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From the Customs House to Imgherbeb Point (Part 2)

A terse account of a most interesting part of Valletta

The ‘mutilated masterpiece’ building as seen from the Lascaris Bastion tunnel.

The ‘mutilated masterpiece’ building as seen from the Lascaris Bastion tunnel.

It took the Order of St John 246 years to build a proper customs house on partly reclaimed land which included Porto Pidocchio. The first block was laid in the sea in 1774. The architect was Giuseppe Bonnici, a pupil of Giovanni Barbara; both men had a vast portfolio of works.

Grand Master Manuel Pinto had initiated the project; it was continued by his successor Francisco Ximenes, but it was another grandmaster, Emanuel De Rohan de Polduc who inaugurated the building on July 27, 1776. A marble plaque in the foyer recalled: “Emanuel De Rohan, Grand Master of the Order of Jerusalem, a very provident prince during the first year of his auspicious rule set up for public use this palace which was more sumptuously constructed and finished at his expense on July 27, 1776, when Augustinus Formosa de Fremaux was fiscal prefect.”

Edward VII being driven through the tunnel next to Customs House.Edward VII being driven through the tunnel next to Customs House.

Other plaques in the building record Grand Master Gregorio Carafa’s interventions of 1686, collectors of customs from 1721 to 1826, and comptrollers of customs from 1826 to the present day. It is likely that the façade bore the arms of De Rohan supported by mermaids on each side; the French defaced them, and a later storm completed the destruction.

From 1881 to 1906 there was timeball for ships in harbour to synchronise clocks; it used to be hoisted half way up the mast at 11.55am and to the top at 11.57am before being dropped exactly at noon, concurrently with the firing of the gun from the overlying Saluting Battery.

On May 14, 1867, Mgr Publio Maria dei Conti Sant awarded a 10-day indulgence to whoever recited Pater, Ave, Gloria in front of the statue of St Publius at the corner of the building.

The Customs House is one of a number of buildings of the Order which has retained, uninterruptedly, its original function. An annex designed by Giorgio Costantino Schinas was added between 1889 and 1891. In 1938, a baggage room was built on reclaimed land at Lascaris Wharf. The Customs House steps were demolished in 2011 to install heavy-duty bollards for a second berth for 300-metre cruise ships. This sacrificed the landing place of Napoleon, Nelson, kings and queens, admirals, cardinals, writers and poets and everyman/woman.

The tablet recalling the visit of George VI – His Majesty King George VI landed here from HMS Aurora on June 20, 1943, after the raising of the siege – was retained for re-integration at a future date. There is now a Commonwealth Walkway plaque on what remains of the quay.

Cruise ship’s eye-view of the Baggage Room, Customs House annex and what remains of the quay.Cruise ship’s eye-view of the Baggage Room, Customs House annex and what remains of the quay.

A hardstone quoin and a doorway are all that remains of a building, a false screen that once hid the lower part of Lascaris Bastion at the rear of the Customs House. Victor Anastasi described this forgotten building in ‘A mutilated masterpiece’ (The Sunday Times of Malta, July 22, 1990). The building fell victim to the desire for connectivity between the harbours; if the great ditch had been fully excavated as originally planned, travel between the two would have been a cinch. Nothing came of an earlier 1857 proposal for a canal/tunnel between Marsa and Pietà. In 1895, it was proposed to dig a tunnel from the Customs House to Marsamxett with a lift stop beneath Law Courts Square. The idea for a canal link (from Ta’ Liesse) to Marsamxett was revived in 2017.

As the window on the capital on this side of Grand Harbour, the site cries for serious attention, possibly by rebuilding the false screen to cover the ugly buttresses and the rock face

The central section of the building, a cortile effect that gave depth to the narrow road in front of the Customs House, was demolished when the railway, whose revenue also depended on ships in harbour, was opened in 1883. A large signboard: ‘TO RAILWAY AND MARSAMUSCETTO’, displayed on the excavated space, directed one towards a tunnel, up a zig-zag pathway (żigużajg), to Porta Reale Railway Station and Marsamxett. In 1905, the Barrakka Lifts and a new access road opposite the Baggage Room in the 1930s made the access redundant; the war did the rest.

In 1957, a 600-ton section of the rock face started to detach itself from beneath Lascaris Naval Headquarters, with potentially grave consequences for the Customs House and the road. Massive repairs including shoring by concrete buttresses, succeeded in averting disaster. As the window on the capital on this side of Grand Harbour, the site cries for serious attention, possibly by rebuilding the false screen to cover the ugly buttresses and the rock face.

