Villa Frere – The Gardens

Written by my Great Grandfather

Monthly Illustrated Review
For those abroad from home and those home from abroad.

Vol 11 – No. X October, 1924

The following is an exert from the above magazine

by Commander E.N,Price, R.N.

It is a wonderful garden, and I recollect that during my stay at Malta in the spring of this year, Her Majesty the Queen of Rumania was a visitor to Villa Frere. Commander Price, as my readers are aware, is the translator of that fine old 17th century romance “Giammaria” but I only wish that he would take hint and publish the novel suggested in the following article by the enthusiastic visitor to Villa Frere some years ago – Ed (Channing- Renton – publisher of the Studies).


It has often occurred to me that the Vila Frere is interesting enough to merit a short history of its existence: it is of no great antiquity and has nothing to do with the ancient inhabitants of the island or even the famous Knights of Malta. It was conceived and built by the Right Hon’ble John Hookham Frere who resided in the island for twenty six years – viz from 1820 to 1846. Mr Frere was a great scholar and something of a politician, he was British Minister to Portugal from 1800 to 1802 when he was transferred to Spain where he remained until the following year. In private life he was a very benevolent and charitable man and no doubt built the gardens partly as an amusement but principally to give employment to a considerable number of poor labourers at a time when work was scarce and the island was not in such a flourishing slate as it is now. He must have spent thousands of pounds on it for it was little else than bare rock or a wilderness of walls, prickly pears and caruba trees sloping down to the sea from a considerable height behind the house. To do this he naturally employed a local architect. There does not appear to be any studied plan in the design of the garden but in all probability he began at the foot of the hill and gradually formed, by digging and excavating, the various terraces, gardens, cisterns and fountains, one of the most picturesque villas that can be imagined. The grounds are not extensive only covering two or three acres, but afford from the various terraces lovely views of the sea and the island.
It is this described by an enthusiastic visitor, who if he let his imagination run riot, wrote as he felt at the time

“I should like to tell you something about the wonderful gardens of the Villa Frere, Pietà. The garden is only fit for a novel, not one of the novels of the present day which can be squeezed at the most into three volumes, but a novel of the olden times which used to consist of about sixteen volumes, half of which were given to the minute description of the places and the people of the story. Imagine then a garden all warmth and sunshine and beautiful views of the bluest of seas; a garden where, without being actually a maze everything comes upon you as a surprise: a garden too, filled with beautiful shrubs and lovely frezias, hypaeynths, roses and sweetest violets, palms and other rare plants; a garden with quaintly carved stone benches, and with a dreadful awful hole in the centre leading far down through a tunnel into the bowels of the earth and suggesting terrible deeds of darkness; a garden with its sundial and its temple and lovers nooks, peacocks, gazelle, gold and silver pheasants; a garden such as Doré and only Doré might have painted! such is the garden of Villa Frere.”

Another writer of an earlier date describes the Villa as follows:_

“The blue waters rippled clear and undefiled against the white retaining wall of the road which separated the house from the harbour. The building itself, originally two or three separate houses thrown into one extended for some distance along the road at the foot of a rocky hill rising steeply from the waterside: behind the houses this steep hill has at considerable labour been converted into a gardens, the whole rock, up to the summit is cut into terraces and platforms, part of which are filled with earth brought from a considerable distance, many of the terraces are enclosed by walls and upon others are double rows of columns supporting trellis work covered with creepers; the different stages are approached by flights of steps and the hole hill is excavated into tanks containing a good supply of rain water; the view from the temple at its summit is very singular; the garden looks like a collection of sheep folds, but nothing can be richer than the heavy ornate staircases, temples , seats and benches, lines of arches and ballustrades, Gothic and Moorish turrets, and the stone well heads for raising the water from he tanks are carved in the fine white Maltese stone after bold and flowering patterns in excellent taste. As to the trees, all kinds from the cedar to the hissop are there, the fig, palm, orange, lemon, tamarind, vine, pomegranate and olive, magnificent geraniums, legions of roses and carnations”

