Elizabeth Farrell: The closure of the border

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As is the case with many Gibraltarians who had relatives in Spain, the closure of the frontier was a dramatic event for Elizabeth Farrell and her family. Before 1969, her father, a Gibraltarian with Maltese ancestors, and her mother, who was born in Spain, took her to visit her grandmother in La Línea every weekend. When the border was shut, they worked hard to keep in touch with their relatives.

Audio interview (19 January 2015):



EF: But really what I would like to talk about is when the… some of the most important years of my life that are memorable are the ones when the frontier was shut. The frontier shut – I can’t remember exactly now, but I think it was 1965. It must have been…

IN: The trouble began just…

EF: Well, 1965.

IN: Yes, yes.

EF: I was about 13 when the frontier was shut. And, obviously, because my mother was Spanish and her mother lived in La Línea at the time with my aunt, who was a spinster, and my other uncles lived in Spain as well, there was a lot of, you know, cross, cross frontier communication.  And we used to go and visit my grandmother.

IN: In La Línea?

EF: In La Línea, every weekend.  We would go there on a Saturday and spend the day with them. And we would visit our other uncles. One of my uncles used to work here in Gibraltar as well, and he used to commute every day. And then, of course, when they… when they threatened to close the frontier, it… you know it became… it was a disappointing and serious occasion, but for some people like my mother, who had actual rel… actually had relatives in Spain, it was very painful.

IN: Of course, of course.

EF: And we tried… Some people stopped going immediately, but my mother kept trying to go and see her mother regardless of, you know, what people used to say or the barriers of the… you know, they had put before us… in front of us.  I remember my father was a policeman at the time, and he used to feel a bit embarrassed, because at the beginning they… we had sort of special passes, which very few people, you know, got because they felt, you know, a bit embarrassed or, you know, exposed, because they thought, you know, if you get these special passes and you go to Spain, “·Oh, los Rabú, ahí van los Rabú van para allá”. And my mother couldn’t care less. She just wanted to go and see her mother.  And she wanted to see her sister and she wanted us to go with her. I was 13 at the time, I think.  My brother was 14, perhaps, and my sister 12. And, of course, we had to go with her. And we were very self-conscious. My dad, I remember, would drop us off at the frontier very quickly in the car. We would walk across, and then in the late evening, he would come back for us. He didn’t want to be seen around there.

IN: Really?

EF: Yes.  And… I mean nobody made any comments about us or, or to my dad, but it’s what you heard in the streets, you know.  Then, they shut the frontier for the car… for the traffic and, although I’m not quite sure whether that was a time when they shut the frontier for the traffic and we were the pedestrians, you know.

IN: Ah, yes, yes.

EF: The very few who used to go with these special permits.  And then, of course, when they shut the frontier completely, it meant that we had to find an alternative to go and visit them.  And for my mum, it was a big shock, because she… she was used to seeing her mother and her sister and her brothers every other… every weekend or every other weekend.  And as soon as the frontier was shut, not only could she not see them, we couldn’t… they, they cut all telephone communications at the time.

IN: True.

EF: We couldn’t fly across and the only way we could communicate with them was by writing letters.  And of course in those days letters took a long time and especially since, because the frontier was shut and, you know, in those days you know you don’t have… you didn’t have the… the facility of flights, whatever; it was less frequent. You would write a letter and they would receive it maybe a week later. So, well, we started with that, with that. We started writing letters. And then, of course, we started planning for the yearly trip to see them.

IN: It was very difficult.

EF: Which was… which was very difficult as well, because my father was the only one who worked and he was, although he was a policeman, he earned just about enough to make ends meet, to, you know, to pay the rent. There were three of us. We were still… we were still in school.  My mum didn’t work.  My father would never have allowed her to work. So we started, you know, trying to make a little money in different ways.  So, because we knew that we had to pay a boat trip from Gibraltar to Tangiers and then another one from Tangiers to Algeciras. And then, of course, we went over for a whole month, because it was like people now if they go to Australia or to America, you don’t go for a week or two, you go for a whole month, because it is such a big expense and it is so far away. In those days, it was a big expense, and it was far away really, because you had to get two… two boats.  Anyway.

IN: You couldn’t go but the weekend.  Claro.

EF: We couldn’t go.  Many… The, the lucky ones used to go… If you knew somebody who owned a yacht, you could go for a weekend or whatever.  But we didn’t know anybody like that.  Um, so… So we thought, well, what we have got to do is save throughout the year and then do this yearly trip across. So we carried on with our letters and also people used to go down to the frontier and shout across, across the frontier, which was even more degrading for my brother and my sister and myself and even my dad to a certain extent because we were actually seen there waving our hands and shouting: “Hey, ¿cómo estáis?”. And they would shout back, “Bien”.

IN: Waiting for an answer.

EF: And, you know… so when someone has had a cold, you would shout across: “And how is Granny? And how’s…?”  And we were lucky that, you know, we didn’t have any deaths or any horrible things happening throughout the time that the frontier shut, but there were many people who were informing their relatives that so-and-so was very ill or they were dead or they had just had a baby. So it was…

IN: Very personal…

EF: Very personal information…


EF:…shouting across the… And then of course, I find it quite funny now, but if you had a row of people standing there shouting at each other, you know there was cross-information. You know one, one person would shout and the other one thought that the other one was telling them another information. Anyway, we used to do that once, once a week only.

IN: And you did it.

EF: And we did it.  We had to go.  We… we had to for my mother’s sake.

IN: Just to see them, I suppose, was enough.  That’s enough.

EF: And to see them.  That’s right. To see them.

IN: That’s enough.

