Michael Darling shares his stories of what it was like growing up in Pembroke in the 1930’s.
Michael Darling was born in 1930, in the headmaster’s house at Saltus Grammar School, the school he would eventually attend as a student. His father, James Leslie A. Darling (known as Leslie) was not the headmaster; nor was he a teacher. He had been an officer in The Royal Artillery but had become deaf at the young age of 25 after serving in Egypt where his oldest child, Peter, had been born. Through friends’ connections, he left the army and with his wife, Beatrice Henrietta (née Talbot) and Peter, came to Bermuda to start work in construction at Burland’s Construction Company. The headmaster had his own house so the school residence was available for rent.
After Elizabeth was born in 1931, the family rented The Ridgeway House, a large house which according to the Bermuda Architectural Series’ Pembroke, consisted of five bedrooms, two servants’ rooms, two bathrooms, as well as stables for two horses and tennis courts. It was on St. John’s Road, on the site of the new Berkeley Institute. Michael’s memories of this house are sketchy though he does recall The Ridgeway’s garden and more particularly its driveway leading down to St. John’s Road. “We had a wagon on wheels,” he recalls. He and Peter and Elizabeth would sit in it and hurtle down the drive to the main road. He’d also walk down to the North Shore and swim at a small bay just below Government House, east of the Ducking Stool, which in those days was reserved for the use of British Army officers. His family could swim there because of his father’s officer’s rank when serving in the army.
Leaving Burland’s, Leslie worked instead for John Bluck, then owner of William Bluck and Co. (later Bluck’s), a store long famous for its fine china, crystal and antiques which at that time operated from the Somers Building on Front Street. Michael remembers smaller shipments being delivered to the store from Hamilton docks by bicycle, larger ones by trolley, which he explains was “a flat horse-drawn cart with four big wheels that was a maximum of two feet from the ground. The cart, he remembers, was driven by Donald Dane. He also remembers playing in the room where the packing material was stored. Michael didn’t know it at the time but his father’s employment led to a partnership. After John died young, at the age of 40, Leslie bought his shares, making Bluck’s a family business crossing generations of Darlings until its closure in 2019.
But to return to the 1930s, once Leslie moved to Bluck’s, he built his own “Fort House”, in front of Fort Hamilton’s moat and overlooking Hamilton Harbour on what is now Fort Hamilton Drive. They had electricity though they cooked on a woodstove and then on an Aga. They had a fridge although early on that meant having a block of ice being delivered every week. They also had a telephone with a party line they shared with another family whose arguments with their maid they could sometimes hear.
This was prior to Fort Hamilton being a public attraction. Before motorised transport was generally introduced in 1946, the numerous horse-driven carts, buggies and carriages resulted in the streets being covered with manure. “In those days,” Michael remembers, “Portuguese workers lived in the fort where the gun emplacements were. And they would sweep the streets.”
He also remembers civilian employees of the Garrison living on the stretch of property from Happy Valley Road to the Reid Street Extension. Dr. Barbara Ball lived there as her father was a carpenter employed by the Garrison. “Curly Astwood [of Harem Scarem fame] was the Commanding Officer – he and his family lived at nearby “Bayview”. I grew up with Kit Astwood.” He also grew up next door to the Harveys at Moat House and was a playmate with Dr. Harvey’s children, Eugene Harvey who, like his father, became a doctor, and Margaret (Lloyd).
In those days, they would walk up to their home from Reid Street Extension, impossible today. “It was very steep,” Michael remembers, also recalling the terraced garden his father, a keen gardener, had created. But the whole fort was in effect their playground, perfect for the cowboy and Indians games they endlessly played. Sometimes fights were not just make-believe. “We threw jail nuts at each other,” he says. (Jail nuts were hard white coral rocks which were hammered flat by prisoners to make Bermuda’s roads). “I remember hitting an officer’s son on the forehead pretty hard. He bled!” Years later, they would meet as adults and Michael would check out his scar. He also remembers having an informal sex education. “We used to spy on people having sex on the grassy bank leading up to the fort. They used to get very upset,” he adds dryly.
Of course, this was the era of the Bermuda Railway but he doesn’t remember using the train regularly. His chief memory of the old Rattle and Shake was of the women dressed in their finery heading out from Hamilton to Cup Match and of Saltus boys getting off at the Tennis Stadium. He himself was bicycling to school, from the age of seven. The family would occasionally rent a horse and carriage for invitations to Government House and formal dinner parties but on the whole the bicycle was the family’s chief means of transportation. Every Sunday they would bicycle to Elbow Beach for a picnic lunch, Michael sometimes sitting on the cross bar of his father’s bike. The children also liked roller skates and would roll down East Broadway or sometimes all the way to Tom Moore’s Tavern from Elbow Beach.
Town was within walking distance, of course, which meant the family had access to many stores, including Loblein’s on Front Street, as well as the Farmers’ markets in buildings on Front Street and on Church Street opposite the Hamilton Hotel where City Hall is now. Michael has an amusing memory of a market which Burland’s would hold on Reid Street. “Every year someone would fuse the lights and ladies would sweep the shelves of items with their bloomers.” But he also vividly remembers their local grocery store, Bertell’s, opposite Spurling Stables. who had the mail contract for St George’s and were always used for moving very heavy items or equipment. The owner of the grocery store apparently had a passionate interest in radio which was why the shop counter was covered with glass tubes. The best offerings at the store for Michael were the pink and white coconut cakes he found “absolutely delicious.”
The Colonial Opera House on Victoria Street was an attraction because of the Harem Scarem shows and because of the films it showed. “We’d go in the afternoons,” Michael remembers. “The gallery cost us a penny or two which we’d take from mother’s money box.” The films they particularly liked were Tarzan and the Lone Ranger.”
The greatest change he has experienced in Bermuda, however, was neither the advent of motor cars nor the demise of the railway. The whole face of Bermuda was transformed in the 1940s by the death of the cedars and eventually the cicadas. Before attending Cambridge University, in 1949 at the age of 19, he became a field officer working for the then Agricultural Station and inspecting trees for the scale. His experiences involved flying in one of Hughie Watlington’s pontoon seaplanes to survey the devastation. Bermuda was never the same again.