The breakwater which protects the entrance to the Grand Harbour in Malta, was built when Malta was under British rule. Traditionally, in earlier times, the wide entrance to Grand Harbour was protected by a heavy chain which ran across the mouth of the harbour from Fort Saint Elmo to Fort Ricasoli, and which served to keep enemy ships out of harbour. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, better protection was deemed necessary by the British Admirality – not only from intruders and torpedo attacks, but also from the rough seas which could cause havoc within the harbour, especially when a strong North-Easterly wind (Grigalata) was blowing. A strong wind blowing from this direction also made it very difficult for ships to negotiate the entrance to the harbour.
Grand Harbour - which now sheltered the British fleet after having offered shelter to the galleons of so many successive occupying powers and kingdoms, as well as those of the Knights of Saint John and the French - was now to be given the kind of protection it had never had before.
In 1900, the British Admirality commissioned plans for the building of a new breakwater across the mouth of the harbour. Tenders were issued by 1902, with one of the conditions placed being that any artefacts found during the dredging of the sea-bed and its excavation be handed over to the Admirality. Naturally there were other conditions concerning surety, the quality and type of materials to be used, the right of the Admirality to carry out regular inspections and others.
Eventually, S. Pearson and Son were awarded the contract. The completed structure was to be a two-arm breakwater the longer arm (West breakwater) of which would extend from the tip of the Valletta peninsula, on the fore-shore of Fort Saint Elmo, across the mouth of the harbour. The shorter arm (East breakwater) was to extend from the Ricasoli fore-shore, with a much smaller entrance thus being created between the free ends of both arms.
The estimated cost at the time was to amount to £1,000,000 and the hard cystalline limestone (żonqor) used to build the breakwater was to be brought over from Gozo (Ħondoq ir-Rummien and Għar Dorf quarries specifically). The actual blocks to be used in the building of the breakwater would be manufactured from this hard limestone at a block-making yard built for the purpose at Mistra Bay.
To avoid stagnation of the water inside Grand Harbour, the larger (West) arm of the breakwater – that is the one extending from Saint Elmo Point – was to be separated by 70 meters from the fore-shore by a steel foot-bridge. The planned two-span bridge would then enable anyone walking onto the breakwater from its Valletta side to reach the small light-house at the end of the arm.
Both the St. Elmo West breakwater and the Ricasoli East breakwater were to have small light-houses at the free ends of the arms, and both were to be furnished with quick-flashing lights. The tower on the St Elmo arm was to be 14m high, while the tower on the Ricasoli breakwater was to be 9m high. These towers were eventually completed by 1908.
In April 1903, King Edward VII visited Malta and laid the foundation stone of the breakwater. Edward VII was the first ruling British monarch to visit Malta. He arrived in Malta on the royal yacht, the “Victoria and Albert”, to a very grand and enthusiastic welcome. A look at the report of his visit (“King Edward VII, his Life and Reign: the Record of a Nobel Career” by Edgar Sanderson) testifies to the fact that the royal visit was packed with engagements and festivities, including the amazing Water Carnival which took place in Grand Harbour and which followed the laying of the breakwater’s foundation stone on the afternoon of April 20th, 1903. The floats used during the Water Carnival featured models of water-craft through the ages – from Noah’s Ark down to the British war-ships of the turn of the twentieth century. Fireworks complemented the fabulous show.
S. Pearson and Son employed close to 500 men in the building of the breakwater, and these included those working at the Gozo quarries and at Mistra. The underwater work was obviously carried out by divers using standard diving suits or carrying out the work in diving bells. They were supplied with air from the surface, which was pumped to them using a manually operated pump. The first blocks in the building of the breakwater were laid in 1905.
From a socio-economic point of view the building of the breakwater was very important for Malta, as it created jobs at a time when there was massive unemployment and when poverty was threatening the livelihood of many Maltese families. The project did not only provide jobs for the Maltese, but also for skilled workers from neighbouring countries - mainly coming from Sicily, Italy and Spain.
The British Admirality declared the work on the breakwater complete in 1910.
During World War II the foot-bridge on the Valletta side of the breakwater was destroyed when, at dawn on the 26th July 1941, the E-boat unit of the Italian Regia Marina attacked the breakwater in a savage, but futile, attempt to gain access into the harbour. The Italians paid a heavy price, as all the attacking vessels were destroyed in the counter-attack which involved guns on Fort Saint Elmo and Fort Ricasoli, as well as those further afield.
It was only recently, in 2010, that the steel foot-bridge which was destroyed by the Italian attack was replaced by a single-span bridge which, although not an exact replica of the original bridge, is acceptably close to the original. An exact replica of the Victorian bridge (double-span bridge) was not opted for because this was thought to contain too much steel to be cost-effective. The new bridge arrived in Malta from Spain - a structure which was complete and ready to place into position and make the West breakwater whole again after so many years.
The Grand Harbour’s breakwater is now classified as a Grade 1 scheduled structure, which represents an engineering feat of great national importance. Of course, maintenance work and inspections are carried out regularly by surface maintenance teams (for the above-water part of the breakwater) and diving teams which include diving engineers and other divers, who see to the part of it which is under the surface of the water. Only with constant inspection, maintenance and care will this significant example of Victorian British engineering continue to serve its purpose as Grand Harbour’s sturdy and reliable guardian.
Author: Christine Tanti