The Clock Tower written by Mr. Gregory Gauci

On the 4th day of April 1942, an interesting and beautiful historic and ancient Tower (vedette), that was housing a clock in its top storey, eventually one of the oldest clocks in Malta was destroyed by World War II enemy action.  This tower was built in the centre of the main square in Birgu known today as Victory Square since the Great Siege of 1565.  It rose higher than all the houses and other buildings, and it offered a complete view of the Grand Harbour, the entrance of the Harbour including the Break-water, both forts, i.e. Fort St Elmo and Fort Ricasoli and a complete view of the Birgu perimeter.  When this Clock Tower was destroyed, Birgu lost another treasure. So far no Maltese Government has taken the initiative to re-build it. Such restoration was something that happened in other European countries where several monuments that had been destroyed were re-built after the said war.   

As early as the 9th century a high tower was built in all the cities in order to serve as a vedette or watch tower, and this is what this Birgu Tower was like when it was first built.  The Universita` of Malta (not the University of Studies) must have used such a similar tower for defense purposes before the arrival of the Knights of St John.  The Knights proved to be much better for the required defenses of the Maltese islands and they continued to make good use of it for a much better defense and watchfulness of Birgu and its surroundings including the Grand Harbour.  In fact it was for this particular reason that this tower was a landmark of this principal city in the Maltese harbours.  Because of its use, since it served as a watchtower and as a historical building, this tower had raised Birgu to the same status of other European cities.           

This Clock Tower which dominated Birgu and the whole Cottonera (The Three Old Cities) was not destined for posterity.  An exquisite early 19th century water colour by an artist, identified only as Mons, shows this tower with two stone balustrades. This very curious painting shows one balustrade around the fourth floor balcony, and a second smaller balustrade girdling the roof crowned by what could be a conical spire.  A good photograph by Richard Ellis, dating from the turn of the last century, shows a stone balcony with balustrades substituted by a frail and very thin wooden railing without the trace of the roof balustrade or spire. These were not the major features of this important and unique military tower. Unfortunately, during the blitz of World War II, a fatal hit almost sliced it in half. The remaining shag had to be pulled down without caring about the historical value that could have been saved after some re-thinking and studies.  It has been pulled down stone by stone.  I think it is quite good to emphasize that representations were made to the demolition authorities that the carved ornaments including the inscriptions should be carefully preserved but it is greatly to be deplored that this was never done afterwards, as was expected and most probably suggested by someone.  

The tower was a five storey building, 40 meters high, and had four sides measuring 20 feet (6 meters) each and was quadrilateral in shape. The five storeys were all of different heights, but the middle one was higher than the others, and surrounding the fourth storey was a balcony that had a wooden handrail that rested on large strong corbels. Every side had a constructed door but only one of them was kept open for use while the others were unused and blocked when the clock was installed many years later.  Canon John Mary Farrugia claimed that this tower had a higher storey and he concluded this from the existence of large holes (openings) that must have been used probably to place the poles for the different flags that might have served for signal transmitting.  The cornice at the top of the tower was introduced many years later in 1880, and in one corner facing the main Square a little turret was built for supporting the ventilation pipes. When the Knights left Birgu to settle in the new capital Valletta, this tower was sold to a private owner to satisfy the needs for certain funds, required for the building of the new capital, Valletta.


In 1572 when the tower passed to private owners and used as a dwelling building because of the historic transfer of the convent and seat of the Knights from Vittoriosa to the new city, it contained all the belongings of the owners living in the first two storeys. This was a family from the village of Għaxaq but the top parts including the balcony and roof were public property, and so was the clock at the top storey.  At some time these Għaxaq owners had connections with whoever was responsible for looking after the clock and tower.  Its exterior in Siculo-Norman style was deteriorating.  The public librarian, Mgr. Alfred Mifsud, and canon John Mary Farrugia expressed both the same idea that this tower was built in 1549. I am not sure whether there existed any documentation about the building including the dates. The year 1549 (actual day and month unknown) was inscribed on the portal of its balcony.  The Latin inscription indicating the year 1629 along with the name of Grandmaster Antoine de Paul referred to the year when the clock on the tower was fitted.  This clock was the first one made in Malta having a pendulum.

