Update to this post: if you’re interested in some live action heritage, Mtarfa, home of former British barracks and military hospital, is holding its annual historical enactment day on Sunday 16th October. Military vehicles, weapons, reenactments and more, all taking place at venues around the town. Read up on British heritage below…
Malta attracts a lot of tourism from people who were stationed here with the British forces, as well as from their descendants. Living memory stretches from World War II until the last naval bases closed and the British forces left in 1979. To help them and anyone else interested in exploring Malta’s 160 years of British rule, we’ve listed the main places and museums that recall British heritage, or rather rule of the islands. We also note the British-influence on current-day Maltese life, from language to driving on the left. For a potted history of Malta under British rule, click here.
But you don’t have to visit museums or go out of your way to discover the British military or architectural history. Simply walk the Victoria Lines defences for some fresh air and views. Play spot the red phone box or postbox – good one to do with kids. In Valletta, hunt out Strait Street with its old music halls that were so popular with British forces up to around the 60s. Or see if you can find a notice for a Victory Kitchen.
Don’t think that British military history is just of interest to older generations. I’ve had groups of kids enthralled by the Aviation Museum, Malta at War Museum, Lascaris War Rooms and Fort Rinella. Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna runs the last three, and specialises in British historical sites and in bringing the British era alive. It’s amazing how many hours you can spend at Fort Rinella where, in theory, there’s just one enormous 100-tonne gun to see! The Lascaris War Rooms in Valletta, a war-time bunker command and control room, was a kiddy hit with its British version of the German Enigma machines and enormous maps.
British Heritage visible today
There’s a strong affinity between the Maltese and the British. It’s an easy place for Brits to visit, what with English a joint official language and widely spoken, driving on the left, cups of tea with lots of milk, and familiar names around – from shop fronts to street names. Battered old vehicles still on our roads, like Bedford vans, Ford Anglias and Triumphs, can take you back to ’50s – 70s Britain in a flash. Then there are red post boxes (good examples in Valletta and on the Sliema front) and red telephone boxes (again, in Valletta) which are often more common there than on British streets.
When we think of historical buildings in Malta, we tend to think first of the defences and architecture bequeathed us by the Knights of St John. But the British era left a significant mark too – sometimes altering or adding on to the work of the Knights, but also developing afresh. The colonial housing and barracks at Pembroke, the Garrison Church (now the Stock Exchange), in Valletta and the elegant Chamber of Commerce building in lower Republic Street, also in the capital, are examples of notable British architecture – practical but nonetheless with architectural merit. Tigne’ Point has incorporated the arcaded barracks into its development near the Point shopping centre, and you can easily spot Victorian influence in the massive, gothic-style building near Balluta Bay, and in the house on Mdina’s main cathedral square.
Museums with British or wartime exhibits
National War Museum, Fort St Elmo, Valletta: the place to start as it focuses on the two World Wars. Displays the George Cross awarded by King George VI to Malta for the islands’ bravery in WWII.
National Maritime Museum, Birgu Waterfront: This vast museum housed in the old British naval bakery traces Malta’s sea-faring history from Phoenician times to WWII and beyond. Mock-up of a naval waterfront bar, uniforms, navy photographs, letters and memoribilia galore.
Malta at War Museum, Birgu: this new museum, housed in 18th century barracks, tells of the daily hardship and suffering of the islanders during WWII. Malta at War Museum, Couvre Porte, Vittoriosa: Tue – Sun 10.00 to 17.00hrs. Guided tours and film shows on the hour.
Aviation Museum, Ta’ Qali: a veritable treasure trove of memoribilia of the R.A.F. in Malta, and Malta’s wartime air defence. Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire in aviation sheds. Great for kids too!
