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Fort Chambray

The Beginning  |  Diagrams  |   The Chapel  |  The Cemetery and Hospital 
The 20th Century   |  The Unsuccessful Project  |  Today...  | 
Additional Photos

The Beginning
Within the precincts of Ghajnsielem one finds the famous and historic Fort chambray. This fortress is built on the hill called 'Ras it-Tafal' which is situated between the port of Mgarr and that of Xatt l-Ahmar. It was built at the expense of a Norman Count of the Order of St John, named Francois Chambray during the reign of Grand Master Pinto.

The dream was to build another Valletta. Not just a fort on a bluff, but a full-fledged citadel. The knights long harboured the idea of building a new town that would replace the Citadel and its suburb Rabat as the new city of Gozo (just as a century and a half before, Valletta has replaced the old city of Mdina). They were convinced that its construction would augment the safety of the Gozo-Malta channel, increase commerce between the islands and attract new settlers to Gozo.  The project of the new town was approved by the Council of the Knights of St John in 1922 and, on maps, the town was christened Citta Vilhena, after the Portuguese Grandmaster Antonio Manuel de Vilhena (1722-1736). Yet the project had to be shelved due to lack of funds and it would have remained on the paper were it not for the generosity of Bailiff Jacques François de Chambray (1687 - 1756), Lieutenant General of the Ships. In 1749, soon after his appointment as Governor of Gozo, de Chambray offered to finance the construction of the fortifications of the new city.

Notwithstanding consultations to improve the original plan, works started almost immediately. Until his dead he has spent 40,000 Scudi on the project and he bequeathed one fifth of his property to secure its completion. The waning years of his life, he had all but dedicated to the creation of the fortress and he did not forget the fort even after his death. Work continued after his death and the fortress was finished though not according to the original plans in 1758. By 1760, Fort Chambray, as the new town was spontaneously called, was ready to attract settlers. It was the best defended and the best provisioned on the island. The town was to have the Governor's Palace, a parochial church and an administrative building. Beside, each building block was to have a central courtyard to shelter more people in an emergency. The town however never materialised. An effort was made to sell land to the public but, by that time, fear of attacks from the sea had subsided and Fort Chambray never became a city. The Knights did however build a two-storied barrack block with eight very large rooms.

In its 250-year life, the fort experienced only one brief military adventure. In 1798, it defended Gozo against Chambray's own countrymen, the revolutionary forces of General Bonaparte.
During the remaining years of the Knight's rule in Malta, the fortress never experienced any attack mainly due to the decline of the Berber and Turkish marauders. During the first four decades of British rule, the Fort's importance diminished. It was in fact abandoned for several years but found a new lease of life when several British regiments were stationed there during the Crimean War and the First World War.

Diagrams and Plans

The Land Font

Fortification Layout

The Guardian Angel Bastion


Click in thumbnail to enlarge

Fort Chambray (Main Gate)
Chambray's Main Gate

 Click here to view more pictures

The Chapel
It is not recorded that there was a chapel in Fort Chambray during the rule of the Knights; knights stationed there probably fulfilled their spiritual duties at the chapel of Garzes Tower. Between 1800 and 1928, during the British stay at the Fort, there were two chapels, one for Catholics and another for Anglicans.

The small room serving as a Roman Catholic chapel was situated close to the Notre Dame del la Qala Bastion (Westside near the entrance), next to the barracks raised by the Knights. It was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Graces with a single altar and a bell on the roof. When members of the Society of Jesus came to Gozo to run the Seminary (1866-1909), it was usually an English Jesuit who said the mass and officiated in this chapel. The Anglican chapel was close to Saint Anthony Bastion (overlooking to the North of x-Xatt l-Ahmar) next to the cemetery. It later served as a Catholic chapel for the inmates of the hospital when the fort was handed over to the civil authorities.


The Cemetery and Hospital
It is interesting to note that
there were three cemeteries associated with Fort Chambray, all starting from around 1800. A Protestant burial ground within the Fort itself near the doctor’s quarters, and two in the ditches outside. One for Roman Catholics on the left and one for Protestants on the right of the main entrance. Unfortunately the Garrison Cemetery which was dedicated for the troops who maintained and guarded Fort Chambray during the British colony was ruthlessly demolished in the mid-1980s.

By 1830 Chambray had also its own small hospital (called Fort Chambray Hospital) which was later used as civilian mental hospital.

Click here to learn more about the three Cemeteries and the Hospital

Fort Chambray during the 20th Century
Fort Chambray had a long and tortuous history during the 20th century. Several regiments were stationed there during the First World War as the British started to  built barracks within the walls. In 1934 the government began using it as a mental institution while during World War II, it used to be used as a hospital with one section as a leprosy unit from 1937 till 1956. In fact, some shelters could also be found in the fortifications. According to Frank Bezzina (1982) there used to be one under the main entrance, one for the sick males, one for the sick females, one for the leprous, and one for Dr. Ruggiero, who at that time was the superintendent of the then Chambray hospital.  

