The white sea of flowing robes worn by the proud and fearsome Janissaries presented a contrasting background to the gay colours of the forests of silken banners carried aloft and bearing the crescent moon of Islam. The gorgeous costumes of the pashas and their lieutenants each vying to surpass the other in magnificence, shone with the brilliance of gold and silver, their voluminous folds billowing with purple silk and satin enriched with bright adornments of every kind and hue. When at last the slaves had raised camp, the high-pointed striped tents of the Mussulman army fully covered the Marsa plain and spread in all directions, further than the eye could see.
The summer wore on and the epic siege of Malta had reached its darkest hour when the fort at Senglea must surely fall as a consequence of the relentlessly violent onslaught both by land and by sea. Following the inevitable and tragically heroic fall of the small fort at St Elmo, Mustafa Pasha had ingeniously manhandled his ships across Mount Sciberras on the rocky Valletta peninsula and launched them on the waters of the Marsa to expose the virtually unfortified western shore of Senglea.
“But just when the Grand Master had begun to resign himself to its loss, the Turks were suddenly ordered to retreat, and to the utter astonishment of the exhausted defenders they turned and fled. Senglea was saved, though no one could understand what had induced the Pasha to call off his men just when victory was within their grasp. In fact, the Turkish commander had had no choice in the matter, for at the height of the battle he had been informed that his base camp at the Marsa had been overrun by enemy forces, the sick and wounded were being massacred, and his stores and ammunition were being burned. In corroboration of this shattering news, he could hear a series of great explosions coming from the direction of his camp and he could see a great column of brown smoke billowing up into the sky there. Imagining that at last Don Garcia of Toledo must have landed on the island with a large relief force for La Valette’s beleaguered defenders, he returned to the camp as fast as he could to find it in ruins and strewn with corpses. A relief force had not landed but a small force of Christian cavalry from Mdina, hearing the noise of the battle and guessing correctly that Mustafa’s base camp would have been left almost undefended, had swooped down on it and destroyed it.”
This ferocious chapter of Maltese history was closed with the subsequent departure of the dejected Turkish fleet on the 7th of September of 1565. The records show that more than thirty thousand fighting men, both Christian and Moslem had lost their lives when the opposing titanic waves of religion had met in that cataclysmic maelstrom of death and destruction.
For several thousand of these Islamic faithful, the gates to the Gardens of Paradise were to be found at The Marsa where their camp hospital was located. The considerable number of the sick and wounded put to death during the sally out of Mdina paled in significance before that far larger number who succumbed to fatal bouts of Dysentery and enteric diseases no doubt catalysed in many cases by La Valette’s earlier orders that the freshwater wells at the Marsa be poisoned. Deadly fever was also rife at the camp, attributable to Malaria carried by mosquitoes infesting the fetid pools of brackish water which were to be found at that time around The Marsa until they were filled in much later in the early half of the 17th century by the Grand Masters Lascaris and Cotoner. Who would have thought that such times of terror and abject misery once held sway over the surrounding grounds of today’s beautifully serene and aesthetically distinguished sports club?
Happier times did follow and the whole area inevitably fell into quiet insignificance. The honest local folk subsisted on fruitful agricultural production and they led simple lives centred on animal husbandry whence they developed an especial interest in the breeding of horses. This equestrian connection persisted and has flourished with a passion up to the present day. Under the continuing rule of the knights, the arable lands were further developed and several structures including farmhouses, armouries, guard rooms and outposts were constructed under Grand Masters Wignacourt, de Rohan and Pinto, some still surviving and bearing their coat of arms today..
With the coming of the British and the advent of the colonial chapter of our history at the turn of the 19th century, the military connection at the Marsa was revived with a vengeance, albeit to a more mundane degree. The relative flatness and openness of this land lent itself to army training and cavalry manoevers on a larger scale. This training was augmented by the active encouragement of participation in sport, which has carried the highest value in the military environment since earliest times. Accordingly, the Empire’s War Office encouraged the promotion of superior physical and mental fitness accompanied by that inestimably valuable desire to win and overcome all opposition.
To this end The War Department hired a plot of land from the civil government in 1870 to serve as The Garrison Recreation Ground and in 1886, the senior commanding officer of the local garrison approved the establishment of the original Garrison Recreation Club. Army and navy personnel were encouraged to take up football, hockey, cricket, tennis and golf, which were all eventually introduced and played on the Marsa grounds. Horse racing and Polo were especially popular and often formed the high point of the Services social life for most of their extended stay on these islands.
