One of Malta’s lesser-known jewels is the Garden of Rest in Floriana. It is to be found nestling in the bastions behind a big wall below the Public Library after taking the left hand turn on Great Siege Road. The garden is the former Msida Bastion Cemetery and is managed by Din l-Art Helwa under a Guardianship agreement with the government. It was the subject of an arduous 10-year restoration project, which culminated in 2000 with the award of a prestigious silver medal from Europa Nostra.
The garden was opened to the public in 1995 by the then President Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, who was very supportive of the project. The garden, which contains the graves of many important figures in Malta’s early history, including Mikiel Anton Vassalli, (the so-called Father of the Maltese Language), was basically “restored” by the year 2000.
It was originally the last part of a burial ground, which ran back from the Valetta bastions. The first burial was of a naval officer who died in 1806, but the cemetery was mainly used from 1828 to 1856, by which time it was crammed full of the graves of 500 or so persons – we will never know exactly, as the records have long since disappeared. Captain Charles Zammit, son of the historian Sir Themistocles Zammit, surveyed the cemetery between the wars, but by then many of the monuments had become unreadable, through the soft franka decaying in the sea air; however he recorded what there was, and this has been invaluable.
In 1843 Bishop Tomlinson, the newly appointed Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar, consecrated the cemetery as a Protestant burial place; no new burials can take place, but various gifts to the garden, such as trees, shrubs and seats etc. are given in memory of loved ones who have passed over. In 1857 the government opened Ta’ Braxia Cemetery, a properly laid out graveyard designed by the respected Maltese architect, Luigi Emmanuel Galizia, where 5,000 persons are buried; this cemetery is also the subject of a Din L’Art Helwa project, together with the Department of Public Health which, as it is still an open cemetery, is under their care.
The Garden of Rest is of great interest to history-minded people, as it contains the graves of many people who were important in the early days of the British administration. These include Waller Rodwell Wright, first President of the Court of Appeal, who overhauled the legal system, and is credited with the abolition of torture. Wright was also a novelist and playwright, and brought masonry to the Mediterranean, being the first Provincial Grandmaster here. Hookham Frere, a retired ambassador, also a writer and philanthropist, is buried here with his wife and sister. Frere’s garden was the site of St Luke’s Hospital, and his villa, now in a poor state, can still be seen on the sea front. Sir Henry Hotham was Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet – as had his Father before him in 1788. John Locker is here, son of Nelson’s “sea daddy”, and a great friend of the great Admiral. Sir Henry Pottinger, first Governor of Hong Kong, and author of the ‘Treaty of Nanking’ which gave access to the main ports of China, also died here.
There are of course many military and naval notabilities, as well as humble serving soldiers and their families. The burial ground is full of children and young people. In those days Malta Fever (brucellosis), Cholera, Dysentry and other maladies arising from hot and unsanitary conditions and rudimentary medical technologies kept the expectation of life at a low level. In 1850 a male baby could expect 25 years of life and a female 26 – though some lucky ones did survive to a ripe old age!
The garden, which had suffered from complete neglect, vandalism, looting and a World War Two bomb, is now a delight. The warden, Mary Aldred and a team of Din l-Art Helwa volunteers and staff beaver away to produce and maintain a lovely horticultural show amid the many mature trees, which remained from before.
The nostalgia and peace of the garden and its views over Marsamxetto Harbour make it ideal for a visit or even just a rest, but because it is tucked away it does not receive many visitors. It is open normally on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, but on Sunday 26 April, Din l-Art Helwa will be holding its annual fund-raising Spring Fête between 10am and 3pm with many stalls and refreshments available to which all are welcome.
There will be two guided tours of the garden and its neoclassic monuments at 12.45 and at 1.45pm by volunteers of the organisation. There will be stalls selling refreshments, bric-a-brac, plants, books and all funds raised will be dedicated entirely to the upkeep of the garden. Admission is free of charge but donations will be greatly appreciated.
If you want to become a member of Din l-Art Helwa and become a guardian of Malta’s heritage, please visit www.dinlarthelwa.org or call 2122 0358. Volunteers are now collecting suitable items for sale during the Spring Fête and these can be left at the garden on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays between 9.30am and 12noon. The garden is best found by taking the road below the Public Library on Great Siege Road, Floriana, and taking the second fork on the left.
• Dr A. N. Welsh was leader of the Restoration Team of the Garden of Rest and is a Council member of Din l-Art Helwa