The barklori protested against the threat to their livelihood posed by the new ferries of The Sliema Valletta Ferry Service Company set up by Julius (Giulio) Goldseller; they demonstrated in front of the Governor’s Palace in Valletta on May 25, 1882, and complained directly to Sir Arthur Borton on June 16 while he was visiting the new police station at Sliema. The Governor promised to study their concerns but there the matter rested.
The barklori could still serve the route and the rest of the harbour because the ferries were only allowed to run between the two landing places. The men threatened to go on strike but were dissuaded by Melitone Caruana, the Superintendent of Police. The strike was nevertheless held on the afternoon of August 6. The government retaliated by suspending the men’s licences for a month but they were reprieved on August 11 after presenting a petition with a promise to return to work. Shelters for them were erected at the landing places in 1884. The men also agreed to charge the standard fares and to pool resources according to an agreement reached earlier on June 7; judging from passengers’ and servicemen’s perennial complaints, the official tariff was routinely ignored and much haggling over fares actually took place.
Two more ferries joined the fleet: Sliema in September 1884 and Victoria in July 1885. Passenger accommodation on all the ferries was open to the elements, the only protection being given by canvas awnings. Sliema was used for the summer service to Balluta and St Julian’s, which was introduced on July 7, 1885.
In 1885, Goldseller was bought out by (Major) Alessandro and Edward Mattei, who owned the boats. Information on the takeover can be gleaned from a January 12, 1900, letter by ‘A Fair Man’ published in the Daily Malta Chronicle, who addressed complaints about the monopoly enjoyed by the ferry companies (this was after a second company was set up in 1897). He recalled how the Matteis had forced Goldseller: “to sell up the whole concern for a song. The £1 shares exchanged hands for 2s. 6d. (two shillings and sixpence – half a crown), or less and sometimes a little more.
‘Piazza Sant’Anna’ close by has been remodelled, planted with trees and provided with stone seats; both the quay and the square are now places much resorted to by the residents
“After some three years this venture took life, and began to pay 100 per cent profit; new launches were built and the whole service improved.
“Marsamuscetto and Sliema transit fell into the hands of a company who monopolised the service. They charged 1d. [one penny] for each trip, which means that each regular inhabitant of Sliema paid the Coy [company] £3. 0s.10d. [three pounds, 10 pence] per annum for his ticket.”
The Matteis renamed the service ‘Marsamuscetto Steam Ferry Service’. They installed proper landing stages on piers with shelter canopies for passengers; the piers rested on iron piles driven into the seabed. A photograph by Richard Ellis in the 1886 album was captioned:
“The place of embarkation and landing, which is a portion of the quay, is a place of great bustle on account of the continuous transit of people during all hours of the day till late at night, more especially during the summer months, and, thanks to the improvements effected, it offers all possible convenience to the public.
“The immediate neighbourhood of this landing place has also been embellished by the erection of a new Police Station, elegant in design, and of a shed, similar to the one at Marsamxett Landing Place, intended as a shelter against sun and rain for the greater convenience of passengers; while the square ‘Piazza Sant’Anna’, close by, has been remodelled, planted with trees and provided with stone seats; both the quay and the square are now places much resorted to by the residents, whither they repair in the summer evenings to enjoy the cool sea breeze and the melodious tunes of bands, and also the lively scene of the steam ferry-boats which ever since the 11th of June, 1882, have been constantly plying between this and Valletta.”
The Matteis enlarged the fleet with more ferries: Valletta and Fortuna were delivered by Pascal Grech and Paolo Pavia respectively in May and August 1886, and the larger Britannia, the company flagship, which was intended for excursions, was added in 1888.
On August 26, 1889, Valletta was struck by an errant torpedo while it was at the landing stage. The ferry was breached and it sank next to the pier. There were no injuries but it was so badly damaged that it was decided to scrap it
A service to Msida was introduced in 1887. There were three landing places: near the P&O stores opposite the former villa of John Hookham Frere, in the innermost part of the creek at Piazza Palma, and in front of the new parish church.
Summer feasts drew the crowds and augmented revenue. The feast of Stella Maris at Sliema in August 1894 attracted several people from the capital; on Saturday and Sunday the ferries ran until midnight. In July 1895, the feast of Our Lady of Mt Carmel at Balluta was celebrated, according to The Malta Times and United Service Gazette of July 26: “with greater solemnity than in previous years. Besides the divine services there will be the popular entertainment of the greasy pole at 6pm”.
That same year, The Daily Malta Chronicle of October 14 reported that two ferries had collided at the landing place on Friday evening. Although: “nothing happened beyond the poop of one of the launches being crushed, still, matters might have been very much worse, not only for the boats but for the passengers, and we consider it would be advisable to carry a light in the poop as well as those ordered by law to be carried on the starboard and port sides. When the collision occurred, one of the launches was moored to the landing stage and the other, not observing the side lights and thinking the stage was clear, was making for it.”
The landing place at Sliema came to have unwelcome bedfellows – torpedoes. The invention of the deadly weapon by Robert Whitehead revolutionised sea warfare and engaged the world’s navies in a race to be the first to produce the latest and more efficient versions of the underwater travelling device. Endless research and trials were carried out at dedicated establishments set up for the purpose.
In 1884, a mere two years after the ferries started, a torpedo facility was built on the north side of Manoel Island, across the water from the landing place; dummy practice torpedoes were fired from a wooden pier towards the harbour mouth after which they were recovered and towed back to the depot. Tests were held exactly at 10am, and all traffic, ferries included, was halted for the duration. On August 26, 1889, Valletta was struck by an errant torpedo while it was at the landing stage. The ferry was breached and it sank next to the pier. There were no injuries but it was so badly damaged that it was decided to scrap it.
After 14 years’ service there was a notable decline in standards. As ‘A Fair Man’ noted in the Daily Malta Chronicle of January 12, 1900: “Unfortunately the company, instead of improving the service as the public had a right to expect in face of the large profits derived, relaxed its efforts; and surely some of your readers will remember the Sliema launches covered with coal dust, they will not have forgotten the unsightly patched awnings, the expectoration in every part of the boats (hardly the company’s fault) and other inconveniences too numerous to mention.”
(The first part of this article was published last Sunday)
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