This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in The Bermudian in May 1993. It appears here exactly as it did originally.

Embracing an area small enough to hold in the palm of one’s hand, Hamilton, retreating from the harbour and neatly defined in pastel, has over the centuries hosted entrepreneurs who discovered opportunity, each in his or her own way, in a city that became the crossroads for missionaries, merchants and privateers.

Transportation, shipping, a nineteenth and early twentieth century agricultural and fledgeling tourist trade, shaped the economic life of a capital where brigs, schooners and sloops piled between Bermuda, North America, the West Indies and England.

Cargoes of brandy, wine and rum, lace and silk, fruit and foodstuffs, when not transported by boat, were trekked through the city and outlying districts by sumpter-horses and donkeys.

Several roads leading into the city, prior to its emergence as the capital, were pitted with holes, making horseback riding a daunting task. Many were mere paths, and wheelbarrows were as common as today’s container juggernauts.

In 1796 an American visitor wrote that, “In the main road a sulky may pass, and even then in many places with difficulty.”

The sturdy horse has played a significant role in Hamilton’s, and on a wide scale, Bermuda’s history. As the city waxed and waned through periods of economic prosperity, the workhorse pulled boats, carriages, carts, buses, mail wagons, water-carts and refuse. Hitched to ploughs, they were key elements in the late nineteenth century, provided the foundation for a thriving, though comparatively short-lived agriculture trade.

However, before Hamilton’s ascendancy as the capital and centre of commerce, systematic letter collection and delivery was organized by John Stockdale, the proprietor, printer and editor of the Bermuda Gazette, Bermuda’s first newspaper. Inaugurated on January 31, 1784, a postal rate of four pence was placed on a single letter, with eight pence for any packet or letter not exceeding two ounces.

The blowing of a horn by the letter carrier, a slave on horseback, announced his approach, and such was the demand for this postal service that in quick fashion sub-postmasters were appointed to receive and dispatch mail to all parts of the island every Wednesday and Saturday morning.

On the return trip from Somerset, stops were made at Somerset Bridge, Port Royal, Heron Bay, Salt Kettle and Crow Lane every Thursday and Sunday morning.

But although there was a semblance of postal communication within the island, communication with other countries depended on a somewhat haphazard service, subject to the goodwill of ships’ captains on outgoing vessels.

It was not until October 18,1811 that a message was sent to the House of Assembly by Governor, Sir James Cockburn, in which he announced his recommendation to the British Government to initiate a regular and safe communication with England already enjoyed by other British colonies.

One of the oddest incidents , involving a Front Street blacksmith, occurred around 1817. According to sister Jean de Chantal Kennedy, in Biography of a Colonial Town, the blacksmith struck a customer over the head with his sledge-hammer, inflicting a mortal wound. Although the charge was murder, the jurors were seemingly perplexed about a verdict and sentencing. The coroner came to the rescue with a solution. Producing a crumpled piece of paper which registered the suicide of a young Warwick man who had drowned in Bassett’s Cave, this suicide was applied to the unfortunate blacksmith’s victim, and the jurors verdict recorded death by accidental drowning!

By 1817, letter-carriers on horseback rode from Hamilton to St. George’s on Monday and Thursday, from St. George’s to Hamilton on Tuesday and Friday, and from Hamilton to Somerset Bridge on Wednesday and Saturday.

Interestingly, William Facy, Hamilton’s first mail carrier, had years before been brought to a magistrate by his father for carrying off one of his father’s horses, selling it and spending the money. Facy senior, a livery stable owner, was horrified when his son was transported from the island. After serving the term of his sentence, the son was allowed to return to Bermuda and settled in Hamilton, adopted his father’s business, and amassed a healthy fortune as he became a fairly substantial property owner.

The Gazette in 1842 noted at the time of Facy’s appointment that “the great inconvenience form the want of a proper and regular mode of communication between the towns, will no longer be felt; and persons wishing to proceed form one town to the other will be enabled to do so as the Post carriers are allowed to convey passengers.”

Mail wagons came later. Lumbering horse-buses, dubbed ‘mail coaches’ or ‘express’, served passengers, mail and freight and to travel on them was an exercise in discomfort.

The freight, collected during a slow progression through the town, was extraordinary diverse, and on one journey included a box of salted codfish, a crate of pigs and a child’s coffin. This eclectic assortment, bundled onto the wagon and tied down, competed with passengers who squeezed into whatever space remained.

No passenger was refused transport, and at the end of the coach two steps allowed four or five persons a somewhat precarious foothold as they clung to the iron guardrail.

