This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the May 2000 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
An author and historian recounts tales of The Tide and other stories of his beloved Flatts.
What every Flatts Village child knows about and remembers all his life is the Tide-the eternal current that flows back and forth every day past Flatts Village, pouring in and out of Harrington Sound, flowing day and night, in sun and storm. Like the Thames rolling through London, or the Seine through Paris, the tidal current is always there, quietly shaping events and lives -part of the village, part of the lore that makes up this part of Bermuda.
The Tide can sweep you away and carry you off under Flatts Bridge until its power dissipates in the broad reaches of the Sound, or you can swim sideways until you reach the counter-current which runs down the shore back towards the Bridge. And the same is true when the Tide is going in the other direction. You have to get to know the Tide to handle it, and generation after generation of children do so. I can remember friends who brought their dogs down to swim and the dogs learned to handle the Tide too.
The Tide is not always fierce- for it changes direction after several hours, and as it does so there are a few minutes when it loses its power completely. That’s a good time to start learning. And you do need to learn it, for there have been tragedies when panic took over and people wore themselves out struggling-when there really was no danger
Powerful motorboats can fight their way against the Tide, but if you have no motor you have to wait for the Tide to change to get your boat through the bridge. When its’ right, you paddle your boat into the Tide and then use the paddle to keep you pointed in the right direction, not broadside on-and enjoy the exhilaration as you swoop to your destination.
My first experience, when I was 11 or 12, was in a flatbottomed rowboat. The man I was with decided not to wait for a change, but got some friends to heave on a rope. I was on the walkway under the Bridge and watched as, for some reason, the boat’s nose went lower and lower into the water. I thought it was the end of the boat-but they succeeded! I have had my sailboat towed through by a friendly powerboat, but mostly it was down with the mast, out with the oars, wait for the Tide and paddle through when the time came.
A friend once tried to drive his father’s motorboat through the Bridge. The tide was favourable, in good spate and high, and to my friend’s surprise and horror the top of the cabin stuck-and nothing could be done until the Tide changed and the water level fell. Another friend was having a moonlight sail in Harrington Sound with his girlfriend: the wind was light, the dalliance delightful, and suddenly, with a horrid bang, the mast hit the Bridge while the boat was sucked underneath and my friend and his girl found themselves in the water.
There are other oddities about Flatts. For some reason, Norwood pushed Hamilton Tribe across the Bridge, so on the map a strange rectangle sticks into Smith’s Parish, enclosing ms t of the village. The village itself is built against a steep hill, and houses rise up to the height , while the business part of the village by the water side is squeezed in a narrow space. And that creates the road difficulty, which with motor traffic and an ever-increasing Bermuda population has now become a big one. Bikes, cars, trucks, busses and construction equipment pour through the village like a torrent, making walking difficult in the narrowest part of the road between The Family Cleaners and Brightside Guest Apartments, next to Paradise Alley. A tiny sidewalk in some places help a bit, but there is scarcely room even for that near the beautiful Old House, so well restored by Mr. David White.
Mr. W. A. “Toppy” Cowen, who, as chairman of the Flatts Development Committee, is now referred to as Mayor, says a little bitterly that his scheme for a narrow sidewalk has been rejected by the Work and Engineering Department on the basis that such a small one would not be safe-even if pedestrians feel themselves at risk whenever they walk through the village. He is helped in his sidewalk crusade by the other Mr. David White of Flatts- Mr. David L. White who is willing to let part of the parking area of the Flatts Gift Shop be used for this purpose.
Flatts is one of the oldest urban areas in Bermuda- if such a small conglomeration of houses can be called ‘urban ‘-and one of the earliest acts of the first House of Assembly in 1620 refers to strengthening the Bridge at the Flatts.
The port is one of the few boat havens along the North Shore, which is important now and was even more so in times past when roads were footpaths and the sea was the best means of transportation. There is room for small seagoing vessels in the harbour port, and even today yachts put in from time to time. Once upon a time, according to legend, Flatt Inlet was always deep, but this changed when a stone causeway was built to join Gibbet Island to the mainland. The tidal scaur was reduced, and sand built up. Although vessels were built along the North Shore, sheltered parts of Harrington Sound were a natural place for shipbuilding. The only problem was the bridge, and so it was rebuilt so that it could be slid away to let a newly built vessel go through. The painter Thomas Driver made several paintings of the Flatts, including two showing a tall mast beside the bridge-presumably part of the apparatus for moving the bridge aside.
