A glimpse into Somerset’s storied past with cannon shots and cricket, lawn tennis and literary meetings, skulduggery—and even murder.
There is a theory Somerset is named after Admiral Sir George Somers, who so appreciated this part of Bermuda his colleagues jokingly referred to it as “Sommers-seat.” However, neither William Strachey’s True Reportory nor Silvester Jourdain’s Discovery of the Bermudas, two narratives describing the wreck of the Sea Venture, mentions this. Nevertheless, it is true that shortly after the shipwreck Somers built a small boat which he used for fishing and for exploring the whole of Bermuda. As a result of his explorations, he was able to sketch out a map and sure enough included on it is the outline of the peninsula we now know as Wreck Hill and the island of Somerset. There’s no doubt, then, he sailed into the bays and natural harbours of the western end of the island, and it’s easy to imagine he appreciated the mangrove-edged inlets of Ely’s Harbour and the curve of Mangrove Bay, both for their beauty, untouched by development, and for their shelter. With his seafaring prowess, he must have soon become expert at negotiating the maze of reefs and recognising the cuts that would allow safe access to Somerset. Also, he would have noticed that going in the direction of Somerset usually meant travelling upwind, a fact that has caused generations of Bermudians to refer to Somerset as “up country.”
Six years after Somers’s death, the name, Somerset, appeared on another map of the island: Richard Norwood’s. When Daniel Tucker was governor, Norwood was mandated by the Somers Isle Company to survey the whole of Bermuda in order to allocate land to investors in London. He divided it into shares and tribes, giving 50 shares to each tribe with shares consisting of 25 acres each. However, land was left over. This overplus of some 200 acres fell between Southampton and Sandys parishes and consisted of, to quote Norwood, “a beautiful valley of fat and lustye soyle.” Tucker had been promised three acres of land as a bonus for his governorship. But he was so tempted by the overplus he caused a scandal by claiming the whole of it and by building a magnificent cedar house for himself. After some tense negotiation with the Company in London, the overplus was divided into seven parts, three parts going to Tucker (including the house), and the remainder to the church as glebe land divided between the two parishes.
Whereas Somers would have seen Somerset as open land without house or person upon it, today we see a lively community, firmly convinced their part of Bermuda is God’s country, and an intriguing mix of architecture whose design ranges from imperial public buildings, to gracious residences, to rustic cottages. What is architecture but a kind of biography? Certainly many of Somerset’s buildings give tantalising glimpses of events of centuries ago: cannon shots and cricket, for example, lawn tennis and demonstrations, literary meetings and skulduggery—even murder.
This article will look at some of Somerset’s characters who in one way or another were associated with these buildings, to see what part they played, however briefly, in Somerset’s history.
Wreck Hill & Ely’s Harbour
Some people argue that while Wreck Hill is definitely in Sandys Parish, it is not on Somerset Island because it’s located before the bridge. (Somerset Bridge was one of the first three to be constructed in Bermuda, appearing on John Smith’s map of 1624.) But its historical significance was entirely due to its view of Ely’s Harbour, as well as of the ocean, and for that reason is closely associated with Somerset. Originally, it was known as “Flemish Wreck” after a Dutch frigate ran aground the reefs in 1618. According to Terry Tucker’s Bermuda: Today and Yesterday, a messenger told the governor (one of the six temporary governors of the time whose neglect and self-interest were pushing Bermuda into a state of decline) the Dutch ship had an abundance of treasure. In fact there was just £20, which the governor pocketed. So began the Bermudian tradition of salvaging ships. In 1684, Jeremiah Burrows of Wreck Hill was brought before the governor for bringing into Ely’s Harbour a French ketch that had run aground, and then stealing the goods upon it. Local lore has it that bonfires on Wreck Hill were deliberately lit to lure ships onto the rocks. Certainly the practice of salvaging ships went on well into the nineteenth century, as was noticed by William Sydes who was a convict at Dockyard. In his Account of Life on the Convict Hulks, he writes, “If a vessel is on the rocks, all the fishing boats make to her, weather permitting, to see what they can purloin. They rejoice at such misfortunes and call her ‘a turtle in the net’ and all they try is to cause a confusion in the ship so as to get a load and off.”