Four very important names who had paid for the work were mentioned in the same inscription.  They were Angelo Mallia, Giovanni Testaferrata, Leonardo Burlo` and Christoforo Menna, the latter was a great benefactor of the Parish church of St Lawrence.  The new capital city Valletta, the city built by the Knights, was getting all the honours that used to belong to the much older city of Birgu or Vittoriosa, and it is very surprising that this clock should have made the appearance at such an earlier stage.  It is even surprising about the diary account of the Great Siege that belonged to Francesco Balbi Coraggio written only one year after the Great Siege in 1566, exactly in August, which makes a good reference to this Clock Tower.

Giacomo Bosio, the great historian who wrote in detail the history of the Knights in Malta and was known as the Historiographer of the Knights, also mentioned a bell on the tower that nobody had mentioned before him.  According to him, this bell was named in Maltese: the Newwieħa (the groaner) and was often used during the Great Siege to sound the usual sad alarms and warnings.  This is a clear evidence that the clock tower was functioning during the said Siege.  However, could it have been a clock in some other shape or style, and restored later, we do not even know. It might have been the case.  The above mentioned inscription included also four emblems with an eight pointed cross of the Knights known today as the Maltese cross.  These emblems with the crosses were all erased with great hatred during the French occupation in 1798, even when the French soldiers knew well that those four gentlemen were not Knights but Maltese.  In fact they were all members of the Universita` known as Jurats and were only permitted according to Bosio by the Knights themselves to use the Order’s emblem, that is the eight pointed cross. 

This tower was also remembered by an engraving made by Antonio Freri, thus confirming its presence during the Great Siege. This was made in Rome at the same period of the Siege.  In the President’s Palace, the ex Magisterial Palace in Valletta, there is a painting by D’Aleccio that represents scenes from the Great Siege, and this tower can easily be seen at the entire centre of the Square dominating it.  The clock in this tower had two bells with different musical notes, whose pitch of the musical notes I do not know as it is not documented. The locals used to call them the Newwieħa (the groaner) and the Ferrie]a (the joyous); the former was used to announce an imminent enemy attack, while the latter announced the good news that the enemy was not threatening any more but had left the area.  It appears that one of them was very old and was manufactured in Messina, Sicily in 1505, but nothing is known about the other. 

I already stated that the clock was fitted many years after the building of the tower, and the interior showed that on every floor there was a roof that was removed in order to make space for the swinging pendulum including the necessary weights enabling the whole mechanism of the clock to function.  These weights are known as counterpoises. One clock had dual dials and the numbers were in Roman numerals with only one single straight hand. This was very similar to the present ones on the clock of St John’s, the present co-Cathedral by Clerici, even similar to the clock at the tower of the President’s Palace in Valletta made later in 1745

Fortunately both bronze hands were saved from the wrecked tower during World War II and they could still be seen.  One of them is in the Church Museum in the oratory of St Joseph behind St Lawrence church in Birgu, and the other one is very well preserved in the Norman House (Falson Palace) in Mdina.  It was alleged that the original ones had been made of wood and the British Government had them substituted and the original ones could have been taken to Great Britain.  Although there is no truth in such an allegation, this could be very unusual for a clock with wooden hands. 

A Maltese person was entrusted by the Government to look after this clock and was paid 11 scudi (91 cents) including a further one scudo (8c3) to buy the necessary greases and the required oil.  A request by Benedict Cutajar was made in 1798 asking to be paid because he claimed that he had been doing the necessary work for the upkeep of the clock for about 45 years being paid by the Universita` of Birgu.  During my regular researches, a historian friend of mine brought to my attention a published book by the late canon John Mary Farrugia, when he published his studies about this historic clock.  He told me that canon J.M. Farrugia bequeathed it to St Lawrence church and was entitled Supplimento alle Memorie Lanzon. This historian added that unfortunately this publication is no longer available in the archives of St Lawrence and probably it had vanished through the air.  

On the 4th of April 1942 a dropped bomb exploded fiercely close to the tower in the main square.  It was in fact one of the most dangerous bombs thrown by enemy aircraft on Birgu on that particular sad day; probably it was the second one, the first one was dropped earlier and destroyed the main dome of St Lawrence church and, thanks to that detonator for not functioning, the bomb did not explode.  As a result a part of the tower collapsed later during the night between the 11th and the 12th of the same month of April, but it was hit again two weeks later and caused the other part to collapse.  The other parts were considered to be very dangerous, and instead of restoring the damaged parts a scaffolding was erected in place without delay when the war was at its end in October 1944, and the remaining structure was put down with extreme care and in risky conditions, with the sad fear that it will never be built again, and that is what exactly happened. 

