This is part 4 in this series of articles.
The trip across the harbour was fairly straight with some minor helm turns off Manoel Island Point; the landing stages were visible from either end, and it was possible to see the ferries making the crossing. Until 1897 coxswains of the Marsamuscetto Steam Ferry Service kept a look out for sister ferries, naval traffic from Lazzaretto Creek, mainly torpedo boats and steam launches, dgħajjes (traditional Maltese boat) and the occasional P&O steamer. The coming of the National Steam Ferry Boat Company ferries changed all that.
Ferries leaving Sliema steamed close to the Tigné shore to avoid the Admiralty buoys, before making a starboard helm turn on a fairly straight course for Marsamxett. On the first day of NSFBC operations, coxswains from the old company had to reckon with rival boats on the water, in what turned out to be a race at close quarters. The approaches to the landing places were particularly dangerous especially when two ferries met on arrival or departure.
On the afternoon of the second day of NSFBC operations, its Aurora approached Sliema landing stage at the same time that the MSFS’s Melita left for Marsamxett. Melita had been built in 1882 and was one of the first two ferries to serve the route. Smaller than Aurora, it was of 10 gross tons, was 34 feet long and was powered by a six i.h.p. engine. Both ferries should have kept to starboard to avoid a collision but neither skipper wanted to give way, and, despite a last-minute helm turn, Aurora struck Melita. Since the ferry was still very close to the baths at Tigné, the coxswain steered towards the shore and beached the ferry to prevent it from sinking in deep water. It lay there half submerged. Some passengers jumped into the sea, others were taken on dgħajjes.
The government acted at once to prevent similar incidents. New regulations were published in the Malta Government Gazette of August 3, 1897. They listed the only permitted landing places: Marsamxett, Sliema, Msida, St Julian’s and St George’s Bay. Ferries now had to have a four-man crew: master, engineer, seaman and boy.
Another important regulation obliged both companies to display visible identification marks. MSFS ferries were to fly a red pendant on the stem in daytime and show a white light on the stern at night. The NSFBC pendant was blue; a yellow light was shown at night in addition to standard red and green lamps to port and starboard. A yellow ball on the red and blue pendants was added later. The pendant was also painted on the funnels. Since both companies’ ferries had black hulls, the pendants were the only means of identifying ownership. The Red Ensign was flown from the stern.
Four ferries from each company were allowed to work between Sliema and Marsamxett at any given time. In the approach to Sliema, NSFBC boats were to steer a course south of the Admiralty buoys, MSFS to the north. Waiting time at Sliema and Marsamxett was five minutes, 10 at the other landing stages. The ferries were to leave the landing stages by turn, but never together. Masters had to follow the rules for preventing collisions at sea, and the steam whistle had to be sounded at close quarters. No stoking or bunkering with coal was allowed at landing places.
The service ran from 6am to 10pm between May and September and from 6am to 9.30pm from October to April. Both companies had small maintenance and repair yards with a slipway and winches. The MSFS yard was at Marsa, the NSFBC’s at Hay Wharf, Sa Maison; it was leased from the government on encroachment basis. The company also had another repair facility below Corradino called Lancefield Docks. Lancefield was an iron screw steamer Olof Gollcher bought and operated in 1867.
Melita was later salvaged but it continued to be dogged by bad luck. No sooner had the ferry returned to service than it suffered yet another mishap, this time from an unlikely source – a dummy torpedo. Three letters published over a three-week period in the Times of Malta of June 10, 16 and 26, 1947, described the misfortune that struck Melita on October 5, 1897, almost two months to the day from the collision with Aurora.
Correspondents Mr Tayar, Mr Mallia-Vernon and ‘Old Timer’ recalled that a practice torpedo fired from the Manoel Island pier struck the ferry and pierced the hull. The ferry started sinking slowly; some passengers jumped into the sea while others were rescued by dgħajjes. Once more, the ferry was deliberately grounded and was later salvaged and returned to service.
The incident was not reported in the newspapers of the day. Nevertheless, three recollections in a row make the story plausible. The development of the modern torpedo as a weapon was marked by several experiments, each navy learning by trial and error. Newspapers occasionally published adverts promising fishermen rewards for the recovery and return of lost torpedoes.
On December 8, 1899, slightly more than two years after the Sliema incident, a dummy torpedo struck and sank the steam pinnace of HMS Hazard during exercises off Delimara. The men on board the pinnace were rescued; both pinnace and torpedo were recovered after three days.
The approaches to the landing places were particularly dangerous especially when two ferries met on arrival or departure
The NSFBC followed the alphabet when another ferry, Euterpe, joined the fleet in June 1898. It was built by Michael Gatt at Marsa. In Greek mythology, Euterpe, meaning ‘delightful’ or ‘rejoicing well’, was one of the musical muses. That year the company also celebrated its first anniversary by organising a feast at Sliema. The philharmonic band La Valette came over by ferry from Valletta to participate in the event together with Sliema’s first philharmonic society, I Cavalieri di Malta, which was inaugurated in 1886.
Alphabetical naming was set to continue with another ferry, Fauna, which was being built by Peter Camilleri & Sons of Marsa, but it was sold to the Admiralty while on the stocks for use as a tender at the Dockyard. It was launched as Neptune on July 19, 1898; the event was attended by the Chief Constructor of the Dockyard, Mr H. Gard, and his wife, who broke the traditional bottle of champagne over the bows.