It has often been asked why Frere came to Malta and why he resided here for so many years, having no official position in the island, his home being in the county of Norfolk in England, and being at the time head of the Frere family. All his friends were in England, among whom were Mr. Canning, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott and Mr, John Murray the published and he himself was quire a distinguished man of letters. The fact was that he married rather late in life: viz, in 1816, Elizabeth Jemima, Dowager Countess of Errol who, in her day, was a very charming and beautiful lady – but in her later years became an invalid and it was seen that the climate of England would not suit her. Mr Frere therefore decided in the year 1820 that he must take her abroad to avoid the sufferings of the previous winter, so in August of that year he chartered a sailing vessel called the ‘Sicily’ commanded by Captain Cupper (of whom more hereafter) who undertook to visit such ports and stay as long at each of them as Mr Frere might require and they sailed tot he Mediterranean soon after. Mr Frere’s unmarried sister, and Miss Honoria Blake, a niece of Lady Errol accompaning them: the voyage answered its main purpose and after a short stay in Lisbon they proceeded to the Mediterranean, they called at Palermo and other ports but eventually decided to proceed to Malta where they arrived in the early part of 1821. Mr Frere seems to have been at one time inclined to settle at Palermo rather than at Malta, but finally preferred Malta, one reason being that as he drew his pension from England he felt bound if possible to live where it could be spent amount British subjects. He first went to a house in Valletta but he soon moved to Pietà and took a lease of 99 years of various portions of land and houses where the Villa now stands, and here with very little intermission he passed the remaining twenty five years of his life, only leaving the island for a few weeks on two or three occasions and only once to England. He led a very quite life in Malta but always took the greatest interest in the people and exercised a lost large hearted liberality and intelligent benevolence towards them, helping some to emigrate and also assisting young men from time to time to be educated in England: he was a benefactor tot he public library and his bust in marble holds a prominent place in the principal room.

Many people visited him, among whom were Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and other distinguished literary men. His wife died in 1831, and his sister eight years later, leaving Miss Honoria Blake who died in 1837 had married Lord Hamilton Chichester and they continued to reside at the Villa for some years.

Among other things of note in the gardens of the Villa are two objects of geological interest, one of which is a wall at the top built by fitting large blocks of stone together with out the air of mortar. Mr Frere says in writing to friend in England “I built my first piece of wall simply by the Lesbian rule, as Aristotle describes it, but I have since made a discovery of the true Pelasgic method and an finishing the other end of it like a perfect Cyclops such as Neptune employed in building the walls of Troy” The wall is 90 feet long and 12 to 13 feet high, it was evidently built of blocks of stone cut when leveling the ground to form the terraces or excavating the numerous water cisterns of which there are no less than thirteen in the gardens.
The other object of interest is the “dreadful awful hole in the centre leading far down into the bowels of the earth” mentioned above – This hole was excavated under the following circumstances: A kitchen garden was being formed at the top of the garden and near a caruba tree a large piece of rock was left untouched fro fear of injury to the tree, but at length however it was removed and was found to rest on a body of clay about 27 feet in length and 15 in width, this was found to be a welcome addition to the scanty collection of soil which served to form a foundation tot he proposed garden and it was dug out and used for that purpose, but in doing so, stones, some of which were a big as a man’s head were found embedded in the clay, evidently rounded by the action of the water, others were found of a laminous nature in which all the crevices were penetrated by the clay showing that this same clay must have at one time have been in a fluid state suspended in a body of turbid water; moreover the sides of the rock forming a sort of irregular funnel in which the clay was contained exhibited on one side indications distinctly suggesting the notion of their having been formed by a rotary action of water rushing down to some cavity below forming a sort of whirlpool while the opposite side was formed to be striped from top to bottom with deep longitudinal furrows showing that at one time there was a direct downward rush of water from this side, while the opposite side the rotary action of the water resulting from the contradiction of the lower part of the rocky funnel had left its trace in a series of horizontal furrows. The work of excavating was continued partly from curiosity and partly on the chance of finding water till it was brought down to the level of the sea, a depth of over 60 feet from the surface, all operations were then stopped by the influx of sea water; a fragment of bone was discovered imbedded in the clay and also a piece of hard and very heavy stone about 4 inches in length and 2 1/2 in width – none of these stones or bones are now available, and I cannot find out where they may be. There is no doubt that this excavation has revealed a very extraordinary phenomenon : standing at the top, you look down into the hole and immediately beneath your feet you see straight furrows on the side opposite, in neither of them are there any salient parts, but every angle either in a downward or horizontal direction is worn or rounded off, and further down are little cavities and niches worn out by the rebound of the water; all undoubled traces of the rush of water pouring down the cavity and look for the higher level from which this rush of water must have proceeded – it has ceased to exist, you can see nothing behind you but a steep declivity leading down to the sea – How can this be explained? Was there at one time a mountain where there is now an arm of the sea? It is just a local enigma and there are many such in the island, suggesting no doubt that at some remote period it eh island formed part of a great continent, of which there are many indications.