Mayor Cowen would like to see the bridge made more attractive, like Somerset Bridge with its small lifting plank for boats’ masts. Could thee Works and Engineering Department rebuild Flatts Bridge in such a way that the deck could be rolled aside, as in the days of yore? Or perhaps a mast could be erected as an interesting reminder of the past.
Flatts was deemed to be something approaching the capital of Bermuda at the turn of the century between the 1600s and the 1700s, which led to an official complaint by Governor Samuel Day. Day was a rascal of the first water, so his moans can be taken with a grain of salt. He complained that the House of Assembly was led by “the evil and dangerous counsel and insinuation of several busy, unquiet and dissatisfied persons, who by their being much related and having the faculty of words, do over-rule and carry all elections and either encourage or scare at their pleasure.
“The managers of the House,” Day whined, “are guided by the directions of factious and discontented persons, particularly by Anthony White, Charles Walker, Captain Thomas Harford and John Dickenson, who live about the heart of the country at a place called the Flatts in Smith’s Tribe, where they have their meetings, so that they have a transcendency and influence over the commonalty of the people …. “
They had even declared, he said, that they would have a Bermudian Governor, and that they had sent £1,000 to England “and had no doubt but that will do.” That scheme (if it ever existed) failed-but London received so many complaints, that Day was soon replaced by Benjamin Bennett. Day was charged with many offences and, like several of his predecessors, was sent to prison. There, he died. His strictures about the Flatts politicians probably contained some truth, for Flatts would have made a good stopping point for persons travelling by boat, foot or horseback to the old capital in St. George’s from anywhere west of Smith’s-particularly if refreshment was available.
The gunpowder steal from St. George’s in August 1775, soon after fighting broke out between the English and the Americans in New England, had a small Flatts Village ricochet. When the House of Assembly committee investigating the theft of the powder from the Government magazine questioned a Flatts man, he said that he had been asked by a member of the Tucker family to lend a whaleboat at that identical time for an unspecified purpose. The Tuckers were prominent in the Assembly, and the Committee were no doubt shocked by this revelation-so they decided they could not take his lone testimony as evidence against a leading family. As no one else had the temerity to come forward, the House committee decided they could not find the culprits, and so reported to the Governor.
A romantic story in the days of slavery is told about Flatts. A young Flatts man named John who was a slave would escape from his quarters at night and swim across Harrington Sound (avoiding being found and questioned on the road) to a house on Harrington Sound where his girlfriend, also a slave, lived. His master found him out, and started putting John in irons at night. The call of love was too strong for such physical restraints, and John pulled up the stake to which the irons were attached, jumped into Harrington Sound once more, and swam to his beloved, dragging the chains and stake with him.
His constancy softened the hearts of both owners, and the couple were allowed to marry, although following the sad custom of the time, their children would eventually be divided, the eldest going to the wife’s owner, the next child to the husband’s, and so on.
One of the oldest houses in Flatts is Bridge House, probably so called because the keeper of the Bridge lived there. Another old house is Wistowe, at one time a bakery and at another a theatre, before settling down to become a dwelling house. It was the site of a famous duel between Robert Hill and Peter Nice. At a dinner party they fell into an argument (perhaps over Nice’s pretty wife), and Nice took off his glove and slapped Hill over the mouth. Weapons were fingered right away, but the other men present forced the two men out of doors, where proper dueling decorum was observed. As the men watched by moonlight, the swords clashed together as thrust was met by parry as the rivals desperately tried to find an opening. Pretty soon Hill pierced Nice in the stomach, giving him a mortal wound. Hill was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death-but was later pardoned by the Crown.
In the early 1800s, the Rev. Solomon John Stowe became rector of Smith’s and Hamilton Parishes, and took up his abode at Wistowe. He was married to a daughter of Hezekiah Frith, the noted Bermuda privateer and merchant. At first, things seemed to have gone well in the parishes, and he was involved in the building of the new St. Mark’s Church, which still stands as the core of the present edifice. Then people found him not willing to turn out for baptisms and other services. Rumours gathered, and tales spread about his relation with his wife’s niece, who lived with them. The charges were brought to the attention of the Bishop, who held an ecclesiastical trial, which lasted for many weeks. Just before the end of the trial, Stowe offered to resign the living (in those days rectors held office for life) if the Bishop did not bring the trial to a conclusion-and that was the way it turned out.
