Villa Frère in Pietà is threatened by an application to build a 10-storey retirement home. Historic documents at the Notarial Archives shed light on the acquisition of the property, its architecture and details about its extensive garden.

Three reports related to the anticipated acquisition of a prominent piece of real estate in the mid-19th century were recently found at the Notarial Archives. An illustrious name stands out on the second page of the first report – John Hookham Frère. The subject of the three reports is, in fact, Villa Frère in Pietà and its magnificent gardens.

The first report relates to the “proposed alienation of property at Malta in favour of the Right Honourable Lord Hamilton Chichester” and consists of an assessment of the legal requirements and possible pitfalls concerning acquisition of the property. The other two reports are architectural surveys and valuations of the property, including extensive descriptions of the buildings and gardens.

Brief biographical notes on the two protagonists – John Hookham Frère and Lord Hamilton Chichester – are in order before proceeding with a detailed account of the three reports.

Paul Cassar published an excellent biography on Frère in Melita Historica in 1984. Frère was born in 1769 and was considered a diplomat, poet and scholar. After a career in the Foreign Service, during which he served in Portugal and later in Spain where he was involved in a dispute concerning Sir John Moore’s retreat to La Coruna. He left the diplomatic service in 1810 after declining the offer of a peerage and the post of Ambassador to St Petersburg.

Frère was married to Elizabeth née Blake, the Dowager Countess of Errol whose health was deteriorating, so much so that he sought a warm climate, first in Palermo and later in Malta, where he settled in April 1821. His first few years in Malta were spent at Palazzo Correa in Old Bakery Street, Valletta, but he also rented a summer house in Pietà.

The contract for this lease is recorded in the 1828 register of English notary William Stevens. It was drawn up on June 21, 1828, between Thomas Southwood, acting on behalf of the owners, Solomon Benzimura and Brothers, and “John Hookham Frère, gentleman”.

The lease was for a period of two years and concerned “a certain dwelling house situated at and on the Pietà No. 33 at the angle of the public road, near the bathing house”. All associated outhouses and gardens were included in the lease.

The rent was 200 scudi per annum payable every six months and the contract stipulated that Frère “binds and obliges himself to take particular care of the trees, shrubs, etc in and about the said gardens”. Such care was to include lopping, pruning and watering.

The Frère siblings were known not only for their scholarship and dedication to local education and culture but also for their great benevolence

Frère eventually moved permanently to Pietà where he lived with his wife and his spinster sister Susan. The household also included his wife’s niece, Miss Honoria Blake (later Lady Honoria Hamilton Chichester), and a young girl he had rescued from hostilities in Greece.

After relocating to Pietà, Frère undertook several works to improve the villa, which originally consisted of the amalgamation of two or three houses. Particular attention was devoted to the creation of a garden from the bare rock behind the villa, which involved considerable expenditure. A terraced garden was created, with a number of wells and several prominent features including a Doric-style structure known as ‘the temple’ at the highest point.

A recent photograph taken in the grounds of Villa Frère.A recent photograph taken in the grounds of Villa Frère.

The winter of 1831 saw the demise of Frère’s wife Elizabeth after a long illness. After her death, he continued to live in the villa with his sister Susan.

The Frère siblings were known not only for their scholarship and dedication to local education and culture but also for their great benevolence. Susan died in 1839, followed seven years later by her brother who passed away on January 17, 1846, the day after he suffered an attack of apoplexy.

Frère was buried in the Msida Bastion Cemetery, across the creek from Villa Frère; Lord Hamilton Francis Chichester superintended the funeral arrangements.

Lord Hamilton was the fifth of seven sons born to Sir George Augustus Chichester, the second Marquess of Donegall. His eldest brother, George Hamilton Chichester, was the third Marquess of Donegall and Earl of Belfast.

Hamilton Francis had a career in the army where he reached the rank of major. As a captain in the 7th Regt (Royal Fusiliers), he was stationed in Malta in 1834 when he stood as guarantor for his friend Charles Wightman according to an act in the records of notary William John Stevens.

On December 7, 1837, he married Honoria Anastasia Blake, daughter of Elizabeth Hookham Frère’s brother, Colonel Henry James Blake. Honoria had been living with her aunt in Villa Frère and, after the death of Frère’s wife Elizabeth and his sister Susannah, she continued to live there taking care of the ageing John until his death in 1846 aged 77. The Chichesters continued to live in Villa Frère until Lord Hamilton Chichester passed away in 1854 at the young age of 43.