The trip from Hamilton to St. George’s took two hours without a change of horses, and the camaraderie of passengers was such that discomfort was accepted without complaint.

According to William Zuill in Bermuda Journey, an unexpected emergency occasionally released the passengers from their cramped position allowing time to stretch their legs, as on the occasion when a live turkey escaped and with a loud squawk took refuge in nearby shrubbery. The driver reined in the horses, and along with the passengers piled out to pursue the runaway.

In 1844, a Governor’s lady, soon after her arrival in the colony, remarked that she had never been in a place where there were so many white horses, for everyone who called on her drove behind one. The same William Facy mentioned earlier, who also owned a white horse, provided a carriage for hire in Hamilton.

By 1831, the city’s face consisted of a long row of houses with green and red verandahs. The wharf running along Front Street was planted with a row of Pride of India trees providing both a scent and shade. Shipping vessels unloaded almost at the doors of the destination of intended merchandise.

There was an abundance of melons, limes, oranges, peaches, grapes and other fruit, with fish and poultry in abundance. Turkeys were sold for ten cents a pound.

Anchored in the harbour, many naval ships lay riding the placid waters, and often were the venue for parties where those attending were transported by rowboat to the ship, climbing aboard a deck hung with flags forming a tent within witch lamps wreathed with flowers were suspended.

The social life of Hamilton during the middle of the nineteenth century was anything but dull. Balls, quadrilles and band concerts were frequent. But there was a distinct division between the women of Hamilton, St. George’s and Somerset.

One correspondent, reporting in the Harper’s Weekly on March 21, 1857, noted that “the ladies of St. George’s will not know the ladies of Hamilton, and the poor Somerset girls are tabooed by both. When a young traveler at the close of a ball, just after the departure of the Hamilton ladies, asked a Somerset lady to dance, she indignantly replies, “No I shan’t! Now that the Hamilton ladies are gone you ask me!” The officer, it is said, retreated to the safety of his gun deck.

The island’s black citizens also had their balls, and it was not uncommon to hold one or two a week. Lavish affairs, they were comparable to those held by the whites. Food was plentiful,and the beautifully dressed ladies danced into the wee hours of the morning with their smartly dressed male companions. Although St. George’s was the centre for most of these activities, Hamilton also had its fair share.

The gowns worn by the black ladies often exceeded those worn by whites at similar affairs, prompting curiosity about how they managed to accomplish this. Music was performed by black musicians who were adept on the violin, fiddle, flute and drums.

These balls had been common even before Emancipation. Then, a letter in the Gazette complained about the lateness of the dancing that kept white inhabitants awake and was bad for the slaves’ health.

“The extraordinary exertions made by the Negroes,” grumbled the writer, “in this hot weather in dancing must debilitate them beyond the measure and render them incapable of labour in the day to the great loss of their owners and the hurt of themselves in their health. It destroys their constitution.” The balls nonetheless continued.

By 1872 the Corporation was doggedly proceeding with road improvements. Lane Hill, connecting Middle Road with Front Street was in progress, but the work proved difficult, held up by an escarpment of hard stone at the eastern end of the town near the house of William Nusum who incidentally, as far back as June 4, 1844, had placed an advertisement announcing he “had a carriage in waiting, daily, about the centre of Front Street, provided with a competent driver, and capable of accommodating three persons comfortably- for the convenience of such persons as may wish to hire the same to proceed to any part of the island.”

In any case, it was decided to blast the stone out. Extra charges were buried in a hole that was covered with logs, chains and heavy pieces of stone. The charges proved more than adequate, the explosion sending the chain into the harbour, the stones flying over the town, and the logs into Nusum’s roof, one penetrating his drawing room. Luckily no one was harmed.

The next step was to install street lighting. In 1874 two lamps were ordered from Halifax at the cost of $17.25. Erected on ten-foot posts, they burned kerosene and threw a light equal to fourteen candles. One was placed at the top of Hamilton’s ferry steps. They proved satisfactory and the Corporation bought sufficient to illuminate Front Street and the intersections of several other streets.

