ST AGATHA’S TOWER (RED TOWER) IN MELLIEĦA
The tower is spectacularly situated at l-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa at the crest of the Marfa ridge and overlooking Għadira Bay, the nature reserve and bird sanctuary, and has commanding views over the straits between Comino and Gozo. Like many other towers it was probably built in the same site where il-maħras maintained a watch- post. This watch-post is listed in the Militia List of 1417. The site offered a good view of any enemy fleets entering Mellieħa Bay and was thus able to maintain a good communication network between Gozo, Comino and Mdina. From the rear end of the roof the soldiers manning the tower had a good view of Santa Marija Tower on Comino with the Comino Battery to the right. The White Tower at L-Armier and Lippija Tower above Ġnejna Bay can also be seen from the roof. These watch towers used to keep guard over the numerous sandy beaches around this end of the island.
Its name is derived from a shallow alcove in the far wall of the second vaulted room, to the right of the central window, which contained a chapel and altar dedicated to Saint Agatha. This saint was a Christian martyr who was venerated as a symbol of strength against invasion and the plague in both Sicily and Malta. This name was already decided by the Order before the tower was completed. Later on it became known as the Red Tower, Torre Rossa, because it was painted red, possibly to help sentinels in Naxxar and Mdina recognise it easily. However it is also possible that it earned its name from the colour of the stone from which it was constructed, which is reddish. This was also true for the White Tower at L-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa which was built of very white stone, and Torre della Pietra Nigra referring to the Tal-Ħamrija Tower which was built using a darker stone. From a visit to St Agatha’s Tower conducted by a council member of Din l-Art Ħelwa in 1965 we learn that a tenant changed the colour from red to white ‘but was asked to repaint it red, because of its usefulness as a landmark for shipping’. The tower was again visited by officials of Din l-Art Ħelwa in 1972 and it was by then apparently abandoned, with the front door and bridge in a pitiful state. Windows were missing or broken, and the inside was full of trash. The north side of the wall had most of its battlements on the roof missing and there was ‘a structural crack in the west wall’. Repeated letters complaining of the state of the tower to the then parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Housing were not taken seriously.
The Knights of St John commenced building of the tower following deliberations by the Council of the Order on 5 December 1647, for the security of the bay and the farmers in the vicinity:’per la difesa della marina, e sicurezza de i massari che coltivano li terreni circonvicini…’. It was completed by November 1648 during the reign of Grand Master Jean Paul Lascaris Castellar, and in 1649 the council unanimously agreed to strengthen it with the necessary artillery. Lascaris, a French Grand Master, was an unpopular leader. In fact the expression ‘wiċċ laskri’ is used to describe a person with a sombre and nasty look. Unlike Grand Master Wignacourt, who funded the building of towers himself, the towers built during the reign of Lascaris were paid for through taxes on the Maltese. The engineer was Antonio Garsin who had submitted various plans and models before its construction.Other towers built during the time of Grand Master Lascaris included Ta’ Lippija in Ġnejna Bay, Għajn Tuffieħa Tower, Ta’ Xutu Tower in Wied iż- Żurrieq and Nadur Tower. These towers are of modest size, but St Agatha’s Tower is much larger In 1614 a strong Ottoman fleet attacked our islands. During this time the only means of defence in the North was Wignacourt Tower in St Paul’s Bay. In fact the fleet, which was about to enter St Paul’s Bay, decided to continue sailing north and entered Mellieħa, which was totally unprotected. This episode demonstrated the need for such a tower of moderate dimensions in this area.