The first of the three documents found at the Notarial Archives appears to have been commissioned by Lord Hamilton Francis Chichester following the death of Frère; it is dated July 3, 1846, just under six months after Frère’s demise.

An aerial view of Villa Ciantar and Villa Frère gardens.An aerial view of Villa Ciantar and Villa Frère gardens.

The author of the report was tasked with providing information regarding local usage and legal procedures pertaining to the transfer (alienation) of Villa Frère and gardens to Hamilton Chichester. He starts off by stating that “every tenure of landed property in Malta is subject in case of its being alien to a right by certain persons against the purchaser to recover it back paying to the latter what he gave for the property”.

He then enumerated the three classes of persons enjoying rights of alienation as (i) joint tenants, (ii) persons related by consanguinity to the grantor, and (iii) owners of adjoining lands. Furthermore, since the tenure of Villa Frère was on terms of emphyteusis, this gave rise to a fourth right, that is that the owner had a right of retaking the lands by paying the price offered by any other person less one year’s ground rent.

The author of the report pointed out that the various legal rights affecting property in Malta are a “fertile source of litigation, trouble and expense” and supposes that “in acquiring those lands, it is extremely remote from the idea of Lord Hamilton F. Chichester to acquire a source of trouble, expense and litigation”.

The trees and shrubs in the grounds are well documented: hundreds of fruit trees, including orange, lemon, almond, fig, olive, pomegranate, carob, grapevine and prickly pear and other choice fruit trees

One possibility suggested was to make the alienation one of public competition between interested parties but it was again pointed out that “where there are several of such parties, the competition seldom fails to produce law proceedings to which, especially in Malta, Lord Hamilton Francis Chichester does not wish to become a party”. The anonymous report, while reviewing all possible avenues for the alienation of Frère’s property in favour of Lord Chichester, is rather inconclusive and does not offer any definitive advice.

The other two documents were commissioned by Samuel Christian, who was the president of the Anglo-Maltese Bank. They pre-date the alienation report by two months, being dated Valletta, May 1846, and are survey reports on the properties at Pietà “the usufruct of which appertained to the heirs of the Right Honourable John Hookham Frère and the absolute interest to the nunnery of the presentation of the Blessed Virgin and St Catherine in Valletta”. They are clearly rough drafts as they contain many corrections and deletions. One report concerns the landed property marked with the numbers 33, 37, 38,42, 43 and 44, while the other deals with Nos 21, 25, 26, 27 and 28 “on the second lane on the Pietà, named Ta’ Loggia”.

Sir John Hookham FrèreSir John Hookham Frère

These two survey reports are very detailed, listing and describing all the rooms in the buildings as well as the various sections of the gardens.

The surveys mention no less than 11 rainwater wells and cisterns as well as an underground spring (spiera) and “communications to the public fountain from which, by means of a pump, the water which runs through said communications is conveyed to a tank above having leaden pipes”.

The trees and shrubs in the grounds are well documented: hundreds of fruit trees, including orange, lemon, almond, fig, olive, pomegranate, carob, grapevine and prickly pear and other “choice fruit trees”.

Also recorded are 119 “diverse ornamental trees which bear no fruit” and two fir trees. Other garden-related features referred to include terraces, walks, belvederes, 49 fixed flower pots, 59 ornamental earthen pots, 13 earthen columns, trellis works, cane works and a grotto “commanding prospective view”. The surveys also include valuations of the properties, those covered in the first report being estimated at 15,568 scudi and those in the second report at 1,390 scudi.

Unfortunately, years of neglect have seen these properties fall into total disrepair. Large sections of the grounds were obliterated by the building of a primary school and of St Luke’s Hospital with its helipad and parking area.

The coat of arms of Lord Hamilton Francis ChichesterThe coat of arms of Lord Hamilton Francis Chichester

A few years ago, an association known as Friends of Villa Frère, led by architect Edward Said, was set up and is painstakingly trying to restore the one-third of the original garden which still survives.

The latest threat to this historic estate is the filing of an application with the Planning Authority for the building of a 10-storey retirement home on the adjoining Villa Ciantar, which also has a beautiful garden.

Said commented: “The projected height of 30 metres (10 storeys) of the new retirement home structure will completely finish off this well-preserved remnant of the picturesque Pietà seafront and severely compromise the historic Villa Frère gardens, which are Grade II listed, boasting Grade I architectural finery.”

Hopefully, common sense will prevail and this horrendous development will never see the light of day.

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