1921: How we were 100 years ago

Travelling back a whole century may be impossible, but we may get glimpses of the past through books, old documents and storytelling. Kurt Sansone leafed through the numbers recorded in the Malta Blue Books to understand how Malta was in 1921

Malta got its first autonomous government 100 years ago, a time when a railway and trams still operated and Valletta housed more than 22,000 people.

In 1921, Malta and Gozo’s population stood at 212,258, which grew to 215,437 when British military families were included.

There were 153 men and only three women attending university and the average wage for someone working in the trade and manufacture sector amounted to £90 per year.

In that year, Britain spent almost half-a-million Sterling for the military protection of Malta.

The country was served by five daily newspapers and no less than nine weekly publications.

This is the picture painted in numbers by the Malta Blue Books, a collection of historical statistical information held by the National Statistics Office. The information provides a detailed breakdown of the country’s vital stats.

MaltaToday leafed through the statistics from 1921 to gain some insight on what living in Malta meant a century ago.

Population: Living around the port

The 1921 Census recorded a population of 212,258 of which 52% were women.

The major population centres were concentrated around the Grand Harbour and Sliema.

Valletta was home to 22,392 people, a far cry from the 5,891 who call the capital home today. Sliema had a population of 14,362, while Bormla had 11,536 residents.

These three localities alone accounted for 23% of people living in Malta back then.

The Hamrun-Marsa-Santa Venera conurbation was considered as one in the Census, with a combined population of 17,182. Gozo had a population of 22,561.

But the Blue Book also sheds light on how some of the place names were written at the time. Marsaxlokk was written as Marsascirocco, Mqabba as Micabiba, Naxxar as Naxaro and Mdina referred to as Notabile.

The population figures show that there were 7,688 births in 1921, including 350 still-born babies. This contrasts with the 4,523 babies born last year to a much larger population.

Malta registered 4,833 deaths in 1921 and 1,306 marriages.

Statistics for immigration show that a century ago 4,007 Maltese returned to live in Malta from abroad while 2,606 emigrated to other countries.

Election: Businessman at the helm

A general election to elect members of the legislative assembly took place on 18 and 19 October, a Tuesday and Wednesday.

The data shows that there were 27,104 eligible voters of which 20,634 voted. Suffrage was limited to men and the single transferable vote system was used.

Mgr Ignazio Panzavecchia’s Unjoni Politika Maltija emerged as the largest party and businessman Joseph Howard, who contested with Panzavechia’s party, was made first minister. He was also treasury minister, equivalent to today’s finance minister.

Howard led the first autonomous Maltese government until 1923 with the support of Col Willie Savona’s Malta Labour Party that held seven seats in the assembly.

Elections for the senate were held on the 5 and 6 October 1921. From the 3,405 voters, eligible to choose the seven elected seats on the senate, 2,800 voted.

The election returns were recorded in the Blue Book for 1921.

Religion: Malta cattolicissima

The data leaves no doubt as to the predominance of the Roman Catholic Church, which had 210,000 followers and 353 churches around Malta and Gozo.

The records give a breakdown of the type of churches: two cathedrals, 46 parochial churches, two vice parochial churches and 260 other churches in Malta; and one cathedral, 13 parochial churches and 29 other churches in Gozo.

The Catholic Church received £72 in assistance from public funds.

But the figures show that protestant denominations had around 2,000 followers with churches in Valletta and Sliema.

The Greek-orthodox Church had around 200 followers with a church in Valletta, while the number of Jews was insignificant, although they had a place of worship in Valletta.

Education: A boys’ world

The university campus in Msida is today a sprawling village with almost 12,000 students but 100 years ago the student population at university was a meagre 176, of which only three were women.

Education appears to have had little importance beyond the elementary school years.

While the figures show that 22,390 students attended elementary school, only 2,384 continued their studies at secondary school level. And from those attending secondary school, 57% were boys.

