The Malta Independent 26 April 2019, Friday

Cospicua’s Beer and First World War German Prisoners

Simon Mercieca Monday, 3 December 2018, 07:37 Last update: about 6 months ago

This week, Cospicua will be  celebrating  the annual feast of the Immaculate Conception and many will be participating in the colourful traditions of this town’s history.  On 1st January 2018, I published a blog about an interesting discovery in Koszalin (Poland) of a glass beer bottle carrying the name of the manufacturer - a certain Callus - as well as  Cospicua,  the place where the beer was being produced, embossed on the glass. This led to a number of individuals sharing their thoughts with me on beer production in the Cottonera area at the turn of the 20th Century. In the meantime, my friend Vincent Peresso put a Facebook post, wherein he shared a document, about the manufacture of cigarettes and cigars in Malta in 1888.  


With their permission, I am sharing their thoughts with the reader.  Their recollections on the subject are extremely interesting vis-à-vis the history of alcohol production and consumption in Malta.  Unfortunately, none of those who got in touch came up with any concrete and comprehensive information about the Callus family and its connection with beer. Indeed, this goes to show how historical memory can disappear with time. The Callus beer is totally forgotten today. Still, what I have are threads that may lead to a comprehensive reconstruction of the Callus’ beer bottle mystery.

Vincent Ellul, a friend, has sent me an interesting advert of Fco. Cuschieri & Co.  Clearly, Francesco Cuschieri was the founder of this company. In 1910, his company was an agent for Simonds Ale & Stout and Dreher Lager Beer for the Cottonera area. The company had its business premises at 18, Strada Marina and had a store at 29 Strada Vittoria, both in Senglea. A separate photo of this advert which appeared on the Guida Generale di Malta is being reproduced in the printed edition of the Malta Independent.

 At the National Archives at Rabat, Vincent Peresso came across a document dated 7th September 1888 This is  of a Welsh company, by the name of Margrave Brothers of Llanelli in Carmanthenshire requesting information about manufacturers and retailers of cigars and tobacco in Malta. The Chief Secretary to the Governor passed on this enquiry to the Camera del Commercio. In its reply, the Camera del Commerio supplied a list of manufacturers and retailers. Among the names of cigar manufacturers, one finds Antonio Callus and Michele Callus.  

Richard Garzia, a former employee of the firm Captain A. Caruana, has shed some more light.  Captain A. Caruana was a leading importer of alcohol and tobacco in Malta at the turn of the 20th century.  According to Garzia, the Caruana family too hailed from Cospicua. Captain Caruana, the founder, opened his first outlet in Cospicua. It was only after being successful in Bormla (as Cospicua is also known) that Captain Caruana opened another outlet in what was then known as Kingsway and today is Republic Street in Valletta.  Mr. Garzia sent  the following information:

when I used to work with this company, the person who led the company wasGustav Caruana. He was a colonel of the  K.M.O.R and an ex-pupil of St. Edwards College.  Gustav used to recount that his father founded the company. He had other brothers who were also in the company. The company was named after Gustav’s father ‘Captain A’, because his father’s name was Anthony. He was captain of steamships that used to sail in the Mediterranean”.

My father, Carmel, remembered Toninu’s (Anthony) brother, Guido, very well. My father’s recollection is that il-Captain, as Toninu was known, was the agent of Johnnie Walker’s whisky. His brother Guido was one of the individuals who, in those days, had a chauffeur driven car. During this particular period, Guido Caruana resided in a Palace in Għaxaq. His daily routine never changed. First, he visited the Caruana store or shop in Valletta. Then, along the way back home, he stopped to visit bars that sold Johnnie Walker whisky. His first stop where he enjoyed his first tot of whisky was a bar in Triq Santa Anna (Floriana). Along the way, he made other stops, one of which was a bar in Marsa. At Paola, he stopped, amongst others, at the bar of my grandfather, Leli. This bar was situated in Paola’s main square and was called the Invincible Bar. As a youngster, my father worked in the bar. He used to tell me that Guido always asked for Johnnie Walker whisky and was in the habit of offering a free drink to all those patrons who happened to be present at that moment. He also gave a generous tip!  

If bars did not stock Johnnie Walker, Guido would not order any drinks and would just move on. My father never mentioned the Callus beer. What he did say was that Leli, his father, was the Cisk Agent for the Paola area in the 1920s and early 30s. Perhaps, by the 1930s, the Callus beer was already out of production or perhaps the family sold up.

Garzia continued to tell me that Captain Caruana’s mother was related to the Callus family. The latter  owned a cigar factory and a store in Cospicua which was situated next to the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites.

Moreover, prior to the Second World War, there was another beer merchant in Bormla. He lived exactly in the upper part of Oratory Street that intersects Strada San Giorgio. His name was Indri Cilia and he was a business partner with the physician Lelinu Licari’s father.

This is not the only case where families involved in cigar making were also in beer production. In fact, in Cospicua,  there was a Callus family involved in the tobacco business. This family was related to the family of the President Emeritus of Malta, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici who told me that they are related by marriage to the family of his maternal grandmother. His grandmother’s sister was married to one of the Callus brothers. According to the President Emeritus, besides the tobacco business, they were even in beer production. This Callus family also had  a cinema in Cospicua, known as The Windsor and they lived at Strada San Giorgio corner with Strada Toro at Cospicua. During the Second World War, the family moved to Birkirkara. There were two brothers, Victor and Lino, but only the latter had children. Lino’s children did not continue in the family business activity. Now, surviving members of this family have informed me that one of their direct ancestors, was a certain Michelangelo Callus. Was this Michelangelo, the same person whose name and surname, M. Callus, was embossed on the beer bottle found in Poland?

What is clearly unfolding from this research is that, during this period, the production of beer at Cospicua had two different facets. There was the brewing of beer proper and there was the bottling angle. Beer was imported into Malta in barrels and then syphoned into glass bottles. When the bottling process took place, the bottlers kept the name of the actual original brand.  The fact that the Callus had the family name embossed on the glass bottles, is an indication that it was not a case of just bottling but of a fully-fledged beer brewing business.  

Again according to Mr. Garzia: “Gustav used to tell me that he (Gustav) remembered that his father, Antonio, used to bottle beer. Amongst the beer brands that he bottled, there was one by the name of Youngers. In fact, this beer started to be known locally as Ta’ Youngers.”

This leads to a pertinent question to solving the mystery of how a beer bottle from Cospicua ended up in Poland. When did Callus cease producing beer? If, the Callus beer was still on the market between 1914 and 1918, then its presence in Poland could be linked to the presence of German prisoners of War at Verdala Barracks in Bormla. It would be interesting to establish whether there were any Polish nationals as prisoners-of-war in this camp. What is known is that most of the prisoners were German.

For this reason, the comment made by Nickolas Dakin beneath my blog can help solve this mystery. Dakin wrote that Koszalin (German Köslin) was actually part of a nominally Germanic West Prussia from 1648 (Treaty of Westphalia) until captured by the Red Army in 1945.  In 1914, Koszalin was still part of Germany. Therefore, men from Koszalin were being recruited or conscripted to fight in the German army andsoldiers from Koszalin might have ended prisoners of war at the Verdala Camp in Bormla.  The chances are that this bottle ended up in Koszalin after having been taken there by a former prisoner-of-war as a souvenir.


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