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!
Victoria Lines: 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.
Pembroke: 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.
Ta’ Qali & Hal-Far airfields: the Aviation Museum, Ta’ Qali, is the best source of information on airfield history.
British History Tour Details
This tour is dedicated to Malta’s British history. During the tour we will discuss why the British came to Malta, what happened and why they left.
After pickup the tour will begin in Vittoriosa where we will see the fortifications which date back to the times of the Knights, and were later used by the British for their defensive purpose.
We will visit the maze like, underground Air Raid shelters and relive the conditions of what has been referred to as the Second Great Siege of Malta. These subterranean bomb shelters were excavated in the solid rock and were extended as the war progressed.
After a short walk of Vittoriosa we will drive to Valletta by bus. We will walk to the upper Barrakka Garden which enjoys a spectacular view of the Grand Harbour (the largest natural harbour of the Mediterranean Sea), which was a British military base and the main reason why Malta came under fire as soon as Mussolini declared war on the Allied forces.
A walk around the streets of Valletta will take us by the Palace which was used by Napoleon Bonaparte, the second world war Victory (Soup) Kitchen, Queen Victoria’s statue and the ruins of the Royal Opera House which was destroyed at the peak of the bombings in Malta.
After some free time for a lunch break we will walk to the lower level of Valletta to the Malta War Museum. The museum itself is situated at Fort St. Elmo, an original defensive system built by the Knights which also was modified to serve the British military purpose. Among the numerous exhibits are the fuselage of one of the legendary Gloster Gladiators and well as the E-boat (human torpedo).
Back to: British Malta War Tour
British - Malta History
From 1530 to 1798, Malta had been ruled by the Order of Saint John. The Order was ousted during the War of the Second Coalition and Malta was occupied by Napoleon. The Maltese rebelled after a couple of months of French rule and asked Britain for help.
Eventually, the French capitulated in 1800 and Malta voluntarily became a British protectorate. Britain was then supposed to evacuate the island according to the terms of the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, but failed to keep this obligation – one of several mutual cases of non-adherence to the treaty, which eventually led to its collapse and the resumption of war between Britain and France a year later. Read more
The British took over the Maltese islands as a protectorate in 1800, and later as a colony in 1813. They initially used the Hospitaller fortifications without any alterations. Under the military theory of the time, the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was regarded as the most reliable protection against invasion, and in fact the British Civil Commissioner, Henry Pigot, wanted to demolish the majority of Valletta’s fortifications in 1801, although this was never done.
During the British period, the various forts of the Order were rearmed, refitted and altered a number of times to keep up with the latest military technology. Read more