The pre-1971 Nationalist government laid plans to develop the fort as a tourism establishment including a 320-bed hotel. But the 1971 Labour government scrapped those plans and refurbished the mental hospital. Then in 1979 the mental patients were moved elsewhere and suddenly the fort was allocated for tourism. Hardly any development was made but before the 1987 elections Labour Party activities were held there. Just before the 1987 election the Labour government transferred the fort to Mr Zammit Tabone who headed Fort Holidays, a company with a capital of just Lm5,000 and no employees.

The Unsuccessful Project
A new era for fort Chambray was suppose to start in the early 1990's when a permission to develop the Fort and surrounding area into a holiday complex was given to Fort Chambray Development Limited under a 99-year emphyteutical grant. Fort Chambray Development Limited (which was owned by an Italian company controlled by Roberto Memmo) had a 51% shareholding in the development while the remaining shares belonged to the government. The project consisted of 236 residential units, a hotel, commercial establishments, refurbishment of the old barracks into a commercial centre and restoration works. Unfortunately several problems had cropped up and the project ran out of funds.

Unfortunatly, Roberto Memmo, invested a mere half-a-million Liri in the project; all spent in the early days. At that time, Roberto Memmo was being investigated for his close ties with the infamous Masonic lodge P2 founder Licio Gelli and with Michele Sindona who spent several years in an US prison. Memmo, who set up an art foundation in 1972 and is a renown patron of the arts, also owning many important art works, was being investigated for money laundering activities all over the world. He is also the owner of one of the finest yachts in the world: Zaca.

Since the government sealed its deal with Memmo, Maltese investors, through Forti Ltd, invested about Lm6.5 million in an attempt to complete the project but had to continually contend with Memmo’s idiosyncrasies. Soon after making his minimal investment, Memmo’s attitude to the project changed, and he proved to be a continual headache for the Maltese investors and a thorn in the side of the government whenever it got involved in negotiations. Memmo reportedly was always changing his mind, and would often lead his partners to believe an agreement had been reached to push the development forward only for the Italian to change his mind at the last minute. Memmo continued to be difficult to the last days, and it was mainly through the efforts of major investor Paul Abela that what proved to be extremely difficult negotiations were brought to a positive end.

Among the former shareholders and directors of companies involved in the development were Charles Demicoli, Joe N Tabone. It was pointed out in the media that Tabone was a former auditor of the developing company and Demicoli a director of Malta Government Investments Ltd, partners with Memmo in the project. The shareholding of the holding companies changed some 10 times and ultimately, the shareholders of Forti Development Ltd and Fort Chambray Ltd were Paul Abela, the Fenech family and Alex Grech and family.

In December 2001, the Planning Authority issued a number of enforcement notices since several conditions of the contract were being violated. All works stopped in July 2003 as Fort Chambray Development Limited did not renew any development permits. The state of the Fort was still in  various stages of completion while the projected hotel has not even been started. Public Investments Minister Austin Gatt later admitted that the whole project was a "sad story of an unsuccessful project".

And Today...

In 2004, Public Investments Minister Dr Austin Gatt signed an agreement with the respected Gozitan businessman Dr Michael Caruana and his family (known as 'Tal-Billi') to hand over Fort Chambray. Under the new agreement, Dr Caruana and his family became the sole shareholders in the development and agreed that they will not transfer it to any third party until the development is completed. The new contract set the termination date to 2092 with a ground rent of Lm12,000 per annum and a premium of Lm1.5 million. This time, the government has decided to sell its 49 per cent shareholding in the project (gaining around Lm3.7 million). No hotel will be built under the new agreement. The emphyteutical grant was later redeemed for an undisclosed sum. This means that all those who invest in Fort Chambray will now buy a property as freehold. Phase 1 which consisted the construction of 80 apartments and villas overlooking the Mgarr Harbour area was completed early 2007 and the units were immediately launched on the market. Phase 2 will consists of an additional number of villas and apartments, this time overlooking the Xatt l-Ahmar Area. Phase 3 will be dedicated for tourism purposes.

In October 2007 the Alternattiva Demokratika strongly condemned the developers following an application (PA02024/07) for additional alterations and going against the original development briefs. The application asks MEPA to:

- Build more floors on the existing building
- Demolish the historic British Barracks which is an important part of the Fort.
- Erect seven-storey towers and five-storey hotel while demolishing

This means that the only historical military building left in this fortified city will be demolished and the five-storey building will dominate the front bastions and thus completely lose the notion of a bastion itself. Unfortunately the architectural and historical contexts seemed to be ignored once again.

Let us hope that the new plans would not lead to further rape of Fort Chambray while leading economic growth in Gozo and restoring this prestige location to its former glory.

  This article was researched and written by Kevin Cauchi




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