The late Bermudian writer Ann Williams (née Zuill) was also a raconteur and would delight many people here and abroad with her Bermudian stories. Arguably, her best and most famous, which she told in the St. David’s vernacular of the 1930s, complete with w’s being pronounced as v’s, was about a St. David’s funeral. Unfortunately, a family recording of the story has been lost (temporarily, it is hoped) but a less lively version is recounted in Carveth Wells’s Bermuda in Three Colours, published in 1935. The story is a good illustration of how St. David’s Island’s isolation had a direct effect even on funerals. Wells explains that in Bermuda at the time “there was a law the sun may not rise and set upon a corpse.” So if a person died in the evening his or her body had to stay in the house until after sunrise the following morning. He goes on to tell the story:
“Some years ago, the rector of St. George’s received a telephone call from St. David’s asking him to officiate at a funeral at 2:30 in the afternoon. Just as he was about to start by boat for the island, the telephone rang and he was asked to wait for an hour.
At 3:30, the rector again was about to start for St. David’s when again he was requested by telephone to wait another hour.
Knowing that the burial could not take place after sunset, the rector objected to any further delay, so the party on the other end of the telephone told him to come on over and promised to explain matters when he arrived.
‘The Daisy’ ferry
After the burial was over, one of the St. David’s Islanders explained that the delay was due to an unfortunate accident to the coffin. It appears the coffin had been ordered from Hamilton whence it had arrived safely by carriage. It then had to be transported to the island by boat, but during a sudden gust of wind, the coffin had been blown overboard, where it immediately filled with water. Try as they would, they were unable to get the coffin back into the boat, so there was nothing to do but tow the waterlogged coffin through a rough sea to land.
The first delay had been asked because the coffin had not arrived and the second because the coffin had to be dried out before nailing up the body.”
The rector would have served St. Peter’s, the parish church of St. George’s, and would have crossed St. George’s Harbour in a boat, landing at Church Wharf in St. David’s and walking to St. David’s Chapel of Ease round the corner. (The term “chapel of ease,” dating back to the sixteenth century, refers to a chapel built for the convenience of parishioners living a long distance from their parish church. St. David’s Chapel of Ease, then, was well named since, for St. David’s Islanders, attending St. Peter’s meant crossing the water.) In his Life on Old St. David’s, E.A. McCallan explains that the lack of functional roads on St. David’s made hearses and carriages impracticable. Nevertheless, he says, the funerals had a simplicity possessing “a fitness and solemnity which are lacking in the undertaker-conducted funerals of the Main.” Because there were no telephones or radio, generally a messenger would be sent round the neighbourhood with two black-edged papers giving details of the funeral. “One paper was addressed to carriers and bearers and the other to relatives and friends. Relatives were required to sign the paper addressed to them lest they later claim they had not been notified, and family feuds result.”
Friends would walk to the house of mourning, the men dressed in black, the women in black or white, and there would then be a procession to the church which could last as long as an hour. “Because the metal handles were considered insecure when a coffin was to be carried over a mile or more along rough paths,” McCallan explains, “white linen cloths or napkins were held under it and the ends carried by opposite carriers.” In front, two young men walked carrying two cedar coffin stools for rests and changes of hands if the journey was long. Sometimes the coffin and followers were brought to Church Wharf by boat. Jean Foggo Simon remembers attending funerals at the Chapel. “We also attended funeral viewings in the schoolroom, and after lining up behind the coffin by age and of importance in the family, we walked the distance from the schoolroom to the church for the services.” As for weddings, the traditional Bermudian horse and carriage ride for bride and groom was also impracticable so that the bride might also arrive by boat and then walk to and from the church.
Chapel of Ease
The Chapel was built in 1848 to replace Mission House, a private house called Mount Airy that was bought by Bishop Spencer, who used it as a place of worship, dwelling house and a Sunday school. Susette Harriet Lloyd once taught there and described separate rooms for black and white students. St. David’s Chapel of Ease was consecrated by Bishop Feild in 1849 on a stormy day. He and other clergy were rowed across the harbour to Church Wharf by the rector’s four sons. The annual tradition of “blessing the boats” gathered in St. David’s, still carried out by the rector of St. Peter’s, goes back to this day of consecration.