A letter to the editor shortly afterwards complained that the one placed at Heyl’s Corner was unnecessary and should be transferred to Queen Street near Par-La-Ville. Two other intersections, Cedar Avenue and Dundonald, and Burnaby and Church were considered dangerous to carriages, as the posts had been put in the middle of the street. This was remedied by suspending the lights. In his book, The Bermuda Islands, published in 1889, Professor Angelo Heilprin who visited Bermuda to examine its physical history and zoology, stated “The capital city, Hamilton, has little interest to detain the stranger beyond the beautiful display of exotic plants which are to be found in private gardens. The broad and pleasant avenues which intersect the town at nearly right angles, and glisten with that intensity of which only a white limestone is capable, possess the general features of the ordinary country roads…They rarely require repairing, and their even compactness well sustains the quality for which the Bermudian roads are famous.”

He went on to say that “the shops are in the main not attractive, and on the whole they betray a lack of energy in their management which is surprising in a region so largely visited by strangers. We were recommended to a presumably fashionable confectioner’s, the floor space in whose establishment was given up in large part to a display of hats and clothing, and the walls to musical instruments. In another large establishment it was reported that anything could be obtained from a coffin to a pulpit but we found it impossible to procure an ordinary insect net; nor were we better rewarded as far as this, to us necessary article was concerned, by inquiry elsewhere.”

Some of Professor Heilprin’s views may have been less than flattering, and Mark Twain, who visited Bermuda would have stoutly disagreed. In any case, one wonder why a scientist who regards an insect net so “necessary”, did not have the good sense to bring one with him!

By the turn of the twentieth century, Front Street reverberated to the clatter of horse hooves, the rumble of carts and wagons, and a busy humanity. The Old Cellar Lane, sited opposite where horse and buggy drivers today cater to visitors, was one of many stables along Hamilton’s busy Front Street, sheltering horses and carriages.

By 1901 roads had been improved considerably. “The first thing which strikes the newcomer after going ashore,” stated a Quebec Steamship Company brochure of the time, “while driving to his abiding place, is the excellence of the road. Here indeed is a pavement, which is the acme of durability and good workmanship. It is simply the solid coral rock, planed down to a level, made by debris of the same material, which rapidly assume a cement-like level under the action of the elements. There are over a hundred miles of road on the island, which render walking, driving and cycling a continual pleasure. They not only climb the hills, but run often through deep, shady cuts…many enthusiasts of the wheel, who have visited Bermuda, have called it a cycler’s paradise…”

The Somerset Express for more than 70 years carried passengers and freight between Hamilton and Somerset, with countless stops to deliver travelers and goods en route. The 12-mile journey lasted from four to five hours one way.

Bicycles were the most popular means of individual conveyance in Hamilton and around Bermuda in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Horse-drawn Victorians or surreys were expensive to hire and the upkeep was such that few Bermudians could afford to own them privately. But everyone, it seemed, owned a bicycle. New bike were purchased for £11, second-hand between £5 – 8. Rentals were available to tourist by the hour, day or, week.

However, as Hamilton grew, the transportation problem deteriorated. Horses became scarce, and the health and quality of the over-worked beasts, plus the exorbitant price of carriage hire, forced Parliament to debate another means of getting about the Island.

One interesting note is that in 1908, several years before the advent of the motorcar, Albert purling inaugurated an automobile service with one touring car he named the ‘Scarlet Runner.’ But within a few weeks, persons whose horses had performed acrobatic feat in attempting to put as much distance between themselves and this startling contrivance, petitioned the Government to prohibit its operation.

Two months later the scarlet Runner’ was banned. Probably every horse on the island gave a neigh of relief.

As early as 1910 a Canadian corporation formed the Bermuda Trolley Company Limited, seeking to secure a fifty-year franchise for the development of a trolley service. Nothing ever came of it. There was a row that reached a climax fourteen years later when the Bermuda Railway Company was formed.

Train of Bermuda Railway Company entering Hamilton, courtesy of Bermuda Archives.

The railway, after impediment and delays, was finally constructed by the Balfour-Beatty Company under the supervision of Oliver Jones, son of the playwright, Henry Arthur Jones. On October 31, 1931, the first railway train ran from Hamilton to Somerset and marked a new, brief era in Bermuda’s transportation history.

Within seventeen years, the train, having proved a financial disaster, was dismantled, and along with its tracks shipped to British Guiana.

One amusing incident involving the train occurred in 1935. During a particularly violent thunderstorm, the train collided with a farmer’s cart. Realizing an accident was unavoidable, the train conductor leaned out, grabbed the farmer and hoisted him to safety, allowing the horse to slide down an embankment.

The irate farmer sued the railway company for damages but lost his case for being too sleepy to whip his horse out of harm’s way!

Carveth Wells, in Bermuda in Three Colors, described his experience as the train trundled slowly along Front Street in 1935.

