In the 268-year rule of the Order of St John over Malta, other than the epic of the Great Siege of 1565, another milestone was unquestionably the building of the city of Valletta. Unfortunately, the man who was behind its creation, after whom it was named, and Europe’s hero of the Great Siege, Grand Master Fra Jean Parisot de Valette, did not live to see it completed and functioning as the new capital city of Malta.
The construction of Valletta was the work of many fine European architects and military engineers of the time and continued to grow into a gem of various architectural orders and one of the strongest fortress cities in Europe.
But Valletta, alone on Mount Xeberras, lacked adequate ad-vanced lines of defences, and in 1643, Grand Master Antoine de Paule commissioned the Italian military engineer, Pietro Paolo Floriani of Macerata, to design forward lines, which, if Valletta was attacked from the land front, would hold the enemy far from the city’s walls and avoid a direct attack. Other fortifications were designed by the French Mederico Blondel and by Antonio Maurizio of Valperga.
With the accession of Fra Antonio Manoel de Vilhena to the post of Grand Master in 1722, this new town was given the name of Borgo Vilhena. In 1725, Pope Benedict XIII presented Grand Master de Vilhena with the Stoc and Piliet, a status which the Pope only conferred to Catholic heads of state.
Although originally meant as a no man’s land in case on an attack, various fine buildings began to appear within the walls of Floriana and many open spaces were converted into gardens. When in 1615 Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt provided for water to be brought to Valletta from the Rabat and Siġġiewi areas via an aqueduct, the last water tower was built in Floriana.
The Mall, originally a walled garden where the knights played Palla a Maglio, was built in 1656, while the church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, or the Sarria church, was built in 1676 by Lorenzo Gafà to the design of Mattia Preti. The Argotti, then a renowned botanical garden, La Casa di Carità, which gave shelter to many old and infirm, and the Capuchins church and convent are some of the fine buildings and gardens that emerged.
But the most prominent landmark in Floriana is by far the parish church dedicated to St Publius, which was started in 1733. The present church is a reconstruction, since the original suffered near destruction by aerial bombing during World War II.
When in 1798 Napoleon invaded Malta and ousted the Order of St John from the islands, the French forces that remained in Malta had manned Floriana’s defences much as intended by the Order before. However, when the Maltese rebelled against the French, Floriana’s fortifications were finally tested in battle, although not to the scale for which they were intended.
Aided by British troops, the Maltese laid siege to the capital and its suburb and the French garrison capitulated in 1800. Great Britain was given sovereignty over the islands of Malta by the Treaty of Paris in 1814, and once again Floriana began to enjoy further additions in both military and civil construction.
No time was lost by the British to convert Floriana into Malta’s first garrison town, especially since it was surrounded by strong fortifications. Structural modifications were made to the fortifications, troops were billeted in the casemates and other large buildings, powder magazines, artillery stores and stables were strengthened or added. Even cemeteries were included and the ditches between the rows of bastions and curtains were utilised. The large open space on the Marsamxetto side of Floriana became the island’s largest military parade ground.
Returning to the time of when the Order was still in Malta, the new open spaces in Floriana did not serve just to create a void in front of the Valletta enceinte where an enemy wouldn’t have any cover if it had succeeded in breaking through the Floriana Lines. Since both Valletta and Floriana were fortified and subject to a siege, whether in war or peace, the storage of water, wheat and other grain that were the main staple diet of the populace required adequate and large storage spaces. Yet they also needed protection from any attack or pilfering.
Although originally meant as a no man’s land in case on an attack, various fine buildings began to appear within the walls of Floriana and many open spaces were converted into gardens
Grand Master Marino de Redin commissioned the excavation of several bell-shaped grain storage silos between 1657 and 1660, capable of holding some 57,328 salmi, or around 65 tons of grain each. These silos, or fosos, were spread throughout Floriana, some as far as the Grand Harbour side on the road to the Kalkara Gate. Other silos were later commissioned by Richard More O’Farrell, Governor of Malta between 1847 and 1851.
Along the far side of the granaries is a large building which was originally built as a country house for Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena in 1732. After the death of Vilhena, the building most likely passed into the hands of the Universtà and became known as the Market House, which served for the administration and control of the granaries.
In 1826, the building was sold to the British military authorities for the sum of £1,301.4s.6d and was converted into an Officers Barracks and Mess by order of the Master General and Board of Ordnance, and soon became referred to as The Pavilion. Works on the building were superintended by Colonel George Whitmore, Commandant Royal Engineers in Malta between 1811 and 1829, and a great friend of the Governor Sir Thomas Maitland.
The building served as an Officers Mess for many of the British regiments occupying barracks in Floriana, in particularly those at Casemate Barracks, St Francis Barracks and later at Lintorn Barracks.
The 2nd Battalion, The Essex Regiment, formerly the 56th Regiment of Foot, had arrived in Malta in 1887 and was stationed in one of the Floriana barracks. An interesting item was listed in the Sotheby’s New York catalogue of October 1999, under the heading of ‘Important English and Continental Silver’. It consisted of a mahogany cigar box encased within a detailed model of The Pavilion in silver. It bore the inscription “Officers Mess Floriana/Malta/ Pompadours, 1888-1889”. ‘The Pompadours’ was the nickname inherited by the Regiment from the old 56th Foot due to their uniform’s facing colour.
