PANORAMA - 28th November 2005
Rosia Fresh Water Storage Reservoir and the Victualling Yard
18th Century engineering at its most elegant
All right-thinking people agree that the provision of housing for the neediest, those who are unable to accede to the lowest rung of the commercial property ladder, is Gibraltar’s top priority after a sound Health Service.
The “Napoleonic” Naval Base, which is hidden from view from almost every angle is miraculously in an excellent state of repair, and as a piece of elegant engineering alone, the buildings and harbour which comprise it deserve better than to be wrecked. Unfortunately that is what will happen if the building of flats at the Rosia water tanks takes place.
Historically the complex is important
Rosia Water Reservoir (The Tanks) are part of a complex system of provision for the fleets of the Royal Navy begun around 1799 and completed by 1807, in good time for the Napoleonic wars.
The water reserves and stores for the Navy at the time were centred on the Casemates area (Water under what is now the row of shops at Casemates House at the east side of the square, and dry goods at what is now the ICC building by Cooperage lane, with access to the ships at anchor off the Old Mole (Watergardens). A very senior Naval Officer (Lord St. Vincent) was sent to Gibraltar to re-organise the base and as a result this was felt to be vulnerable to landside cannonade from the advancing Napoleonic troops which had invaded Spain, and the decision was taken to take the entire Naval activity to a new base as far as possible from land-based cannon at the north front. In order to embrace the entire base around the southernmost Bay – Rosia named after a Northern Italian monastery town the scheme for a Hospital and medical quarters (Old Naval Hospital and E Block ) a Barracks (Infantry, Artillery, Officers quarters – South Barracks and North and South Pavilions, the Army Gymnasium), connecting steps (Rosia Steps, Sunnyside steps, and South Barracks steps).
The new system was centred around Rosia Harbour (the old Rosia swimming club), which, at the time of Nelson, was Gibraltar’s only Harbour. Setting the mind back in time, it is remembered that water was the 18th Century equivalent of fuel today. Food could be caught at sea, as a last resort even from a fighting ship, the wind was in the weather, but men could not survive without water. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge in ‘The Ancient Mariner’ - “Water water everywhere, not a drop to drink…”). When the Navy made the reservoir it was done on a huge scale : the 6 million litres of water capacity would have “fuelled” the crews of a fleet of 80 ships of between 100 and 300 men per ship according to its rate (number of guns) at say one litre of water per day on short rations for 500 days or nearly one and a half years.
So well did the contractor, Juan Maria Boschetti, build the reservoir, that 150 years later the navy built Rosia Distillery and continued to supply the resultant stored water from the tanks to lighters which would pull alongside at Rosia Harbour right up to the 1990’s with fresh water for Naval vessels.
This was almost 150 years before the commencement of the system of provisions for the Navy which is still in use today, and which includes our Water storage and supply system at Willis’s Road, the harbour and dry-docks, North Gorge frozen meat storage works, a considerable part of the tunnel system, and the workshops at the dockyard, simply replicating this site on a much greater scale.
We would regret the demolition of the reservoirs
As an elegant engineering structure the complex should be saved, we will regret our actions in years to come if the effort is not made to find a site elsewhere for this essential housing project. Gone are the days when we would build housing estates in places of the value of the Moorish Castle. We are still regretting that error, more so when we know that the people who were involved in taking the decision at the time are unable to say categorically that there was absolutely no alternative to the construction of Moorish Castle Estate in a location where our best Historical building suffers enormously.
The Victualling yard was the store for all dry provisions, and alongside it was the store for water, ingeniously designed to store water from the roof of the Victualling yard, and water brought specially by ships when necessary. The tanks are almost 10 metres deep and constructed underground to overcome the need for massive retaining walls against the pressure of water at that height. 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. Also in a perfect state is the vast Sump alongside South Sheds Road which originally collected the surface water from the Vineyards slopes (at the time the Gas factory had not been erected) and allowed the water to settle before entering the large settlement tank, number 6.
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.
As the accompanying plans and photographs show, although the general public has not been able to see the complex, this is potentially a great tourist site, and a future Tourism plan with an area focussed on Nelson and Trafalgar could make much of these two buildings and Rosia Harbour. The upper galleries, which are of this same period, have already proved their worth as a tourism asset. To enhance this, for example, a ship of the time could one day be berthed at Rosia Harbour to illustrate the value of the area. In Amsterdam such a replica ship, berthed outside an area which has no historical or engineering value, (a naval museum in a more recent building) is manned by a re-enactment group of six people, who dress as crew of the period and charge for entry to the ship and the Museum while acting out tasks on the ship for visitors. Finally these are treated to a short talk by the captain in his cabin. At Rosia there are plenty of Historic areas where this could be done.
Other Housing sites are immediately available
Everyone agrees that this housing project is urgent. It is urgent for the prospective purchasers, and it is also urgent socially and politically for Gibraltar.
There are other sites which are available as quickly as this one and which do not require the destruction of a valuable building. No-one should suggest that the potential buyers of this phase of housing, because they are in great need, do not have as much right as anyone else to a view of the sea and of our Rock, and to pleasant surroundings in which to bring up their families. There is such space immediately available to the Government at Queensway (North of the Technical College), Coaling Island, Windmill Hill (Lathbury Barracks area), Europa Point (as an extension of the housing already there into the open field rarely used for any sport), Eastern Beach (the aerial farm has been handed over by the MoD and make a most pleasant site), the parade ground at Buena Vista Barracks (with stunning views), and other areas we can all see.
Value not Wasted
In view of all this it is not right to think of demolishing one of these valuable structures (the tanks or reservoirs) and to hide the other (the Victualling Yard) permanently from view by concealing it behind a new building, whatever the architectural quality of this new building may be. The tanks were still in use by the MoD in the late 1970’s. Thought should be given to a modern use for them in addition to their opening up as a tourist site. There are talented people in the field of Heritage today, and the Government is proving to be a supporter of the newly-found awareness of our community as a whole of the economic and ethical value of respecting History.
It is not beyond the wit of Government to ensure that the Rosia Naval base is respected and used to the economic benefit of all, while an alternative site is immediately identified to provide the very scheme which was proposed for that place, letting no-one wait a day longer for a flat than they would have done had we set about destroying this.