History of the Rosia Water Tanks
History of the Rosia Water Tanks
The Rosia Tanks were built 1799-1804 because Admiral St Vincent was staying ashore in Gibraltar in 1799 and realised that a reliable water supply and victualling store were needed there. There were no other British or allied naval bases in the Mediterranean and Tetuan and Ceuta could not be relied upon consistently for supplies. The house in Rosia Bay, where St Vincent stayed is still there, (it is reputedly where Nelson’s body was brought before being taken home after the Battle of Trafalgar), and was later occupied by Victualling Yard officers. Paragraph 42 from Lionel Culatto’s First Witness Statement prepared for the court case on 19 January 2006 and part of the Book of Evidence presented to Chief Minister The Right Hon. Peter Caruana and Governor H.E. Sir Francis Richards KBE CBE on 7 February 2006 states:
John Jervis, Lord St Vincent, had been appointed Admiral in Charge of the Mediterranean Fleet, and in 1799 whilst staying ashore through ill health in one of the houses in Rosia Parade, known then as “Rosia House” (part of that house is now St Vincent House – originally St Vincent House and the adjoining house was one larger house) recommended the re-siting of the victualling yard to Rosia, adjacent to his house. The site was particularly suitable as there was access to Rosia Bay and was protected from the seaward gunfire by the outcrop known as Parsons Lodge Battery. Furthermore it was out of range of the enemy guns at the North Front.
Some of the surviving British ships and captured prizes certainly took on water and stores from Rosia Bay after the battle before returning home. In P Goodwin’s Ships of Trafalgar, Royal Sovereign and Swiftsure name Rosia Bay specifically after the battle: On Sunday 3 November Royal Sovereign’s log states ‘at 4.40 shortened Sail and came too with the best bower in 29 fathoms water in Rosia Bay’. After mooring it records ‘found lying here Two Prizes and some of the Fleet’. On 4 November it states: ‘Sailed his Majestys ship Victory Prince Agamemnon and Niger Carpenter Employ’d stoping holes out side arrived here his Majestys ship Etnea at 6:25 sailed HM Ship Etnea sent away the Spanish Prisoners in Transports Boats empd Removing Capt Rotherams things to the Bellerophon.’ Swiftsure’s log states that she anchored in the Bay on 3 November. Prince’s log records that moored ‘South the New Mole Head EbN 2 cables Length found Laying there HMS Colossus, Belleisle, Bellerophon, Thunderer & Agamemnon, & a Spanish Line of Battle Ship [St Juan] & 2 French Prizes’. Tonnant’s log records taking on water, supplies of fresh beef and vegetables; and lemons from victualling ships. Tonnant sent ‘into the Store lime juice & Sugar’. Although it is unlikely that such a line of battleships could enter Rosia Bay, the association of these names is a strong indication that they were moored off Rosia Bay and using its facilities.
Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (1767-1820) served in Gibraltar as an army officer from 1790-1791 and was Governor of Gibraltar from 24 May 1802 to 23 January 1820, although Sir Thomas Trigge acted for Prince Edward from 2 May 1803 to 17 December 1804, and Lieutenant-Governor Henry Edward Fox from 1804 to 1806.
Local historian Dennis King has a copy of a letter (in the Gibraltar Archives) dated 14 March 1804 from William Henry Otway, Commissioner of Gibraltar Yard, to acting Governor Sir Thomas Trigge: ‘the late heavy rains having above half filled the Great Tank at Rosia: I think that His Majesty’s Ships may take water from thence whenever Your Excellency has reason to suppose that there is a probability of the Wells at Ragged Staff becoming dry.’ This proves that the tanks were in operation eighteen months before the Battle of Trafalgar. The dockyard officers also ‘represent the necessity of having some Careful Person constantly to reside on the Spot for the care of the Works, and for whom some sort of habitation must be built.’ This shows that Rosia Cottages had not yet been built for victualling personnel.
Rainwater was collected from the Victualling Yard roof and stored in six underground tanks, cut into the cliffs next to the Yard to avoid having to build retaining walls. There is a pump house on the site. According to old MOD drawings seen by Robert Matto, Gibraltar architect, the dimensions of the tanks are as follows:
Tank No. 1 60m long X 4.5m wide X 6.5m high
Tank No. 2 60m long X 4.5m wide X 6.5m high
Tank No. 3 60m long X 4.5m wide X 6.5m high
Tank No. 4 55m long X 4.5m wide X 6.5m high
Tank No. 5 58m long X 4.8m wide X 6.5m high
Tank No. 6 58m long X 7.2m wide X 6.5m high
Local historian and architect William Serfaty describes their function:
The level of the bottom of the tanks is high enough to empty out to ships or lighters berthed at Rosia Harbour by a sophisticated gravity feed running under what is now the road to Camp Bay. The entire structure was built without access to Portland cement. The construction is excellently executed in brick and sand-lime mortar with a complicated finish to waterproof the tanks. The vaulted roofs of the tanks are a wonderful sight, and also serve to provide a sloping catchment surface (which catches the light beautifully), directing water to the appropriate settlement tank, from which it is then directed to storage tanks.