The Marsa Sports Club ‘s earliest roots can be traced back to Officers Bathing Club at Tigne Point, which came into existence in 1874 when the military authorities took a yearly lease of a small part of the Qui Si Sana foreshore. Some fourteen years later, on the 26th of January of 1888 the inaugural match on the new Garrison Cricket Ground at The Marsa was played out between “ Valletta District and Flagship vs The World”. Results were duly reported in the Malta Chronicle issue of the 31st January by the first Honorary Secretary of the Garrison Cricket Club, Captain C. Mackenzie Edwards.
That very year, on the 12th of October 1888, a call was made in the same Chronicle under the heading of Golf: “ Those interested in golf, and we believe there are a great many in Malta, will be glad to hear that, thanks to the energies of Major Barron and other gentlemen, it is proposed to start a golf club at this station. The ground has not been finally selected, but, considering the difficulty of finding suitable accommodation in this closely enclosed island, a fairly satisfactory position has been found in the ditches of the Hornwork and Crownwork Floriana, east of the Porte des Bombes. It is proposed to call a meeting at an early date at the Union Club (Valletta), and to proceed with the laying out of the ground at once. We believe that H.E. the Governor ( Lieutenant General Sir Henry D’Oyley Torrens) takes much interest in the game”
In 1891, the Malta Jockey and Sporting Club at The Marsa was formed thus:” The Malta Jockey and Sporting Club is formed from the 1st of January 1891 by the amalgamation of the previously existing Jockey Club, Polo Gymkhana Club and Garrison Cricket Club. Its objects are the promotion of Racing, Polo and other Equestrian Sports, Cricket, and the maintenance of the Race Course for use as a riding ground by its members.”
In 1900 the War Office revised its requirements for military training and decided to acquire more land at Marsa such that as from the 15th August 1901, those lands south of the storm water channel were leased out for 99 years from the civil government. The new contract now included all lands both north and south of the storm water channel, a total area of 154 acres at a rental of 431.19s.11d per annum
The Malta Chronicle issued on the 31st March of 1902 records for posterity the first call by the then Acting Honorary Secretary, Captain C. E. Heathcote, to a general meeting of members of The Malta Sports Club, to be held on the Saturday of the 12th of April 1902 at 5.15 pm. The club rules had been drafted for approval and the committee, presided over by His Excellency the Governor Sir Francis Grenfell, sought empowerment to borrow the sum of four thousand pounds for the erection of the officers’ Pavilion according to a plan already produced. Later that year, another historic document entitled “Agreement Letting No 608” was signed on the 21st of October. Effective from the 25th day of July 1902, The Malta Sports Club was granted the lease of the lands and buildings on the Marsa for 90 years at a token rental of one shilling per annum payable to the Chief Paymaster, Malta. Major Christopher M. Blackett of the Royal Garrison Regiment signed the document in his capacity as Honorary Secretary of The Malta Sports Club.
The remarkable integration and completeness of the club at this earliest time of its development, is perfectly illustrated in the following notice, again posted in the Malta Chronicle (which was the mouthpiece of the British Forces at the time), under the heading of MALTA SPORTS CLUB:
“Officers are reminded that the Sports Club has taken over and maintains all the grounds at the Marsa for Polo, cricket, football, and hockey also the tennis racquet courts, and the Tigne Bathing place and that the privilege of using them is restricted to members of the Sports Club. Anyone eligible and wishing to join the Sports Club can do so by informing their mess secretary or by communicating with the Hon. Secretary, Malta Sports Club, at the Union Club.” – Tuesday, the 30th December 1902.
The original Letting No 608 covered tenements 138-143 for lands at “Wied il-Gonna” and tenements 136-137 at “Kabbiela”. In due course the Club extended its hold on the surrounding land to be in a position to incorporate the Royal Malta Golf Club under the cap of the Marsa Sports Club. For this reason the following lease of tenements 146-147 at “Ta Ceppuna” on the 1st May 1905 and tenement 149 described as “Orto Fakkani” on the 6th June 1907 were signed.
Regrettably there is no extensive archive of information on the club that comes easily to hand and the unhappy situation is likened to one of vast Black Holes held together by tantalising snippets of information. The next chronological piece of the story is set at the outbreak of the Great War of 1918, when fifty acres of arable Malta Sports Club land were temporarily leased back to the Government for cultivation purposes as part of the war effort. This was the circle of history and harked back to those knightly days of chivalry when the land had been used once before for a similar purpose.
We know that up till the end of the 1920s, a public footpath linked the passage from Valletta to Luqa passing directly across the Marsa grounds. Understandably perhaps, this situation did not go down very well with indignant members of the day whose games of cricket or football or golf even would have to take an enforced break in order to allow some miscreant and his happy herd of goats the ill-timed right of passage to the other side. Matters came to a head when on the 1st day of March of 1928 an AGM was held such that committee members were instructed to take steps to ensure that “The Marsa shall be protected from trespassers who encroach, becoming an increasing nuisance thereby interfering with the performance of games”.
