History (Villa Bighi)

Origins and History

After the British occupation of Malta, the island's inclusion within the British Colonial Empire was formally ratified by the Council in 1814, after Napoleon's first abdication, and confirmed by the Congress of Vienna in the following year.

In the time of the Order of Saint John, there was an official who guarded the entrance of the Grand Harbour for any galleys, which used to sail in it. The galleys would later be examined for any contagious diseases. Quarantine regulations were very strict and scrupulously followed at the Barriera. Villa Bighi - Restored

 
The prior Capua, Fra Giovanni Bichi, bought a piece of land and built a Villa for his own use, after his retirement. Fra Giovanni Bichi was a nephew of Fabio Bichi, later Pope Alexander VII , who was in Malta as an Inquisitor from 1634 till 1639. Bichi was in the naval service of the Order and he eventually gained command of the Papal fleet that was operating in the Levant in conjunction with the Venetian and Maltese squadrons during the Candia campaign. In his capacity as Admiral of the Papal Fleet, Bichi was instrumental in setting up a hospital for seamen at Civitavecchia in the Papal States. The plan of the villa was designed by the celebrated architect Lorenzo Gafa of Vittoriosa and the building was initiated around 1675. Unfortunately, Giovanni Bichi did not survive to see the place finished as he became a victim of the plague which dominated the Island in 1676. He was buried in the nearby church of San Salvatore. Villa Bighi
 

After Fra Giovanni Bichi's death, the villa passed into the possesion of his nephew the Knight Fra Mario Bichi. On the latter's demise in 1712, the "garden and palace of Sso. Salvatore" was purchased by Bailiff Fra Giovanni Sigismondo Count of Schaesberg. The property again reverted to the Bichi's in 1718 when it was occupied by another Fra Giovanni Bichi, the nephew of Mario. By the time of his death in 1740, the estate had become known as Villa Bichi, later distorted to Villa Bighi.
 
In December 1743 Mgr. Paolo Passionei, who had been appointed Inquisitor of Malta, spent his period of quarantine, enforced on all travellers those days, at the Villa. By 1763, it had become the residence of John Dodsworth, the English Consul in Malta. In 1784 the Agent in Malta of Catherine the Great of Russia submitted a request to Grand Master Emanuel de Rohan Polduc to convert Villa Bichi into a provision store for the use of the Russian Fleet in the Mediterranean; but this request was politely refused as the Grand Master suspected that Russia had designs on Malta.
In 1791 Bailiff Fra Nicola Frisari acquired the Bichi estate. When the French invaded Malta in 1798, Villa Bichi is said to have been occupied for a short while by Napoleon Bonaparte; however, there is no written evidence that the French General ever stayed there and more reliable historical chronicles mention Palazzo Parisio in Merchants Streets - Valletta as his residence whilst in Malta.
 
Owing to the rising of the Maltese against the French in the latter's blockade inside the fortifications of Valletta and the Three Cities, the Villa was abandoned and much of its woodwork was carried away by the insurgents. When Great Britain assumed the protection of theses islands in 1800, the Villa passed into the hands of the Civil Government, the property being let out to private individuals on a yearly basis.
 
It was Lord Nelson himself who suggested to Their Lordships at the Admiralty in London that Bighi would make a good hospital. In 1827, during the Battle of Navarino, many injured from the British and Russian fleets were transferred to Malta. It was King George IV who gave permission to the Admiralty so that a hospital could be then constructed for the fleet's requirements. Thus the site was taken over, including Villa Bichi. Then on March 23rd, 1830, when Major General Fred Cavendish Ponsoby was Governor of Malta, Vice Admiral Sir P. Malcolm laid the foundation stone of the new hospital at Bighi.

The Buildings Of The Royal Navy Hospital

Villa Bighi The well renowned Maltese doctor and writer, Sir Themistocles Zammit, who later occupied the appointment of Rector of the University and was the first Curator of the Maltese National Museum, in his book History of Malta, wrote that " the battle of Navarino showed the importance that in Malta there must be a well-suited Naval Hospital". Most of the wounded that were conveyed to the island on British warships were thus confined to Fort Ricasoli. Such a place was not comfortable for the wounded after all, so the authorities of the Royal Navy finally decided that there existed the need of constructing a naval hospital.
 
