Back in the day it was common that due to poverty, amongst other reasons, babies used to be left on doorsteps. In Malta, formal provisions to care for these babies were introduced during the late Medieval period, when the Mdina Universita’ established a system for the reception and care of such children at the Santo Spirito hospital in Rabat. In 1518, the hospital employed two wet nurses, however by 1554 there were 13 nurses employed. The hospital used to receive around eight foundlings annually.

When the Order of Saint John came to Malta these services were augmented at the Birgu Sacra Infermeria and later at the Infermeria in Valletta, when the Knights transferred to the new city. These services continued up until the end of the 18th Century. Between the years 1750 and 1800 the out-of-wedlock baptismal rate in Malta was 5.1%, in the 12-month period from 1787-1788 there were 212 infant admissions at such institutions.

More often than not babies used to be left on the steps of a church so that they could be easily found and cared for. By time different methods were being introduced to facilitate the process, ensure secrecy, and safeguard the health of the newborn baby. One of the most common methods to deliver unwanted babies was the “ruota degli esposti”, which was a rotating wheel, installed to remain half inside the building and half outside the road. The woman inside would be alerted by the crying baby or by the sound of the bell. Afterwards, they turned the wheel around and brought the baby inside where it would be cared for, whilst the mother slipped away.

Something of the sorts used to be found at the rear of the Valletta Sacra Infermeria, close to the Falanga block. This enabled local mothers to leave their children to the care of the authorities whilst they remained anonymous. The English philanthropist John Howard, witnessed this while he was visiting the hospital in 1786 and claimed the Latin words, “infantium incolumitati” inscribed on a nearby wall was a reminder of the noble intentions behind the provision of these services.

The latest development in the long history of this historic building came only in the recent years, when a new virtual museum, titled ‘Reliving The Sacra Infermeria’, was inaugurated. The idea of a virtual museum, which brings together history and technology, was brought about by the need to satisfy visitors’ curiosity about the building’s former history without interrupting ongoing conferences or theatre performances that are regularly held here. Now, by downloading a mobile application that makes use of augmented reality, one can once more relive the building’s former days as a hospital. You can try out a free trial at home by downloading the application from here (IOS) or here (Android).

If you have any problems trying it out, reach out to us on Facebook!



Cassar, P. (1983). From The Holy Infirmary of the Knights of St John to the Mediterranean Congress Centre. Malta

 Cassar, P. (1978). Female Employees in the Medical Services of the Order of St. John in Malta. Melita Historica, 7(3), 225-233.

 Savona-Ventura, C. (2016). Social Services for Unwed Mothers and their Children. Malta

The Author

Matthew Camilleri | Colour my Travel
By Published On: July 28th, 2023