In this second in a series of articles, Michael Cassar provides concluding extracts from his recently published book Connecting The Harbour Towns O. F. Gollcher & Sons 1897-1959.

The service of the Grand Harbour Steam Ferry Company (GHSFC), the second marine transport venture by Gustav Gollcher, Eduardo Montebello Pulis and Raffaele Polidano, started on October 15, 1906, without incident because the agitation expected from the barklori (boatmen) did not happen; there was need for a faster, more reliable connection for the people of the harbour conurbation and the thousands who worked at the dockyard. Nevertheless, the scene at the Marina must have been heart-rending and tense for the idle, gawking barklori, who, being no pushovers at the best of times, must have seethed in anger and impotence while they watched their livelihood being ‘stolen’, literally, from under their noses.

The Malta Herald of the following day captured the spirit of the moment: “The Steam Ferry Boat Service between Valletta and the Three Cities and vice-versa is now an accomplished fact, the inauguration having taken place yesterday in a quiet form. Fearing some demonstration on the part of the boatmen of the Grand Harbour, the Land and Marine Police had previously made all the necessary arrangements and taken every precaution. But all passed off quietly, and the ferry boats were availed of by a large portion of the inhabitants of the Three Cities.

“It is indeed a matter of satisfaction to all that wiser counsel has prevailed among the boatmen than was at first imagined; and in this, the boatmen and the inhabitants of the Three Cities are to be congratulated. The advantages accruing to the population by the establishment of this ferry boat service are numerous. The ferry boats offer a convenience to passengers of which the community has so far been deprived, and although they may diminish to some extent the use of the ordinary dgħajjes to those particular spots at least, where the steam launches make fast for the embarkation and disembarkation of passengers, it is not in the least to be feared that the boatmen will not continue to have their fair share of work in the Grand Harbour, busy as at all times is with men-of-war, passengers and other steamers, and in many other ways.

Notice in The Malta Herald, October 12, 1906.Notice in The Malta Herald, October 12, 1906.

“Taking Sliema as an instance in the importance it has attained since it is in possession of cheap and speedy modes of conveyance, we predict that the establishment of the steam ferry boat service, which was inaugurated yesterday under such good auspices, will increase the trade of the Three Cities considerably and cause their markets to be more regularly supplied and replenished with all commodities. It is a well-known rule that cheap and commodious modes of communication, augment the prosperity of a place considerably, and it is this prosperity that the Three Cities of Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa will attain by the happy idea of the steam ferry boats management in introducing a cheap, speedy and convenient mode of conveyance for them.

“The good people of the Three Cities have already appreciated the service which was inaugurated yesterday, and we feel convinced that as time goes on when the advantages will be more perceptible, they will have grounds of expressing their thanks to those, who, at considerable sacrifice to themselves for the moment, have placed them in a position to enjoy a boon, which is now so much appreciated by the residents and the inhabitants of Sliema, and by the public at large. The service was started at 9 o’clock yesterday morning, and all speak in the highest terms of the launches themselves and of the comfort provided by the company, and by Mr Polidano, the indefatigable and enterprising manager.”

In the Gollcher Company archives is a handwritten register, ‘Rapporti Generali della National Steam Ferry Boats Coy. & Grand Harbour Steam Ferry Coy’, containing a record of repairs and overhauls, incidents, collisions, surveyors’ incident and damage reports, estimates, contracts and allocation of ferries between harbours from February 13, 1906, to January 18, 1917. The record was probably kept by Polidano who passed away on February 6, 1917, three weeks after the last entry. It is not known who managed the fleet after his demise. A similar fleet record would almost certainly have been kept after this date but was probably lost when the company offices in Zachary Street were destroyed during World War II.

If the GHSFC and the government thought that the barklori were resigned to their fate, they were sorely mistaken. The men found a new champion in Agostino Levanzin (1877-1955), a pugnacious journalist with eclectic interests and abilities and a staunch defender of workers’ rights. Levanzin led some 200 barklori to Admiralty House at Vittoriosa to complain to the new Admiral Superintendent Malta Dockyard, Rear Admiral Frederic William Fisher (not to be confused with his brother Sir John Fisher, C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet, 1899-1902, or Admiral Sir John Wordsworth Fisher, C-in-C, 1932-1936). They also blocked the landing place at the Marina Valletta with their dgħajjes on the morning of February 19 and only backed down after the Marine Police promised to pass on their demand for the ferry fare to be doubled.

In March 1907, the GHSFC signed a contract with Lorenzo Gatt for the construction of a fourth ferry of the ‘Admiral’ class. Stella, the relief ferry, purchased the previous year, was blessed by Fr Francesco Bugeja on July 7. Three days later it was immobilised by a damaged valve in the circulation pump. The ferry was taken on hand for repair at Hay Wharf. The yard also slipped and overhauled Gollcher and P&O coal lighters. That same year priority was given to the repair of P&O steam launch Notabile.

The ferry Melita seems to have been particularly jinxed

Occasional disruptions to the service owing to bad weather, breakdowns or collisions did not alter the importance of the ferries as a vital link between the capital and the ever-growing suburbs. In 1901, there were 10,507 Sliema residents; within a decade the population rose to 13,171. The silver jubilee of the ferry service was celebrated with a grand feast on land and sea at Sliema on June 23, 1907. This was attended by thousands of people from the harbour towns; one of the attractions was the Maypole, for which a prize of one pound was offered to winners. Another innovation was the introduction of a direct service from the Marina Valletta to Marsamxett and Sliema.

