The luxurious garden of Sa Maison in Floriana has attracted the nib of various writers, foremost among whom Comm. Edgar Montanaro and Ġużè Cassar Pullicino. They start with an early owner Chevalier Caille Maison who, presumably in the 18th century, used the site as his hunting lodge, and from whom the name of Sa Maison was derived.
From various sources, it can be established that the history of Sa Maison goes much further back. It was founded in the 17th century by Fra Giovanni Minucci, who entered the Italian Langue of the Order of St John on November 6, 1670. Not long after, he acquired a tract of land bordered on three sides by stately bastions overlooking from Floriana the harbour of Marsamscetto. In order to enjoy the beauty of the site in his restful repose, he built a house ‘casamento’ in his large garden. It seems that he owned the land on an emphyteutical lease for a number of years.
On October 17, 1681, he was authorised by the Venerable Council of the Order to transfer the property to the Noble Fra Gerolamo Minucci, presumably a relative of his, perhaps his own brother, who became a knight in the same langue on May 9, 1675. Both knights were from Seravalle, which was a city and ‘comune’ situated in the province of Treviso in the Veneto region. Seravalle does not figure on modern maps because it was amalgamated with the ‘comune’ of Cèneda and joined into one municipality named in 1866 after Vittorio, King of Italy, namely Vittorio Emanuele II. In 1923, it was officially changed to Vittorio Veneto as it is today known. Indeed, the course of proceedings to prove the nobility of the two Minuccis are preserved in the Archivio del Gran Priorato di Lombardia e Venezia.
It would be highly commendable if Heritage Malta or some other heritage organisation would affix a marble plaque in a prominent place in the garden commemorating the foundation of the garden by Chevalier Fra Gerolamo Minucci.
On the demise of Gerolamo Minucci, the property passed to the ‘Comune Tesoro’ as part of his ‘spoglio’. In virtue of a deed received by Notary Aloysio dello Re (active 1648-1703) on September 7, 1696, the property was rented jointly to Balì Fra Giovanni Evangelista de la Vieuville, captain of the Order’s galley San Paolo, and Commendatore Fra Mario de Grattet Dolomieu, captain of the galley Santa Maria, at a yearly rent of 43 scudi.
In the meantime, Commendatore Fra Camillo Albertini, captain of the galley Sant’Antonio, had become a creditor of the Order in respect of the garden and the lessees were delegated to pay the rent to him till the end of 1701. Until then, the garden had no official name, and it may have been simply known as the Minucci garden. Today’s name came into being from the name of the second lessee.
On July 1, 1701, over 300 years ago, the house and garden were given on lease to Fra Giovanni Battista de Saismaisons, who was the Order’s treasurer. On March 4, he was appointed captain of the galley Lascara, and on December 28, 1687, captain of the Ottava. His surname was spelt ‘Sesmaisons’ by Dal Pozzo and ‘Sermayson’ by Mori Ubaldini. He enjoyed the property for just 18 years as he passed away on July 6, 1719. Between 1687 and 1719, he occupied Casa Valdina at 14, Mikiel Anton Vassalli Street in Valletta. Here, Denaro named him ‘de Semesons’, which shows how the true surname sounds in Italian. As things now stand, it does not seem right to presume that Sa Maison house and garden took their name after Chevalier Caille Maison as has been written.
The only other entry of the 18th century I have come across brings to life an important compatriot of Saismaisons. In 1786, the grantee was Balì Fra Gio Antonio Riquet de Mirabeau. He was a nobleman from Provence appointed Captain General of the Galleys on January 6, 1763. Some years later, he sought to be appointed as Ambassador to Russia, but the Grand Master Emanuel Pinto (1741-1773) preferred the Balì Fra Michele Sagramoso, who reached St Petersburg in 1773.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Sa Maison became the seat of a Masonic lodge, according to George Muir’s Masonic Almanack for Malta (1849). The historian Gio. Antonio Vassallo wrote that in 1785, a lodge was founded in Malta by Count Kollowart (sic). Actually, the founder was the Bohemian Count Leopold Kolovrat (1727-1809) and it seems that the lodge was named St John Lodge of Secrecy and Harmony, No. 338, which lapsed around 1802. Several members of the Order enlisted, mostly French knights.
