Monthly Archives: October 2018

Rails across Malta

Malta Railway:  Valletta Viaduct

Malta Railway: Valletta Viaduct

Malta Railway:  Floriana Viaduct

Malta Railway: Floriana Viaduct

The Malta Railway opened in 1883, and never made much money.  Its original metre-gauge line ran through Birkirkara to an inconvenient terminus, called Notabile, in a deep cutting outside the hill-town of Rabat.

The Malta Railway Company went bankrupt in 1890 and reopened two years later under the auspices of the Malta government which improved and in 1900 extended the line up to a station called Museum, nearer to the ancient capital city, Mdina.

In 1905 Malta Tramways Ltd opened its three routes to Birkirkara, Zebbug and Vittoriosa, two of which directly competed with the railway.

Both the railway and the tramways were British exports.

The olive green steam locomotives for the railway were built by Manning Wardle of Leeds, Black Hawthorne & Co of Gateshead and Beyer Peacock of Manchester.

The trams expired in 1929 and the railway closed two years later, both defeated by the relentless competition of Malta’s self-employed bus drivers.

The Valletta railway terminus was located next to the Royal Opera House:  the tracks were underground and emerged on to a viaduct which crossed a ditch that formed part of the city fortifications and entered another tunnel.  It then crossed another viaduct alongside the Porte des Bombes in Floriana.

The tunnels apparently remain in good condition, and have occasionally been opened to the public:  https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20121022/local/Railway-tunnel-part-of-Malta-s-heritage.442073.

Both viaducts were originally timber, at the insistence of the military authorities who wanted to destroy them quickly if necessary in an emergency.  Eventually they were rebuilt in stone and still exist.  They’re easy to locate, thanks to a meticulously obsessive video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8OlMnpZvtQ.  It helps to know what you’re looking for.

Several of the country station buildings survive.  Hamrun is a scout headquarters;  Birkirkara is a childcare centre;  Museum station is a celebrated restaurant: [https://www.facebook.com/pg/stazzjonrestaurantrabat/photos/?tab=album&album_id=218770048333827].

Little else remains.  The only surviving piece of railway rolling stock is a third-class carriage which has stood in the open for years at Birkirkara:  https://web.archive.org/web/20170408171035/http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20170407/local/watch-maltas-last-surviving-train-carriage-chugs-toward-restoration.644585.

An intriguing hint that there may be more can be found in a news article about the reappearance of four reversible seats from one of Malta’s trams, suggesting that a tram body survives at St Thomas’ Bay:  https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20170628/local/century-old-malta-tram-benches-found.651902

There are images of both the railway and the tramways at https://vassallohistory.wordpress.com/maltese-public-transport-since-1856-a-brief-history-of-the-public-transport-in-malta-the-omnibus-up-to-the-mid-1800s-the-only-means-of-human-transport-w.

It’s clear from an article in The Guardian that Valletta’s railway tunnels are only a tiny part of the fascinating underground beneath the city:  https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/feb/20/malta-secret-tunnels-inside-newly-discovered-underworld-valletta.

The first industrial estate

Rochdale Canal, Ancoats, Manchester

Rochdale Canal, Ancoats, Manchester

Ancoats was a rural village outside Manchester until the late eighteenth century when landowners, realising the imminent arrival of the Rochdale and Ashton Canals, parcelled up their property and sold it for development, both for mills and factories.

Some of the mills were huge by contemporary standards, steam-powered and served by canal wharfs which also provided the condensing water necessary for the engines.  Adam and George Murray’s Old Mill (1798) may have been the first eight-storey factory in the world.

The Murray brothers, along with their rivals James McConnel and John Kennedy, came from Kirkcudbrightshire, and used their expertise in building textile machinery to produce bigger and better equipment with which to spin cotton.

Ancoats’ population boomed from 11,039 in 1801 to 53,737 in 1861.  In 1821 one-fifth of the total population of Manchester lived in Ancoats.

Though some respectable housing was built among the industries and slums, there was no attempt to provide for a bourgeois population.  It was, by Jacqueline Roberts’ definition, “the first residential district of the modern world intended for occupation by one social class, the new urban working class”.

Title-deeds for such properties typically contained no restrictions on uses that would cause nuisance, and very few were provided with privies.   Bathrooms and running hot water were, of course, unknown.

Foreign writers were appalled.

Léon Faucher (1803-1854) who visited England in 1843, published Études sur l’Angleterre (1845), in which he wrote of “the breathing of vast machines, sending forth fire and smoke through their tall chimneys, and offering up to the heavens, as it were in token of homage, the sighs of that Labour which God has imposed upon man”.

It can’t have been fun to live in Ancoats, despite the well-meaning efforts of philanthropists, who provided the Ardwick & Ancoats Dispensary (1828), later Ancoats Hospital, ragged schools and night shelters.

The life-expectancy of a Manchester labourer in 1842 was seventeen years.

In 1889 Dr John Thresh reported a death rate of over 80 per thousand, and commented, “3,000 to 4,000 people [were] dying annually here in Manchester from remediable causes”.

This prompted the Manchester Labourers’ Dwellings Scheme of 1890, which led to the building of Victoria Square (Henry Spalding & Alfred W S Cross 1897), a five-storey block of one- and two-room walk-up flats with penny-in-the-slot gas meters, communal sinks and water-closets shared between two apartments and, in the turrets, laundries and drying rooms, Anita Street, originally Sanitary Street until the name was truncated to suit 1960s sensibilities, two-storey terraces of one-, two- and three-room flats, and George Leigh Street, which provided three-bedroom houses, intended for families with children of both sexes.

Only the better-off labourers could afford the rents.

Owners of back-to-back terraces were offered £15 per house to convert their premises to through houses, and by 1914 almost all of the city’s back-to-back houses had gone.

However, this was only a partial solution.  A 1928 social-study group inspection report remarked, “the reconditioned house of the eighties is not to be tolerated today”.  There were houses so dark that the gas-light had to be kept on all day, and such dampness that plaster would not hold wallpaper in place.

In the end, the only practical solution was to clear the housing wholesale.  Victoria Square, Anita Street and George Leigh Street have been adapted to modern standards and look attractive.  Some architecturally interesting buildings remain, and the canal-side locations are at last being developed for 21st-century work and living.

Gentrification is often derided, but it’s better than living in a slum.