The external plaque above the main entrance of the tower reads:
BELLICIS MARTY:AGATHA VBYRIB CLYPEATA HIC STO
TURRIS INTERRATA FIDA MEIS HOSTIB MINAX ORBI NOTA
MAG.MAC. IO PAVLI LASCHARIS CASTELLAR ET F. BALTHASSARIS DE MANDOLX SENESCALI CONSVLIBVS IO VINCENTIO CASTELLETTA GREGORIO MAMO MAGRO CASSAR FERDINANDO ANASTASI
ANNO SAL. MDCXLIX
‘To those who wage war, I the Martyr Agatha, with breasts removed stand here. A fearless Tower faithful and a threat to my enemies well known throughout the world. Under the auspices of G.M. Paul Lascaris Castellar, Fra Balthassaris de Mandolx and the jurats of the commune, vincentio Castelletta, Gregorio Mamo Marco Cassar and Ferdinando Anastasi in the year 1649’
The tower is square in plan with a turret at each corner meeting the scarped walls at the lower cordon. This gives the viewer the impression that these turrets are bastions which of course they are not. This is possibly why this tower is referred to as a fort, and indeed many of the larger towers were called ‘fortini’. As in the case of other towers, the walls consist of two skins with an infilling in between. The thickness of the wall which is almost 5m and the barrel-vaulting of the ceiling were adapted to resist the impact of attacking cannon balls and at the same time to withstand the weight and recoil of the roof cannons if fired. The single floor, formed of two barrel vaulted rooms, stands on the cordon above the splayed base and is approached through a central door. A small hallway precedes two large and interconnecting rooms, the innermost of which contained the chapel of St Agatha. A spiral stone staircase in the wall led to a flat roof which acted as a gun platform and a place from which signals could be passed to the towers at Selmun, Żnuber and Comino. The original stone staircase had long been vandalised and the soldiers stationed at the tower had to use metal rungs, which still exist, to gain access to the roof. Two openings on the right hand side were to allow light onto the staircase. About half way up the staircase, access is possible to the gallery and two small windows. At the opposite end of the vaulted rooms are two other small windows. The roof has a two-foot parapet and four corner towers rising about 3m high. On the initiative of Din l-Art Ħelwa and through the efforts of Council Members Judge Joseph Galea Debono and Mr Josie ellul Mercer, in January 2013 two cannons dating back to the period of the knights were placed on the roof on newly built carriages. The cannons were loaned by Heritage Malta and have been restored.
A water cistern was built under the tower and is accessible via a removable slab on the right as one enters the first vaulted room. It can contain about 53,000 litres of water and measures about 7.8m in length, 2.6m in height and 2.6m in width. Water is collected from the roof and runs via a channel off the roof, down pipes in the outside wall and then into the cistern under the floor. This provided water to the soldiers serving in the tower.
In June 1722 the Congregation of War instructed that St Agatha Tower be armed with five guns and be manned by a garrison of four men. The tower became an essential part of the defence of the island. There had to be a resident bombardier and three militia men. In fact the Congregation of war gave instructions that the only two towers on the island which had to be denied to the enemy by offering as much resistance as possible were St Lucian tower in Marsaxlokk, built in 1610, and St Agatha’s tower. They were to be garrisoned with 40 and 30 men respectively under the command of a sergeant who was to be chosen by the area commander. These towers were supplied with enough ammunition and food to withstand a siege of 40 days and the Order reserved 400 extra muskets with bayonets in case of need. Unlike many other smaller towers, the Red Tower remained constantly armed with men and ammunition. A low star-shaped entrenchment serving as a gun platform built in the rear flanks of the tower is an eighteenth century addition.
Following the news that the plague hit nearby Messinas, in June 1743 Grand Master Fra Don Emmanuel Pinto sent inspectors composed of Jurats (one from the Università of Notabile and one from each Università of the cities of Valletta, Vittoriosa and Senglea) to report on the conditions of the coastal towers which by this time had lost their military role but assumed other equally important roles against smuggling and stopping anyone from landing against permission especially for security and sanitary reasons. The commander of the tower was paid by the Conservatory of the Order of St John. Three soldiers were paid by the Università of Valletta. Two artillery adjutants were paid by the Università of Notable. The inspectors reported that the windows, shutters and doors needed to be replaced, the wooden bridge needed new hinges. Oil and a loud hailer were missing.
In a report on the condition of the coastal defences dated 11 February 1829 and written by Sir George Whitmore who headed the Royal Engineer Office between 1811 and 1829, Whitmore wrote that the tower was occupied by the Royal Malta Fencible Artillery.
