First settled in 1612 and home to several prominent Bermudian families. Flatts has a long and colourful history that includes shipbuilding, commerce and even a little smuggling.
When people living in Bermuda think about Flatts, chances are they think about the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, the main attraction in the area for visitors and locals alike. They might also think “picturesque” because the quaint old buildings around the inlet, the curve of coconut trees and the variety of sea vessels bobbing on the blue-green waters racing to and fro under the bridge make that word particularly apposite. And for some, the eateries at the Aquarium and on the north shore in Flatts offer a relaxing venue with a view for lunch or dinner.
Nobody, however, would see it as an important port and a bustling hub of shipbuilding and commerce. Today, few trucks and cars and bikes stop at Flatts. Instead, they hurtle past the Aquarium, over the bridge, to Hamilton or race round the walled end of the inlet, up the North Shore Road and round to Jennings Land. But long before an aquarium was even thought of, there was a time when Flatts was a harbour second in importance only to St. George’s.
It was even, for short periods during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the seat of government. Eminent local white families, such as the Paynters, Penistons and most notably the Mussons, would make their fortunes and change the landscape by building their prosperous stone homes and warehouses. Later the family of black Bermudian Clarence Orester Darrell would rise to similar prosperity and eminence thanks to his gift for enterprise and philanthropy. And famous visitors from the States and Canada would stay in houses here, contributing to the social scene. They all have their stories, but so do other residents not so eminent. At least two slave stories happened in Flatts.
This article will recall Flatts’ livelier history through historical records and books, and by means of early maps, pictures and photographs will reveal how Flatts has changed visually and how it has not.
Flatts Bridge & Bridge House
Flatts’ history goes right back to the beginning of Bermuda’s first official settlement in 1612 when, according to Hamilton Parish, Volume IV of the Bermuda National Trust’s Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage Series, the area was one of the pieces of common land allocated by Somers Island Company.
Flatts has always had its own identity, given it is shared by two parishes. Part of the area nearest to the inlet is in Hamilton Parish, while the southern part is in Smith’s Parish. It is likely that locals would dry fish and tobacco on racks here. In fact the very name “Flatts” could be derived from the Dutch fleigh—a word for a stage for drying fish. Although for some reason Captain John Smith’s map of Bermuda published in 1624 does not depict a bridge at Flatts, we know the footbridge erected over the tidal race was likely to have been the first one built in Bermuda since it was mentioned in the minutes of the House of Assembly’s first meeting in 1620: “The Bridge wch is already erected at the fflatts ouer the mouth of the little sound be made more substantiall.” In those days Harrington Sound was known as the “little sound” and the area around the bridge as “sound’s mouth” because here was the only visible opening of Harrington Sound to the ocean.
We are fortunate that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries some visitors to Bermuda were also artists and chose to immortalise the Flatts of their time in sketches, watercolours and, later, in photographs. George Tobin, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy aboard the Thetis, was one such artist although his picture of Flatts Inlet dated 1797 does not depict the bridge. Neither does Dr. Johnson Savage’s watercolour of Flatts painted in the early 1830s when he came out to Bermuda to serve as a young surgeon in the Royal Artillery. But artist Thomas Driver, who came to Bermuda from Britain in 1814, eventually becoming an auctioneer in partnership with John Augustus Musson, gives us in his 1823 watercolours a much clearer view of the flimsy wooden bridge and indeed of the sandy bay surrounding the inlet where tarmac roads are now. Later Susette Harriet Lloyd would describe it in her Sketches of Bermuda published in 1835. “The Flatts,” she says, “are separated from the opposite shore, which is however a part of the mainland, by a narrow channel, over which a wooden bridge has been thrown; it is about thirty feet long, and is supported by three stone piers ….” Crosses in the background of her sketch mark the bridge.