A fort at Wreck Hill, known as Gun Point, also played a role in the American War of Independence, as indeed did the Tucker family who by this time had proliferated so much they became known by their estates—there were Tuckers of The Grove in Southampton, of Scrogham’s Point, of Church Hill, and of the bridge in Somerset. Colonel Henry Tucker of The Grove and Henry Tucker of Bridge House, both the colonel’s cousin and his son-in-law, were for pragmatic reasons supporters of the revolutionaries. When the Congress placed an embargo on all trade with Britain, Bermuda of course was adversely affected. Theoretically, the island was on Britain’s side. However, the Tuckers of The Grove (a house on the site of Daniel Tucker’s house where Port Royal Golf Course is now) and Bridge House (subsequently St. James’s Rectory) took part in the Gunpowder Steal of 1775 when gunpowder was taken from the gunpowder cavern at the British garrison and sneaked by boat to America in exchange for the lifting of trading restrictions. According to William Zuill’s Bermuda Journey, “…on the eve of the historic seizure of gunpowder it is said Bermudians came from America on the ships which were to carry off the loot landed here, dismounted ten guns on Wreck Hill and rolled them into the sea where, with the exception of one, they remain to this day.”
Meanwhile, the Burrows family remained at Wreck Hill. According to Hamilton, Volume Four of the Bermuda National Trust’s Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage Series, the Jeremiah Burrows mentioned above had land at the site of the present Wreck House from 1663 and that land stayed in the Burrows family for at least four generations. One Jeremiah had a grocery store at Wreck Hill from 1795 and according to E. A. McCallan’s Life on Old St. David’s Bermuda, customers from St. David’s would travel by boat to buy their goods. During that year the Royal Navy bought land on the top of Wreck Hill with the idea of building a lighthouse there. The foundations were laid but it was never built. Gibbs Hill was considered the better location.
The next Jeremiah, in 1798, was in charge of the forts at Wreck Hill and nearby West Side. He kept the shop and also had salt-raking interests in the Turks and Caicos Islands. It’s likely he was involved in the smuggling activities that went on at Wreck Hill and at neighbouring Ely’s Harbour.
Ely’s Harbour was named after William Eli who settled here in 1621. Surrounded by a maze of reefs, Ely’s Harbour was a refuge for smugglers and illicit traders who would stop here first before declaring a fraction of their cargo in St. George’s. One form of contraband was rum, crucial for the local tavern keepers who, Michael Jarvis writes in In the Eye of All Trade, were mostly women whose clients were mariners and local craftsmen. Naturally, they were averse to a British presence so that on one occasion a tavern keeper, John Bethell’s wife, refused to provide quarters for soldiers sent to patrol the Somerset coast.
Tensions between locals and the garrison ran high. Once the soldiers arrived in 1778, they often took Bermudian livestock and firewood for themselves, and as reprisals for the Bermudians aiding the Americans, would seize or burn Bermudian ships, as happened to a Mr Hinson whose £600 ship was burned in 1778. According to Jarvis, the garrison had claimed an American ship carrying food that had been stranded on a reef in the West End. But the British did not bargain for the piloting skill of a group of slave fishermen. A chase ensued with the fishermen easily winning. Led by Tom, they reached the ship first and off-loaded it. The soldiers found the slaves’ empty boat, traced it and discovered that though Tom was “owned” by Robert Tucker, he had been working for Hinson. And that was why Hinson’s boat was destroyed although he gained nothing from Tom’s salvaging activities.
Crossways & the Somerset Bridge Club
Crossways, a picturesque cottage by Somerset Bridge, was for 70 years the meeting place of a literary and scientific association—thus proving life in Somerset during the eighteenth century wasn’t all about smuggling and adventures at sea. According to Jarvis, it was founded in 1765 near Bermuda’s first book and stationer’s shop owned by James Rivington of New York who opened it through a partner in Bermuda. A surviving printed pamphlet of rules bearing the signature of one Henry Tucker tells us, by 1784, the club was held “every Thursday night at the house of Mrs Ruth Young.” (Her husband, Captain Elias Young, had left her Crossways after he died.) The rules tell us that the annual dues would be 20 shillings a year until 1790 and members would be accepted by ballot. In addition to the annual fee, members also paid 1s 4d (one shilling and four pence) to the treasurer for books, pamphlets and magazines to pay for its extensive lending library. Zuill explains in his Bermuda Journey that one of the aims of the club was to acquire “all the books on economics in whatever language they have been written.” They even hired a librarian. One book known to have belonged to their library and now in the Bermuda Archives is a copy of Memoirs of Claude Joli, Canon of Notre Dame and the Dutchess of Nemours.