There is an interesting incident in connection with the well known benevolence of My Frere and his wife in the adoption of a little Greek girl who was brought to them under the following romantic conditions; As had been already mentioned Mr Frere and his family arrived in Malta in the ‘Sicily’ in 1820 and having no further use for her, Capt. Cupper, the master of the vessel, was free to go about his own business. It may be remembered that at that time Greece was struggling for her independence against the Turks and Captain Cupper seems to have made several voyages in is ship with grain and other food stuffs for the Turks in the Gulf of Corinth; on one of these voyages he went to the house of a Turkish Pasha with whom he had business in the village of Lividostro at the eastern end of the Gulf, near where there had lately been a terrible battle between the Greeks and the Turks when the later had been victorious, consequently they sacked and pillaged everywhere and the quiet little town of Lividostro was attacked and all mostly massacred. The next day one of the servants of the Pasha found a child asleep in the garden at the back of the house and just as the Turk was about to strike her down she opened her eyes and the servant took her up in his arms and ran off with her into the Pasha’s house and gave her to a negress when then put her to sleep, crying; when the servant returned she crawled (for she could hardly walk) and hugged his leg and said “Goof good Turk” and from that moment he was determined to save the child. It was shortly after this that Captain Cupper came to the house and saw the little girl and took compassion on her, persuaded the Turk to let him have the child and so took her on board his vessel and sailed for Alexandria. Not knowing quite what to do with her as she was evidently of gentle birth, judging from her clothes, he appears to have thought of Mr Frere and finding another vessel called the ‘Hope’ bound for Malta the master of which was a friend of his; he very easily persuaded his friend whose wife was on board to take her to Malta with a letter to Mr Frere. In due course they arrived and the child was taken up to Villa Frere and Lady Errol after hearing her story at once received her into the house and she was brought up as one of the family. The little girl was then about five of six years of age and could give no account of herself at all, not even her name. Mr Frere then called her Statyra adding the surname of Lividostro after the village where she was found, the name Statyra came possibly, or in all probability from the wife of Darius 111, King of Persia, who was celebrated as the most beautiful woman of her time. Captain Cupper describers her as being a sweet little brown maid, while a friend who knew her in late years says “she was a very diminutive old lady, but exceedingly kind and very loveable, being of a very sweet disposition” A Maltese gentleman who knew the Frere family well, and was a constant visitor at the Villa told me that he often saw Statyra sitting on the arm of Mr Frere’s chair and being much petted by him. In 1835 she married Captain William Hope of the 7th Fusiliers who was stationed with his regiment in Malta. I was told that one day he was riding by the house and his horse fell; he was thrown tot he ground and broke his leg. He was carried into the Villa and remained until his leg was mended with the result above mentioned.

Captain Hope was a relative of Lady Errol and they were married from the Villa, Mr Frere giving her away as her guardian. I have had the pleasure of meeting two of their daughters who very kindly furnished me with the above particulars. Mrs Hope died in 1881.

There is very little else to be said about the Villa. Mr Frere began the formation of the gardens about the year 1822 and continued the work until his death, his niece Miss Honoria Blake had married Lord Francis Hamilton Chichester and they continued to occupy the Villa for some years; Lord Francis died in 1954 and his widow remained some years longer. During her residence the Villa was the rendezvous for all the distinguished visitors to the island, in fact it was sort of ‘Holland House” for Malta. After she left it remained untenanted for a considerable time and the gardens became almost a wilderness until 1876 the remainder of the lease was bought by Countess Messina who brought some order out of chaos. In 1886 it was acquired by the present occupiers, Commander and Mrs Price who are very fond of the place and appreciate the labour of love and usefulness bestowed upon it by Mr Frere.

There are many beautiful Villas and gardens in Malta but the unique position of Villa Frere renders it peculiarly attractive and it is constantly visited by lovers of the picturesque amongst whom of late years was Her Majesty Queen Mary when returning in 1912 from the Indian Coronation Durbar.

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