“On your left are the oldest and most famous stores in Bermuda. Triminghams, Butterfield, Goslings, Darrells, Ourerbridges, Spurlings are just a few of the names you will glimpse as you glide slowly along, accompanied and passed by innumerable bicycles and carriages. On your right are the docks, piled high with Bermuda’s export and import although since the repeal of Prohibition you will no longer see the mountain of whisky that used to grace the wharves, waiting for modern pirates to transport them to thirsty America.”

Bur eight years before the grand entrance of the railway, there was concern about the unsanitary conditions of livery stables.

Although the bicycle had achieved pre-eminence, horse-drawn vehicles persisted as a primary means of wheeled transport.

A 1923 investigation by Dr. Andrew Balfour, invited by Government to examine matters connected with public health and sanitation in the colony, contained many pertinent recommendations, some of which were submitted for the consideration of legislature.

Many large livery stables, according to this report, were unsanitary, with fly-breeding in horse manure almost a cottage industry, contributing to the persistence of enteric fever.

Hamilton’s refuse collection lay in the hands of a contractor, and the Corporation employed three men as street scavengers. On Saturdays a five-man road gang was engaged in the general clean-up, particularly the area around the sheds on the wharves. When the solitary, antiquated, horse-drawn water cart was employed, a driver was engaged from a staff of carters.

With the exception of conditions on Front Street, inadequacies in the system of collection, removal and disposal of refuse were not readily apparent to the casual observer. The city carried a general air of cleanliness around its white streets, substantial sidewalks and well-constructed houses.

However, a good many of the yard were kept in a deplorable state, littered with all kinds of trash, which attracted rats and bred incessant flies. Conditions were worse in some of the alleys and yards just off Front Street, particularly those behind many food stores.

There was concern that Front Street, running as it did between the shops and the wharves, could not be kept clean until it was properly paved. Balfour suggested it should be asphalted to enable it to be hosed down daily. Conditions, he claimed were disgusting on windy days as desiccated horse dung, a common feature, was often blown into the shops. And surprisingly, only one small dustbin, carefully fastened to a lamp post, was provided along Front Street.

Stable litter was indeed a serious problem, but one notable exception was the small stable owned by T. W. Barrett. Not a wealthy man, he had spent £197 on his premises and adjoining cowshed and his yard was deemed acceptable.

But several large stables continued in a more or less unacceptable condition, with defective floors, no proper drainage and no means of dealing effectively with horse manure.

There was also an urgent need in both Hamilton and St. George’s for an increase in the facilities related to general street watering and cleansing.

In Hamilton there was but one almost obsolete water cart, and that was in poor condition. The streets were swept with hand brushes, and with the exception of Front Street, were kept in relatively fine condition.

While there is the opinion that Hamilton was a sleepy, lazy town, there was in fact considerable business activity. Works and private enterprise continued to increase, although the city was facing high prices, a decline in agricultural exports, and a labour shortage. To fill the void, a number of Portuguese immigrants, including farmers and general labourers, were brought in from the Azores.

By 1935 there were about 12,000 bicycles in almost daily use. The roads were ideal for cycling, and ‘reckless riding,’ thanks to police vigilance, was rarely in evidence. Severe sentences in those few cases where cyclists offended served as a deterrent.

Perhaps one of the most amusing anecdotes related to a bicycle chase occurred in 1938. In January of that year his Lordship, the Bishop of Bermuda paid a visit to The Royal Gazette offices. While there he spotted a newspaper photograph of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor sunning on the Riviera.

The photograph, tacked to a wall above a typist’s desk, somehow so infuriated the Bishop he tore it down and stalked away. An American magazine reported that after leaving his office the Bishop mounted his tandem bicycle with his manservant in the rear seat. The typist, recovering from her surprise, rushed to her own bicycle and set of in hot pursuit.

According to the magazine, the manservant glanced nervously over his shoulder and urged. “Hurry up, Milord, she’s gaining on us.”

The Bishop is reported to have stated that he “yielded to a sudden impulse,” and it is not clear whether the energetic and angry typist caught up with Milord.

Leading cycle liveries imported new bicycles from England at the beginning of each season for rent to their customers. These were sold at bargain prices at the end of the season to residents. Usually these cycles were equipped with coaster brakes, and riders not familiar to this device were cautioned to familiarize themselves with its operation before attempting to ride down any hill.

There was no roar of traffic in the 1930’s Hamilton. No shrieking trains. Pneumatic drills for construction were used but were retired. The blowing of horns or whistles and all kinds of offending noises was subject to penalty of law. The whinny of the horse and the musical tinkle of the bicycle bell were the only vehicular noise tolerated. Hawkers, peddlers and blaring radio loudspeakers were unacceptable in public places.