In his Bermuda Journey W.E.S. Zuill recounts how St. David’s Islanders’ sailing expertise could impact their reaction to biblical narratives. When one visiting preacher in St. David’s had prepared a sermon about St. Paul, one member of the congregation apparently said to him, “‘We doan want t’hear about Paul. He run his ship ashore tween cross seas. Paul weren’t no criterion.’” (See Acts of the Apostles 27:41.)
The Chapel of Ease is the oldest surviving place of worship in St. David’s, but there were of course churches of other denominations, including the former Methodist church on the top of Jacob’s Point Road, now a private home, and the African Methodist Episcopal church. St. Luke’s AME was originally a wooden building on land donated by John Fox where St. David’s Primary School used to meet. A stone church on Lighthouse Hill was built in 1924 by a shipwright minister, John DeShields, and other shipwrights, masons and craftsmen, but was largely destroyed by the devastating 1926 hurricane. It was refinished in 1928.
While St. David’s Islanders had a unique identity quite separate from the rest of Bermuda, many felt a social division between St. David’s east-enders and west-enders. McCallan says that the way the region was originally divided into common land on the eastern side and Bedford Tribe on the western side might explain it. But as has so often been true in Bermuda’s history, race also was a factor and by extension religious denomination. Annie Foggo in Bermuda Recollections explains that as a child she was required to attend all of the churches. The Chapel of Ease for many years had segregated seating. She recalls feeling far happier at St. Luke’s AME and when she was older refusing to attend the Chapel until segregation ceased. Simon, who lived on the eastern end, also attended the Chapel with her paternal grandmother, Helen Fox Foggo. “I was christened in the Church of England, attended church, Sunday school and was also confirmed there. I sang in the youth choir. But I could not wait to get back to the east end where I felt comfortable. Although 90 percent of my family members attended that church, I never felt comfortable there in my early years. It was just a feeling.” She recalls visiting the west end quite often because she had relatives there. “I remember there were only four families of ‘mixed race’ in my grandparent’s neighborhood—the Pitcher’s, the Millett’s, ‘Honkey’ Lamb and the Griffiths. Mama Myrtle’s sister, Jessie Fox-Roberts-O’Conner, lived in another area facing the southeast. I think the area was called Cocoa Bay. I recall walking to the west end with my mother to visit my family there and always had a wonderful time in my early years. I did notice, however, as we walked that the homes in that area were better built that those on the east end.”
Despite this division, St. David’s Islanders had far more in common than not. They shared Christmas traditions, for example. Emily Pugh in her memoir taken from Bermuda 1899, The Memories of Emily Pugh, compiled and edited by her son Scott Stallard, mentions that as a child living in the west end, she would listen for the sound of Santa’s wheelbarrow on the roof. Ronnie Chameau recalls her mother telling her Santa would come on the roof of the house with a wheelbarrow filled with toys. Both McCallan and Pugh recall a man named Albert Caisey coming to the west end to dance in people’s yards. On his head he wore a cardboard box in the shape of a house decorated with coloured tissue paper and lighted candles, and was, according to McCallan, an early Gombey.
And whether from the east or west end, most men were called by their nicknames. Clive Owen, parish constable for St. David’s during the 1970s, remembers, “One of the most important things for a Parish Constable to learn [indeed for anywhere in Bermuda] is everyone’s nickname. It was no use asking people for the whereabouts of someone using their formal, and often very elaborate, Christian name, but if you said ‘Big Ears’ or ‘Bumpy’ everyone knew who you were talking about!”
In the film St. David’s, An Island Near Bermuda, we see more examples: Winston “Pinny” Foggo, Philip “Honky” Lamb, Wilfred “Buster” Hayward, Gary “Burp” Lamb, and Allen “Moose” Pitcher, to name but a few.
East or west, the men also made their livelihoods in similar ways and were renowned for their resourcefulness and their wide range of skills, enabling them to build boats and houses. The late Gary Pitcher is a typical example of how a St. David’s Islander could turn his hand to anything. (What’s untypical is he never had a nickname.) Throughout his life, he built five two-bedroomed stone houses. “I just built them for my family. The first house I called Sparetime because that’s when I built it. Mr. Smith who delivered the groceries told me to call it that.” Later, after the war, he would build a wooden house which is now a charming local attraction.