It was important to keep the water pure, so the system was kept secure, and access to the catchment roof restricted to the employed personnel by the provision of a high wall which has kept the site out of the public eye all these years.
So well did the contractor, Juan Maria Boschetti, build the reservoir, that 150 years later in the 1950s the navy built Rosia Distillery in the space at sea level below and in front of the Rosia Cottages between the two eighteenth century defensive walls. Its site is now a slope, constructed about 2000 with rubble from demolished buildings at Cumberland Road and Tower Buildings, for vehicles to reach Rosia Harbour. It continued to supply the resultant stored water from the tanks to lighters which would pull alongside at Rosia Harbour to load up with fresh water for naval vessels from the reservoir.
The tanks were in use by the MOD until April 2004 when they were handed over to the Gibraltar Government. According to Steven Harrison who lives in Rosia Bay:
They were used to store all the desalinated water from Glen Rocky Distillery. From the Rosia tanks the water was transferred to the East Side reservoirs where it was sampled, treated etc to meet EU water directives. The MOD fitted a by-pass line to the East Side. The main is still on the tank and will have to be diverted. The Glen Rocky Distillery is a desalination plant owned by the MoD but operated by a private contractor. It is still in operation, in fact the MOD invested in a new plant quite recently. It is now their only source of drinking water. At one time they used to have other desalination plants and of course the water catchment on the east side. The water catchments on the East Side are now decommissioned, but the three reservoirs within the rock are still being used.
The tanks were still in good condition when historian Lionel Culatto saw them in January 2006, during the access visit allowed by the Judge during the recent court case brought by the Gibraltar Heritage Trust. Lionel Culatto’s first Witness Statement summed up the reasons why the whole of the Victualling Yard, including the Tanks, should be listed. Paragraph 50:
I mentioned earlier that the whole Victualling Yard is worthy to be listed and I would repeat that opinion on the following grounds:
(a) the buildings were constructed before 1840 – buildings before that date are normally listed just for their antiquity;
(b) the buildings are exceptional in themselves being a series of brick walls covering an enormous area. Further research may show innovative use of materials especially hydraulic lime;
(c) the type of building is rare in itself, both in Gibraltar and elsewhere;
(d) as a victualling yard it is a unique surviving example;
(e) subject to further study it could be an important example of a particular architect, whether [Samuel] Bentham, Boschetti or someone else;
(f) the buildings as a whole make an important contribution to the townscape;
(g) there are important cultural and/or historical connections with the growth of British naval power from the 1800s onwards;
(h) the buildings are an important part of Gibraltar’s naval heritage which stretches back many centuries.
In Lionel Culatto’s second Witness Statement, dated 24th January 2006, he described visiting the tanks on Monday 23rd January 2006:
Para 5. There are 6 vaulted tanks, each running north/south with number 6 to the east and number 1 to the west nearest the bay. Each tank has an entrance from an open area to the north. The entrances are just below the vaults of each tank so there is a fixed metal ladder to reach down to the floor of each chamber.
Para 7. I went down first followed by Mr Serfaty. We had two very powerful torches supplied by a local resident. My first impression was surprise and awe at the enormity of the chambers. It seemed 30 or 40 feet wide and some 200 feet long. There was only a few inches of water in part of the tank, the rest was dry. The floor was paved in a herringbone fashion with 12 inch x 6 inch flat bricks traditional in Gibraltar. The walls and vault were rendered. Everything was in perfect condition. It was an exhilarating experience.
Para 8. We then had a look at tank number 4 which is slightly smaller. We did not go down. The vault was of exposed brick and the walls and floor were lined in a waterproof material installed some years ago.
Para 9. A building above the tanks, which I believe was a pump house but the building was locked and Haymills [the contractors] did not have the key so we did not inspect it. To the north there is a large building of a later date (circa 1902) which we were told was connected to the brick lined tunnel referred to in the next paragraph.
Para 10. Outside we inspected an arched opening to the east of the tanks and just above the slope leading to Rosia Bay. This led to a tunnel up to the tanks and was some 30 inches x 4 feet and was built of stone and seemed to be part of the original construction. Another tunnel clearly of later date and brick lined was sited further north.
Para 11. This viewing has reinforced my opinion about the value of these buildings. Anyone who goes down in to the tanks cannot fail to be impressed. It would be an enormous loss if these buildings were to be destroyed or even partly destroyed. Indeed much of their visual value depends on the size of the chambers. If these chambers were truncated they would not be so impressive. I have been told that there is some talk about these buildings having deteriorated and being beyond repair. There is no truth in such a statement. In fact although the Government has apparently done nothing to maintain these buildings since they were handed over by the Ministry of Defence they are still in remarkably good condition.
Para 12. These tanks are of course part of the whole Victualling Yard complex and were built together on one site so that both water and victuals were supplied from one site. It was all designed as one complex and should be listed under the Gibraltar Heritage Trust Ordinance as one site. There is little doubt in my mind that the existence of these buildings would further justify the listing of Gibraltar as a World Heritage Site.
Ann Coats compiled this account with information supplied by Lionel Culatto, Steven Harrison, Dennis King, Robert Matto and William Serfaty – 13th February 2006.