Peter Camilleri originally operated from a slipway in French Creek before being forcibly transferred to the Portu Novu at Marsa in 1874. Apart from launches the firm also built lighters, dredging barges and pontoons. Camilleri also offered diver facilities for underwater work. The firm’s successors continue to operate in the importation of timber for industry.
In 1899, the service to Msida was suspended for reasons explained by ‘Misida [sic] resident’ in a letter to the editor of the Daily Malta Chronicle published on April 10: “Up to quite recently a steam launch has been plying betwixt [sic] Marsamuscetto and Misida [sic], but a regulation, just issued, prohibits the employment of engine-drivers on steam launches who have not passed an examination before a board. The first of such examinations is not to be held for some time (it is said about three weeks), and by reason of the National Steam Ferry Boat Company not having a qualified driver on their Misida [sic] launch, nor one with whom they can replace him, the launch has been stopped running, much to the inconvenience of many of us.
“To obviate this palpable hardship, might I suggest that the examination be held earlier (say some day this week) or else allow the driver who has hitherto been doing this work to continue in that capacity until the long-deferred board assembles?”
Competition, welcome as it was, led to complications and problems. After a year and a half of operation by rival companies, ‘A Fair Man’ described the situation in a January 10, 1900, letter to The Daily Malta Chronicle:
“The Marsamuscetto and Sliema landing places were constructed in the latest and most modern style. Then commenced a war of tariffs from which the inhabitants of Sliema benefitted largely. The old company (MSFS) started subscription tickets at 1s. 8d. (one shilling and eight pence), whilst the new charged 2s.6d. (two shillings and sixpence), and both had a full patronage.
“But every dog has his day: the subscribers at 1s.8d. (one shilling and eight pence) and at 2s. 6d. (two shillings and sixpence) began to cross at all hours, and certainly undue advantage was taken of the facilities offered. It was a common thing to see subscribers on Sundays and public holidays board a launch and settling down in it, crossing for the cool breeze, like so many Pashas of Egypt, in defiance of the most elementary laws of a fair payment for a fair service!
“The proprietors could not compel luxurious one-and-eight-pence-a-month sybarites to moderate their enjoyment of the launches, because when legitimate remonstrances were made, the ‘I’ll have my money’s worth’ passengers would simply disembark from one launch and embark on another. The old story, give an inch and people take an ell (the length of the arm up to the elbow)!
“At last the day of reckoning arrived, and the two companies, after losing about £3,000 apiece, amalgamated, and who shall find fault with them? Yet, so far the upshot has been one beneficial to the public, for instead of paying £3. 0.10d. (three pounds, 10 pence) per annum as in the old days with a bad service, the passenger is only called upon to disburse 30 shillings a year with a modernised service.
“It is therefore most unfair to blame the companies for exercising their rights. Expenses are heavy; coal has risen to 30s. (30 shillings) per ton, the upkeep of the fleet of steamers requires a great deal of capital, and on the whole, the Sliema people should be thankful for the two years of grace during which they travelled at the rate of one-eighth of a penny – seeing that by the new arrangement they save 30 shillings per annum as compared with the days of old.”
This was the first attempt by both companies to work together instead of against each other.
At Marsamxett, work began on a project that had been on the drawing board for years: the construction of a new road round the bastions that would give a third access from Floriana and better access to the ferries.
The Daily Malta Chronicle of January 21, 1902, reported: “The work of demolishing the bastions at Marsamuscetto, prior to the construction of a new road, goes on apace. There could be no better tribute to the substantial work of the builders than the difficulty with which these huge masses are removed from the positions which they occupied for centuries. These stones have served their purposes in the past; we trust to benefit by their present transition.”
Two years later, the road, named after the Great Siege of 1565, was linked to the ferries’ landing place by ramps; a wider, arched gateway replaced Marsamuscetto Gate. By October 28, 1904, The Malta Times could report that: “The completion of the Marsamuscetto landing place is proceeding rapidly. The tramway is also proceeding satisfactorily, and it is hoped that the service will commence next year.” The tramway opened on February 23, 1905. It ran to Żebbuġ, Cospicua and Birkirkara but was denied Sliema, the jewel in the crown of local transport.
Nevertheless, on November 13, 1905, a pioneering motor bus company, the Malta Motor Omnibus and Transport Syndicate Limited set up by Major J. Muscat and Edward Tancred Agius, inaugurated a service from Porta Reale to St Andrew’s Barracks via Floriana, Princess Melita Road, Msida, Ta’ Xbiex, Sliema, Forrest Hospital (Spinola Palace) at St Julian’s and Pembroke. The company operated five Thornycroft buses: a single decker bus with room for 20 passengers and four double deckers carrying 40 passengers.
The company built a depot on the Gżira side of Manoel Island. Buses ran from 7am to 9pm. The fare from Valletta to St Julian’s was three pence, two pence to Sliema and a penny from there to St Julian’s. The enterprise failed to take off. An intermittent service was provided in the first quarter of the New Year; it was suspended in November.
One explanation for the failure of the venture was the government’s insistence on the use of rubber-wheeled tyres. However, the main reason, according to The Malta Herald of April 4, 1906, was that: “people are nowadays all for economy (the island was in recession), and prefer going to Valletta in the steam boats for one half penny rather than pay two pence, and with a service which has been far from punctual”.
The first parts of this article were published on March 10 and 17, and last Sunday, June 23.