In 1941 the building was renamed Montgomery House when Field Marshal Lord Bernard Montgomery had taken up residence at The Pavilion, and from where he had finalised the plans for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily in 1943. Participating in the meetings were the Chief of Staff to General Montgomery, Major General F. W. de Guingand, Senior Air Staff Officer to Air Vice Marshal Broadhurst, Air Commodore C. B. R. Pelly, Air Officer Commanding Desert Air Force, Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst, The Commander of the Eighth Army, General Montgomery, and Naval Commanding Officer, Eastern Task Force, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay.
Of interest is that when actor David Niven had served in Malta, he was stationed in Lintorn Barracks (Belt is-Sebħ), also in Floriana, and had his office at Montgomery House. He was later to write about the period that he spent in the army in Malta in his famous book The Moon’s a Balloon, in which he quoted Lord Byron’s reference to Malta as “the island of yells, bells and smells”.
From January 30 to February 9, 1945, a series of very secret meetings were held in Malta, which became known as the Malta Conference. Meetings numbers 182 to 188 of the US and British Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff began on January 30 at Montgomery House to agree on a strategy in north west Europe.
US President Franklin D. Roose-velt and his party embarked on the USS Quincy on January 23 at Newport News, Virginia, for passage to Malta, arriving on February 2. The Quincy entered the anti-submarine nets of Grand Harbour at 9.35am and moored at Berth 9, across from USS Memphis. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill witnessed his arrival from the deck of HMS Sirius, which was moored across the harbour.
The combined Chief of Staff had held their meetings earlier at Montgomery House, while later with Roose-velt and Churchill on the Quincy. At 11pm the parties left the ship for Luqa Airfield where huge planes of the Air Transport Command took off every 10 minutes, heading for the Yalta Conference, held at Livadia Palace in the Crimea between February 4 and 11, 1945.
This heavy militarisation of Floriana meant that large numbers of army personnel were concentrated in the area and it was inevitable that they would leave physical mementos of their presence
From the early 1950s until just before its closure in 1978, Montgomery House had served as the Command Pay Office for the British Army’s Malta Garrison.
Towards the end of the 18th century, British Army regiments were advised to adopt a name connected to the county or city from which they had originated or their clan, with regard to Scottish regiments, and were allocated a numerical system of precedence. The same ‘yet distinct’ system applied to the cavalry regiments but not for the supporting and ancillary corps which were named according to their role.
The first badges to be worn on a type of headdress by the British Army were on the Stove-pipe Shako, introduced in 1800. The plate bore the Royal Arms and Royal Cipher, which was sown to the front of the shako. Shako plates of various types remained being worn until 1878 when the shako was replaced by the Universal Pattern helmet and the device became known as a helmet-plate.
In 1874, the British Army had adopted the Glengarry, which was a type of soft cap, and on which a smaller version of the larger plate was introduced and which is considered as the first army cap badge. Cap badges are worn on uniform headdress to distinguish the wearer’s unit or department and are a form of heraldry with a design that incorporates highly symbolic military devices.
This heavy militarisation of Floriana meant that large numbers of army personnel were concentrated in the area and it was inevitable that they would leave physical mementos of their presence, which often took the form of regimental badges, of which there is profusion in Floriana.
After the turn of the 20th century, many of the British Army officers who used the Pavilion as a mess or were billeted there had left us a legacy of large badges sculptured in the soft Maltese globigerina limestone, denoting the regiments to which they belonged. A total of eight large stone regimental badges are located above the doors and windows around the rectangular yard.
The badge of the 2nd Batallion (Prince of Wales’s Own) West Yorkshire Regiment has the date ‘1913’ above, while that of the 2nd Batallion The Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own) has three small plaques above with the central bearing the date ‘1914’.
Next is the badge of the 2nd Batallion The Northamptonshire Regiment with the date 1911, and the badge of the 2/4th Batallion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) T.F. has ‘Floriana March 1915’ incised below on its frame. Of interest is that to this badge was added ‘Raised Sep 1914 – Malta Jan 1915’.
Bearing slight damage is the badge of The Somerset Light Infantry (Prince Albert’s), which has the dates ‘1685’ and ‘1910’ at the base. These probably denote the date of when the regiment was raised and the date when it was stationed in Malta. Another interesting badge is that of the 1st Garrison Battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers, which has the dates 1915-1920 carved in large numbers and also at the base.
The next badge commemorates the 2nd Batallion, The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) T.F., displaying their most recent battle honour of the time, ‘South Africa 1900/02’. The last badge is that of The Suffolk Regiment and the date 1907-1908.
Of additional interest are the brass plaques facing each other on the walls of the former carriage entrance into the yard, now the building’s main entrance, commemorating events in the history of the building. The plate on the left wall relates a brief history of the building, including its transfer to the Maltese government on the departure of the British forces in 1979, when it was renamed Middlesea House after being leased to the Middlesea Insurance Co. Ltd.
The plate is also framed with elaborate foliated carvings and has the Maltese coat-of-arms that was adopted in 1975. Originally, on the right wall was a plaque detailing the acquisition of the building by the British Army, set within a carved stone frame of garlands, wreath and topped by the Royal Arms which in 2006 was replaced by a another to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Middlesea Insurance plc, topped by the current national arms.
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