Both architects Mr. Agius and Mr. Bonnett, including inspector Mr. Louis Ebejer, were in charge of the demolition.  Architects Mr. Harrison and Mr. Hubbard, both English engineers were brought over to make a plan for re-building Valletta including the Three old Cities after the destruction of the war, and advised that the Vittoriosa Square should remain as it has been with the Clock Tower in position as it was before the war.  The advice was sublime but not for the local Government because it changed the advised plans, despite the representatives of Maltese and foreign experts including the Maltese history enthusiasts that were not many.  What had been destroyed during the war should have been re-built or at least restored as did other countries in Europe, but the tower of Birgu has not been re-built to date. 

Very recently there was some sort of light that encouraged people like us that are history enthusiasts, when our present local Government and the Local Council of Birgu excavated the site and found most of the parts of the base at the central position of the main square.  During the excavations old flooring was seen with 8” black and white tiles, that was part of the flooring of a small bar or coffee shop made by the owners a few years before the said Second World War.  The basement was covered temporarily with concrete and we are still hoping that some time in the future, perhaps in the near future, it will be re-built despite the disagreement of some individuals that do not agree about its erection, because they are not interested at all, but we are very interested by all means. 

Of this ancient vedette and clock, only parts of the original mechanical movement seems to have survived and certain parts of the clock are now preserved at the Inquisitor’s Palace waiting for some clock repairer or historian to unravel their secrets.  This five-storey clock tower in Victory Square had benefited a lot from Mgr. Alfredo Mifsud’s fundamental treatise on military towers that was published in 1920.  Some historical documentation was not made lighter by means of a dated inscription walled in the tower, actually it might have belonged to some other building.  Some Siculo-Norman mouldings claimed by historian Mgr. Mifsud at the second floor of the tower would tend to date the tower as pre the year of the Knights’ arrival in 1530.  Not one photo of the 19th century of the tower which I have seen shows any Siculo-Norman features and these would not indicate that this tower predated the establishment of the Order of St John in Malta.  The very important date 1549 at fourth level must be the first certain indication of the tower’s foundation. 

According to Mgr. Mifsud the large clock whose dial dominated the highest part of the vedette was placed on the tower in 1629 when Grandmaster Antoine de Paul was on the throne.  The author unfortunately failed to quote the source for this information.  But something seemed to have happened to this tower in the year already mentioned, 1629, the inscription bearing this date stated that it was constructed through the city’s zealous Angelo Mallia, Joan Testaferrata, Christoforo Menna, Leonardo Burlo`, the tower was already said to be existing in the Great Siege of 1565 engravings and Mgr. Mifsud was one of the opinion that the 1629 inscription belonged to some other work that was walled up on the Victory Square tower at some time later simply to presume it when its original site was demolished. 

It could have been part of popular tradition justified by some considerations that Grandmaster La Valletta used this building as an observation post when he directed his operations during the Great Siege of 1565.  This was stated by many historians both local and foreign.  This was also borne out by the famous Balbi di Correggio in his famous account of the Great Siege.  The clock bells help to muddle further the chronology of this important lost structure.  One was dated 1504 and had Evantunellu Carbuni me fecit nobili civitati Messanae inscribed on it.  According to historian Dr. Giovanni Bonello the name could have been Ev. Antunellu. 

Another author stated without any reference that the Knights paid the person entrusted with the regular winding and upkeep of this clock an annual pension of 30 scudi (Lm 2.49) and one measure of oil.  Documents pertaining to the Universita` throw some light on both clocks maintained at public expense by the local Government and when Grandmaster De Redin planned his coastal towers the Universita` commissioned a budget to see how the institution could cope with all the expenses for the servicing all the new defenses including this famous clock tower of Birgu.                         

The following are inscriptions that were on the clock tower. 


 During the happy reign of Grandmaster Fra Ant. De Paule, Br Alex De Verax, Knight of the Ven. Lamgue of Auvergne and Governor of Vittoriosa, well known for his civil and military activities, commissioned this noble work assisted by the citizens, John Mallia, John Testaferrata, Christoforo Menna and Leonardo Burlo` in the year 1629

A marble tablet that was placed in position when Malta was given a new Constitution in 1921 reads :-