Lascaris War Rooms, Valletta: one of only four WWII military operations rooms remaining, it opened recently again after renovation and is now a fascinating insight into not just WWII operations but also NATO and the Cold War period. Run by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna, an NGO restoring and reviving ex-British military sites. Lascaris War Rooms, Lascaris Ditch, Valletta: Mon – Sun 10.00 to 17.00hrs. Guided tours and film shows on the hour.
Mgarr Second World War Shelter: Located under Il-Barri Restaurant, this is one of the largest underground shelters on the islands. Recently restored and open to visitors, it shows the hard life in the shelters for the local farming community. Open: Tue – Sat: 9.00am till 2.00pm; Sun: 9.00am till 11.00am
Forts, Barracks & Fortifications
Pill boxes & Gun Posts: these dot the skyline of Valletta’s perimeter. There’s a pill box now turned cafe-snack bar on the corner of Marasamxett and St Sebastian Streets just before the War Museum. If you do a harbour cruise or get under sail, you’ll see just how many concrete pill boxes there are still preserved around Valletta. For anti-aircraft gun posts, a good example is through the car park at the end of South Street, Valletta, overlooking Marsamxett Harbour.
Fort Rinella, Kalkara
Built in 1878, this is the world’s first mechanical fort and a rare remnant of British military engineering. It houses what was the world’s largest gun – the 100-ton Armstrong, which was placed to protect Valletta’s harbours. Weird, strange and incredible. The tour includes ‘living history’ demos. Open: Tue – Sun 10.00 to 17.00hrs. Historical re-enactment displays at 14.15hrs. Visit the first Sunday in May to experience the gun’s huge blast – the only day a year its fired! Click here for a preview!
This line of inland defence – built up with walls, forts and batteries – runs along a natural ‘great fault’ some 12km, in effect dividing southern and northern Malta. The fault has proved a natural defensive ridge since prehistoric times, but it was under British rule in the mid-1870s that it was fortified more extensively. Forts along its length include Fort Madliena, Fort Binġemma, and Fort Mosta – which is open to the public. Join one of three tours Mon-Fri; 09.30 – 12.30.
This area of Malta, just north of the Paceville/St George’s Bay area was the base of British military life in Malta, with its officers’ mess, barracks and married quarters. A drive around Pembroke gives you old, crumbling barracks, those put to new uses, as well as Australia Hall – still standing though somewhat derelict, but once an entertainment venue and cinema built in 1915 – and a host of wonderful street names like Alamein, Normandy and Anzio.
Auberge d’Angleterre, Birgu: first home of the English Knights of St John in Malta before the Order moved to Valletta. Today, it’s home to Birgu Libary. You can pop inside the courtyard and view, but it’s not an official tourist sight.
Dockyards: all the Three Cities area is of interest as the heartland of Malta’s naval history and maritime trade. Good to view from across Grand Harbour, and Upper Barrakka Gardens.
Garden of Rest, Floriana or Msida Bastion Cemetery, or ‘the Protestant Cemetery’: wonderfully tranquil spot with great views of the inner reaches (Msida Creek) of Marsamxett Harbour. Well tended, open to the public. Read the gravestones. Even holds concerts!
Queen Victoria statue, Palace Square Valletta
Victoria Gate, Valletta
Old Saluting Battery: Sited below Upper Barrakka Gardens, Valletta, the battery not only has the Grand Harbour views, but also offers a chance to learn how cannons worked and were fired in days gone by. Saluting Battery, Valletta: Mon to Sun 10.00 to 13.00hrs. Firing of Noon-day gun at 12.00hrs.
Sir Alexander Ball memorial, Lower Barrakka Gardens. Great views from these gardens out to sea and over the Fallen Soldier and Siege Bell memorials. Sir Alexander Ball was Malta’s first British Governor.
George Cross commemoration plaque on the Palace, Valletta. The Cross itself and King George VI’s message are on display in the War Museum (see above).
St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Valletta
Kenuna Tower, Nadur, Gozo: one of three semaphore towers built by the British in 1848 on the cliffs near Nadur.