MAIN STREET – The history behind our signage


Have you ever wondered when walking or driving along Gibraltar’s thoroughfares how roads, streets, lanes and alleyways get their names? Many are derived from certain personages or less important characters who resided there many decades or even centuries ago, others because of particular activities carried out in that street, lane or neighbourhood, but there are many named for reasons not known to anyone around today who could shed some light as to the locality’s label! There are of course, plenty of assumptions and educated guesses applied to the thinking behind why they could be so-called, especially from local historians and keen aficionados who delve into matters of this kind. “It could be because of this or that, maybe for that purpose or some other reason or function,” and so the debate continues with no concrete answer ever coming to light.

Main Street is our main street for sure, although not always called that. The stretch from Casemates to John Mackintosh Square was called ‘Waterport Street’, John Mackintosh Square to the Convent you would have called ‘Church Street’, and the final stretch from the Convent to Southport Gates and Referendum archway, ‘Southport Street’. Devil’s Tower Road was named after a lookout or military watch tower standing close to the rock face where soldiers would lookout for enemy intruders. There is also a Devil’s Gap Road and Devil’s Gap Steps indicating – or so they say – the forked Devil’s tongue spitting out with both leading up to Devil’s Gap Battery, where the so called ‘spit’ would convert to gunfire, one supposes!

Then we have Engineer Lane where the Chief Engineer’s residence was located, Parliament Lane deriving from a meeting place where Freemasons used to convene, Fish Market Road explains itself, as does Forty Steps leading up to Prince Edward’s Road from Town Range. A popular one is Irish Town, where it’s claimed Irish soldiers used to be billeted; that one’s disputed also, I’m told. Horse Barrack Lane sounds like an obvious one to do with horses and stables you would have thought, well, there is no actual record of specific army stables there. Hospital Ramp and Hospital Hill are absolutely justified as they both led to the Colonial Hospital later to become St Bernard’s Hospital and now housing two schools.

There are hundreds of streets, lanes, walkways, steps and even cul-de-sacs in and around our city. To fill me in on this intriguing and never ending list of hypotheses, suppositions and guesswork as to who are the individuals whose names appear on those ‘plaques’ or why that lane or avenue was given that ‘label’ fixed to our buildings’ facades and street corners, I went along to the Heritage Trust in John Mackintosh Square (named after a great Gibraltar benefactor, John Mackintosh) and chatted to Heritage Trustee, Manolo Galliano. Manolo has been a keen enthusiast of Gibraltar’s history and heritage since his early teens, and as a retired top Civil Servant spends many hours researching and writing on the top floor Trust offices and at home. “I simply love to get involved in all of this and others should get involved also and become members of the Trust. I’ve written two books on the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned and the Convent and now I’m on my third which is on the history of Monks and Nuns on the Rock. I often visit the archives and the Garrison Library to do my research. Here at the Trust offices we have a very good selection of books and use of the internet on Gibraltar’s fascinating history and so I’m kept quite busy.”

Manolo has also been kept busy contributing to the Gibraltar Chronicle as a member of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust writing a section all about… yes, street names, which is why I asked him to fill me in on the subject. “There is so much history in that because we’re not just going back to the early British period but the Spanish one also, and even going back to the Moorish occupation with names deriving from the Arabic, translated into Spanish.” Many of those districts and street names are still remembered and even called by their Spanish names by some members of our older generations. For instance, it’s generally agreed that the Spanish name Turba, referring to the Southern district of the Rock, derived from the Arabic turba-al-Hamra, which in turn translates to ‘red hill’ and from which another of our thoroughfares derives: Red Sands Road that runs along the length of the Humphries Housing Estate (red being the colour of the earth in that area of Alameda Gardens sloping down passed the housing estate). So that’s another street name that makes sense.

“There are more of course,” Manolo reminds me, “Cooperage Lane by the ICC is to do with the fact where barrel makers called Coopers used to build wooden barrels. Bedlam Court by Jyske Bank is another which comes from a mispronounced, ‘Bethlehem,’ an army barracks which used to be located there.” Our history enthusiast tells me Zoca Flank, where the Catholic Community Centre is, stems from Zoco (market in Arabic) where animals were slaughtered hence, Market Lane right opposite across Line Wall Road, where the Bland building is that leads onto Main Street. There was a mill, on City Mill Lane, Road to the Lines is a lane at the northern end of the upper town leading to ‘The Lines’ or ‘Line’ – La Linea. Cannon Lane leads to Artillery House and all things ‘army’, and then there’s Kavanagh’s Court, named after Thomas Henry Kavanagh who was awarded a Victoria Cross for his heroic action at the siege of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny in 1857. He was returning to India, taken ill, and landed in Gibraltar where he died and was buried in North Front Cemetery. That’s another name, many may say, is fittingly recorded and placed on the wall of some steps by Hargrave’s Ramp.

There’s no doubt what’s hidden behind the list of names, events and services provided in days gone by. Our street names are attention-grabbing, remarkably fascinating, and endless!