The Flemish Tapestries Come to Malta
In Malta there exist two sets of tapestries: those that grace the Small Council Chamber inside the Grand Master’s Palace and those that are preserved inside the Museum of the Co-cathedral of St John. The latter tapestries were produced in Brussels and were commissioned by Grand Master Perellos y Rocaful to present as a gift to the conventual church of the Order of St John. The so called Flemish tapestries were brought to Malta on February 7, 1701. This beautiful set is made up of fifteen tableaux, each measuring 7.5 x 6.5 metres plus four panels, each measuring 2 x 7.5 metres. The whole ensemble depicts a religious theme, known as ‘The Triumph of Faith’. The concept of the images was based on the works of Peter Paul Rubens and Nicholas Poussielgue. The whole set was designed by Judocus de Vos. The tapestries were hung alongside the aisle of St John’s only on special occasions which included the feast days of Pentecost, the feast of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order, and the feast of St Peter and St Paul.
Tragic death of 110 boys during carnival
On Tuesday, February 11, 1823, members of the Franciscan Minors community of Ta’ Gieżu, Valletta organised a retreat of sorts for children, aged between eight and fifteen, as they usually did each year during carnival. The custom of gathering boys from the Valletta and Floriana neighbourhood was a long standing tradition meant to keep them apart from the unruly behaviour of revellers during the carnival days. Late in the afternoon of that day, children gathered in Floriana and were then led by the Franciscan Minor monks in procession into Valletta and onto Ta’ Gieżu church. From the church vestry all children filed in large numbers through corridors that led to the other side of the building from where they would eventually exit into St Ursula street. In one of the corridors they were to be treated with some refreshments in the way of food and drinks.
It so happened that on that day the children had arrived inside the church when dusk had set in. Thus when entering the poorly lit corridors those walking in front missed the flight of steps and tumbled down onto the next level. Others amassed into the first lot and soon a chaotic situation ensued as a great number of children kept coming inside and pushing those in front onto the steps. Such was the crowd amassed inside the hall that those who had fallen down were unable to extricate themselves especially due to the fact that the exit door was closed. Crushed from all sides scores of children cried and screamed as they panicked and pleaded for help. In a matter of minutes many were suffocated by the sheer weight of those who fall on top of them. Somehow, the exit door which could only open inwards was forced open. Some boys were pulled out of the melée unconscious while others were severely injured. The official death toll was 110 boys, but some witnesses claimed that there had been more.
Malta becomes an independent Diocese
Since the acquisition of Malta as a colony in 1814, the British administration was wary of the state of affairs whereby the Maltese diocese fell under the authority of the bishop of Palermo. The British saw this as a possible crack that would well be availed of by foreign powers in order to meddle into the affairs of the Church in Malta. The local bishop was the man who ruled the Maltese populace at grass roots level and he had to be free from intervention form oversees. Such a situation could not be by the tolerated British in their Mediterranean fortress colony. It was therefore of utmost importance that when a new bishop was to be appointed he would be someone to the acceptance of the British Governor.
Talks with the Vatican were held for the separation of the Maltese bishopric from the See of Palermo. Following the death of Ferdinando Mattei in 1828, a protracted moratorium followed when Malta had no bishop of its own. Then on February 28, 1831, the archdeacon Francesco Saverio Caruana (1831 – 1847), was appointed as the new bishop. Caruana had during the French Blockade (1798 – 1800) assumed the role of the Maltese resistance and was therefore the man whom the British could totally rely upon. From then on, all Maltese bishops were to be appointed with the furtive approval of the British Governor administering Malta at the time.
Malta’s Railway System (1883 – 1931) On February 28, 1883, the British authorities inaugurated Malta’s first and only railway system. This system was to provide direct mechanised transport between Valletta and the towns of Rabat and Mdina.
On working days there would be three trips operating with several stops on the way. On Sundays and feast days, there would be some 20 trips in each direction. There were also special trips on the feast of St Helen, from Valletta to Birkirkara. The fares were one penny (1d) per mile, first class; ½ penny per mile third class. There was a rate of two pennies for workmen from Valletta to Rabat.
The railway operations never succeeded to be economically viable. By 1889, the train company went bankrupt and the service was shut down in the spring of that year. Nevertheless, operations were restarted on 25 February 1892, the railway having been taken over and administrated by government. By 1900 an extension that reached Mtarfa hospital was provided by boring through some 750 metres of rock underneath Mdina itself, a project that cost £20,000.
During World War I, there was a flurry of transportation of troops between the Grand Harbour and Mtarfa, the latter serving as a military town with a hospital. Then, trains that were composed of more than 12 carriages constantly shuttled troops from Valletta to Rabat and back.
With the introduction of the tram system and buses the railway was heavily disadvantaged as the former had better and more direct communication with the outlying towns and villages. Thus the railway operations were forced to close down for good on 31st March, 1931.
The tram system was inaugurated on February 23, 1905 and started to operate between Valletta and the Three Cities and Żebbuġ and Ħamrun. Although the tram operations immediately made an impact and successfully competed with the railway system, this service did not outlast the train as it was limited in its network of rails and in turn was outdone by the introduction of buses that reached to other more distant villages. The karozzini too were more popular and proved to be more popular than the trams.
The tram system closed down its service on 16 December 1928.
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