A breakdown of figures shows that in secondary school, the vast majority attended ‘private schools’, otherwise referred to today as church schools. However, while there were 17 ‘private schools’, there were only three government secondary schools – the Lyceum for boys and a secondary school for girls in Malta; and one secondary school for boys in Victoria, Gozo.

While 1,111 boys and 931 girls attended private secondary schools, only 309 boys and 193 girls attended government schools.

In Gozo, no girls attended secondary school and the 40 boys who did get a secondary education, did so in the government school.

At elementary level, there was less of a disparity between genders with the numbers showing that 52% of students were boys.

Government elementary schools could be found in practically every locality thus ensuring free education for the masses. The figures show that 87% of elementary-school students attended government schools.

Expenditure for all elementary government schools in 1921 was £55,961. Government also spent £30 per year on each of two ‘aided private schools’ in Mdina and Valletta.

Accompanying the figures were descriptions of what the secondary schools intended to achieve. While the Lyceum and the secondary school in Gozo offered a varied list of subjects intended to “prepare young men to matriculate for admission into the university”, the secondary school for girls was more austere. Girls could learn maths, English, Italian, French and needle work and “other subjects usually included in the curriculum of a secondary school for young ladies”. No reference was made to preparing girls for university.

Wages and food: costlier Maltese eggs

Farming may be a declining job today, but in 1921 there were 16,270 employed in agriculture and their average rate of wage was £54 per year.

Manufacture employed 29,074 people, while another 20,340 earned a living in commerce. The average yearly wage in these two sectors stood at £90. Rates for domestic service were a meagre £18 per year.

And in a pre-decimal system a barrel of 196lb (equivalent to 89kg) of flour would retail at an average of £1 17s. and 4d. (one pound 17 shillings and four pence).

A pound of fresh butter from New Zealand would cost two shillings and four pence, while salted butter from Ireland would cost three shillings.

A gallon (4.5Lit.) of milk would retail at an average of £8, while a dozen Maltese eggs would cost one shilling and six pence. Imported eggs would cost less at one shilling and two pence.

Buying ‘horned cattle’ would set you back by £30.

Prison: deprived of their mattress

Records show that in 1921 the prison population stood at a whopping 4,510, equivalent to 2% of the country’s population.

The Corradino Civil Prison housed 2,151 inmates, while the Valletta prison held 1,666. A further 693 prison inmates were held in Gozo. The inmate population was made up of 3,314 men, 480 women and 716 juveniles.

The detailed records also note that throughout 1921 there were 2,953 punishments inflicted on prisoners for offences committed while in jail. Of these, 1,534 punishments were ‘solitary confinement on punishment diet’ and 722 were ‘solitary confinement without punishment diet’. In 35 instances, inmates were punished by being deprived of their mattress for a period not exceeding three days.

Crime and punishment: stealing veg

In a society where farming was a key sector in the country’s economic and social life, it is no wonder that 80 cases of ‘praedial larceny’ (theft of agricultural produce) were reported in 1921. The crime statistics show that no homicides were reported that year but there were 149 reports of offences against the person. Another 1,104 were offences against property, while there were 512 other crimes.

In 1921, one man was acquitted of murder of his ‘wife or concubine’, while three were acquitted of manslaughter charges and another found guilty and fined.

One man was convicted for attempted murder and sentenced to ‘penal servitude’, or rather, hard labour.

Hospitals: treating prostitutes

Like most of the British colonies, Malta also had a lock hospital to treat people suffering from sexually-transmitted diseases. The Blue Book shows that in 1921, a lock hospital was situated in Luqa, a section of the old people’s home in what is now known as St Vincent de Paul. According to the description accompanying the entry, the hospital had an average of 44 ‘inmates’ and was used for the ‘treatment of prostitutes suffering from venereal disease’. The same grounds also housed a hospital for male and female lepers.

A list of hospitals shows that the main hospital, known as Central Hospital, was in Floriana, while the Seamen’s Hospital was situated in St Julian’s, where Zammit Clapp now stands.