In the heyday of shipbuilding before steamships succeeded Bermuda sloops, bridges were constructed so they could open for ships passing through. A notice in the Royal Gazette of 1833 tells us: “The Flatt’s Bridge will be removed on Tuesday, 19th inst. & the Passage remain uncovered for several days.” Apparently, the charge for removing the bridge was 10 shillings. Once shipbuilding declined, the bridge became stationary. The safety of the bridge was sometimes a concern—in 1827, for example, it was deemed too dangerous to go over. But it also instilled fear in offenders and slaves since it was a public place of barbaric punishment. W. E. Zuill in his book Bermuda Journey cites an example in 1718 when a blasphemer was made to stand on a cask on the bridge and have his tongue bored through with a hot iron. And it was on this bridge that the “jumper,” responsible for punishing slaves, would whip them—or worse. A somewhat happier slave story is also narrated in Bermuda Journey. A slave called John would swim from Flatts “to his beloved on the other side of Harrington Sound.” When his slave master discovered this nightly escapade, he staked John into the ground. But John was so strong he pulled out the stake and swam with the stake still attached to him. Apparently this exploit and John’s determination so impressed his “owner” he was allowed to marry his girlfriend in a broomstick ceremony.
In his Flatts paintings, Thomas Driver depicts the present Bridge House, appropriately named because of its proximity to the bridge. But according to Hamilton Parish, there had been a house in that location long before, the earliest one probably belonging to the bridge keeper. A house at the bridge was first mentioned in 1681 when a slave, Indian John, was held prisoner there for attempting to murder the Maligan family and to burn their house, on the site of Orange Grove, Smith’s Parish. He was hanged, drawn and quartered on neighbouring Gibbet’s Island. Land near Flatts Bridge belonged to the Peniston family. The Governor’s Council met there in 1696 and 1702–9, and later the Court of Assizes was held there. The present Bridge House was bought in 1822 by Augustus Peniston, who may have built it, and he became a receiving housekeeper when, in 1844, the house became a receiving office (an early branch post office). The mail coach, also carrying passengers, would run between Hamilton and St. George’s, stopping at Government House. An advertisement in the Royal Gazette informs us more Penistons were running a business there in 1887: “The Misses Peniston beg to announce that they are prepared to execute all orders entrusted to them…with neatness and despatch. Hats and Bonnets trimmed after the latest New York styles.”
Much later, in 1920, the house was bought by the parents of Sir Henry Tucker, who would become Bermuda’s first government leader.
The Inlet, the Mussons & Clarence Orester Darrell
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Flatts, as a sheltered harbour close to the former capita
l, St. George’s, was an important centre for shipbuilding, trading and importing. It was also a haven for smugglers who wanted to cheat the “searcher”—in other words the excise man who would check ships coming into St. George’s for dutiable cargo. As evocatively described in Bermuda Journey, traders would instead make their way to the inlet:
“…let us picture a sloop, homeward bound from the West Indies, silently creeping in through the inlet on a rising tide of a moonless night. As she enters the channel the men begin to hail to arouse the village, so that by the time she is ready to drop anchor there are many willing hands to drop a hawser and warp her in. Candles are now being lit in many houses and soon the narrow road, deserted only an hour ago, is bustling with activity as women and children follow the men to the waterfront …. The hatches are off in a trice and punchions of rum from Barbados, bales of silk from wrecking operations at the Bahamas or Caicos Islands and other precious cargo are all trundled away from the vessel and hidden in secret places.”
Eventually, Flatts’ importance faded. Smuggling became more difficult after the City of Hamilton was founded, subsequently becoming the principal port of entry and the island’s capital. In addition, Bermuda’s famous sloops and schooners gave way to the larger steamships, so that shipbuilding declined. The inlet itself was changing, since it silted up. Indeed, in one of Thomas Driver’s paintings, the water at the inlet’s head is so shallow he depicts cows paddling in it.
