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Malta: A journey back to the days when Britannia ruled the waves

Updated on May 22, 2018
CJStone profile image

CJ Stone is an author and columnist, with seven books to his credit. He lives in Whitstable and currently writes for the Whitstable Gazette.

Red telephone box in Malta: "a strong British flavour"
Red telephone box in Malta: "a strong British flavour"

Napoleon

In 1798 Napoleon came to Malta. Recognising its strategic importance in the heart of the Mediterranean, he left a garrison of some 4,000 troops to occupy the island. By 1800 the Maltese had had enough of the godless French and called on the British for help. The British set up a naval blockade, and after some protracted negotiations Bony's troops agreed to go.

The way the Maltese tell the story, they were so pleased with the departure of the French that they decided to have a drink to celebrate. They invited the British in to join them. It was a very long drink. It lasted the better part of 200 years.*

Malta gained her independence in 1964, and became a republic in 1974. The last British troops left in 1979. Nevertheless there is still a strong British flavour to the island, what with the red telephone boxes and the red pillar boxes, the three pin electric plugs and the fact that they drive on the left. Everyone speaks almost perfect English – it is the official second language on the island - and the Maltese often choose English-sounding Christian names, such as Jim or Joanna.

They also have a taste for bacon and eggs, tea with milk and a Sunday roast.

But there is another way that the people of the two island nations are connected. Generations of British servicemen were stationed in Malta. As one Maltese person put it: they saw the sparkling dark eyes and the glistening black hair of the Maltese girls, and they fell in love. Almost everyone has a relative in the UK, and has visited it at some point. Expect long conversations about your home county while you are there. Chances are that the person you are talking to will have a relative living nearby.

Many British people will have fond memories of Malta, whether of their time as service men and women stationed on the island, or the wives, husbands or children who were brought over to join them.

I’m one of the latter. I was on the island from 1957 to 1959, from age four, to age six, and have many distinct memories of my time there.

The smoking shed, Bighi Hospital: "where generations of sick soldiers and sailors would have repaired for a shifty cigarette"
The smoking shed, Bighi Hospital: "where generations of sick soldiers and sailors would have repaired for a shifty cigarette"

Turning point

Ex service people who were stationed on Malta will find much that they would still recognise. One notable site is the Bighi Hospital in Kalkara, which every British service person will have been forced to visit to receive their inoculations. It is now the Institute of Conservation for Heritage Malta: “a hospital for sick objects” as the manager of the books, paper, textiles and painting conservation section, Joseph Schiro, told me.

It was built in the 1830s to a design by Sir George Whitmore. Work was completed in 1832 and it served as a hospital through all of the major wars after that, when Malta became renowned as “the nurse of the Mediterranean”. It is built in the Doric style, and there is much that is reassuringly British about its appearance. It remained in use as a hospital until 1970.

In the centre of the grounds is an octagonal conservatory known as “the smoking shed”. It is where generations of sick soldiers and sailors would have repaired for a shifty cigarette. Visitors may walk around the outside of the building and view the grounds, but would have to make an appointment to see inside.

Another important place to visit would be the Malta Maritime Museum, in Vittoriosa. Housed in what was once the fleet bakery, it is an impressively large building: not surprising given the number of ships and men it had to feed in its day. Inside you can find many reminders of the British naval presence on the island, including an imposing figurehead of the HMS Hibernia representing the Irish Dagda, a sea god. You will also be lead through a history of Malta’s naval heritage going back more than 2,000 years.

One of the exhibits concerns Operation Pedestal, which is an important reminder of Malta’s significance in the history of the Second World War. It shows a photograph of a damaged oil tanker, the Ohio, limping into the Grand Harbour, broken backed and buoyed up by two minesweepers. The ships arrived on August the 15th 1942, the Feast of the Assumption, and was consequently named the Santa Maria Convoy by the ever devout Maltese. The Ohio contained enough oil to re-supply the island, allowing British forces to continue attacking supply ships to Rommel’s army during his assault on El Alamein. It is considered by many to be the turning point in the war.

Strait Street, Strada Stretta, Valletta, universally known as The Gut: "a shadow of its former self"
Strait Street, Strada Stretta, Valletta, universally known as The Gut: "a shadow of its former self"

The Gut

Another place of interest for visitors looking for British naval connections, would be the Ta’ Braxia Cemetery in Pieta, where a number of graves of British merchant seamen and their families are located. One particularly poignant grave is carved into the shape of a neatly made bed, with a coverlet and a pillow, with a seaman’s cap laid on top. It’s as if the occupant has just returned from a journey and has slung his cap on the bed before retiring for the night.

A place that all British servicemen will certainly remember is Strait Street, Strada Stretta, in Valletta, universally known as “The Gut”. I say “British servicemen” rather than “men and women” at this point, because it would have been men rather than women who went down this notorious street. It was the city’s red-light district. But it was more than this too. It was full of bars and theatres and dance halls, as well as traders and street girls, and it was the place where the Maltese first heard jazz music, and danced face-to-face in the ballroom style.

