The author of William Scamp’s obituary can be forgiven for overlooking the social and commercial importance of the site on which Dock No.1 had been built, and the drastic changes the urban reconfiguration brought about. After all, in 1872, the year of Scamp’s death, the British were implementing a policy of consolidating their naval forces in the Mediterranean.
Scamp was sent to Malta in 1841under the director of engineering works to the Admiralty. Here he designed and oversaw the construction of dry dock facilities in the Grand Harbour “...and so paved the way for making Malta, what it is, one of the chief naval stations in the world”, as recorded in his obituary.
There is no need to confirm the historic and strategic importance of having a strong British naval base in Malta, but its hard-hitting impact in relation to its location begs some important questions: What did Scamp demolish in order build the docks the Admiralty wanted so much? And which livelihoods and spaces were affected or changed forever?
Through the latter half of 18th and first half of 19th centuries, the centre of Cospicua, along the Porto delle Galere, had become a zone used for multiple purposes. Lending itself to naval services and stores, it served as a fishermen’s haven and the base for commercial expeditions in the Mediterranean and for corsairs’ exploits, but probably more importantly, it housed a large market building.
The inner Cospicuan waterside has long been referred to by locals as ‘is-Suq’, a market which today is conspicuous by its absence. The former names of the squares are telling: Piazza del Vecchio Mercato (Paolino Vassallo Square) and Piazza del Mercato Nuovo (Gavino Gulia Square).
Architectural block plans kept the records and archives office at Projects House, signed by Scamp himself, show the proposed demolition of the market building which was located in today’s Gavino Gulia Square, but keep us guessing as to how it looked and functioned, as no detailed plans or elevations were found.
Two watercolours recently auctioned in London are propitious in giving us a very good impression of not only how the building and its surroundings looked, but also of its value for the local community by depicting frantic activity in the foreground and background alike.
The seemingly rectangular building consisted of six smaller two-storey blocks separated by courtyards and linked by terraces at the first floor level. It was characterised by a balustraded balcony along most of its façade, and could house numerous of retail outlets.
One can only speculate on what merchandise was sold but it can be sure that both local produce and imported goods were sold at the market. The paintings show colourful awnings shading the shop entrances, with people and produce spilling out of the doors.
A substantial number of fishermen used to populate Cospicua, filling the creek with fishing vessels. A statue of St Andrew, the patron saint of fishermen, stood on a high pedestal overlooking the creek at the lower end of Triq Sant’Andrija.
This remarkable mix of activities turned the geographic centre of town into a social hub and a meeting point for daily activities and trade.
Population growth patterns indicate that the surrounding community was thriving, confirming the contributions of the local activities to economic stability. From 1,200 inhabitants in 1565 to a peak of 12,148 individuals in 1901, the growth was tenfold.
The wish to live close to the creek was considerable. Notwithstanding, many enterprising folk spent years in other harbour towns along the Mediterranean coast, trading goods, often financed by a wealthy investor.
The majority of brigantines, a type of small merchant vessel, sailed to and from Sicily and had a complement of around six to 12 crew members. They were engaged mainly in trading large quantities of wine, oil, fish, honey, livestock, cheese, ricotta, poultry, beans and snow from Mount Etna.
What was once open urban space was enclosed behind high walls, in a quasi-symbolic gesture of the magnitude of the empire’s might
Others sailed as far as Spain and Portugal, stopping at Genoa, Marseille and Leghorn, in expeditions which lasted as long as two to three years. By contrast, this group did not bring back a lot of merchandise, but traded directly at different European ports.
Records show that a large proportion of the captains and crew members of the merchant vessels were from Cospicua and Senglea. The flowing trade was ultimately reflected in the architecture. Elegant houses lined the waterfront, a result of the wealth generated by sturdy commerce.
Almost suddenly the tables turn, and the British Admiralty in Malta arrives at a crossroads: it must either develop facilities for the growing demands of the Royal Navy, or lose momentum and influence in the Mediterranean.
Enter architect and engineer Scamp, and Cospicua’s centre seemed the natural choice for the first dry dock in these islands. Repairing the steel-lined hulls of new warships could hardly continue to be done at the current facilities.
When cleared, the space created was large enough both for the new dock and underground coal vaults, timber and metal sheds together with an engine house for the pumping machinery.
This decision effectively separated the market building from the waterline. The residents of Cospicua protested against the proposed location of the dockyard as it deprived them of their main access to the sea.
An elaborate ceremony was held on June 28, 1844, on the occasion of laying of the foundation stone of the new dry dock. A cofferdam formed out of timber sheeting driven into the bedrock was used to keep the sea water out while the dock was being constructed. It was inaugurated on September 5, 1848, with the entry of a British warship for refitting.
Scamp designed the workshops in a practical manner. He created a perfectly symmetrical arrangement with workshops along both sides of the dock having identical facades facing each other across the dock and a rectangular enclosure around the dry dock.