Each Thursday, a fish supper would be served between eight and nine o’clock at the cost of one shilling per person (people who failed to attend had to pay 8d) after which the rules say, “Card playing shall then cease and not be resumed for the evening.” Subjects of conversation ranged from literature to science, from religion to economics, but members were also interested in social problems of their time—unemployment, for example, and pensions. They wanted old-age pensions for people who had worked for 40 years.
There was a penalty system which no doubt helped to fill the coffers of the library. People who spoke out of order or more than once on the same subject were fined between “8d and 2s 8d.”
The pamphlet does not mention the names of the membership, but it’s known that the Tuckers attended, particularly two sons of the colonel—St. George who stayed in America, supporting the revolutionaries, and Nathaniel who went to Edinburgh to become a doctor and who for a time acquired fame for his poem “The Bermudian” recalling his childhood at The Grove. It begins:
BERMUDA, parent of my early days,
To thee belong my tributary lays;
In thy blest clime, secur’d from instant harms,
A tender mother press’d me in her arms,
Lull’d me to rest with many a ditty rare,
And look’d and smil’d upon her infant care.
She taught my lisping accents how to flow,
And bade the virtues in my bosom glow.
The Edinburgh Magazine and Review by a Society of Gentlemen, in praising it, comments, “Here we find a poet, in whom the ardour of his youth, the love of nature, and the powerful prepossession for his natal soil, unite their conspiring blaze, and animate his strains with uncommon force and tenderness.” No doubt the Somerset Bridge Club agreed. Today, readers are more struck by his commitment to rhyming couplets, so fashionable then and so tedious now.
Royal Naval Dockyard Transforms Somerset
Once Bermudian shipping declined, thanks to larger and then faster ships in America, Somerset’s harbours would not be appreciated again until after the growth of tourism in the twentieth century. As happened elsewhere in Bermuda, people in Somerset had to resort to farming although they were luckier in that their soil was more fertile than that in the central and eastern parishes. Jarvis points out: “The great value of the western parishes as planting land is evidenced by the fact the Bermuda Company charged Sandys, Southampton and Warwick planters a premium duty over the remaining six parishes on their tobacco…” During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, farming became an important part of Somerset’s economy with exports of vegetables being sent to New York. A lovely quote from Marie St. Felix’s novel, Told by Two: A Romance of Bermuda (1901), puts it this way: “‘Somerset is not famous in any way, that I have heard of, but is said to be very picturesque,’ Polly comments. ‘I believe it is a retreat for invalids who find life at Hamilton too gay, Somerset being unmistakably pastoral…’”
However, it was the development of Dockyard that made all the economic difference to Somerset. Terry Tucker explains in The Islands of Bermuda that after the principal owners of Ireland Island and other islands in the Great Sound sold their land to the Admiralty, they moved to Somerset and are there to this day: the Gilberts, Harveys, Fowles, Youngs, Outerbridges, Williams and Woods. As Dockyard grew, so did the demand for skilled labour and for people to fill civilian positions with the result that an influx of workers arrived from England and from the West Indies, with many moving to Somerset. One such worker from St. Kitts was former MP Walter Lister’s grandfather—James Alfred Lister, who travelled to Bermuda with his wife and family of five in 1902. Eighteen years later he bought land on Heathcote Hill near Sound View Road in Somerset for about £100.
By 1946, Zuill described Somerset as the most densely populated part of Bermuda after Pembroke Parish because of its proximity to Dockyard, which trained apprentices and gave employment to many Bermudians. Consequently, smaller houses and cottages were constructed for the new inhabitants, including a number of wooden houses built for and by West Indian labourers. Today, they have a rustic charm, particularly the ones on Greenfield Lane and East Shore Drive.
