The Malta Independent 8 August 2020, Saturday

Historic garden in total disrepair

Malta Independent Sunday, 16 June 2013, 09:46 Last update: about 7 years ago

I had parked, sacrilegiously as I found out later, in a parking space which has covered most of it, and we all were, some sitting and some standing because there were so many people, inside the newly-refurbished Malta Enterprise (ME) offices which also takes up yet another part of it.

Din l-Art Helwa had changed the venue for its monthly lecture and, with a touch of irony no doubt, chose to hold it at ME, formerly the Nursing School, in the grounds of St Luke’s Hospital.

The speaker of this extremely interesting lecture was the architect Edward Said, well-known to the Maltese public for his love of Maltese historical buildings and underground structures.

As we found out after the lecture after roaming around the area, there are still structures from the old Villa Frere garden – a tempietto and a circular tower. But they are now just structures divorced from their real setting, lost structures among roads and other buildings.

Villa Frere begins far down, on the Pieta road, just before the bend on the way to Valletta. A big, three-storied building, painted in a dull brown ochre colour (which is how most building facades were painted 300 years ago, demm il-baqra, today found only on some historic buildings but not on others – the Grand Masters Palace used to be like that – and extant today only on churches’ domes).

That is the Villa Frere.

It is between two old, and equally dilapidated old buildings, which date from the times of the Knights – Villa Ciantar and Bezzina House.

In those days, the beginning of the 19th century, the road was one-third of what it is today and across the road there were baths, just like there are on the Marsamxett Road across the bay.

There, in the 1820s, arrived John Hookham Frere, a British aristocrat, former Under-Secretary, and British plenipotentiary in Spain. It was there that he advised Sir John Moore, the leader of the British army in Spain, to retreat in front of Napoleon’s army. Sir John followed his advice and was killed in the battle of La Corunna (remember the poem The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna – “Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,

As his corse to the rampart we hurried;”?)

The British reacted badly to this defeat and recalled him. He was blamed for all that had gone wrong. He refused an ambassadorship to St Petersburg and withdrew from public life. He married Elizabeth Jemima, dowager Countess of Erroll, and, due to her sick condition, came to Malta.

In Malta he devoted himself to his studies – he was a classical scholar, well-versed in Greek mythology and a Latinist.

At first, they stayed in Casa Correa, the grand palace in Old Bakery Street (bombed in the war and today St Albert’s College stands where it used to be). Then they rented two small houses on the Pieta seafront (Molo Pieta).

Although they had intended their stay in Malta to be a short one, they came to love Malta, not just its climate but also its history. Hookham Frere’s sister and his butler followed them to Malta.

Hookham Frere taught himself Hebrew and Maltese. He welcomed English guests, was popular with his Maltese neighbours, and very charitable with people in need and befriended Mikiel Anton Vassalli, the first Professor of Maltese at the University of Malta.

Then he set his eyes on the land sloping up to Guardamangia Hill, which was all garigue till then and decided to build a villa and a garden.

It was extremely hard work since everything had to be dug, planted and created. The land was owned by the nuns of St Catherine Convent in Valletta. During the villa’s construction, Hookham Frere and his wife were the guests of the Governor at San Anton and Sir Walter Scott, who visited him there, also accompanied him to the site of the garden then being set up.

Unfortunately, Hookham Frere’s wife died but he continued with his work, refused pressure from his brother to return to England and died in Malta.

The site of the garden, up Qrejten Hill (Maltese for small hill by the sea) covered 12 tumoli. It included no less than 13 reservoirs, all purpose-dug. The rock face was cut and platforms and terraces were created. Essentially. One ascended by means of a narrow alley which turned this way and that in such a way that one had no idea what was coming next.

Here and there, one found shaded places (one was called Lovers’ Lane and many romances were born, or broken, there) with incredible views down to Marsamxett Harbour. There was also a tempietto and a round tower, inspired maybe by the older tower in Villa Ciantar next door.

One area became the kitchen garden and another was known as the wilderness, with trees such as carobs and olives planted in abundance.

To this day, it is not known who was the architect behind all this, but it would seem it was one of three Georges – Giorgio Pullicino, George Grognet de Vasse (the architect of the Mosta dome) and George Whitman, a Royal Engineer and a very good friend of Hookham Frere.

The place became a tourist attraction and many came specifically to Malta to visit it. It was also the place where many artists such as Caruana Dingli loved to paint.

Following Hookham Frere’s death in 1831, the garden was neglected for 40 years and it was only restored with the arrival of Captain, later Commander, Price, and his Maltese wife from the immensely rich Messina family.

Captain Price added a third floor to the house down by the sea and created, among other attractions, a Japanese garden with a shrine to Buddha.

The Villa Frere garden attracted no less than three queens: Queen Adelaide who commissioned the building of the Anglican cathedral in Valletta, Queen Mary in 1912 and Queen Marie of Romania, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

The 1930s were the heyday of the house, with many balls taking place in the house and also wedding receptions. The nearby Bezzina house also saw balls that were unforgettable.

In 1930, the magazine Country Life featured the garden. This was the only time the magazine featured anything in Malta and not even San Anton Palace and garden was so honoured.


The ‘dark ages’

Then came, as Mr Said described them, the ‘dark ages’.

In the postwar years the new primary school was built in what previously was the Japanese garden and the wilderness. Ironically, the school was named after Hookham Frere.

Then the Nursing School was built on the upper reaches of the garden.

Then, in 1984, the helipad was built together with a wide parking lot next to the tempietto. The upper reaches of the garden were now cut off from the rest.

Right in this area, there was (maybe still is under the helipad) a very interesting feature. This was a huge hole in the ground, a geological feature with huge pebbles at its bottom. Grognet de Vasse used to speculate this was part of Atlantis.

Today, roughly only one-third of the garden has survived. The views at 360 degrees are still there but under threat from a nearby proposed application for huge flats.

Much pillaging has been done, and not by ordinary vandals, either. The gibbet at Casa Leone in St Venera housing a ministry comes from Villa Frere as evidenced by the coat of arms on top. So too benches which have ended up at Villa Bologna.

Today, the house and what remains of the garden are in the hands of the Spiteri family (tal-Klee Klamps). One of Mr Spiteri’s sons told how their father was ordered out of the house by the government one Christmas Eve and the house was only saved because the court marshal declined to enforce the eviction order on such a day. Then the government changed and no one enforced the eviction. That government wanted to pull down the house and build flats instead.

An association, Friends of Villa Frere, has been created to help the Spiteri family restore the building and garden can be accessed at [email protected]. In 2008, Mepa scheduled the house and the garden.

  • don't miss