It was galling for the barklori (boatmen) to watch their livelihood being stolen, literally, from the landing stage at left.It was galling for the barklori (boatmen) to watch their livelihood being stolen, literally, from the landing stage at left.

The Marsamuscetto Steam Ferry Service (MSFS) and the National Steam Ferry Boat Company (NSFBC) merged in March 1908 with Polidano as joint manager. Since Polidano also managed GHSFC, he effectively became responsible for the entire network. The extent of co-operation is not clear as there is no reference to MSFS vessels in the Rapporti Generali. Polidano most likely issued a common timetable to prevent rivalry and uneconomical duplication of resources but the upkeep of the fleets remained separate.

Summer was increasingly profitable. The Malta Herald of September 11 advertised: “The steam launch Stella Maris will make a trip to St Paul’s Bay on Sunday (weather permitting): Departures from Sliema – 3.45pm; from Marsamuscetto – 3.30pm; from St Paul’s Bay – 6.30pm. Fares: Return tickets 1s. (one shilling)/single ticket 8d. (eight pence).”

Despite the rivalry there had been an element of co-operation between the two companies since 1900. Rival coxswains rendered mutual assistance when required. Sliema had also grown to such an extent that there was room for both companies; it was now a modern town, supplied with electricity (they replaced gas lamps in May 1899), and proper sewerage. There were cinematographs at the United Services Hotel (the ‘Universal Cinema’), and at the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel at nos. 1/2, Tower Road. The Kinema San-Pareil opened before World War I. It became the Carlton in 1934.

On April 13, 1908, under the heading ‘Miscellany’, The Malta Herald reported: “We would recommend the early publication of the notice inviting tenders for the erection of the cab shelter at Marsamuscetto, for which the sum of £170 has been taken in this year’s estimates. It is very desirable that this shed should be completed and erected as early as possible, thus affording some protection to man and beast from the scorching summer sun.” The cabs, or karrozzini, took away some of the hardship of the climb to the centre of the town. For those who opted to walk, or were coming from the direction of the new ring road, the route invariably took them through Strada San Marco, which saw a dramatic resurgence in business and traffic.

The MSFS ferry Melita, victim of two incidents in 1897, seems to have been particularly jinxed. Bad luck struck again in the evening of July 18, 1908, while it was being steered towards Marsamxett by Giuseppe Genovese. The NSFBC coxswain Giuseppe Scicluna on the Ceres was approaching from the direction of Msida when it struck the bows of Melita at 8.15pm. There were few passengers aboard as it was the last crossing of the day. Melita suffered some damage but nobody was hurt. The collision, which occurred in summer, could not been blamed on poor visibility, the most likely cause being the coxswains’ refusal to give way, or overconfidence about a manoeuvre repeated several times a day.

Senglea Marina before the advent of the ferries.Senglea Marina before the advent of the ferries.

Lorenzo Gatt launched the fourth ‘Admiral’ class ferry Admiral Drury on July 31. It entered service in October and was named after Vice Admiral Sir Charles Carter Drury, the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet (1907-1908). It was a year of incidents. On August 8, Admiral  Beresford, coxswain Giuseppe Gauci, sustained slight damage to its fenders and the bows after colliding with the Dockyard tug C.A.29 while crossing from Vittoriosa to Valletta. Ten days later the boiler of Stella was declared unusable; the Sliema service was reduced to two launches from August 18 to 30 because Aurora was on the slipway and Euterpe was running to St Julian’s.

On October 15, the MSFS Stella Maris, built the previous year (1907), suffered a boiler explosion while crossing from Marsamxett to Sliema at 2.40pm. The coxswain directed the 11 passengers away from the boiler to the saloon, and Giuseppe Pisani, the engineer, escaped from the engine room in time. The explosion and clouds of steam alerted staff at both landing places, and Bellona and Norina sailed from Sliema and Marsamxett to evacuate passengers and crew. A garrison launch from Fort Manoel also arrived to render assistance. Bellona towed the stricken ferry to Sliema.

Commuters suggested improvements: a last ferry at 10pm to allow more time in Valletta and access to the Barrakka Lifts from the Customs House gate instead of the steps below the fish market. The Malta Herald of December 11, 1908, reiterated similar complaints: “being made by persons who, to find their way to the steam ferry boats at the Marina Valletta, must make use of the so-called steps near the so-called fish market.

“The approach to the steam launches is liable to much improvement, and it is the general desire that for the sake of convenience, comfort and decency the scheme suggested to the government will not be long delayed in being put into effect. There would appear to be no reason, however, why this approach should be permitted to be occupied by disoccupied persons and urchins who make both sides of the steps their own, after using language and making gestures which are far from pleasant to passers-by.

“In wet weather the steps do not present any fine appearance, and this inconvenience is by far increased, when the men are recklessly allowed to squat there and throw the remains of their perfumed cigarettes and the refuse of their foods in all directions.”

(To be continued. The first part of this series was published on August 18.)

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us