Look over the inlet from the bridge towards St. James Court and at first the scene seems very different from Driver’s paintings. These condominiums, of course, were built late in the twentieth century. But look closely to the left of them and you realise with a shock some of the buildings and warehouses he depicted are still there, albeit sometimes with subsequent additions—Bridge Heights, Stanley House, Fairview, residences from the start, and Lazy Corner, Old House and Westport, once storehouses. All of them in the past belonged at some point to the Mussons, who according to Hamilton Parish were among the first to make their homes in Flatts as well as their businesses. They became the dominant and one of the most prosperous families in Flatts during the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. The history of the family is somewhat confusing since they tended to intermarry and to pass on to their children the same forenames—Susanna, for example, William and James and John. One Susanna, sister of prominent Flatts residents James, Samuel, Robert, John, Robert and Giles Musson, had a particularly intriguing life. She never married and was extremely independent, being the owner of ships and of a variety store. Hereward T. Watlington writes in his Family Narratives that she was “dubbed ‘Captain Sukey’” because she once safely navigated one of her own vessels back to Bermuda when the master of that boat was very sick. She was also known as an eccentric, shabbily dressed miser. A sister who lived with her died from starvation. After her sister’s death, Captain Sukey had a fit of conscience and frequently placed food on her tomb. When Sukey herself died, her cousins benefited from the money they found hidden inside teapots and chairs. According to Family Narratives, a Miss Anna Maria Outerbridge, known as the Bailey’s Bay historian, had mixed feelings about the whole of the Musson family: “The men and women of this family were always good looking; they were aristocratic and carried themselves as gentlemen; they were pleasant and had good minds, but in some cases their morals and business principles were not of the best.”
Perhaps she was thinking about the smuggling days of Flatts. Certainly another of the Musson’s
properties, Stanley House, built in the mid-eighteenth century, still has the extensive cellars once used for storage by merchants, or most likely, smugglers.
As the Musson family’s fortune declined, so Clarence Orester Darrell’s increased. The son of a barrister and soliciter general, he was born in 1859. In 1885 he purchased Clarendon, a two-storey building on the corner of Middle and Clarendon Roads. Here he opened a provisions store, and also a dry goods store on the corner of Middle Road and Paradise Lane where Belvin’s grocery store is now. In addition, he opened a cycle livery and liquor store on the north shore in Flatts. The Old House, shown in a Driver watercolour and possibly built by William James Sears of Orange Grove, Smith’s, also attracted Darrell’s attention. He bought it in 1909. In the City of Hamilton, he ran a livery and grain business and was one of the largest importers in Bermuda.
But Clarence Darrell had his employees at heart. We can see that Stanley House in the Driver painting had planting land behind it. In 1897, Darrell purchased 1¾ acres of that land, divided it into building lots and sold it cheaply to employees. In 1914, he constructed Darrell’s Range on Clarendon Road for his workers. After he died at St Luke’s Hospital in New York in 1922, flags were flown at half-mast when his body was returned to Bermuda on the SS Fort George.
Flatts & the Years of Tourism
Where St. James Court is now, there was once a house built by the Mussons over two generations. Called Frascati, it became the Frascati Hotel at the beginning of the twentieth century when tourism began to develop. In 1926, it benefited from the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, founded as an important attraction for Flatts, and in 1931, by the opening of the Bermuda Railway, which had a bridge going over Flatts as well as a stop at the Aquarium itself. Frascati must have gained a larger clientele because of both institutions. The Second World War caused a hiatus for the tourism industry, but the hotel was not left deserted. It hosted the United Service Organization (USO) that for many American servicemen was the symbol of Bermuda. Here the Talbot Brothers would sing their harmonious, mischievous songs to the soldiers. Indeed, whenever soldiers arrived on the island, the colonel at the base would make sure they were treated to a Talbot Brothers’ concert before going off to fight. An army truck would be sent to pick the singers up. After the war, Frascati was renamed the Coral Island Hotel where again the Talbots would regularly perform. So would Hubert Smith and the Coral Islanders.