Unfortunately it is virtually derelict now, a shadow of its former self. There are a few broken neon signs as a sad reminder of its former glory and apparently, according to some reports, some of the bars are still there, behind the shutters and the boarded up windows, the ancient optics still flicker with a ghostly gleam, like reliquaries of the good times gone by.

The only establishment from the old days still trading is a tattoo parlour, run by the third generation of the same family. It fought on as the Royal Navy came and went, through good times and bad. Now, with a new plan to turn Strait Street into a centre for the arts, it could be facing it's biggest battle yet.

Malta is a perfect holiday destination, whether you like beaches and bars or baroque architecture, but for a nostalgic journey into British Service history, it is unique.

Valletta Boutique Guest House, Valletta: "friendly people, spacious rooms, affordable price, great restaurant"
Valletta Boutique Guest House, Valletta: "friendly people, spacious rooms, affordable price, great restaurant"

Places to stay:

In Valletta:

Valletta Boutique Guest House

21, Merchant Street, Valletta.
Tel: (00356) 77111110
Fax: (00356) 27012345

A charming little guest house in the heart of Valletta, five minutes walk from the bus station and within sight of St John’s Co-Cathedral: I can’t recommend it highly enough. Friendly people, spacious rooms, affordable price, great restaurant. But bring your earplugs: the Cathedral bells chime every quarter of an hour throughout the night.

Around the Island:

Holiday Lettings have Villas and apartments throughout the island

http://www.holidaylettings.co.uk/island-of-malta/

I stayed in Mellieha in the North, in a comfortable apartment within walking distance of the bus stop and the shops:

A great place to explore the island.

The old Maltese buses, now sadly defunct.
The old Maltese buses, now sadly defunct.

George Cross

* It’s not hard to see why the British were so interested in holding on to Malta. Like a succession of naval powers before them – from the Phoenicians, to the Romans, to the Knights of St John - they recognised the strategic importance of the island. Set in the very heart of the Mediterranean, at the intersection of the great trade routes, with a natural complex of harbours, it is the perfect location for control of the Mediterranean sea lanes, and for the repair of damaged ships.

It has been besieged twice: once by the Ottoman Turks in 1565, and once by the Axis powers from 1940-43. The resilience and bravery of the Maltese people is legendary. On the 15th of April 1942, after a relentless bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe, during which more bombs were dropped on the island in one month than had been dropped on London during the whole of the blitz, the Maltese people were awarded the George Cross for bravery.

The citation by George IV reads: "to honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history."

It is interesting that the Maltese flag carries an image of the George Cross rather than the Maltese Cross, and it serves to emphasise the on-going connection between the people of the two islands.

© 2011 CJStone

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    • profile image

      Mary Allen England 

      2 years ago

      Reading all about Malta brought me so many happy Memomories when I was young which I still got my Family over there and we try to visit them every year Malta has changed in the last 10 years we missed the old buses some of the old built ing and I missed the Pastizze but we love it as we just come back and we can't wait for next year .

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 

      5 years ago from London

      Great hub! Brought me back memories of summer holidays in Malta. What a pity that the old buses are not in use anymore!

      Anyway, voted up, useful & interesting! Cheers!

    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      CJStone 

      6 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      I'm sorry Ruth, I can't recommend anywhere in Rabat. The Island is very small though, and I definitely recommend the Valetta Boutique in Valetta. You can get buses from there all around the Island, and nowhere is more than about half an hour away. Good luck, and I hope you enjoy your stay.

    • profile image

      Ruth Tomlin 

      6 years ago

      I enjoyed your memories of malta. I was born in Rabat in 1957. My father was in the British Medical Army Corps as a mental health nurse; Keith Tomlin, married to Penny. There were 6 children:including me, all together. Im hoping to go back soon to where it all began. Can you recommend somewhere authenic to stay around Rabat? Best Wishes

      Ruth x

    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      CJStone 

      6 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      What are the prices now? Is it still cheap? Or has the whole thing been privatised? They were a tourist attraction those old buses. Like Indian trains, a journey back to another era.

    • profile image

      steve fuller 

      6 years ago

      imagine our surprise when we had to board an Arriva bus complete with English bus driver when we left the airport. apparently a lot of the old bus drivers didn't make the grade for driving arriva buses and lost their jobs. the new buses seem to be the worst buses that arriva could dump on Malta and Gozo, including some bendy buses!

    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      CJStone 

      6 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      How sad. I will remove the accolade.

    • profile image

      Deb Ratcliffe 

      6 years ago

      Our buses are no more........blue 'Arriva' now!

    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      CJStone 

      6 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Not for 200 years I hope?

    • k9charlee profile image

      k9charlee 

      6 years ago

      Wonderful Hub! I enjoyed reading about the history of Malta. I was both enlightened and entertained, and am now in the mood for a very long drink of my own!

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