The Army Medical Department
And the Malta Garrison

The Malta Garrison – 1806

Malta Garrison

The population of the Maltese Islands was: Malta 79,995, Gozo 12,829. Most of the inhabitants crowded Valletta (24,546), and the harbour towns of Vittoriosa (3500), Senglea (4152) and Cospicua (6224). Qormi had 3186 inhabitants.

On 1 July 1806, the Malta garrison consisted of a total of 3,987 officers and men. There were: 151 Commissioned and Warrant Officers, 340 Non Commissioned Officers, 3,278 Rank and File fit for duty. 44 Commissioned and Warrant Officers were absent and 162 Rank and File were sick.

In 1806, troops were detached from Malta to reinforce the garrison of Sicily. In April 1806, General Craig returned to England in poor health, and the command of the Army in Sicily devolved to Major General John Stuart.

On 4 July 1806, Stuart defeated the French at the Battle of Maida. Stuart arrived at Malta from Sicily after the Battle of Maida and left for England on 17 Dec 1806.

On 22 July 1806, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Fox moved his headquarters form Malta to Sicily, and took over the command of the British Forces in the Mediterranean. Major General John Moore acted as his deputy.

A garrison library was established in Malta in 1806. It had an excellent collection of modern works consisting of nearly 4,000 volumes.

Explosion Polverista Vittoriosa

Plan prepared by Lt Col Dickens RE showing the epicentre and breach caused by the explosion of the gun powder magazine on 18 July 1806 (TNA:MPH 1/614).

Following the siege of Gaeta, which fell to the French on 18 July 1806, the Ordnance Depôt at Malta restocked the magazines in Sicily which had run low during the defence of the city.

On 18 July, Bdr Anderson, the garrison gunner, assembled a working party of 13 men in the magazine at Vittoriosa to prepare a consignment of shells for Sicily. The Polverista was the army's main magazine. It had been filled to capacity with grenades, 1600 shells, and 40,000 lbs of gunpowder stored in 370 barrels. Bdr Anderson had been shown how to unload the powder from live shells, but contrary to his instructions, used a metal chisel to remove the fuses. The inevitable sparks caused a massive explosion which annihilated the working party, 3 soldiers of the 39th Foot, and 23 soldiers of the 2nd Provincials commanded by Lt Col L M Gatto. Two hundred men, women, and children were also killed; another 100 were injured by falling masonry.

The residents of Vittoriosa had complained about the dangers of having gun powder stored so close to their homes, and preparations had been made to find alternative sites for the munitions. The arrival of Craig's army, however, had placed so much demand for lodgings, that the specially prepared storerooms were instead utilised as barracks and hospitals.

The needless loss of lives occasioned by the negligent action of the military, brought about much anger. Malta's Civil Commissioner, Alexander Ball, reported to William Windham, that those Maltese who had already become disaffected with the Government, fanned the embers and fermented great agitation by magnifying the casualties and working upon the weakness and credibility of the lower ranks.

Ball was genuinely concerned with the plight of the victims. He immediately paid partial compensation, set up a committee of 4 gentlemen to oversee the distribution of aid, and urged the home government to pay full compensation. He perceived that no measure would more effectively contribute to establish the popularity of HM Government, than the discharge of the claim in full.

Lord Castlereagh, however, dismissed their claims, curtly stating that those: who inhabit a fortress must be subject to the risks connected with it, whilst they participate in the advantages the situation commands, and it is their duty to secure themselves from casual accidents by insurance. Such sentiments were unlikely to endear the British to the locals, particularly as soon after the calamity Ball had assured them that their Sovereign is ever feeling to the distress of his subjects. Lord Castlereagh, eventually agreed for the poorer classes to receive compensation at two thirds of the value of their destroyed property, whereas those better off were to get only a half of the estimated value of their goods. Finally, in 1811, the sum of £18,066 5s 10d was distributed equally among the claimants.

493 individuals lost property as a result of the explosion. Mr Woodhouse, a wine merchant, lost a considerable amount of wine, but as the government had the means of accommodating him with extensive store houses he waived his claim for compensation. Woodhouse moved into the Grand Prison at Valletta in Strada Levante.

Hospital Stores

Hospital Mates who accompanied invalids from overseas stations back to England were held accountable for the bedding placed on board the transports for the comfort of the sick. They had to deliver the bedding to the proper office at the place of disembarkation, and strictly account for the whole of them.

On 7 Apr 1806, Surgeon General Thomas Keate was directed to stockpile hospital stores at Malta. The Commander-in-Chief having recommended to the Secretary-at-War that a depôt for camp equipage, camp necessaries, and hospital stores should be established at Malta as supplies could be from thence readily forwarded to any quarter that might require them without delay attending, I have to desire that a depôt of hospital stores may be established accordingly at Malta for 10,000 men, and that the same may be immediately provided and placed on arrival in charge of the Commissary General there, to be re-issued under the direction of the General Officer Commanding.

Surgeon General Thomas Keate replied that Malta still had 18 divisions of medicines and stores, each for 500 men, sufficiently complete for eventual service in the Mediterranean, and exclusive of an adequate supply for the garrison. Gibraltar, in addition, had 3 divisions of stores, each for 500 men which could with advantage to the service be forwarded from thence to Malta.

On 25 Nov 1806, the Secretary-at-War directed the Commissioners for Transport, to convey to Malta 25 tons of hospital bedding, utensils and hair, on board the Transport Ship Douglas, which was lying at Deptford ready to receive them.