The son of a shipwright, Dick Pitcher, Geary farmed and then from 1918 worked as a shipwright apprentice for Meyer in St. George’s. He learned to repair ships and to build a racing dinghy commissioned by an American. In the 1930s he decided to use this knowledge to build his own boat and take up fishing full time. Once war broke out, he fished all around the eastern end of Bermuda from the northern to the southern breakers, often in difficult weather conditions, catching rockfish and groupers mostly and any “other fish that would go in a pot.” He was the only fisherman to supply the local military with fish.
Like Geary, other St. David’s Islanders would go fishing in small wooden sloops, some later being specially fitted with tanks filled with seawater to keep the caught fish alive. Often for fishing equipment, they would ingeniously use local materials, such as palmetto plait, cedar roots and sugar cane for the making of pots, and many, including Pitcher, made their own rope. They would also create fishponds to store live fish. Until the middle of the twentieth century, seafood, such as mussels, conch and clams, was plentiful for harvesting in Harrington Sound. Fishermen would sail to the reefs where fish such as sea bass, grouper and snapper were abundant, and to the open sea for game fish. But they would also voyage as far as the Grand Banks off Newfoundland to fish for cod. Many would catch mullet. In St. David’s, An Island Near Bermuda, fishermen describe the delicate process of removing the whole roe—only from mullet in the autumn—salting it overnight and pressing it for several days, then hanging it on a line to dry. William Zuill in Bermuda Journey says it was served with bread and butter and that “its rare and exotic flavour was finer than the finest caviar.” Opinions differ, however. It has been described as “disgusting”—perhaps it’s an acquired taste. Shark hash was, and still is, another St. David’s speciality, as well as conch chowder and stew, turtle and other delicacies. Thanks to the Lamb family, restaurants in St. David’s, such as Dennis’s Hideaway (which was actually the dining room in his wooden home) and the Black Horse were for years popular eateries for tasting St. David’s fare. According to Owen, Dennis kept a “cutlass” under his mattress in case of intruders.
St. David’s Lighthouse
Common to St. David’s Islanders from the east and west are public buildings, such as St. David’s Lighthouse. Built of Bermuda limestone between 1876 and 1879, it’s emblematic of their common maritime heritage, including whaling and piloting. According to the Bermuda National Trust’s St. George’s, Joseph Ming Hayward became known as the “father of St. David’s Lighthouse” because he had passionately fought for it. Gibbs Hill Lighthouse had been built in 1844, but St. David’s did not benefit since its view of the beams was partially impeded by hills. Between 1873 and 1878 as many as 42 ships were wrecked off St. David’s. No wonder Hayward was determined St. David’s should have its own lighthouse. He oversaw the building of it and it was his wife who lit the lantern lamp for the first time, in November ’79. McCallan points out the difficulty of hauling the illuminating oil up the hill. “That hard task fell to John Benjamin’s sturdy mule.” Presumably, he would then have to lug it up to the top, 55 feet from the base. By 1961 an automatic light was installed, thus obviating the need for a lighthouse keeper. But Owen remembers enjoying many a cold beer with Victor O’Connor, the lighthouse keeper there during the 1970s.
The lighthouse has great significance for Dolly Pitcher for many reasons. It was where her parents had met—her father and mother were both chefs who cooked there for the sailors finishing the Newport Race. Later, Dolly would meet her partner of 64 years there—Jack O’Connor, son of the lighthouse keeper. And later, they too would cook for the sailors finishing the Newport race. Naturally, the lighthouse was an excellent venue for watching the first boats over the finishing line. Dolly remembers many a happy time with her great friend Sheila Gosling, famous for making delicious rum swizzles in her Maytag washing machine, partying with the participants. Mount Area, a popular restaurant next to the lighthouse (Geary supplied it with fish) also catered to the sailors. Owen remembers its owner, Clarence Borden, who originally hailed from Belize and was allegedly a “rum runner.” Apparently, rum running allowed him to save enough money to marry a St. David’s Islander. “Clarence was extr
emely generous,” explains Owen, “and very well liked in the community.”
