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Beginnings of the Gibraltar Garrison Library: Part II

Dr. Jennifer Ballantine

Read Part I Here.

By February 1799 the Garrison Library had a respectable list of subscribers, including the patronage of the Governor of Gibraltar. Support also came from influential individuals such as Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent, who as a naval officer was present at the relief of Gibraltar in 1781 during the Great Siege (1779-1783), and who earned his title in 1797 following his engagement at Cape St. Vincent where, with Nelson under his command, he successfully attacked the Spanish Cartagena Fleet thus securing the English Channel and warding off any possible naval attack of the British Isles from any Franco/Spanish Mediterranean Fleet.

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Many of these subscribers had, from the onset, donated valuable collections and funds to the Library, and such was the success that in the space of six years, the Library had outgrown its premises, described in the minute books as an ‘old and inconvenient apartment occupied by sufferance as a temporary Library Room’.

From this point on the committee set about raising funds towards what was in effect the ambitious project of erecting a purpose built library, the design of which Col. Fyers, a Royal Engineer, started working on. Costs for the project were estimated at £1,200.00, which proved to be a substantial amount for such a select pool of subscribers; but undeterred the committee proceeded to raise £562.12s from members.

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Still, there was a shortfall to be met which they did by appealing to the Duke of York, the second son of George III, King of England, and to the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. With their backing the Governor of Gibraltar, General O’Hara, wrote directly to George III. The King in his reply, dated May 8th 1799, emphasised the importance of the Garrison Library for both Gibraltar and England, and as such, he had no hesitation in not only funding the project from the privy purse but in also gifting the freehold of the land to the committee.

Works on the building commenced in 1800 and when it was inaugurated in1804 the Garrison Library stood out, at a time when many buildings in Gibraltar remained semi-derelict from the Great Siege, as the most magnificent building in the town centre. Even today, the Garrison Library remains impressive in its architectural grandeur.

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But if we place the Garrison Library in a wider historical context, and within the great strides that Britain was making from the 1800s onwards towards global dominance, we become aware of how central both Gibraltar and the Library were to this wider mission of Empire.

One, I suggest, that becomes sublimated through the physical presence of a most British of institutions, a private subscription library, the building of which reflects the eponymous Georgian architectural style which signifies British monarchs of the House of Hanover, of which George III was one.

Still, as we shall see in later instalments, being too British has also had an impact on the fate of the Garrison Library.

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