You’d expect a city as baroque as Valletta to have quite a dark underside. And you wouldn’t be disappointed. Take the weird ‘monument’ at St John’s Street corner with Merchants Street. Upon closer inspection, you’ll realise that it’s not exactly a monument, but a big iron hook, known to the Maltese as Nelson’s Hook. The story behind is chilling.
Nelson’s Hook was first fixed on site during the time of the Knights. This is how many tales in Valletta start, as you’ll have noticed by now. The purpose behind it was an innocent one – it was used to hoist the 6.5 tonne bell on top of St John’s co-Cathedral.
Fast forward to the early 18th century, and its purpose was transformed into something a lot more sinister – hoisting a pillory upon which those convicted of a criminal offence would be displayed and humiliated in public. The practice is likely to have arisen due to the close proximity of the Castellania, the neighbouring building that used to serve as prison. The barbaric punishment was finally ended by the British, when they took over the island.
Nelson’s Hook – what’s Nelson got to do with it?
Nelson’s Hook gets its name from the legend that surrounds a particular evening during Lord Nelson’s stay in Malta. Nelson and his officers had spent the evening wining and dining in Valletta and, on the way back to their ship, one of the officers dared Nelson to try and squeeze through this hook. Never one to back off from a challenge, Nelson went for it – and won the dare.
The legend captured the imagination of the Royal Navy, with those who wished to be promoted having to go through the ritual of pulling a Nelson – and squeezing through the hook. In 1972, one such photo of a British sailor squeezing through said hook made it on the UK papers and for a long while was displayed at the barber’s shop opposite the corner where Nelson’s Hook is located.