On the side of the former Strada Marina, the workshops included a central block inside which was a plater’s shop. The smitheries, one used by the Department of Shipwrights and the other by the Department of Engineers, were on each side of the central block.
A small foundry was adjacent to the smithery, and on the other side of the dry dock was a long, narrow block accommodating what were intended as open working sheds. The building is still standing today.
The new development marked a new era for Cospicua. Fishing and trade slowly declined to make way for the new dominant industry: ship service and repairs. A new breed of trained workers, whose skills were honed at the Admiralty’s dockyard school, marched in, replacing the fishermen, the brigantines’ crews and other merchants.
The process was gradual but definitive; the new industry demanded new skills, and what was once open urban space was enclosed behind new high walls, in a quasi-symbolic gesture of the magnitude of the empire’s might and its will to exert its commanding influence.
By 1855, proposals for the extension of the dock emerged from the offices of the Royal Navy Engineers. These came as a response to an increased demand for servicing of the Mediterranean fleet. The works, completed in 1862, involved the removal of the Cospicua market and the reuse of the new space for the dock and new workshop extensions.
The restoration and reuse of Scamp’s dockyard workshops will give back to the community what was previously sacrificed
Knowing the importance of the market in the city, Scamp proposed temporary retail stalls just outside the site acquired by the Admirality. The new retail outlets and stores were later moved to a more permanent location at what is known ‘Is-suq ta’ Bonniċi’ situated between Triq Santa Margerita and Triq San Ġorġ.
A larger and better drainage system was introduced in Cospicua at the time. The new system took foul water away from Dockyard Creek, the stench of which had become unbearable, and a cause of deadly disease. Many of the new culverts were placed along the dockyard workshops.
The new workshop extensions were designed in the same style as Scamp’s buildings and blended seamlessly with the older building. The same detailing was used in most of the new additions and alterations, creating an industrial but harmonious aesthetic.
By the end of the 1800s the extensions were finalised, but a decade after the turn of the century new modifications to the building where made in accordance with the needs of the day. Alterations to the extension were drawn up in 1910, evidence of which was found in plans archived at the Malta Maritime Museum. The changes enlarged the extension and created a number of boat sheds at the south end of the building. The design matched that of Scamp, rendering the alterations hardly distinguishable.
The internal split level was again built using a separate steel structure, typical of Scamp’s preferred typology, found also at the old Naval Bakery. The building was roofed over using stone slabs resting on steel beams, the details of which are noted on the documentation found.
The parapet wall was lined with balusters over each section of the façade underlining the neo-classical style and proportions employed by Scamp. At roof level one finds a long skylight/ventilation shaft built using a glazed pitched timber frame and enclosed with louvered panels on the sides.
It was inevitable that the building would suffer some degree of damage during the heavy bombardment of World War II. Plans dated 1945 indicate a number of minor changes and repairs.
New concrete paving and bollards where installed on the dock, after digging new trenches and ducts for electricity, water and drainage systems. The integrity of the building façade was compromised with the addition of a number of small rooms housing boilers, wash and storage places. The wide doorways to the boat sheds were narrowed to small doors as their function was changed to a laundry and a battery shop.
Post-World War II marked a time of drastic unsympathetic changes to Scamp buildings. The changes happened as the combined result of damage, obsolescence and the need to cater for changing technology.
The balustrade adorning the whole length of the parapet wall was removed and replaced with solid stone walls. The extra height of the original central area of the building was removed, possibly due to the extent of war damage: this single alteration effectively changed the general appearance of the façade.
A new floor was built over the extension and used for dining and recreation. This new level was built in an alien style, with different heights and apertures details to what had been designed on previous occasions. Instead, a modern/industrial approach was adopted.
Moreover, a projecting section, housing the main staircase of the original building designed by Scamp, was taken down to make more space on the dock for machinery. A small staircase tower at the dock’s inlet was also removed.
Between 1972 and 1974, major demolition works were carried out on the workshops on the side of Triq l-Inkurunazzjoni (formerly Strada Marina). The works resulted in the total removal of the buildings on one side of the dock.
The underground coal stores on the same side of the dock where opened up and filled with stone blocks and compacted soil and later covered with concrete to form a new surface.
Without condoning the destruction of cultural heritage, one may argue that the new space provided the city with a much needed open zone, although it was opened to the public at a much later date.
This area is now the site of the newly completed waterfront, devoid of buildings and allowing a full view of the other side of the creek, on which still stand the trodden but not unrecoverable workshops representing Scamp’s design ingenuity and its far reaching effects.
In planning major interventions, every decision one takes can make a great difference in the lives of many, more so when large buildings are designed and new uses given to key urban areas.
It is anticipated that the future restoration and reuse of Scamp’s dockyard workshops will provide a positive new incentive to an area much exploited by history, giving back to the community what was previously sacrificed, in addition to the encouraging results that have already been experienced since the completion of the newly rehabilitated Cospicua waterfront.
Stephen Serracino Inglott is an architect and civil engineer at the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure’s Rehabilitation Projects Office.
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