Other hospitals included the Santo Spirtito Hospital in Mdina, Connaught Hospital, also in Mdina where the Vilhena Palace stands, and Manoel Hospital in Sliema, more popularly known as the Lazzaretto on Manoel Island, which used to house patients with infectious diseases.

Gozo had a general hospital, which included a wing for contagious diseases.

Records show that 255 people were hospitalised with typhoid fever in 1921, including 30 who eventually died.

At Connaught Hospital, 233 patients were admitted with pulmonary tuberculosis of which 64 died.

At Manoel Hospital, 418 patients were receiving treatment for scabies, an itchy skin condition caused by a tiny burrowing mite.

What is today Mount Carmel Hospital, already existed 100 years ago when it was referred to as a lunatic asylum. There were 811 patients in the lunatic asylum in 1921, of which 175 were admitted in that year.

According to a classification determined by the reporting requirements, 87 patients in the mental health hospital were considered ‘maniacal and dangerous’, while 554 were considered ‘quiet chronic’. The rest were classified either as ‘melancholy and suicidal’ or ‘idiotic, paralytic and epileptic’.

Weather: black thermometer

The highest temperature in built up areas was registered at the Valletta station on 21 July 1921 when the mercury hit 37°C. In the country, the highest temperature was registered at Zurrico in July when it was equal to 39.4°C.

At the time, meteorological readings also included those taken by what was known as a black thermometer in vacuo. This was a thermometer with a black painted bulb and kept in a vacuum and regarded as a ‘comfort’ indicator for humans in the sunshine. Its use was subsequently phased out but according to the records from 1921 the black thermometer registered a temperature of 66.8°C on 24 August.

The average maximum temperature for the months of June, July and August was 24.7°C, while the average minimum for January and February was equal to 12.5°C.

In the countryside, the lowest temperature was registered at Naxaro, where on the 20 and 22 January, the temperature dropped to 3.3°C.

Transport: roads, cars, trams and train

Roads were divided into 1st class and 2nd class with the former deemed to be suitable for motor traffic and the latter suitable for horse drawn traffic. The 1921 records show that Malta had 350km of 1st class roads and 167km of 2nd class roads. In Gozo, 84km were suitable for motor traffic, while 16km were deemed to be 2nd class roads. This means that across both islands, the road network suitable for cars amounted to 434km. Malta today has almost 3,000km of paved roads.

At the time there were 265 cars, referred to as touring cars, and 151 motorcycles. The roads were also used by 37 privately-owned buses operated along six routes and 63 touring cars used for hire.

But whereas cars were still a novelty back then, Malta had a train and trams servicing the main population centres. The railway, owned and operated by government, ran from Valletta and its construction had until then amounted to £58,562. The records show that passenger receipts amounted to £12,165.

There were also three tramways owned and operated Macartney McElroy & Coy. Limited. The lines from Birkirkara, Cospicua and Żebbuġ all led to Valletta.


  • 27,104 eligible voters for legislative assembly election
  • 3,405 eligible voters for senate election


Malta and Gozo 212,258
Valletta 22,392
Sliema 14,362
Bormla 11,536
Hamrun-Marsa-Santa Venera 17,182
Gozo 22,561

Births, deaths and marriages 

Births 7,688 (350 stillborn)
Deaths 4,833
Marriages 1,306


University 176 students (173 male, 3 female)
Secondary 2,584 students (1,460 boys, 1,124 girls)
Elementary 22,390 students (11,600 boys, 10,790 girls(


Daily newspapers

  • Daily Malta Chronicle (circulation 2,500)
  • Il Popolo di Malta (700)
  • Lloyd Maltese (150)
  • Malta (1,077)
  • Malta Herald (2,300)


  • Il Hmar (1,500)


  • Il Giahan tas-soltu (500)
  • Il Habib (500)
  • Il Progress including Times of Malta as a supplement (1,200)
  • Labour Opinion (1,000)
  • L’Eco di Malta e Gozo (900)
  • Malta Ghada Tghana (1,500)
  • Malta tal Maltin (500)
  • Patria (800)
  • The Malta John Bull (500)