Three Genoese brothers settled on the Rock in search of a better life no doubt. Gibraltar was a military garrison bursting at the seams and shipping coming in and out of the Mediterranean meant replenishment of food supplies and other goods were in constant demand at this first or last port at the western end of the Med.
Whilst two of the brothers competed for business in Main Street premises, James Sanguinetti was a cabinet maker and worked from Horse Barrack Lane (formerly Sir Joshua Hassan’s law chambers), moving to Library Street and then to its present home in Main Street. Granddad James’ business also built coffins for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) on the Rock, as well as for the local population, which included pauper’s funerals paid for by the local authorities.
Knowledge and gut feeling play an important part in this business.
So cabinet making and supplying coffins meant James Sanguinetti became funeral directors – for the Hindu community also – right up to the early 2000s when the crematorium was built. “That’s right,” Robert nods. “My grandfather died and my father James, who worked with my granddad, took over. He worked hard employing more than half a dozen Spanish craftsmen – all of whom had to leave when the frontier closed! In my early teens I became a mechanical fitter in the Dockyard and the Public Works Department (PWD), but as a child I would listen to conversations going on at home and in the workshop. My father was a hoarder and during those early years I’d set about clearing the workshop and that’s how I became interested in the business. I left my job and got stuck in up to the present day!”
These days many tourists take snapshots of Sanguinetti’s entrance and often have a snoop around inside and buy the odd item: a sewing machine, an old valve radio or a water pump, (common in Gibraltar patios years ago). There are coats, jackets, dresses and hand bags, tea sets, paintings, pictures and old picture postcards, and that’s just taking a quick glimpse of what you can find in what is potentially a goldmine!
As you enter, all along the corridor there are brightly lit cabinets bursting with trinkets, custom jewellery, knick-knacks, bits and pieces, odds and ends and all sorts – chosen mainly by Robert’s wife Frances when visiting street markets in London and other capitals. Above the cabinets there are even larger items… I spot a couple of ceramic potties. Yes, the chamber ones you’d find under the bed in days of old – just in case!
Further down, in the workshop, Abdesalam will be busy mending, waxing, polishing, painting or meticulously restoring a piece of period furniture. He’s always on the go. Hands-on Sanguinetti director, Robert gets stuck in also (if not visiting some home in search of odd items of furniture which may be worth acquiring). Shop door closed? They’re off delivering a ‘job done’ piece of furniture in their van.
At the time of writing, Robert was working on a couple of cannon balls and some bulky bits of shrapnel (many of which fell on the town during the sieges). “It’s funny the things you come across. I’m now working on these, and I recently took out three chandeliers I’ve had for about 15 years and did a type of art nouveau paint job on them. A couple of American tourists walked in last week, and bought one of them. Then another customer offered more for it but it was too late – sold,” Robert grins… sadly. “And now the hard work begins to pack the chandelier in such a way it doesn’t suffer any damage in transit to the States!”
Not the first packing job for Robert which he achieved very successfully. All kinds of people and potential customers pop into the shop with items to sell in the hope they’re worth something or just seeking information about granny’s long lost piece of jewellery found in a dusty draw somewhere. “There is a refuse collector guy who brings me stuff from time to time and the other day produced a 50’s type vase for which I gave him ten pounds. I managed to sell it for quite a bit more but it caught my interest and I checked one of my many reference books to see if it was worth real money: I couldn’t believe it, £1800! I really lost out on that one.” The thing is I suppose, you never know who or what’s coming through the door and what the outcome might be, so knowledge and gut feeling play an important part in this business which in large measure, comes from experience – not in short supply as far as Robert is concerned. Through trial and error he’s kept the business going and many families’ heirlooms find their way to James Sanguinetti’s workshop for a professional, restoration job. It’s the place to go and a visit is a must.
Pop in with your mobile whilst looking out for curios. It’s a grotto of unforeseen surprises!