Bighi Hospital rises on the promontory that juts into the Grand Harbour between Rinella Bay and Kalkara Creek. It appears that the first person to refer to the place as Bighi instead of Bichi was Sir Alexander Ball in 1799. Lord Nelson and others distorted it into the Palace of Bughay and even the Palace of Bugia. As a matter of fact, the suggestion to establish a Naval Hospital in Bighi came from Lord Nelson himself. Nelson's earliest hint at the setting up of a hospital in Malta occurs in a letter dated August 29, 1803 written on "Victory" off Toulon. He told Major-General Villettes commander of the troops at Malta: "I suppose the Admiralty, if we are to keep the troops at Malta, will establish a proper Naval Hospital.
 
Towards the end of 1803 the place was inspected by Dr. John Snipe, Physician of the Fleet, who found the spot very suitable for a naval hospital. The Villa was surrounded by grounds in a high state of cultivation capable of producing " an abundance of vegetables for the use of the sick and if lemon and orange trees were planted, the fleet on this station might be amply supplied with these antiscorbutic fruits". He was of the opinion, however, that if the villa was fixed upon as a permanent structure; nothing, however was done for many years. During the pestilence of 1813 the Villa was converted into a plague hospital for the Three Cities on that side of the Harbour and it was not until March 1829 that the mansion was handed over to the Royal Navy.
 
In fact, in 1829, it was finally decided to convert Villa Bighi to a naval hospital. To this aim it was necessary to expropriate the private property which was in the immediate vicinity of the hospital grounds so as to have complete control of the San Salvatore promontory. Whilst digging for foundations, workmen uncovered some Egyptian type stalae which were eventually transferred to the British Museum. The foundation stone was laid by Vice Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm on 23rd March 1830. The stone was adjusted into place with a silver trowel in the northeast corner of the building after the gold and silver coins of the reigning sovereign were deposited under it. Rev. J. T. H. Le Mesurier, the Chaplain of the Arsenal who was also attached to the Armeria Hospital in Vittoriosa, conducted the religious ceremony. The inscription on the foundation stone records that the "edifice designed by Colonel George Whitmore of the Royal Engineers in concert with Vice Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm, Commander - in -Chief of the Naval Forces and Commissioner of the Navy in the Mediterranean" was erected at "the expense of the British Nation to serve as a hospital for the sick and wounded Mariners in the service of the King" in the eleventh year of the glorious reign of George IV in the presence of "captains of His Majesty's Ships, the officers of the various departments of the Public Service and a great assemblage of distinguished spectators."
 
The design of Bighi Hospital is generally attributed to Colonel (later Major General) Sir George Whitmore (1775 - 1862) who headed the Royal Engineers between 1811 and 1829 but with a long break in Corfu in between. He has a very colourful character highly intransigent in his architectural notions but hardly the most modest of men. His Corfu connection made him a great pal of the Governor, Sir Thomas Maitland, more popularly known as King Tom, and probably gave him much more elbow room than he would otherwise have had
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Villa Bighi The architect Salvatore Xerri was appointed superintendent for the new works and as assistant he had his brother Gaetano Xerri. Following the sudden death of the former on 23rd January 1830, Gaetanto Xerri was appointed instead. Mr. J. B. Collins was Clerk of the Works. Salvatore Xerri was Whitmore's junior by a little over a year and was born in Lija, where he lived all his life. His father Saverio hailed from Zebbug and was related to the patriot Dun Mikiel Xerri. Gaetano Xerri appears to have been recruited directly by the Navy. On December 12th 1833, presumably, on completion of the works at Bighi, Hankey wrote to the Director of the Department of Works and Repairs, Mr. John Mackenzie, that "H.E. the lieutenant Governor has been pleased to nominate the perito Mr. Gaetano Xerri Overseer in your Department, vacant by the death of G.M. Cachia to take effect from 1st January 1834". In 1844, Gaetano was also appointed Assistant Superintendent of Public Works under W. L. Arrowsmith.
 
