Transport in early British Malta (c. 1830 – 1840)


in the


as recounted by

Dominique Miège (1841)

Dominique Miège was the resident French Consul to Malta in the early 1830’s and must have lived on the island for a total of some twelve years. He was a keen observer of the local scene and wrote on all information that was beknown to him on past and contemporary life on the Maltese islands. He eventually published this information in a book called L’Histoire de Malte in 1841. The title proves to be a misnomer as the book does not only deal with the history of Malta; rather it is a compilation, an A to Z if you will, of all that relates to the geography, economy, administration and social aspects of the archipelago and its inhabitants.

Amongst the many subjects that the author dealt with, there is a report on the state of the local means  of transport, both by land and by sea. The sea borne transport was a very integral part of communications when travelling especially from the three towns of Birgu, Bormla an l-Isla to do business in Valletta. Here is a brief resumé of the text dealing with land transport, as translated from the French text.

Land transport in the 1830’s

Miège claims that there were two main types of vehicular means of land transport, the mule-drawn cart (Maltese, il-karettun) and the calesse / caleche, (Malt. il-kaless), that is, the horse drawn carriage. Both were in common usage, either for private use of the owners, or else,offered by the owner for hire, as a public means of transport. There were some 1,200 carts and some  900 carriages registered, which in Miège’s opinion was an unusual number for such a small island. The beasts of burden for the calesse were horses that were normally imported from North Africa. Mules and donkeys were also commonly used to carry either their master or his goods. However, Miège maintains that the beast best adapted for the local climatic conditions and for the terrain, was the donkey. It never faultered in its work due to the sturdy hind hocks, (tarsal joints of the hind limbs corresponding to the human ankle – Malt. xikel).

bombi u karozzini

Whether the cart or calesse was used for public transportation or not, the owner was obliged to pay to the Government, a yearly licence fee of 3 scudi for a cart, and 9 scudi for a carriage in his possession. In case of default in payment, a fine of 60 skudi was imposed. The wheels of these vehicles had to be of a particular size as approved by the authorities. If this measure was not adhered to, then a fine of 25 skudi was applicable, not only on the owners, but also on the craftsmen who produced the erratic wheels. If this regulation was contravened a second time the fine was raised to 50 skudi.

The carriages used for hiring were of two types, those that carried two, and those that could carry up to four passengers at a time. The carriage box for passengers was strapped to the horse by a pair of long shafts (M. lasti) that in Miège’s opinion were too long, but which allowed the weight of the carriage to be less burdensome on the horse. The weight of the carriage box rested mainly on the axle that spun the wheels. Miège found it most bizarre that the driver did not ride in front of the carriage box; indeed the carriage box allowed no such seating facilities. Instead the driver (M. kuċċier) walked barefoot, sometimes for miles at a stretch, hanging on to the reins for dear life, to keep up with the pace of the trotting horse.* Miège says that this habit was not unique to Malta as he also saw it practised in Spain.


In order to eliminate any abuse in pricing of fares the authorities established tariffs for a variety of trips. The fare for a whole day’s journey could vary between 2 skudi, 6 tari, and 5 skudi according to the distance covered**. For a half day journey the fee was proportionately applicable, based on the same fare. On village feast days, the fare was raised by one third.

On the feast of St Peter and St Paul (L-Imnarja), celebrated in Mdina, and to which thousands of Maltese converged from all towns and villages, a whole day journey cost 5 skudi. For the use of the same carriage for half a day, the fee amounted to 3 skudi. For a simple two way transfer journey to and from Mdina on that same day, the fee was 2 skudi, 6 tari. On other particular feast days, such as carnival, no fixed rates were established, instead it was customary for the owner and client to haggle a good price.

kaless ccx

The trips taken within Valletta and its suburbs were worked on a basic fee of 2 skudi, 6 tari for the whole day, but then, for a lesser time frame, the price varied according to the time consumed. This implies that such trips, not only the distance in transfer was considered in the fee, but also the waiting time on the hirer.

The calesse trips were also available after nightfall. It is interesting to note that night rates were far cheaper – 6 tari per hour; for the transportation of a longer duration, the rates were lowered to 4 tari per hour. The lower rates may implicitly demonstrate that night tours were obviously not so common, and so cheaper rates were meant to entice more business, thus offsetting low demand.

Apart from the above information, Miège also provides a chart for the fares applicable when carts, horses and donkeys were hired instead.

  Rates for Carts Rates for Horses Rates for Donkeys

Whole Day

Half Day

1/4 Day

2 skudi

1 skud,  2 tari

8 tari

3 skudi

2 skudi

1 skud,  3 tari

1 skud,  6 tari

1 skud

6 tari

* In his report on Malta, John Hennen, a English doctor who spent some two 
years in Malta (1821-1823), reports that amongst those professions where the 
worker was found to be the least healthy was the calesse service. To quote 
‘[…] The exertion is violent, and the consequences are, that the Calessieros 
are the shortest lived individuals on the island […]'.  Source: Sketches of 
the Medical Topography of the Mediterranean). Published, 1830.

** It should be noted that the British had already officially introduced
their own currency on Malta by 1825. Yet, Miège opted to record the fares 
in the Maltese currency that originated during the Order of St John's stay in 
Malta and that was still in circulation. These were the skud and the tari.

1 skud:  12-il tari (1 shilling 8 pence) or 240 ħabba.
1 tari:  10 ħabbiet (sing. ħabba = pl. ħbub - It. grano)

To elaborate further on the real value of the currency at the time: 
According to the documented payroll for the building of the Mosta church, 
(1832 - 1860), an unskilled construction worker earned 24 ħabba - (2.4 tari,
or 2 pence) for a day's work. This means that a night ride by calesse in 
Valletta (6 tari an hour), cost more than a day's pay of the same worker at 
Mosta. Source: E.B. Vella, Storja tal-Mosta, 1927.

Martin Morana


Further reading : please click here:

To see other publications by same author, in English as well as in Maltese, please click here:

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