In 1770 we know that the tower had a 12-pounder iron gun, sixty 12-pounder round shots, fifteen 12-pounder grape shots, a 10-pounder iron gun, sixty-seven 10-pounder round shots, fifteen 10-pounder grape shots, an eight pounder iron gun, sixty-nine 8-pounder round shots, fifteen 8-pounder rape shots, two 6-pounder iron guns, one hundred and thirty one 6-pounder shots, fifteen 6-pounder grape shots, twenty-eight muskets, two pistols, twelve spontoons and Halbards, one sword, and five hundred paper cartridges.
The Red Tower was probably not involved in the battle against the French invaders who freed the islands from the Order of St John which was becoming always more unpopular. There are many reasons why the French forces took the islands with very little effort, one reason being that the commanders of the most important defensive posts were in the great majority members of the French langue! The security of Mellieħa was under the responsibility of Knight De Bizier and the Red tower was commanded by the French Knight Simon. The Maltese, however, soon revolted against the French and formed the Maltese Volunteers Corpse (Cacciatori Maltesi) to force the French to take shelter in Valletta, Fort St Angelo, Fort Manoel, Fort Ricasoli and other smaller forts around the islands but were soon forced to surrender and leave the islands especially after the Maltese sought help from the British Admiral Nelson who was in the Mediterranean.
An inscription of a cross on one of the walls is dated 1814 and was possibly carved during the plague in Malta in 1813-1814.
After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when the French army under the command of Napoleon was defeated, the Maltese Provincial Battalions, the Malta Coast Artillery and the Battalion of Maltese Veterans were disbanded and an infantry regiment called The Royal Malta Fencible Regiment was formed. The uniform was red with blue facings and gold lace. It consisted of ten companies, including three companies of artillery. The Right Wing of the Fencibles was commanded by Colonel Count de Gatto. It had four companies at Zejtun, Zabbar Gate Barracks and Fort Ricasoli. The Left Wing was commanded by Major Baron Testaferrata. It had three infantry companies and three companies of artillery. The infantry companies were at Strada Torre Barracks Valletta, St Julian’s Bay with a detachment at Qawra, Marsaxlokk with a detachment at St Thomas Tower, and St Paul’s Bay with a detachment at the Red Tower.
During World War I the Red Tower, together with Ras il-Qammieħ, served as a Signal Station. By June 1917 it was re-transferred from the Military Authority to the Civil Government. Before the summer of 1919 the Red Tower was vacated and it was recommended that it be taken over by the police. After the war, in 1922 cannons were transferred from the Red tower to the Mellieħa Camp and in the process extensive damage was done to the tower parapet wall!
In 1925 the Red tower and Comino tower were used as Observation Posts by the Military Authority in connection with the Royal Artillery practice and the Police had to vacate the tower.
During the second world war the Red tower was used by soldiers of the King’s Own Malta Regiment as a telecommunication station, on the telephone receiving and sending messages related to the war. There were also Maltese enrolled in the ‘coastal watchers’ group with the Royal Navy. The Red tower also hosted the members of this group. Those enrolled as ‘coastal watchers’ stationed here were thought how to use the semaphore as well as sending signals using light. Work also included coastal watch mainly using binoculars. Mine searching was also a very important role of such soldiers stationed at the tower. The central window at the far end of the tower has a metal bar which was used to mount a machine gun during the war as the area within sight was quite substantial. A circular hole in the ground on the North side of the tower is an old ‘septic tank’, a biological cesspit system from the days of the British occupation.
In September 1956 the government leased the tower on emphyteusis for a period of 20 years to the Hon. Alexander Gavin Baron Ferrington living in England. It was leased on condition that the tower is restored without doing any alterations. However in 1963 a deed was signed leasing the tower to Mr Paul Busuttil who was appearing as the lawful agent and attorney of Norman Herbert Tones, a Company Director. The lease was for the rest of the 20 years remaining from 1956 and included the tower and the plot of land on which it stands. There were various occupants since then, including Mr Louis Vella from Valletta, but these must have been just occupants and not legal tenants.
Since the departure of the British military forces in 1979, the Armed Forces of Malta have used it as a radar station, as part of their communications network. The Red Tower’s key location provides a direct line of sight with both Gordan Lighthouse in Gozo and Madliena Fort, two other locations which have similar AFM equipment. Fortunately a watchman was paid by the government day and night to prevent vandalism.
