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The story begins in 1567, when a retired innkeeper by the name of
Juan Mateos decided to use his house, which was then high up on the
slopes of the Rock, well away from the town, as a hospital to treat
the then new and terrible disease which had recently appeared –
Juan Mateos was an interesting character. As a young man, he had helped to repel the attack on Gibraltar by Barbarossa’s pirates in 1549, killing one of the leaders. Later he became the innkeeper of a venta to the north of San Roque, Albalate. From 1567 he personally nursed sailors suffering from the dread disease in his home, until, in 1591, old and tired, he transferred his hospital to the monks of John of God, joining their order and continuing to work in the hospital until his death in 1594, when he was buried by the altar of the hospital chapel.
The hospital became the “Hospital de San Juan de Dios” in 1691, when its founder, who had himself been a resident of Gibraltar at the time he received the call to serve the sick, was canonized in 1691. It seems likely that it was used as an isolation hospital, and that the general hospital was the “Hospital de la Santa Misericordia” which stood on the site of the present City Hall.
After Spain lost Gibraltar in 1704, the hospital was taken over by the British authorities as a military hospital and repaired and refurbished by the Lieutenant Governor, Col. Richard Kane. It was initially a naval hospital, but was used during the 1727 siege by the Army, and was returned to the Navy in 1728. With the building of the Naval Hospital in 1746, it became the Garrison Hospital, but by 1756 it was being used as a Barracks, later known as the Blue Barracks, where the Company of Military Artificers (later the Royal Engineers) was formed in 1776.
The building was severely damaged by the Spanish bombardment during the Great Siege, and it was not until 1815 that it was extensively rebuilt under the auspices of Sir George Don, as a Civil Hospital for the local population.
It was rebuilt in 1882, and the elegant fašade can still be seen, partly obscured by further extensions and additions over the years including the King George VI Wing in front of the hospital in the 1950s and the Mackintosh Wing in the 1970s. In 2005 St Bernard’s Hospital moved to its new home in Europort, and over four centuries of history came to an end.
Further reading: Civil Hospital and Epidemics in Gibraltar by S Benady. Gibraltar Books, 1994