The increase in population also affected transportation. According to Ronald (Ronnie) John Williams’s Bermudiana, in 1936 the Somerset Express, a horse-drawn bus, could take five hours to jolt its passengers all the way from Hamilton to Somerset. However, Enith Simons in Bermuda Recollections mentions a special service for Dockyard workers during the 1920s and ‘30s. “During this period a horse drawn bus owned by Mr. Lane left the centre of Somerset Village every working day at noon to go to the Dockyard.” He went to deliver hot lunches to the men who worked there. The wives prepared these meals and placed them in enamel or metal containers, each covered with a thick towel and clean white napkin and each with a nametag. The bus, she recalls, also took women to Dockyard to pick up laundry from the men. The women were paid more to wash, starch and iron the officers’ suits.
In 1931 came the train whose single track extended from St. George’s to Hamilton to Somerset. Carveth Wells’s Bermuda in Three Colours (1935) depicts Somerset as seen by train and immortalises one 80-year-old Minnie Hunt who lived at Teucer Place where she was born. She was a champion croquet player and she had “the right to halt all trains.”
Post Offices, Police Stations, Murder & Suffragettes
The story of Mangrove Bay Post Office is a little confusing since it has over time changed its location. Today it is housed in the Armoury Building on Mangrove Bay Road. The first post office was opened in 1844 in a house also on Mangrove Bay Road originally built by John Fowle between 1826 and 1828. Still there, in use as a private home, it’s now known as the Old Post Office. Its first assistant postmaster was Jauncey Outerbridge. But the building also acted as a courthouse and jail (and later as a tearoom). In 1878 Edward Skeeter, a black Bermudian man known as “the handiest man in the parish” was held there for a night to protect him from a group of about 20 angry women who, convinced he had murdered his wife, Anna, had attempted to lynch him. Anna had disappeared eight days before from their cottage on Somerset Long Bay. It was generally known that Skeeter was often unfaithful, cruel and physically abusive to his wife so there was logic behind the women’s actions. He was later released but once again the women threatened violence. Skeeter was duly charged with murder, but he was not held again at the Old Post Office for fear the women would once again attack him. Instead he was held in the City of Hamilton jail. A few days later some fishermen and farmers were on a hill looking out to sea when they noticed that while the sea had white caps, a small portion of the channel off Long Bay was unnaturally calm. A couple of days later two men, including Anna’s brother, rowed out to investigate and found Anna’s skeleton which they brought back to the Skeeters’ cottage on the shoreline of Daniel’s Head Road next to Somerset Long Bay. Skeeter was charged at the Hamilton courthouse, found guilty and hanged. He left a chilling confession, referring to her as “my dear Anna…my dear wife” and to her “dear head” lying on the floor, while explaining how he had thrown a brass lamp at her, choked her to death so she could not complain about it and then thrown her body weighted by a stone overboard into the channel. His motive? He wanted to stop her scolding him for coming home late. Their cottage was burned by arsonists the night of Skeeter’s hanging. Remnants of its ruin may be hidden beneath the high tangle of night-blooming cereus now growing there.
By 1905 the post office had moved to what is now the Somerset Police Station, which with its colonnade of arches, wide steps and pilasters had been built in the imperial style in 1901. It, too, was a courthouse and for many years was where suffragists, led by Somerset inhabitant Gladys Misick Morrell, would demonstrate. Misick created the slogan: “The Three S’s: Somerset Solid for Suffrage”. Refusing to pay parochial taxes because they could not vote, suffragettes had their furniture seized and then sold by auction outside the courthouse. Women would buy the furniture and give it back to the owners. Julie A. Farnsworth draws on that event for her charming short story “From Under a Hibiscus Bush” published in the anthology I Wish I Could Tell You and written from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl who, in hiding, watches the proceedings as her father acts as auctioneer. Women finally received the vote in Bermuda in 1944.
