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Agustín Huart: a Founding Father of Gibraltarian Democracy

Damian Conroy

Agustin Huart was born to a humble family in 1893. Intelligent and inquisitive, he dedicated his life to the working class.

Shunning totalitarianism, he was fascinated by the role of trade unionism in modern secular society.

The conditions of his time and its flagrant injustices drew him not just in socio-political issues as an elected City Councillor but also to humanitarian work during and after the Spanish Civil War (as well as the Evacuation of the local population in the Second World War).

The young Agustin Huart came into contact with workplace inequalities as a shipwright’s apprentice in the newly built dockyard.

In the early 1900’s the Governor was omnipotent in Gibraltar which despite its vibrant local society was seen principally as a garrison. This period was marked by labour unrest whilst the growing tensions in Spain between left and right wing ideologies permeated Gibraltar.

This was aggravated by appalling working conditions. As an example, Gibraltarian and Spanish workers were not allowed to use toilet and other facilities reserved for English expatriate workers and the coal heavers that were so crucial to the Gibraltarian economy earned less than half of their counter-parts’ wages in the United Kingdom.

Unemployment, poverty and overcrowding were rife in the broader community. In stark contrast there was a small but very influential (and wealthy) group of Gibraltarians who had made their money from trade and victualling of ships.

This business class tended to be educated at public schools in England and shared the same social circles and interests (such as hunting) with the Colonial authorities.

These individuals were able to lobby the Governor directly, and tended to be the main employers. They formed part of the only influential bodies in Gibraltar such as the Grand Jury, the Sanitary Commission and the Chamber of Commerce.

In contrast, there was no formal body to represent the working population. Immersed in the plight of workers in Gibraltar, Agustin was instrumental in consolidating the first British Workers Union in 1919 of which he became the District Officer.

This changed the face of how business was conducted in Gibraltar. The Union became directly involved in all matters concerning the advancement of civil rights under the tutelage of Agustin Huart (who incidentally led the Workers Union for an unprecedented 43 years). One cannot therefore begin to summarise the struggles and accomplishments during such a pivotal epoch.

Arguably Agustin Huart was a father of the Gibraltarian people. In 1919 he led a delegation to petition the Secretary of State in London demanding a City Council where the people could elect their representatives.

This was not met with unanimous support locally given that those with influence had little appetite to cede power.

Nevertheless, as a result of lobbying and negotiations the Colonial office acceded to the demands and a City Council was established in 1921 when the people of Gibraltar went to the polls for the first time to elect their representatives.

From the start, Agustin Huart lobbied for reform of the Council (as the majority of Councillors were non-elected, nominated members). This included campaigns demanding a fairer balance between elected and non-elected members.

By 1934 he was holding public meetings and rallies calling for greater democracy. This was well supported and he presented a further Petition to London. Agustin Huarts call for more self government was a thorny issue with the military Authorities.

Agustin Huart would go on to serve as a City Councillor (and as Chairman) for many years from inception in 1921 and remained an elected member on its cessation in 1939 on the declaration of war.

He played a vital humanitarian role in the care and protection of Spanish refugees in Gibraltar during the Civil War. More than 5,000 Spaniards had sought refuge in Gibraltar at the start of the rebellion.

The Colonial Government was concerned about this mass influx and tried to disband the temporary camp set up at North Front, where the airport is now built.

Agustin Huart rallied his colleagues at the Workers Union who organised soup kitchens and took many families into their own homes.

He spearheaded the repatriation of many refugees and their families and organised the safe migration to South America of those individuals whose lives were at risk during the dictatorship.

Damian Conroy is a Crown Counsel and descendant of Agustin Huart. He is the author of ‘Agustin E Huart and the Spanish Civil War’.

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