The first church dedicated to Our Lady of Ta’ Liesse was built in 1620 (it was rebuilt in 1740), on the hill leading to Porta di Monte, and across the road from the Neptune fountain. The barren area below Liesse Curtain, St Barbara Bastion and St Lucy Curtain sloped down to the sea until Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful built a row of stores on the mole. They were divided into three sections: 15 stores below the Scesa Marina (their upper floor was accessed from a narrow street); a false screen of stores below St Barbara Bastion; 12 stores facing the Barriera and Consegna.

The first 15 were leased; not much is known about the first tenants. Salvo Grima have been at No.12 since 1860. At No.17, F. E. Sullivan took over from Joseph Borda, steamship and yacht agents, coal merchants and chandlers. Vincent Borda, importers of Germ Oils and OK Sauce was at No.18. Mizzi Brothers, starved of NAAFI business after World War I, set up an automobile garage at nos. 13-14. Cars were originally imported in wooden crates; somewhat unusually, the wood (painted red with company name and services advertised in bold white lettering) was used to cover the hardstone exterior. The premises were later leased to A M & A Cassar Brothers, wine makers – Taz-Zoi. There was the Old Barriera Bar, the Harbour Bar and the First and Last Bar. There were middlemen (pitkali) for Gozo produce: Bellizzi, Zammit – Ta’ Mira.

The wharf was a veritable hub of commerce. Mediterranean mooring (ships anchored on hard mud bottom with stern hawsers to bollards on land) provided global sailors with pleasant distractions from the poop; they scoured the panorama of Valletta with binoculars to watch the residents at work and play.

With the first cruise liners, it was Maltese binoculars that gaped at the swimming pools at the stern. It was a cosmopolitan world that everybody believed would last forever. There were barklori and gadrajja (bumboat men), shipping agents, stevedores, hauliers, chandlers, coal heavers, water bargees, gash men, porters, fishermen, customs guards, harbour pilots, port health officers, mooring men.

Mediterranean mooring: a chance to see and be seen. In the background is the old façade of St Paul Shipwrecked collegiate church.Mediterranean mooring: a chance to see and be seen. In the background is the old façade of St Paul Shipwrecked collegiate church.

The bumboat men sold everything from flowers and Maltese silver to rare Oriental rugs made in Manchester (this was discovered after leaving port). Duty free spirits delivered on the starboard side (to be sealed and consumed at sea), somehow returned to land (in different packaging) from the port side. The barklori were tough; they may have been illiterate but they knew which ships were due, which bosun to tackle for freebies, how to get round the system, even to procure women ‘guests and visitors’ for the sailors. Officers consulted them for the latest naval intelligence. The barklori looked askance at fellow queue jumpers at the venda, and swore by Sterling until it was devalued and they started to lose sixpence in the pound; for them, that was the end of the Empire.

The approach of the gash (gaxxen) dgħajsa, was greeted like manna from heaven. Gash was leftovers from ships’ kitchens, including food remains; to see Maltese dining on British scraps, literally speaking, from under the table, was considered humiliating and unhealthy. Except that it paid not to underestimate Maltese ingenuity and British galley staff connivance.

Whole joints and cheeses, toast and sandwich bread, unconsumed, cooked food, cigarettes and pipe tobacco in tins, hidden in the gash, went over the side to the dgħajsa and the welcoming shore. Concealed high-value food, cigarettes, whisky, handshakes: of such were passports and friendships made.

Nobody ever went hungry at Barriera Wharf

Those who turned a blind eye to the goings-on during the year turned up for presents at Christmas. Capuchin monks and nuns from orphanages honed in on the bonanza; the former carried a white sack (ċurniena) and blessed charitable givers with the cry: Sant’Antnin ikattar (May St Anthony multiply your fortune). Nobody ever went hungry at Barriera Wharf.

In 1908, R. H. McCarthy, in the ‘Report on the working of the Customs Department of Malta’, despaired of impunity around the harbour: illicit trade… concealment in merchandise… surreptitious landing from vessels… a would-be smuggler from a vessel lying in the port allowed to choose his own time and methods… the numerous men-of-war for prolonged periods constitute a danger to revenue as the allowance of tobacco to the crew is very liberal… better supervision of bumboats and other harbour craft was needed...

The Marine Police patrolled the wharf in three shifts of two men each. They checked the locks on the stores at night, and measured goods left in the open under tarpaulins on the wharf. Owners paid for each day of storage on public land.

(To be concluded)

Barriera Wharf: Mizzi’s Garage, Joseph and Vincent Borda and the First and Last Bar.Barriera Wharf: Mizzi’s Garage, Joseph and Vincent Borda and the First and Last Bar.

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