During the First World War there was a requirement for seaplanes to be stationed in Gibraltar, and this led to the construction of a seaplane shed on the reclaimed land south of Chatham Counterguard. The shed was used by the Royal Navy from mid-1915 until August 1917 when the US Navy arrived in Gibraltar and the shed was allocated for their use. When the war ended, the shed was handed back to the RN and in 1921 the Royal Naval Depot Cinema started with the gift of the shed plus a grant of £250 from the Naval Canteen Fund.
The hangar under
construction, which afterwards became the Naval Trust Cinema
The cinema, catering only for service men and their families, prospered for 8 years showing silent films. However, the introduction of ‘talkies’, which the cinema was not equipped to show, forced its closure in 1931. Lt Cdr Thomas Hurst, (the Paymaster serving in HMS COMORANT in Gibraltar) accepted personal liability for the cost of installing the apparatus to show films with sound; and approximately £2000 (£70000 when adjusted for inflation) was personally donated. When the cinema resumed business on 31 December 1931, it was opened to all the residents in Gibraltar. The cinema operated in this capacity very successfully, building up large profits and in September 1940 the “Royal Naval Depot Cinema Trust Gibraltar” was started.
An original Cinema
In 1944 the name was changed to the Naval Trust Cinema, although the Trust itself retained its original name. Profits were devoted to improving the cinema, providing married quarters for Naval families and local and service charities (Gibraltar registered Charity no 16).
On 13 July 1948, the cinema burnt down, during its seventeen years of life having given over £20,000 to charity. The Trustees eventually decided to have the cinema rebuilt on the original land. The opening ceremony was performed by then Governor, General Anderson on 17 July 1950. The cinema seated 935 people with various priced seats available. Two performances were given daily with admissions averaging at just fewer than 10000 per week. A limited number of free tickets were available to patients in the military hospital. The cinema was a commercial operation in all respects with Naval ratings employed on a part-time basis and a permanent, professional manager for whom a bungalow was provided out of the Trust’s profits. The cinema continued business until 13 Jun 1960 when it was sold to Bassadone Cinema. With the sale of the cinema, the Trust was renamed on 20 Oct 1961 to the Gibraltar Naval Trust (GNT).
In keeping with the original aim to use profits from the Royal Naval Depot Cinema Trust to provide married quarters for Naval families, proceeds from the lease and sale of the cinema went towards the construction of 16 flats in the area in Queensway north of the Naval Officers Pavilion. These flats were built at a cost of no less than £45,000 in 1962. Although by then the Admiralty had assumed responsibility for the provision of married quarters, it was felt that there would be a delay of the building of official quarters; hence approval was given for the private venture. The lease for the land was granted by the Crown and administered on their behalf by the Government of Gibraltar (GoG) for the term of 99 years from the first day of January 1962. A yearly rent was set at £320. HRH The Princess Royal laid the foundation stone of Britannia House on 21 February 1962 during her visit to Gibraltar in HMY BRITANNIA. Upon completion in 1964, Britannia House was leased back to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines for families housing. Leases were renewed for purposes of families housing until 1998, whereupon Britannia House was returned to the GNT.
The GNT’s purpose has changed little over the years since its official establishment by Deed of Trust in 1940. A registered charity, today its core objective remains “the provision and support of facilities and activities for the efficiency and well-being of service personnel serving in Gibraltar”. As well as providing accommodation, the Trust provides a generous grant to the Gibraltar Amenities Fund (GAF) annually. The original Trustees were the Admiral Superintendent - HM Dockyard Gibraltar, Commanding Officer - HMS CORMORANT, and the Accounting Officer - HMS CORMORANT.
Britannia House was refurbished in 1992 and with its 16, two-bedroom flats in a central location; it was used by families and entitled personnel, as Gibraltar’s equivalent to “Short term family accommodation”. The majority of users were families and friends visiting Gibraltar, although visiting sports teams and other eligible groups used the facilities if they had a Gibraltar serving sponsor. Britannia House always “booked up” very quickly, especially in the peak season. Each apartment could sleep up to six people, with one double bed, two single beds and a double sofa bed in the lounge. They had a fully fitted and equipped kitchen, fully fitted bathroom with shower and bath, bedding was provided, along with British Forces Broadcasting Television…..a real home away from home.
Britannia House continued to operate successfully until 2015 when the site was sold to the GoG in part exchange for a plot of land adjacent to the main MOD Four Corners estate with the GNTs plan being to build a new bespoke accommodation facility on the site. To aid the Trust in continuing to meet its aim of providing accommodation to eligible personnel the GoG kindly offered several ex-MOD married quarters on the Buena Vista estate (Britannia House Buena Vista) as an interim accommodation solution. Britannia House Buena Vista operated successfully until September 2020 when it was handed back to the GoG in preparation for the GNT opening Wessex House.
Wessex House is the new accommodation facility, which comprises five, wheelchair accessible, two-bedroom apartments with additional sofa beds favourably situated on Winston Churchill Avenue, directly adjacent to Gibraltar International Airport, close to the frontier with Spain and 50 meters from the beautiful Western Beach. The accommodation caters for a wide variety of groups and all apartments are self-contained with modern, fully equipped kitchens, air conditioning, TVs and offering fantastic views of the Rock.
Britannia House and Britannia House Buena Vista were traditionally used exclusively by personnel based in Gibraltar and their dependants. However, owing to the reduction in numbers of personnel serving in Gibraltar, their use gradually declined resulting in a surplus availability. For Wessex House the decision has therefore been made to open the facility up to the wider military community, enabling greater access to Gibraltar and ensuring the Trust can continue to raise funds for the GAF.
Wessex House is managed by a team of three; the manager Pauline, our excellent housekeeper and of course the 'handyman' Roy. The Trust is still managed by three Trustees, following in the footsteps of the original Naval Officers from 1921. The current Trustees are Commander British Forces, Commodore Steve Dainton CBE RN, Commander Nick Baker RN and Lieutenant Commander Mark Chambers RN.
Lt Cdr Mark Chambers RN – November 2020
Pauline and Roy during a Wessex House building site inspection. Making sure the build is to the standard expected for of guests!