I think I can safely say that in the early years of the 19th century, Sa Maison was exclusively in British hands. It seems to have been the headquarters of Major General John Thomas Layard, of the 54th Regiment of Foot. It was on June 4, 1811, that he was promoted to general after he had served in Malta as colonel in 1808.
Among the manuscript copies of the letters sent to the Command of the Royal Engineers, Malta, between 1811 and 1825 (which are in the author’s collection) there is a letter dated June 25, 1817, in which a certain J. M. Maitland informed Lieut. Buckeridge R.E. that General Layard had desired him to say that the repairs of the Port de Bomb (sic) gateway must be deferred by a few days. The letter was written at Sa Maison.
In another letter of July 25, 1820, addressed to Major Figg R.E., the Acting Collector of Land Revenue, queried whether there would be any objections to building a stone guard house on the wharf under Sa Maison.
What is almost certainly the only view of the estate of Sa Maison was drawn by the Roman artist Filippo Benucci (1779-1843), whose detailed biography appeared in the Ganado-Espinosa Rodriguez An Encyclopedia of Artists who Painted Malta of 2018. It was engraved in Rome in 1818 by Filippo Maria Giuntotardi (1768-1831) and dedicated to Layard, who was occupying the premises as commander of the troops in Malta. The title reads as follows: “To His Honor Major General J. T. Layard, Lieut. Governor (sic) of the Island of Malta and his (sic) dependencies. This view of his Residence of ses Maisons is with permission inscribed by his Obliged and most obedient servant Philip Benucci.”
In 1856, the house was completely wiped out to make way for a gun emplacement
Outside the image, it was signed by the artist ‘Filippo Benucci disegnò e dipinse’, which means that Benucci made a painting of his own drawing of which, presumably, Layard became the owner. This engraving forms part of a set of three, the other two being A south-east view of Valletta, dated 1817, dedicated to Sir Thomas Maitland, and a View of part of la Valletta with the entrance of the Harbour taken from the Fish-Market, dated 1821, and dedicated to Sir Hildebrand Oakes, a full eight years after the end of Oakes’ term as civil commissioner. Christopher Grech wrote recently that in 1819, Major General Sir Manley Power replaced Layard. Assuming that he took up residence at Sa Maison, it was there that his two sons by the second wife were born therein.
The use of the term lieutenant governor for Layard is rather intriguing because during Maitland’s rule as governor, the next in merit on the civil establishment was the chief secretary and there was no official post of a lieutenant governor. But during his whole tenure of office, Maitland spent much more time at Corfu rather than Malta, and his place was taken by the officer in command of the troops in Malta as acting governor. Even in The Malta Government Gazette of December 28, 1821, a reference was made to that part of the harbour, “beneath the house of the Lieutenant Governor”. So Benucci was quite in order when he used that denomination in respect of Layard.
By 1829, Sa Maisons had become empty as it was advertised for letting in November of that year. Between 1831 and 1835, it was occupied by Lt Col Seymour Bathurst, whose wife gave birth to two daughters. Back to civilian life, Bathurst, who was the third son of the Colonial Secretary Earl Bathurst, served as treasurer to the Maltese government from 1827 to 1833. On October 31, 1838, the house and garden at Sa Maison were once more advertised for letting and the new resident was William Robertson who had been appointed Magistrate of Judicial Police for Malta 10 years earlier. He passed away on March 6, 1843, aged 66, but it seems he had left the property some months earlier.
In 1842, Sa Maison was rented out to Lady Julia Lockwood, whose name appears in all the accounts contributed by various authors. She was the Honourable Julia Gore, daughter of the Irish second Earl of Arran, Arthur Sanders Gore, who had 16 children. Her elder sister Cecilia went on to become Duchess of Inverness. Julia was really unlucky to marry in Rome Captain Robert Manners Lockwood. He was highly abusive and extremely cruel, according to her testimony when she was granted a divorce. During marriage, she gave birth to only two children, a son Henry and a daughter Ann Jane Charlotte, who married Mark Napier, son of John Scott Napier.
Lady Lockwood arrived in Malta with her daughter on April 2, 1842, by HM Queen, the admiral’s ship, and in December they were both invited to the banquet on board the ship. Sa Maison was let to her on a year-to-year basis, and on the understanding that it might be reoccupied by troops at any time. The civil government undertook to pay the Ordnance one shilling a year as an acknowledgement of the right of doing so. By way of rent as tenant, she paid £40 a year, which was increased to £50 in 1850 on a general revaluation of the government house property.