Another gracious property built for and owned by the Mussons—Palmetto Grove—also became a hotel, the Palmetto Bay Hotel next to Bridge House. In the 1980s, when the Bermuda College was at Roberts Avenue, the hotel was a favourite watering hole for exhausted lecturers celebrating the end of the semester. Now, it too has been destroyed and its site occupied by condominiums. One landmark remains, however—an old mahogany tree. According to Zuill in Bermuda Journey, the house’s former owner, Samuel Musson, used to sit under it as an old man and drink sangria while a manservant fanned him with a palmetto leaf to protect him from the heat and flies.
Wistowe & the Tidal Race
Wistowe, on the southern side of the inlet, has a long and interesting history. In Bermuda Journey, Zuill describes a duel in 1741 at a dance and supper garden party on the site. The opponents were Robert Hill and Peter Nice, a newcomer to Flatts who was married to a local beauty. It was thought that she had rejected Robert as a suitor. Whatever the reason, there was a quarrel and Nice, not so nicely, slapped Hill with a glove and challenged him to a duel. It was agreed that the weapons would be swords. “The two men,” Zuill writes, “faced each other in the moonlight with the silvery tide of Flatts inlet flowing seaward only a few feet away.” Nice was struck in the stomach and died the following day. Hill was sentenced to death but was eventually pardoned by Governor Alured Popple. What happened to Mrs. Nice is a mystery.
Later, there was a bakehouse located at Wistowe which
supplied bread to Royal Naval ships anchored off the north shore. By 1818, Wistowe was the Union Theatre. Zuill’s Bermuda Sampler quotes the Royal Gazette’s sententious report: “We are happy to find the rational and moral enjoyment of Theatrical amusements, the present season, has superseded the unsatisfying and senseless parade of balls and assemblies.” Apparently, a “Farce ‘Raising the Wind’” and the “comic entertainment of ‘The Weather Cock or the Way to Fix Him’” were held there to a “very respectable and full audience.”
The present house, originally called Walkerville, was built by John Walker, and he had the ingenuity to make use of the tidal race in and out of Harrington Sound for powering a gristmill to grind aloe so that he could export the juice to be used for medicinal purposes. He had slaves dig an underwater tunnel beneath the property to join Harrington Sound with Flatts. Many a person today remembers as a child exploring the tunnel and surfing the tide.
After the end of the American Civil War in 1865, Wistowe became the home of Charles Maxwell Allen, the American consul, who became much loved for his generous hospitality. Mark Twain was one guest; Julia Dorr another. In her Bermuda, An Idyl of the Summer Islands, she describes a visit to his house: “Its brick paved court, with arched entrance, from which winding stairs on the outside of the house lead to the drawing rooms above, and its overhanging, projecting balconies, give it a singularly foreign aspect that is very charming.” She saw that Allen also used the tunnel and tidal race, this time to feed water into the fountain he had constructed. She remarks on the “dozens of beautiful angelfish so exquisite in their blue and gold, and with something so human in their mild innocent faces, that they seemed half uncanny.”
A report in the Royal Gazette of 1879 reveals that Allen extended his hospitality to the Bermuda Hunt Club. “Members of the Bermuda Hunt Club approach over fields behind Mont Clair, riding as far as Orange Grove, then turning down to Flatts Village and across Flatt’s Bridge, to finish over hurdles erected at Wistowe Lodge, for the benefit of the ladies assembled at this beautiful residence of the American Consul. Everybody steps inside for Cherry Brandy and other delicious refreshments, before jogging homewards.”
From 1928–32 another famous person retired at Wistowe—Reginald Fessenden, a radio pioneer. And he, too, used the tidal race to power his generator while making a lobster cage and a pool to raise oysters in the canal. But he also cared about his coconut trees. According to Bermuda Journey, he hired a West Indian, who called himself “the coconut doctor,” to look at his coconut trees which he thought should bear more fruit. The “doctor” climbed the trees to salt the budding fruit. Apparently, the salt worked—they had a “luxuriant crop.” Zuill also relates the touching story of how when Fessenden planted more trees along the seawall, he placed in the holes “a pound of ship biscuits for nourishment, a horseshoe for luck and a lump of charcoal for warmth.”
This recipe also worked. Wistowe’s curve of trees is today a well-loved landmark.