The military emphasis on Gibraltar's history meant that it was not until early in the 19th century that much consideration was given by the military governor of the Colony to the social needs of its civilian inhabitants. General Sir George Don, Lieutenant-Governor of Gibraltar, was perhaps the first since the British and Dutch joint taking of Gibraltar in 1704 to dedicate significant resources to the public well-being. This included the founding of a new civilian hospital.
In 1815, considering that "there being no place of public recreation in this Garrison" he "was induced...to establish a walk around the Grand Parade, and form what is called in this country an Alameda, where the inhabitants might enjoy the air protected from the extreme heat of the sun". In order to avoid public expenditure, the gardens were laid out with voluntary contributions, including some from the Amateur Theatre and monies raised by a series of public lotteries.
The Grand Parade was an assembly ground situated to the south of the town of Gibraltar in an area which had been a "desert of red sand", used as a raw material in construction within the town. Parts of the area had been used as a vegetable gardens for the forces during the sieges, and parts as cemeteries. The shoreline here had been the easiest access for landings until a fortified wall was built along the shore and had been used to great effect by the Moors in defeating Enrique de Guzman, Second Count Niebla, in 1435. Grand Parade was the hub of military activity for over a hundred years. The changing of the guard was held there every week and the site was used for ceremonial occasions. To this day two 10 inch RML guns on slides overlook Grand Parade from the east.
The promenade around the Parade was gradually expanded to include about 8 hectares of land in what became known as the Alameda Gardens. Alameda is derived from the Spanish word "Alamo", or White Poplar Populus alba, and old writings mention these trees growing along the Grand Parade. The walks opened to the public on 14th April 1816. The Gibraltar Chronicle covered the event thus: "The walks at the New Alameda being completed they will be opened to the public tomorrow afternoon, at 4 o'clock, when three bands of music will attend".
The gardens were laid out with numerous interconnecting paths and terraced beds, set out mainly with native Jurassic limestone rock, much of it tinted by the local red sand. Dry stone walls and retaining walls were also made out of the local rock. A number of features were gradually added to the gardens, most reflecting historical facts or personalities. Thus late in 1815 General Don had requested of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Earl Bathurst, permission to construct a rotunda with a memorial to General Sir George Augustus Eliott. This did not materialise in the form originally requested, but a "colossal" statue of General Eliott, carved from the bowsprit of the Spanish man-o-war San Juan, taken at Trafalgar was placed at the top of the Heathfield Steps, leading up to the south of Grand Parade. That statue was taken to the Convent, the Governor’s residence, where it stands today, when a bronze bust of General Eliott replaced it in 1858. It stands on a marble pillar and was presented to Gibraltar by a descendant of the General. Three years after the opening of the Alameda, on April 1819, Sir George Don, accompanied by the Naval, Military and Civil officers of the Garrison, went to the gardens to unveil the bust of The Duke of Wellington. A Guard of Honour and four bands attended. The monument had been funded by deducting a day’s pay from all the members of the garrison. The bust had been cast in bronze under the direction of a Mr Westmacott from guns captured by the Duke of Wellington. It stands on a marble pillar that had been brought from the Roman ruins of Lepida (Libya).
Like elsewhere in Gibraltar, sites within the gardens have been used to display examples of guns used in Gibraltar or connected with British military history. Thus around Eliott's column are placed three 10 inch howitzers made in 1783 and one 8 inch howitzer dating from 1778. Around Wellington's column stand two 13 inch mortars with shells and a 1758 bronze 12 pounder gun on a wooden garrison carriage. Improvements through the early years included the introduction of gas lighting along the west side of Grand Parade and the erection, possibly in 1842, of an archway made out of the jaws of a whale. During the middle years of the 19th Century, the head gardener and horticulturist of the Alameda was a Guiseppe Codali, a Genoese gardener who was brought to Gibraltar specifically to work in the gardens. His Italian influence can be seen particularly in the bridge and sunken garden (The Dell) in the centre of the Alameda, opened on the 24th September 1842 and re-inaugurated 150 years later on 24th September 1992. On 16th February 1912 the Governor, Sir Archibald Hunter, laid the foundation stone of a bandstand, which was ready by 24th May of the same year, when the first Gibraltar Fair was held. The promenade where this stood was renamed "The Kingsway". Sadly, this part of the Alameda was disappeared after the Second World War to make way for accommodation for the returning evacuees. Originally it was planned to build over the whole of the Alameda, but fortunately only the lower third was used for construction.
Botany The main plants of the Alameda Gardens from the earliest days were the Stone Pine Pinus Pinea, the wild Olive Olea europaea, and the Dragon Tree Dracaena draco. It would appear that some of these trees, which still survive, pre-date the opening of the garden and thus are at least 200 years old. Planting subsequent to this had included notably species from South Africa (e.g. Plumbago capensis, Aloe arborescens, capensis, Tecomaria capensis) and Australia (e.g. Melaleuca decussata), possibly as a result of shipping contact between Gibraltar and the other colonies en route to Australia. Since 1991, the restoration of the Alameda as a Botanic Garden has been in the hands of Wildlife (Gibraltar) Ltd., on contract to the Government of Gibraltar. The aim is to develop the gardens in ways that will enhance enjoyment, conservation and education, so that its future will be even richer than its past.