Stowe died some years later at the American Hotel, Scranton, Pennsylvania and his widow returned to Bermuda and married the Rev. A.C. Jenkins. It was for this reason, among others, that the people of Smith’s defied the Governor and the Archdeacon, and made a human chain in front of the church to present Mr. Jenkins from being inducted as a rector-a manoeuvre which finally succeeded.
Some year later Flatts was the home of a clergyman of a different stripe-Archdeacon the Venerable George Tucker. He made his home at Palmetto Bay-then called Palmetto Grove, and comes down in the history of the neighborhood as one of the best rectors Smith’s and Hamilton Parishes ever had. It was he who gave land halfway up Flatts Hill for the building of St. Mark’s Mission, which continued in use until the present parish hall was built. It was then sold and turned into a dwelling. Palmetto Bay had been the residence for wealthy Mr. Samuel Musson, who in old age sat in his chair under the great mahogany tree (one of the beauties of the village) with a bowl of punch, which he offered to passing friends.
Science took a place in the Flatts story when a group of scientists made the Frascati Hotel their summer headquarters. The Frascati sprang up on the ground of the ancient double house, which appears in all the old pictures, and which was only recently demolished to make way for St. James Court. It was named after an Italian town, a typical ploy of the late 1800s when Bermuda was being compared to Italy-later, in line with new fashions, it was changed to Coral Island Club. The summer visitors would take young Bermudians out with them, and thus my father learned much about the natural history of his homeland. Years later the summer visits would turn into something more substantial and today the Bermuda Biological ration for Research is the lineal descendant of that start.
Across the water, Wistowe became the home of Reginald Fessenden, the inventor of voice radio. Marconi invented wireless telegraphy, but his theories about wireless transmission led down a blind alley. Fessenden felt the transmission radiated out in waves (like waves in a still pond when a stone is dropped in), and proved that the waves could carry voice messages-hence the name, radio. He had man inventions, but his principal one was the heterodyne, which another inventor by linking two heterodynes together, turned into the super-heterodyne, the basis for tuning radio and television right into our own time. Fessenden only had a few years to enjoy Wistowe before he died, but during those year his busy mind was working on such things as fish noises (picked up by a hydrophone) and artificial pearls, while he applied modern knowledge to the Bible to try and determine where the Garden of Eden was and where the Flood had taken place.
Of course, there were many other personalities around Flatts, even if they were persons who did not make a great splash in the wider world. Among them were the Whitneys, who lived at Villa Monticello and Villa Mont Clare, moving from one to the other summer and winter. They owned a large rowboat, at the William and Mary in which they ventured out on Harrington Sound with six men in uniform pulling the oars. It was they who gave a hand to the struggling school at the top of Flatts Hill when the partly completed building was demolished by a great hurricane of 1880 and after whom the Whitney Institute is named.
In my childhood, the important people in Flatts included Mr. Eugene Harvey and Mr. Hamphiel Paynter, mason and carpenter, whose skill and knowledge built or improved many a house. Mr. Harvey, in particular, worked under the direction of Mr. Scott Pearman and was responsible for the handsome wall, which surrounds the grounds of St. Mark’s Church. Many men worked under him, but the man who rose to fame through his own remarkable efforts was Stanley Burgess, the grand old man of the Bermuda Marathon Derby, whose victories in the annual running race were so notable that he was dubbed a knight by his contemporaries – Sir Stanley. Mr. Burgess’ great skill was running the marathon, but he was a typical Bermudian artisan, whose trade was masonry, but who was an able carpenter and boatwright, a fisherman, and a farmer-a man of many skills. He always kept a pig, and could be met at all hours trundling an oversized wheelbarrow up and down Flatts Hill with ‘pig’s meat’ for his pig, ‘pig’s meat’ being any kitchen throw-out which a pig could consume.
He had a sailing fishing boat in Flatts, and as a boy I can remember him working his craft out of Flatts, sails up and a long sculling oar out the back as he struggled with fluky wind and an adverse current. In later years, he installed an engine, and would set out for Cup Match, the boat dressed overall with flags fluttering everywhere. Another great Cup Match sight was a handsome motor cruiser powering smoothly out of Flatts, crowded to the gunwale with Cup Match spectators.