This motion led to the signing, on the 21st March 1931, of an agreement with the Civil Government and Military Authorities such that a new, alternative passage for public use on the outer fringes of the club was bought by The MSC. As part of the deal and in exchange for the abolishment of the old and invasive footpath, the Govt acquired over two tumoli of the South Eastern corner of the club (to the detriment of the golf green and tee). In turn, the Military were happy with their potential aerodrome, thankfully devoid of incongruent civilian crossings. Marsa Club members sighed with relief and the locals grumbled all the way to Luqa.
Contemporary plans to deconstruct and relocate the ancient and historic Ceppuna chapel and its access road were shelved and forgotten.
This was to be the time when the Marsa Club occupied its largest ever land area. At some unidentified point the Marsa Racing Club went its own way taking with it most of the lands and structures north of the stormwater channel. Further club land and facilities, to the East and North East, the so called “Synopsis Grounds”, were eventually lost to the Maltese civil Government who took over the football grounds, rugby pitches, archery fields and other lands in the 1970s, for use by the emerging sporting public at large.
Meanwhile as the world moved into a second conflagration of upheaval and destruction at the start of the new World War in September of 1939, The Malta Sports Club ceased to exist and gave way instead to the new title of “United Services Sports Club”. Of course, throughout the entire duration of it’s distinguished century of years, the club has always been known by its obvious and attractively simple title of “The Marsa Club” or even just “The Marsa”.
When finally the fighting was done with, the world had changed forever and massive social upheaval gave life to a new World Order and the Establishment fell into steady decline away from the seats of power. In its turn, Malta was to shake off its last colonial stage of metamorphosis and finally emerge in 1964 as a new and free state of the world. Inevitably, the British Forces of Empire had outstayed their uneasy welcome by a century or two and were planning a scheduled and orderly departure in the early 1970s.
In 1971, after Brigadier Ward had departed, Colonel F H B Boshell had been appointed chairman of the USSC when the order to prepare to withdraw from Malta was received. This busy gentleman immediately delegated his post which was taken up by Lieutenant Colonel Hutton who in turn saw fit to promptly abdicate in favour of a civilian chairman. Thus it was that on the 10th of January 1972, Doctor John F Cremona MD SB St J Ph C MRCGP (Lond), family doctor par excellence, was co-opted into club history as the first Maltese and civilian chairman of The Marsa Club or more correctly of the USSC, a title the club would keep for a few days longer.
On the 22nd January, just twelve days after accepting his new role, Dr Cremona wrote to the Heads of UK Services in Malta and in his letter (which had the veiled sense of a coup about it) confirmed that he had indeed taken up the post and that as chairman he thanked them for their help, support and good wishes in this new venture. The esteemed gentlemen were not to worry as the club was now in good hands; new members had already been admitted to make up for the loss of revenue through the resignation of the UK Services, long outstanding rent had been paid and accepted by Government and Oh by the way we have reverted to the original name of “The Malta Sports Club”. Of course, this information was not couched in the “in your face” terms used above but expressed with delightful subtlety which was reciprocated by the other side in an exchange of letters that crossed each other like sheathed swords in a fencing match of diplomatic dexterity.
But not before just one straightforward letter dated 24th January had already been sent by the British military authorities in a belated and ultimately futile attempt to nip the matter in the bud. “The commander was not at all pleased… the appointment was an honest mistake…not given guidance…decisions unacceptable…existing arrangements cannot be abrogated… action premature …no question of transferring the lease of the land to the Malta Govt…considered null and void…” In truth, this bumpy transition did not deteriorate into an extended affair and the club easily settled into its changed circumstances. The new faces simply continued to administer in the clubs interest as others had done before them.
Arriving finally to the present day we find that as a civilian venture, The Marsa Club has grown and flourished. Our club surely appears today in its best ever light with the advantage of mature age lending grandeur to its gardens and surroundings. Sports facilities are regularly maintained and upgraded with programmes for expansion and sensitive development established and operational. Essential infrastructural projects have been undertaken and completed.
The final word after this little journey through time should be reflection about respect. Respect for the true value of tradition and belonging to one club. Respect for the determination of all those who came before us and were proud of their efforts to make The Marsa a better place for themselves, for their children and ultimately for us. And finally respect for ourselves if we can somehow be proud of our own deeds and actions to ensure that unity, pride and tradition will carry on for the next one hundred years.
The author, Mr Matthew Galea and The Marsa Sports Club wish to acknowledge and sincerely thank the late Mr Wally Glynn, who had painstakingly researched and collected a wealth of invaluable material incorporated within this presentation.
Other sources of reference include The Marsa Club, The Malta Chronicle, History of Malta by Louis De Boisgelin, The Heritage encyclopaedia , Suleiman The Magnificent by Anthony Bridge and The Internet.Back