The Malta Independent 20 July 2019, Saturday

The historical antecedents of the Marsa Power Station

Noel Grima Monday, 2 May 2016, 15:45 Last update: about 4 years ago

Rather more people than expected attended a seminar held next to the switched-off Turbine 8 at the Marsa Power Station last week.

They were attending a seminar organized by the Industrial Heritage Programme of the university, which was set up in 2015 with the aim of undertaking and promoting research and education in the field of industrial heritage. This was one of the first ventures of the programme.

The first part of the seminar took a short look at the history of the site before it became a power station.

Dr Timmy Gambin spoke first about Marsa's Roman past.

The problem here is different from the situation that exists, for instance, in Ostia Antica outside Rome, where the remains of the Roman port are all preserved, whereas in Marsa there has been so much reuse and over-use that it is very hard to find any Roman ruins.

Quintinus, writing in the 16th century, mentioned remains that still existed in his time between Fort St Angelo and Mdina

In the 18th century, Count Barbaro drew up a very detailed description of a series of warehouses at Marsa very near the harbour where imports could be stored. In fact, a lot of ceramic and inscriptions have been found. Some of the remains were underwater.

But in the 19th century, the British dredged the area so as to make that part of the harbor more amenable for ships and the reports say they kept dragging up blocks of stone that were later dumped near the fish ponds near il-Menqa. Only two columns remain - one at the Archaeological Museum and the other in private hands. Maybe the columns formed part of a Roman temple that may have been in the area.

In 1874, a necropolis was discovered in the area, which makes sense seeing the port must have been a densely populated area. Curiously, the bodies were placed in two big jars used for the transport of oil or wine, placed neck to neck and split up.

Other Roman remains were found in the 1950s when Racecourse Street was being built and later near the site of the power station.

Dr Reuben Grima explained how the power station area became the site of Malta's first museum.

Gian Frangisk Abela built his Casino San Giacomo at the top of Jesuits' Hill. Commendatore Abela was also the Order's Vice-Chancellor, disproving that the Maltese were not allowed to have a successful career under the Order.

It would seem that the site of the villa would have been in today's tank area. Thus, it would have the view that today can be enjoyed only from the power station: looking straight at the entrance to Grand Harbour.

It was here that Abela wrote his Della Descrizione di Malta in 1667. He also had a collection of antiques to match his erudition. Among his treasures, one can list his sarcophagus, two cups with a description of a monster pulled from the sea in 1642, and other treasures.

One of the visitors to his villa was Athanasius Kircher, the great Jesuit scholar who visited Malta for 10 months and stayed with him at Cabinetto San Giacomo.

Around this time, Abela changed his will and left everything to the Jesuit College in Valletta, the precursor of our university, rather than leaving his collection to the Order. Maybe he did so out of respect to Kircher.

Also found by Abela were two famous cippi, one of which is in the Louvre. Originally, they were in the garden of the villa.

The house also had the very first meridian to be built in Malta.

Josef Azzopardi, for the Ghaqda Storika Kulturali Marsa and also Marsa deputy mayor, spoke about Jesuits' Hill since the French period.

During the blockade of Valletta, Jesuits' Hill was entrusted to the Cacciatori Maltesi who had a battery on top of the hill to attack the French in Valletta with three cannons at its disposal. There was another battery down at sea level with two cannons.

Marsa was also the place where King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, disembarked on his arrival in 1903. Troops lined all the way to Valletta to welcome him.

During his stay in Malta, King Edward also laid the cornerstone of the breakwater.

Marsa was also the headquarters of the tram, which had its depot there. The building can still be seen, next to the canal and the Open Centre. The tram had a short life, battling against the train and the new buses.

Marsa also has the Mifsud Verandas, which were inaugurated by Sir Ugo Mifsud.

The first Customs House can still be seen in the derelict buildings across the road from the entrance to the power station.

Next door there is the Ta' Cejlu church, dedicated to the Virgin of Sorrows. In those days, Marsa was densely populated, with a population numbering 12,000. Today its population is estimated at 4,000. There was also the Ta' Cejlu battery during World War II, but nothing of it remains today.

Max Farrugia, a former archivist of Enemalta, spoke about the history of the power station.

Electricity arrived in Malta in 1897 mainly as an experiment restricted to the privileged, while the rest of the population made do with gas and kerosene.

A pressure group tried hard to convince the government to introduce electricity to Malta but in 1882 a generator was bought to provide electricity to the Royal Opera House. At the same time, private individuals began lighting up their homes with electricity.

Then the government issued a tender to light up Valletta, Floriana and Cospicua. This was later extended to the whole Cottonera, Sliema and Hamrun.

This piecemeal extension of electricity meant that the first power station could only be in a central place. The bottom of Crucifix Hill was chosen and the station was set up in a reused warehouse. The first power station began producing electricity on 1 January 1896.

In fact, if one were to look up to the bastions on top of the Virtu Ferries berth, one can still see some insulators from the first power station still hanging there.

During World War II, a generator was hidden under the bastions near the old lift. It is still there.

Meanwhile, a steam-generated power station was constructed at Corradino, and the steam engines worked up to 1987. There was also a small steam-generated power station in Gozo.

After the war, there was the Marshall Aid programme and Prime Minister Boffa boasted he had obtained £2.5 million from the programme to build a new power station. Called A station, it was in an underground location and opened in 1953.

The B station came in the 1970s and used reconditioned and second-hand generators from Bradford and Palermo. The B station also distilled water, one million gallons of it a day.

In 1992, a new power station was inaugurated at Delimara. The Marsa power station was closed down only last year.

Seeing that the seminar was called Marsa 2050, Professor Alex Torpiano introduced a note of caution.

While most talk of dismantling and getting rid of the boilers and other power station equipment, the town of Esch in Luxembourg can serve as an example. Here three gas furnaces were not dismantled but instead restored and they now constitute the centre of the town.

We must not be eager to dismantle and turn the area over to building speculation.

He presented an exhibition by students of the Industrial Heritage Programme at university to show how students today give rein to their imagination and come up with different ideas on what can be done with the old power station.


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