EF: We would take binoculars and we would see them, you know.

IN: It was very far away, wasn’t it?

EF: It was I… Yes, because it was… I would say it was maybe… I’m not very good at my metres, but maybe a hundred metres or in fact more than that.

IN: Yes.  You had to shout. Yes.

EF: And in the winter when it was windy, because down there it’s quite windy, you know the voice would get confused or whatever.  But anyway, we got there and we could see them.

IN: You did.  Yes.

EF: And, so we, we started… they, they started… There was a company here who used to sell the Subbuteo footballers, completely white, and they employed people to paint them.  And they were sold in boxes.  Well, you could take them in a box of a thousand, and if you painted them, they would give you five pounds for them.  And so we decided to start this, like a little… like a little workshop in our house.  And we all got involved, which was in a way was quite nice, because we were all working together towards something. So, I mean, my brother wasn’t very good at painting and wasn’t very interested, but he even got involved and he used to do the hair, you know, of the just…

IN: Duck…

EF: Just ducking the thing with the…

IN: Yes, that’s what they did.

EF: So…

IN: Dipped them in paint.

EF: Dipped them.  Once we painted, my sister and I and my mother, we used to paint the skin, the skin bits.

IN: Yes, one colour each, I suppose.

EF: That’s right.  My dad would be in charge of the shoes, painting the black… the brown shoes.  If there was something a bit more complicated like the lines on a t-shirt, I would do that.  And my brother would do the heads.  So we would do, you know, every night we would sit in front of the TV or just you know chatting and we would find… you know we’d invented devices like long rulers with sticks to hold them all up. And anyway, so whatever money we got for that, we had a little box and we would put it in the pot, you know.  And then as well we…  My father had been a cook all, well, all his young life.  He had worked in England and he had worked in Switzerland.  And he used to be a very good confectioner, and my uncle as well.  And so my dad decided… obviously when the frontier was open, a lot of people used to go and buy their cakes in Spain. But when it shut, there were very few people who made cakes in Gibraltar.

IN: That’s true.

EF: And so we decided to start making birthday cakes and it… We started with birthday cakes and, um, then you know it developed a bit more and we… people were having weddings. They couldn’t find people to make wedding cakes. We started making wedding cakes as well. And we had that, this little business going on, um, for you know for quite a few years. And I was the one who was always most interested in things like that, so I used to help my dad a lot. And, you know we would make the pastry and the following day we would decorate it.  And we didn’t have the facilities that you have now of you know all these little decorations and the colourings or whatever, so we had to be very inventive. So we would get coconut and we would colour it with a green colouring to make grass for the football pitches, and then we would get little bits of paper to decorate things. And we, you know, we were quite busy for quite a while.  And of course all that money would go for…

IN: In the pot.

EF: for our yearly trips to Spain. And we carried on doing that for quite a few years.  Then eventually, unfortunately, my dad got a very… had a very bad heart attack when he was quite young, and he was out of action for a couple of months in hospital. Because in those days, you know, no bypasses or anything.

IN: Of course, yes.

EF: You just spent a month in hospital. So we had a lot of orders pending, so I took over.

IN: Did you?

EF: So I used to go to school.

IN: How old were you?

EF: I was 14 I think or 15. I think I was 15 at the time. I used to go to school, come back at lunchtime, decorate a cake, go back to school, come back, bake the cake for the following day.

IN: So you baked.  You did everything.

EF: I had to do everything, because my mother had never done that.  She did the odd things, but… And I would decorate the cake, then I would go back, you know the following day, and I’d you know to at least…

IN: In stages.

EF:…finish off, finish off the… I didn’t take it up, but I had to finish the commitments that my father had left pending.

IN: Of course, the orders. Yes.

EF: So it was quite a… you know.  I mean I used to enjoy it and it… but it was hard work, because I had to carry on going to school, doing this and studying at the same time.

IN: The homework.

EF: But we managed to, you know, we managed to do it.  Then my father came out of hospital, but obviously by then he wasn’t well enough to continue with that. And we stopped, but at the time my brother was just ready to go to university. So then he went to university. Then I became a student teacher, so there was a bit of more income coming in to help us along.  And, um, so he didn’t… we didn’t need to do any more cakes.  And then eventually I went to university and my sister started work.  But I remember that those years were… They were a lot of fun, because we were very young, and I had lots of very good friends, and you know the typical Scalextrics that people used to say. We used to do it. Everybody used to do it.  But we found as well that we were… The families were closer. The friends were closer as well. I know that they say that we were, you know, everybody was on top of everybody else’s life, but it’s still the same now.  Because even though we have more, you know the frontiers are open and you’ve got more freedom, whatever, with things like, for example, Facebook now, everybody is in everybody’s life anyway.

IN: More, more even.

EF: You know, I think perhaps even more.  You’re right.

IN: More. And more scope.

EF: Yes. So, you know, but for us it was… Some people think that we were deprived because we were living in almost an island. But I don’t think any of us of that age suffered the consequences of… because we were, you know, we were happy. We had our friends.  We did what people do anywhere.  And the ones who suffered most were the ones who had families in Spain.

IN: Exactly.

EF: And they died or they… you know they had children or whatever and you couldn’t…You know, er, I mean people had family in England and in other parts of the world, but that’s far away.  But when you are just, you know, two minutes away from… from being close to a person and you are not allowed.

IN: Of course, so near, yet so far.

EF: That’s it, you know.  That was…

IN: And when you are used to as well going over so frequently.

EF: That’s it. That’s it. Because we used to go every other week and so it was quite a…

IN: Drastic.

EF: You know, dramatic change to our lives.

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On 13/04/2016
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