“Uncrowned King” Tommy Fox
For many, the lighthouse is a reminder of one St. David’s Islander still within living memory, a whaler known as “Uncrowned King” Tommy Fox because he owned at least 25 acres of land in both the west and the east. His real name was Captain Henry Mortimer Fox and he was Simon’s paternal grandmother’s uncle. As she says, “Uncle Tommy’s whaling stories have been written about extensively and are a part of Bermuda’s, or I should say, St. David’s Island’s history. I don’t know if there was anyone else from Bermuda who has made headlines in several leading newspapers like Uncle Tommy has.”
Wells in his Bermuda in Three Colours describes how he visited the Foxes during the 1930s and was immediately invited to lunch. “At lunch we ate bread that Mrs Fox had baked in the oven her husband had built for her fifty years before, and ‘Tommy’ informed me that no baker’s bread had ever polluted his stomach.” He also told Wells how he had once climbed into the mouth of a whale, down its throat and into its belly to prove that it was possible for Jonah to have been swallowed by a whale.
Dolly Pitcher, whose grandmother, Irene, lived next door to him, remembers him vividly. “He used to grow lilies, and tourists used to call and take pictures. I used to love visiting him while he made arrowroot starch in his yard.”
An article by Margot Hill in The Bermudian of February 1949 gives us a clear idea of his personality. “Undisputed patriarch of his little kingdom, his life had a certain Biblical quality of grandeur and simplicity. The Foxes are a big family, and their holdings in St. David’s accounted for a good deal of the island. There were no boundary marks; any relative could come and live on King Fox’s land anywhere. His chief love in life, naturally, was the sea, but he farmed too and there was always enough to go round, not only the swollen family circle but for friends and strangers too.”
Her article actually focuses on Tommy Fox’s nephew, “War Baby” Charles Fox, who said, “He [Tommy] had a heart as big as his body and he was crazy about children. Liked them around all the time, the more the better.”
Before the Second World War broke out, it wouldn’t have crossed Tommy’s mind that he’d be forced to sell his land to the government but that is what happened as a result of the Atlantic Charter and Lend-Lease Act, negotiated between the UK prime minister, Winston Churchill, and the US president, Franklin Roosevelt, which led to the building of the American base.
According to Hill, “War Baby maintains that it was being dispossessed of his land that killed this king of a lost empire. ‘After we left the place, he never went there again, not once till he died. I dint’ go myself, not for years and as seldom as I can now.’ On part of the ‘place’, where potatoes and Easter lilies used to grow, the enormous U.S. hospital rears its many concrete stories.”
She was deeply sympathetic to the geographic sacrifice the Islanders made while recognising the important reason for it: “It is sentimental rather than practical to lament a few little rocky islands exchanged for a magnificent airfield whose importance is hardly less in peace than it was in war. But tampering with natural geography—whether building a dam that drowns villages or making an airfield that obliterates islands—almost always means a painful uprooting. The people of those villages and islands are forcibly dispossessed of land that may mean more to them than no matter how important the improvement, or essential the march of progress.”
It was ironic that while Tommy and many other Islanders lost their land, the land in St. David’s increased by 750 acres once the US army crushed Longbird Island and smaller islands at the north of Castle Harbour to create the runway and base lands by filling in waterways and part of the harbour. Even the place names, unfamiliar to Islanders but connected to Americans, emphasised their loss—names such as Kindley Field, after American Captain Field E. Kindley, and Fort Bell, after American Major General George Bell Jr. Texas Road encircling the lighthouse and in the heart of Tommy’s land was named to make the American servicemen feel more comfortable.
Until 1994 the American base seemed a permanent reality. For many children it offered an opportunity to play T-ball and to have a McDonald’s hamburger, unavailable anywhere else in Bermuda. But the base was also subject to change. It too disappeared and the land belonged to Bermuda once again. Once again the old name South Side became familiar.
A letter written to the Royal Gazette in 1940 said, “In Bermuda where land is so precious, it is an easier thing to offer our lives for our country than to give up the homes which embodies traditions of the past and hope of the future…With the disappearance of St. David’s as we have known it goes our last link with the simple way of life of our forefathers and it is in this sense that all Bermuda shares in this great renunciation.”
And yet, as Owen says, “Crossing the bridge into St. David’s in the 1970s had the feel of entering another country.”
That is still true nowadays—the landscape may have changed but the people are still unique. Perhaps Owen should have the last word: “I loved my time in St David’s and it was a privilege to work with such lovely people.”