Sir Stanley’s boat was nearly the death of him. He set out one day to fish on the North Shore, and while he was out the weather changed for the worse. He had a young and inexperienced man with him as crew, and as they approached the Flatts, the wind set them dangerously toward the shore. Mr. Burgess could not abandon the helm, the terrified man with him was unable to obey orders-and the fine old cedar fishing boat ended her days on the rocky coast near Shelly Bay. The two just managed to scramble ashore. Next day, Mr. Burgess saved the parts of his boat and took them home, and for year afterwards struggled to rebuild his lost vessel-but never finished it. His home on Paradise Alley is now known as Stanley House- a tribute to an indomitable spirit-while ‘Alley’ has been prettified to ‘Lane.’
A friend of mine once declared: “If you can’t get it in Flatts you don’t need it!”-and Flatts is quite remarkable for the business establishments it contains. You can buy your groceries and much else at the top of Paradise Alley at Twins, and, if a man, buy your clothing at the foot at Flatts Gift Shop. The shop also sells souvenirs and fishing tackle as the owner tailors his stock to changing merchandising needs. An antique dealer lives nearby, and just along the road is The Cutting Edge barber’s shop and Link to Link Jeweller , as well as Bermuda Bell Diving, with its underwater helmet tour. Soon you will be able to obtain architectural services from F. Stephen West & Associates in a fine old building, which was formerly Mr. Kingsley Dismont’s cycle rental and repair shop. Along the street renovations are progressing on the Flatts Liquors building, while nearby the long established Family Cleaners soldiers on through thick and thin. You can rent a cycle in Flatts or, in the same building, have your antiques repaired at Andre Hubbard’s -he also makes fine furniture. The same building holds a branch of Four Star Pizza and nearby is the former Halfway House, recently re-opened as a bistro. The only accommodation in Flatts for visitors today is at Brightside, but Palmetto Bay will come to life again as part condominium and part hotel.
And of course, just over the Bridge is that major tourist attraction, the Aquarium -BAMZ as it has now become the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo. Inspired by Mr. Louis Mowbray, the first curator, it was opened in 1928 and was a successor to the first Aquarium on Agar’s Island. The fine hall of fish tanks has recently been enlarged with the addition of the vast North Lagoon tank with schools of fish making a sparkling statement in their miniature ocean.
The Zoo part came into its own in the 1930s when Mr. Vincent Astor returned from a trip to the Galapagos bringing Galapagos penguins and tortoises with him on his yacht, the Normahaul. The penguins have died out and seals have taken their place in the outdoor pool north of the main building, but the tortoises live on at the time of writing penned in seclusion with the flamingos who are waiting for the completion of the new Caribbean exhibit to return to their accustomed pool. Nearby is the Museum, which once housed a heterogeneous collection of items relating to human and natural history, but now has been dedicated to natural history alone, and includes a splendidly laid out exhibit describing the geological development of Bermuda.
The Museum also includes a classroom available for visiting students-only one of the many facilities especially for children. The small ones will find a sand pit and toys at the Discovery Cove, while the Discovery Room contains such interesting exhibits as a touch pool where you find out just how sharp the prickers of a sea egg (sea urchin to off islanders) can be.
The Zoo is part of a worldwide movement of zoos doing their best to save animal species from extinction and is a far cry from my childhood when spider monkeys swung acrobatically from branch to branch in a large cage marked: ‘Monkey Bites. Hands Off.’ – so as a boy I kept my hands a long way away from those dangerous hand-eating fellows.
The whole complex is deeply indebted to the Bermuda Zoological Society, which raises funds to assist much of the work which has built up BAMZ, and Flatts with it, to its present stature.
There is an old story about Flatts and its tide told by a housekeeper of an establishment kept by a doctor near present St. James Court. Visiting friends, she told about the night of a dreadful rainstorm with thunder and lightning. It was late and the doctor had just come home and was sitting down to his supper when, lit by a flash of Lightning, they saw aged Miss Judkin seated in a boat in the tideway. She was one of the doctor’s boarders (this was before the days of hospitals) and everyone ran out in the rain shouting: “Backwater, Miaa Judkin, backwater.” Miss Judkin just sat there, so the crowd ran through the village to the Bridge as the Tide inexorably captured the rowboat and gave it a mighty push into Harrington Sound. Miss Judkin had a Bible on her lap, and as the boat dashed under the bridge she proclaimed: “The Prophet Samuel has called, and I must go!”
A fisherman went out and brought Miss Judkin back. She was dried and put to bed, and, said the housekeeper, determined to tell everything: “Do you know, after all that the Doctor’s supper was quite cold”.
And perhaps the Tide just smiled to itself- and kept on rolling along!
William S. Zuill is the author of The Story of Bermuda and Her People, which was published in a third edition by Macmillan in 1999.