Valletta’s Strait Street is easily the most famous in the Maltese capital. Known as Strada Stretta, the street runs up the gut of the city and was an epicenter of nightlife and debauchery between the 19th and mid-20th centuries. Cabaret shows, music and dance, and signs that read, “Welcome sailor – come in for a drink and dance” or “Beer on tap and lots of gin – sailors enjoy!” were not uncommon.
It may not be flattering to the recall, but ask any British or NATO servicemen passing through Malta up to the early 1970s, and with an animated twinkle in their eye they will likely mention “The Gut”.
Heaving with bars, music halls, restaurants, lodging houses, and ladies of ill repute Strait Street was christened ‘The Gut’ by mostly Great Britain’s servicemen who frequented in droves. Malta’s principal Red Light area has always been highly popular because as former media magnate Lord Thomson once correctly said, “the public wants sex, more sex and even more sex”. For decades, the area was Malta’s precious economic lifeline, a thoroughfare so narrow that in some areas you can touch the street’s walls on either side with outstretched hands. It is the narrowest street in the parallel patchwork of grid streets that make up Valletta, running vertically and horizontally parallel and crisscrossing each other at perfect right angles.
In its early years, it had already acquired a reputation as a dueling spot for the Knights and courted a reputation as a locality for courtesans and prostitutes frequented by the supposedly celibate Knights who were as prone as anybody else to venture off the straight and narrow.
One of the more renowned bars on the street corner
While it thrived mostly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Strait Street wasn’t unfamiliar to foreign visitors. Valletta’s Grand Harbour, not far away, was a massively important trading port throughout the centuries, and naturally during the British era for decades it teemed with Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers and Merchant Navy vessels transporting servicemen to and from the Suez Canal, as well as general cargo vessels.
Thus was established Malta’s main Red Light district as Strait Street began to fill up with bars and music halls, which in turn filled with female sex workers. The Splendid, the Silver Horse, the White Star, and the Egyptian Queen were some of the notorious and popular places of Strait Street.
Beer and alcohol flowed like water; honky-tonk pianos and bands with brass and string instruments blurted popular tunes and cash tills jingled merrily and continually. It is a popularly accepted rumor that British crooner Frankie Vaughn took his first step to fame as a singer in one of Strait Street’s many bars, and many Maltese singers, orchestras, trios, and quartets fondly regarded the street as their starting point.
Narrow Strait Street was a an epicenter of music halls and entertainment places
The Ladies of Strait Street
There were three categories of female economic activity. Some were barmaids or cleaners, others were “hostesses” with whom one could enjoy a drink and a dance, and others were prostitutes. Hostesses worked on a commission basis – the more they danced and the more their partners sloshed back the beer, the greater their commission.
Interestingly enough, prostitutes had to undergo regular medical check-ups and if they had clearance from VD and STD they were supplied with a metal tag, which they would exhibit to prospective customers. Vaudeville, jazz, and can-can oozed from every corner of the street. With money flowing in, many music hall owners imported female singers and dancers from around Europe, particularly Hungary, Italy, France, and the Balkans.
Needless to say, Military Police and the local constabulary (selected for brawn rather than the brain) were everywhere. Truncheons worked overtime and the “paddy wagon” came and went on shuttle service.
The real battle of battles in Strait Street history remains strongly etched in the brain of those who can remember it, and took place in 1950, a time when thousands of British troops were being withdrawn from Palestine where they had dealt with the front-line brutal confrontations between the newly-launched state of Israel and the start of Palestinian resistance. These were of necessity tough and hard-grained commandos sorely deprived of female company and alcohol during their stint in Palestine. At “The Gut” they amply made up for lost time and for many weeks trouble had been brewing.
The residents of Valletta had, over the decades, become almost totally inured to troublesome occurrences but the quarrelsome conduct of these returning commandos was more than they could bear and particularly that of one commando troop, which ran amok amongst the many bars and drinking clubs. An ad hoc meeting of bar and club owners, as well as the various minders and bouncers fashioned a “Valletta Troop” and on one early evening they formed a chain determined to bar the commandos from entering the street.
An array of bars on the lower part of Strait Street
The result, of course, was bedlam. The commandos were tough, but the “Valletta Troop” was tougher and resilient, seasoned as they were in street fighting and tackling trouble. Pitch battles ensued over the next three nights (the local constabulary seemed “unaware” of what was happening and the British Military Police could only deal with British servicemen). Finally, the British Admiralty acted and confined all servicemen to their troop ships until the troublesome commandos sailed away.
Amongst the fiercest local individuals was one “Pawlu t-Tork” (Paul the Turk), a most interesting and endearing character. He was a gigantic man of Turkish descent who by day worked as a bread-seller pushing a large wooden trolley laden with fresh bread, the most gentle and docile of men despite his massive build. His endearing calls of “Pawlu hawn” (Paul is here) became a bye-word in Malta. By night he was a different character and worked as a bouncer, a seasoned and accomplished street fighter who was frequently challenged by other bruisers to bare-knuckle fights, but always emerged victorious.
With the Admiralty announcement, the “Valletta Troop” claimed victory, and henceforth, the residents of Valletta became affectionately known as “Tal-Palestina” and their war cry “Tal-Palestina, hadd ma just Galina” (we are invincible and nobody can match us).
Although 72 years have elapsed, the slogan is still widely used today and particularly chanted during football matches when Valletta FC is playing! As for “Paul the Turk” he died many years ago but is still affectionately remembered as a folklore character for his sales-pitch cry of “Pawlu hawn”.
Today’s revamped Strait Street is more straight and narrow
The State of Strait Street
There is still life in the old dog that is Strait Street. After years of dereliction, a regeneration project has turned Valletta’s former Red Light district into Malta’s most happening street for night owls, and the artery thrums with bars, restaurants, and live music venues. With far less debauchery in its corners, it seems Strait Street is finally on the straight and narrow.
BeSeeingYou In: Valletta
Good to know: “Strada Stretta” was a Maltese television series that aired on Television Malta between 2015 and 2017.
WOW! Factor: The Splendid on Strait Street started life as a brothel, and an escort was murdered in an upstairs bathroom. Her spirit is said to walk the halls of what is now a sometimes open, often closed theatre and arts venue.
Tip: The upscale Embassy Hotel opened in 2020 at the doorstep of Strait Street. No hauntings reported so far.
Author bio: By Albert Fenech
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“Tal-Palestina, hadd ma jista’ ghalina”
“We are the Palestinians, invincible and nobody will ever defeat us”