A calypso song in part, rendered by the Talbot Brothers in the late 1940’s, high­lighted the city’s and the Island’s transportation.

  • Oh, Mr. Trimingham! Oh, Mr. Trimingham!
  • Once you told me that the horse was here to stay;
  • Yet these chaps with stripes and bars
  • Chase around in motor cars,
  • And deprive our poor old dobbins of their hay.
  • Oh, Mr. Trott! Oh, Mr. Trott!
  • When they fix our roads this idea I have got-
  • In each motor car they ride
  • There must be a horse inside,
  • For a breakdown, Mr. Trimingham?
  • No, a shakedown, Mr. Trott!

Following World War II, a combination of circumstances changed the entire picture. Steamship lines had suffered war losses and were forced to reduce or cease operations. Air service underwent an explosive expansion and soon took over a large percentage of passenger transportation to and from Bermuda. The establishment of the American Base at the East End ushered in a new era.

The introduction of motor vehicles in 1946 altered forever the lifestyle of residents and tourists alike, sounding the death knell to most of the private livery services which became no longer profitable.

New taxi services sprang up in the city. Ferry services were operated by the Bermuda Transportation Co. Ltd., (Pearman Watlington & Company were agents) between Hamilton and Somerset Bridge Mangrove Bay and the Dockyard. There were six trips daily, Monday to Friday, even on Saturdays and four on Sundays. The one-way fare to Somerset, two shillings (forty cents), three shillings (sixty cents) for a round trip. Children under twelve paid half-price and the ever-popular bicycle, carried on board, cost six pence.

In 1947, a motor bus transport was introduced by the Government, and operated to a daily and Sunday schedule established by the Board of Public Transportation. The bus route supplemented the railway service by making various areas of the Island more accessible. The Hamilton terminal was sited on Parliament Street.

With the demise of the railway, the bus service was in place to fill much of the void. But the bicycle continued to be used, and all cycles had to be registered at the Police Registration Office on Victoria Street, near Wesley. Annual fees were mere shillings and all rented cycles were provided with a registration license by the dealer.

Several companies offered bicycles for hire – J. B. Astwood & Son on Front Street, Bermuda Bicycle Garage on Queen Street, Burnaby Cycles on Burnaby Street near Reid, and the Church Street Cycle Livery, Manhattan Bicycle Company, Palmers Cycles Company, and T. J. Wadson & Son, located at Front Street west.

However, by the beginning of the 1950’s, the number of push-cycles had sharply declined to less than 6,000, supplanted by motor-driven bicycles. A gallon of petrol cost forty cents, but a qaurt took a rider from one end of the island to the other.

There was a caution for all cyclist. Riders were to ring his or her bell before turning corners, and were expected to come to a complete halt before a stop sign. Cyclists, carriage drivers or motorists who failed to stop completely were subject to severe penalties. Every vehicle was required to carry a light after sundown and riders and drivers were admonished not to “scorch around corners or curves.”

Carriage transportation was still available to visitors through their hotel or guest house, directly from the liveries, or through a driver-owner operating from fixed stands on Front and Queen Streets.

These carriages were of two classes- the single Victoria which held two or three passengers, and the double, two-horse carriage which held five passengers comfortably.

However, with the onset of trucks and heavy-duty equipment brought in by Kindley Air Force Base, pressure mounted for the roads to be asphalted. The livery trade shrank even more drastically as Bermuda surrendered to the “infernal” combustion engine.

Berrnuda’s auto traffic – with Hillmans, Austins, Morrises, Fords and other small British models, began to purr, cough or choke along roads accustomed to creaking surreys and the clip-clop of horses. The motor-assisted bicycle, cheap, economical and handy, putt-putted in an often high-pitched whine causing the Transport Control Board to begin experimenting with sound metres.

Through the decades since, the motor- assisted bicycle has succumbed to the advent of the more powerful motorcycle. Hamilton has become a city of commuters, with traffic making into the city each morning and departing each evening.

Horse power has been replaced by horsepower. The city continues to grow even as it retains a certain inherent style, an unpretentious yet worldly sophisticated beneath a deceptive laid-back tranquillity.

Hamilton celebrates it two-hundredth anniversary, a new dynamic is at play. Its charm remains however, an example of the French adage, “The more it changes, the more it remains the same.”

Front Street, Hamilton in present day.