While the Bermuda suffragette movement was mostly white, one member was Alice Scott, a black nurse who had qualified at the Lincoln Hospital in New York. The similarities between these two strong women, Scott and Morrell, are striking during this era of virtual apartheid. Both loved tennis. Morrell was a member of the white Somerset Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club which met every Thursday afternoon for croquet, tennis, tea and talk at Melville House on Mangrove Bay—where the two courts still exist in somewhat dilapidated condition. Andrew Burnett-Herkes, who currently lives at Melville House and who was a member, says the club originally met at Daniel’s Head and then moved to Mangrove Bay. The courts were grass at first, then French clay and then concrete.
As was customary at the time, the club was for whites only. Excluded because of her race, Scott was undeterred. She founded the Shady Rest Tennis Club and was also a founding member of the Somers Isle Lawn Tennis Club. She often played in overseas tennis tournaments. Both Scott and Morrell were passionate about social issues. Morrell was a cofounder of the Bermuda Welfare Society which ironically prevented black nurses, including Scott, from working at the King Edward Hospital. Scott founded and ran the Shady Rest Nursing Home for 40 years, until her retirement in 1966. She also cofounded Sandys Secondary School, at one point mortgaging her house to support it financially, and later unsuccessfully ran for parliament. Who nominated her? Gladys Morrell.
The Somerset Cricket Club
Appropriately on Cricket Lane, the Somerset Cricket Club also has an imperial architectural style with its arched and columned verandah overlooking the field. It was founded 44 years after the first official Cup Match game was played between Somerset and St. George’s Odd Fellows, and built by James Horton, a member of a prominent Somerset family. He had a carpentry shop on Cambridge Road and spent time mentoring young men in the trade. His daughter, Josephine Smith, now director of quality assurance for RenaissanceRe, says her love of maths came from him. She remembers him as a quiet man who was a champion billiards player and a jockey at the Shelley Bay Race Track. One of his nephews is Randy Horton, well-known Somerset football player, who of course played many a football game at the club. According to Dorcas Roberts, director of preservation for the Bermuda National Trust, the Lopes’s garden next door was often the landing place for the ball when a batsman hit a six.
Felicity Hall & Aberfeldy
The picturesque Felicity Hall on Long Bay Lane was first owned by an early Somerset family—William and Sarah Seymour—in the latter part of the eighteenth century. In 1798, it was sold to Captain William Morris who married Rachel Dalzell in 1813. (The house could have been a wedding present from her father, John Dalzell, a naval doctor who was shipwrecked in Bermuda on his way to Nevis in 1783. He stayed on, married Mary Seymour Poulton and assembled properties on the land which now constitutes the Heydon Trust.) Eventually, Felicity Hall was rented to a number of interesting tenants including Thalia Misick (Morrell’s mother) and writer Harvey Allen who wrote Anthony Adverse there. Wells, a descendent of Dalzell, lived at the house and wrote his Bermuda in Three Colours, an overly jocular book peppered with exclamation points. Later, long-term editor of The Bermudian, Ronnie Williams, also rented the house where he entertained famous writers such as Ernest Hemingway, James Thurber and Sinclair Lewis. His daughter, Jenny Terceira, remembers humorist James Thurber: “He was the only man Daddy wo
uld let sit in his chair. James Thurber was very, very tall and his legs were very bony.” A keen tennis player, Williams was for a time president of the Somerset Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
Dating back to the eighteenth century, Aberfeldy, originally Myrtle Grove, was once the home of the Onions family. According to Chris Gibbons at bermudabiographies.bm, “Bermuda’s best-known and most influential architect of the 20th century, Wilfred Richmond ‘Wil’ Onions, was instrumental in developing the revivalist Bermudian vernacular style that came to define the island’s architecture and inspire Bermudian architects long after his death.” Onions designed City Hall, which sadly he never saw completed as he took his own life in 1959, apparently over a disagreement with a client whose house he was designing on Wreck Hill. The client wanted to make changes to the plans that were at odds with the traditional Bermudian style of architecture Onions loved.
Bermudians still remember a theatrical group called That Somerset Lot, a precursor to Not the Um Um Show, who would perform skits and revues for the public at Aberfeldy. Onions was a member, as well as a member of the Harem Scarem revue that ran from 1923 to 1948 with Gilbert and Arthur Cooper being key players.