Din l-Art Ħelwa Restores The Tower
Din l-Art Ħelwa lobbied with Government to take over the restoration of the tower as early as 1967, only two years after it was founded. A visit to the tower at the time found that it was ‘frugally furnished, a packing case served as a table and the cheapest iron beds in recesses were provided with thin curtains which provided poor privacy’. Repeated letters to the authorities at the time proved useless. Talks with the Lands Department for some sort of tenure resumed in 1993 and the AFM confirmed that they were ready to vacate the tower on condition that they were allowed access to the antennae which had to remain on the roof. Din l-Art Ħelwa immediately started looking for sponsors to assist with its restoration. The tower was in an appalling state. Two of the four turrets had collapsed, and there were gaping holes in the walls caused by structural faults. It had suffered the ravages of time and from inappropriate use. Verbal promises were given by governments for years. with the blessing of Minister Austin Gatt, in the presence of three prominent members of the local business community the restoration of the Red tower was officially inaugurated on 26 July 1999.
These enlightened companies were Playmobil Malta Ltd, Toly Products Ltd and the Demajo Group of Companies and between them they financed the whole costly and challenging project. The restoration consisted of repairing all the stonework including the turrets and the exterior masonry, the plastering of the interior walls which had unfortunately been coated with cement, the installation of electricity, water and sanitary facilities, and a kitchenette. A wooden spiral staircase was constructed to eliminate the use of the metal rungs which were then the only access for visitors to the roof. In the past there had been a stone staircase which had unfortunately been destroyed. The original stone floor, which had sadly been covered by a very thick layer of cement, was uncovered and the under-floor cistern was cleaned. Din l-Art Ħelwa kept minimal design for its interior, in order not to detract from its architecture or austere military ambience and interpretation panels were erected in order to engage the visitor. During the year 2000 the original flooring was uncovered and flagstones were laid on the floor in the four roof turrets. Plumbing and electrical work was also carried out during this year. Apertures were closed using wooden doors and windows. This high-profile restoration project was formally completed in 2001 with great satisfaction when His Excellency Professor Guido de Marco, President of Malta, formally re-opened the tower. Another important part of Malta’s historical heritage had been saved for posterity. Finally in 2007 the tower underwent extensive restoration work on its exterior. Previous plastering using cement was patiently removed and replaced by a hydraulic lime-based mortar which is more compatible with the exterior stonework. Once more the tower was painted in red and its colour was determined by the Malta Planning and Environment Authority based on previous shades of red found on the tower walls.
Still Din l-Art Ħelwa had no formal tenure of the tower although it was managing it and opening it to the public. This applied to several other historic properties it had saved for the nation. However, by virtue of Article 48 of the Cultural Heritage Act of 2002, the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage was now empowered to enter by public deed into a guardianship contract with non- governmental organisations, after having been duly authorised for these purposes by the Minister responsible for cultural heritage in agreement with the minister responsible for Lands.
By virtue of a deed in the records of notary Doctor Franco Pellegrini dated 21 February 2003, and in the presence of executive President Martin Scicluna Din l-Art Ħelwa was finally awarded guardianship of the tower for a period of 10 years and this was renewed in 2013 while Simone Mizzi, on behalf of Din l-Art Ħelwa signed the renewals in October 2013.
Din l-Art Ħelwa, together with Birdlife Malta and the PARKS department at the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Environment, is involved in another initiative close by. The area below the tower stretching from Mellieħa to the end of the promontory called Ras il-Qammieħ, is being rehabilitated into a Mediterranean woodland. Since 2001, some twenty thousand trees and shrubs have been planted, and about 5 kilometres of rubble walls have been rebuilt.
The external facades are regularly plastered in red with hydraulic lime which is neutral and harmless to our stone but is not as long lasting as cement. MFSA has recently donated a sum of money to plaster one or two facades of the tower again.
Today St Agatha’s Tower is one of Malta’s most visited sites and Din l-Art Ħelwa is undertaking yet again to restore its external walls which, exposed to the elements, continually require expert conservation. Emergency works and pointing of the East wall were conducted in 2015. Thanks to European funds obtained through the Malta Tourism Authority, the external walls and the interior of the tower were restored.