On this occasion, the Collector of Land Revenue Vincent Casolani (1838-1855) explained to Lady Lockwood that a tenement like hers, which existed within the fortifications, could not be let on long lease even for six years, which was generally granted for tenements differently situated. He assured her that she would never be disturbed in the occupation of the house and garden. She kept the premises in a perfect state of repair at her own expense, especially the garden, in which she had made additions and improvements on the strength of such assurance, with new trees and plants on the outside. She even kept a barge, which she could use in the waters of the harbour, although pestered by beggars on her going out.
After her hard life in marriage, Lady Julia was in dire need of a home in peace and tranquillity. Her stay in Malta was a godsend, and she confessed in one of her books that the years after 1842 were some of the happiest in her life. They came to an end in mid-1852, even before the Crimean War broke out the year after. She was required by the government to give up the occupation of both the house and the outworks. She resisted the demand to no effect, forcing her to appeal to the Colonial Secretary Sir John Pakington, Duke of Newcastle (1852-1854), but without success.
The Governor, Sir William Reid (1851-1858), wrote in his official despatch to London that he had every right to restore Sa Maison to the Military Department, conceding at the same time that a measure of compensation should be paid to her ladyship, suggesting to remit one year’s rent. Lady Julia’s son-in-law, Lord Mark Napier, understood that Sa Maison could be released for military purposes at any moment.
However, Lady Julia had too much to lose and she was not prepared to give up so easily. On February 12, 1853, through the governor, she sent another letter to London which was published in full in 1972 by Ġużè Cassar Pullicino in The Sunday Times of Malta, extracted from the official despatches.
She had been given a moratorium till the end of July but she had been assured that she should remain in the house during her lifetime. She wrote that in view of that assurance, she did not hesitate to lay out considerable sums of money in making improvements in the home and grounds. She went into great detail of what she did, including many ornamental works such as fountains and reservoirs of water, iron dials and building walls. In the house, she had built one entire new room and improved others to make it her permanent home. Besides, if evicted, she would incur an immense expense to move to England, apart from the high amount of duty she would have to pay on all her property. She ended up by submitting a claim of £500 by way of compensation, limiting it to that sum not to be exorbitant.
In transmitting her letter, Sir William Reid informed the Duke of Newcastle that Lady Lockwood had no really well-founded claim for compensation but he suggested to compensate her with £100 to cover the expenses of her removal. He was of the opinion that the sum could be paid by the Ordnance in this particular case as it would create a precedent if it were to be charged against the revenue of Malta. The matter dragged on for some time and Sir William Reid was not amused. In a conversation with Nassau William Senior in March 1956, he showed him the most vulnerable point in the land of defences of Florian and conceded that therein, Lady Lockwood had erected “a charming house on one bastion, and had turned another and the ditch into a terraced garden, but the garrison could not trespass on their own works without her leave”.
Reid had resolved in the first place to put the garrison in possession of their own fortifications, but the ladies Lady Julia and her daughter set him at defiance and he doubted whether they would be removed in his time. He was glad he beat the ladies “but after a hard battle”. In fact, he set his government on this issue of the contest. He was prepared to resign unless the works were restored to the garrison and he was supported at home. But Lady Julia “sustained a siege of a year and a-half”. And when a new battery was constructed above the Custom House where the rock projects into the sea of Grand Harbour, the owner of a house and garden were defended by its owner “as pertinaciously as Lady Julia”.
According to the manuscript diary of Captain Frederick GATT, demolition works were carried out at ‘Ill Casino di Samians’ in 1854, but it was not until 1856 that the house was completely wiped out to make way for a gun emplacement. It also served as an observation and defence post for units of the British Army stationed in Malta over the years. It was only in 1903 that Sa Maison became the property of the central government.
When she was forced out of the house, Lady Julia returned to Scotland. In her later years, she became mentally ill and she passed away on August 21, 1891. She was born in December 1821. In Maltese folklore Sa Maison has remained as Il-ġnien tal-Milorda, Milady’s garden.
Grateful thanks to Joseph Schirò for typing the script and helping with the illustrations.