1942.

By this time, not only was there no further use for the sheers but the iron had probably deteriorated, and there was no appetite for expensive maintenance or renovation. C.L.IV could quite easily remove the sheers and transport it to the wharf for demolition. However, for reasons that are unclear, the sheers were simply let go into the waters of the creek. There is no record of what happened afterwards; one can only assume it was either lifted by C.L.IV or, the beams were pulled to the wharf, lifted by shore crane and broken up in sections.

What would have been a humdrum crane lift was turned into an exciting, dramatic, if wet, public spectacle. Daily life at the Cottonera was governed by the balomba, the powerful Dockyard siren, that signalled (or rather ‘wailed’) the phases of the working day. On the afternoon of February 27, 1927, the siren announced the imminent demolition of the Maċina, a warning to keep clear. The back supports were removed, leaving just the ‘A’ frame; the pins were removed from the hinged ends; there was a high turnout to witness the once-in-a-lifetime event.

On February 27, 1927, the siren announced the imminent demolition of the Maċina; there was a high turnout to witness the once-in-a-lifetime event

The event was reported by the Daily Malta Chronicle: “The huge crane jutting on the Dockyard Creek, high above the officers’ landing place near the yard’s Main Gate, was demolished in the presence of the Admiral Superintendent, high officials of the yard and officers of the Fleet, as well as a large number of spectators. The ponderous crane, said to be a hundred years old, plunged into the sea with terrific force, breaking into two and raising at the impact, a wave fully 35 feet high, spraying both sides of the buildings thereon, hundreds of feet away. The crane remained embedded in the mud, a portion of the huge structure jutting out of the water by several feet.”

November 14, 1978: a new road through the Maċina.November 14, 1978: a new road through the Maċina.

After the war the area around the Maċina went into decline, not least owing to extensive bombing damage. The Admiralty, no doubt aware of the impending rundown of the military base, erected temporary Nissen huts and nondescript buildings. The Maltese government endeavoured to find uses for various buildings that were ceded by the military. On April 5, 1971, the Malta flag was raised on two Swift Class inshore patrol boats at Sheer Bastion, the base of the newly formed Maritime Troop. In July of that year, the troop was designated as the 1st Maritime Battery, Malta Land Force (Armed Forces of Malta in 1973). The men left Sheer Bastion for Hay Wharf on October 18, 1977.

As the tenure of the British military base in Malta drew to a close, a new ring road, Triq Marzu ’79, was built at Senglea and Vittoriosa. The Maċina was altered to provide road access into Senglea Wharf. On February 22, 1980, the Malta Labour Party moved its headquarters from Marsa to the Maċina. Two huge torches, party symbols, were erected on the sides of the bastion, and a Labour Party sign placed above the new road arches. For the next 15 years, the Maċina became synonymous with the party.

The masting crane, though not in use, remained a prominent harbour landmark.The masting crane, though not in use, remained a prominent harbour landmark.

There has always been something uncanny about Dom Mintoff’s choice of buildings; they nearly always had a historical significance that recalled political time and place. Freedom Press at Marsa was built on land belonging to Esso Standard (Malta) Ltd. Freedom Monument in Vittoriosa recalled centuries of colonialism and foreign occupation. The Maċina symbolised the Admiralty, and his (Mintoff’s) tussles over the transfer of the Dockyard to Bailey (Malta) Ltd. All three anchored the party’s roots firmly in the Cottonera and the south of the island, something his successors later successfully mitigated.

After the Malta Labour Party moved to Ħamrun in 1995, the Maċina lay derelict for some years; various uses were suggested until 2009 when it became the focal point of the maritime festival organised by Senglea local council. Miniscule sheers were erected on top of the bastion as a reminder of the original Maċina. The building continued to be loaned to the council for the annual festival.

Crane Lighter No 4, known as ‘Clive’.Crane Lighter No 4, known as ‘Clive’.

In 2013, an agreement was reached with Port Cottonera Consortium to convert the place into a conference centre. In 2015, nothing came of a proposal for a floating barge and extension to the yacht marina. In 2016, the Maċina was leased to Von der Heyden Group to be converted into a 21-suite boutique hotel, to be marketed as Cugó Gran Maċina.

The harbour ferry sails into Dockyard Creek, past Fort St Angelo, Cottonera Waterfront, Vittoriosa and Senglea. Dead slow, to protect the yachts at the pontoons; there is time for flights of fancy, perchance to dream of other times and ages; there is the guard house, relic of the Dockyard Main Gate, now used as a residence. The cast iron hinges on the masonry plinth of the Maċina are still there.

The ferry berths at Cospicua, opposite the galley warehouses on Store Wharf, with the nave names on the lintel. Centuries of history for an inexpensive 10-minute ferry ride.

Concluded

The author would like to thank Conrad Thake and Anton Quintano for their kind assistance.

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, Malta Tugs (in collaboration with Tug Malta) and The Gozo-Malta Connection. For further information, e-mail info@bdlbooks.com or mikscas@gmail.com.

The 1st Maritime Battery at Sheer Bastion 1971-1977.The 1st Maritime Battery at Sheer Bastion 1971-1977.

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