It is difficult to sort out with certainty who did what at Bighi but the combined efforts of Whitmore, Salvatore and Gaetano Xerri and perhaps others have produced a very pleasing ensemble which has graced our Grand Harbour for over a century and a half. An engraving by Brocktorff in 1840 shows the complex at it's best, before the site was cluttered by a number of other buildings, with the San Salvatore Church still showing on the horizon to the left.
 
The works were completed on 24th September 1832, at a total cost of £20,000. The West and East Wings' architecture is in the modern Doric style and built with high floors. Under both buildings runs a wide passage used during the building for the transportation of materials with mules. The works included the demolition of all the annexes to make room for the two wings recommended by Dr. Snipe. Four heavy half columns crowned by a strongly projecting triangular pediment were added to the northern façade supported by the new skin of ashlar masonry. Another pair of half columns were added in a similar way to the southern façade framing the main entrance to harmonize the Villa facades with the architectural style of the new buildings. The double approach to the Villa from the shore was done away with and replaced by a path leading to the rocks below.
 

More structural additions were undertaken at the beginning of the present century when the Surgical (also referred to as the General Hospital Block) and the Zymotic Blocks were built in 1801 and 1903 receptively. The Surgical Block was built further to the East Wing whilst the Zymotic Block and the Cot lift were built to the west of the West Wing. The project for the cot lift was in fact approved by the S.C.E. (civil engineer) of the Royal Navy on 11th August 1906. Other buildings which are relevant to the current situation include the Mental Ward to the south of the West Wing, already completed by the 1890's, the Smoking Shed to the south of the East Wing and a more recent block adjacent to the Cot Lift. The complex included also a number of Nissen Huts, or similar structures.
 
Two cemeteries had been established in the hospital grounds in 1840, one for the Military Protestants and the other for Protestant patients. These ceased to be used for burials in 1900 after the Admiralty obtained an alternative site in the vicinity of the Hospital.
 
Bighi Hospital contributed to the nursing and medical care of casualties whenever hostilities occurred in the Mediterranean, making Malta "the nurse of the Mediterranean ". During the First World War (1914 - 1918) , Bighi Hospital accommodated a very large number of causalities from the Daradanelles, the patients being bedded down in corridors and ditches. During the Second World War, the Hospital was well within the target area of the heavy bombing since it was surrounded by military establishments. A number of it's buildings were damaged or destroyed, including the x-ray theatre, the East and West Wings, the Villa and the Cot Lift from the Bighi Jetty to the Hospital.
 
In 1967, during the second unexpected rundown of the British services and their employees in Malta, Bighi Hospital was on the brink of closing down. In September 1970, Bighi Hospital had its doors shut for the last time. It was Thursday September 17th, 1970 when Surgeon Captain CLT McClintock, the Medical officer then in charge, during a small but significant ceremony, presented a picture of the Good Shepherd to Rev. Joseph Vella, parish priest of Kalkara as a last token. During the presentation McClintock said, "I feel unhappy that after so many years of good medical service Bighi Hospital has to close down for good".
 
In 1977 the ex- Senglea Trade School occupied the East Wing and the Villa, while the other parts were occupied by a secondary school. In 1980 a new road complex was constructed passing from Kalkara through Villa Portelli's gardens up through the Bighi site and down to Rinella. In 1984 the Villa was abandoned due to dangerous ceilings and the Trade School was moved to the West Wing. Other buildings in the Hospital complex, and the extensive gardens, were demolished or lost when the Housing estate to the south was built in the 1980's. The Mental Ward is currently used as a store for the local feast decorations of the Kalkara Parish Church. The Zymotic Block was recently used as the base of the Media Center of the Education Department, but is currently abandoned and subject to vandalism. The block adjacent to the Cot Lift has recently been converted for use as a kindergarten.
 
Parts of the East and West Wings were until recently used as a store for surplus material of the Education Department. Various sections of the building on site were practically left abandoned for many years and thus new efforts have been addressed at restoring them to their original state.
 
Research has been done by Claude Busuttil 
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Last Updated: 12/09/2014 - 10:42