This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the March 2002 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
Just off the road to and from the Royal Naval Dockyard, you pass by Lefroy House, a large square building built in 1899 as an isolation hospital for people with infectious diseases. Now a geriatric home, it is named after John Henry Lefroy, who was governor of Bermuda between 1871 and 1877.
In its 400 years of settlement, Bermuda has seen many governors come and go. In 1871, Major General John Henry Lefroy arrived. He was a tall, slim man, shy, but with great personal charm and a lively enquiring mind with many interests, especially scientific. Lefroy’s enduring contribution to the Island’s history was, with the help of the recently retired Chief Justice Darrell, to transcribe dusty documents, the ink faded, containing the official records since the founding of the colony. These were published in two volumes, meticulously indexed, as Memorials of the Discovery and Early Settlement of the Bermudas or Somers Islands, 1615-1682, commonly known today as Lefroy’s Memorials.
Lefroy was the seventh child in a family of 11. He was only six when his clergyman-father died, Lefroy’s mother Sophia was left with the responsibility of bringing up a lively, intelligent family, the boys to become independent, the girls to find husbands. Despite fairly inadequate schooling, Lefroy was accepted as an army cadet. At the end of four years of training, he hoped to receive a commission in the Royal Engineers, but a black eye received during a scrap with a fellow cadet who he accused of pinching a bread roll, caused Lefroy to be relegated to the Royal Artillery. After a course in astronomy, he was selected to be trained in the study of terrestrial magnetism.
Observatories had been established at various points around the world. Lefroy’s first posting was to the observatory in the South Atlantic. Ships sailing to and from the east would call regularly, but after two years in that remote place, he was glad to move to Toronto, Canada. There he was soon invited to Chief Justice Robinson’s house. Although he did notice that Emily, the eldest daughter, was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, he had to plan an expedition to uncharted areas of northern Canada. With Corporal Henry his only companion, he made a hazardous and gruelling journey of 5,000 miles, partly by canoe, partly on snow shoes, carrying valuable equipment to enable them to make meteorological observations every hour by day and night, often in temperatures well below freezing.
After three years, they returned to Toronto. Lefroy had more time to call at the Robinson residence, and in the spring of 1846, he and Emily became engaged. He was 29. Emily and her sister Louisa were married on the same day. To console Mrs. Robinson on the departure of two more of her daughters—a third, Augusta, had recently married—the bridegrooms agreed to have a portrait of the three girls painted in secret. On returning from the wedding ceremony, the Robinsons found it hanging in their drawing room. Emily had married a captain who was already highly regarded by leading scientists in America and England, confident of his future and supported by a strong religious faith.
The young couple set off for a honeymoon in England, Lefroy to introduce Emily to his mother, brothers and sisters. They returned to Toronto as Lefroy continued to be in charge of the Observatory for several more years until it was eventually handed over to the Canadian government. The Lefroys returned to England with two children, he to resume his army career. After a year as a regimental officer, he was selected by the Secretary of State for War to be scientific adviser on military inventions and technical innovations.
The British Army had not been called to fight a major war since defeating Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815; its organisation and equipment were woefully out of date. This was proven in 1854 when British and France joined forces with Turkey and declared war on Russia. Bloody battles were fought in the Crimea. The few army hospitals were totally unprepared for the overwhelming number of casualties. A letter from a war correspondent published in a London newspaper described the neglected sufferings of the wounded and called for Englishwomen to follow the French example and to volunteer for this work of mercy.
Florence Nightingale had by now some experience running a small hospital in London. She offered her services to the War Office. Within a week, she had collected 38 experienced women to accompany her to the Crimea. Assigned to a barrack hospital, she found hundreds of casualties, but no supplies of any kind, no utensils, not even vessels to carry water. Working night and day, she did manage to get the hospital into some kind of order.
Although she had the official title of ‘Superintendent of the Female Nurses in the Hospitals in the East,’ there was no proper chain of command and her presence was much resented. She bombarded the War Office in London with complaints: the lack of supplies, the quality of nursing staff, the incompetence of medical staff. As stories began to leak out about the state of things in the Crimea, the War Office became seriously alarmed. Lefroy was asked to set off immediately to investigate. Two days later, he was on his way by train across France and then by sea to Constantinople.
He toured army camps and was appalled by the lack of planning, incompetent administration and money wasted. At Scutari, he met the celebrated Florence Nightingale. They became good friends and was always her loyal supporter on various committees later set up by the War Office to improve the organisation of army hospitals, and also to improve the lives of off-duty soldiers and their families. On her return to London, Nightingale would work far into the night, dealing with a daunting amount of correspondence, and compiling a report on the army hospitals in the Crimea. No one else had such extensive knowledge, and although her persistence and her criticism were popular, it was nevertheless recognised that no one had such detailed knowledge of hospital administration. Perhaps her greatest achievement was to raise the art of nursing to an honoured vocation.
Ever since his early years in the army, Leroy had worked to improve the lives and conditions of ordinary soldiers and their families. Now he was appointed to look into the training of recruits, and to check on the availability of libraries, reading and recreation rooms at army garrisons. While engaged in this work, his wife Emily died after much suffering, leaving behind two boys and two girls. The young family needed a mother and Lefroy a companion. In time, he proposed to the widow of an army officer. They had first met when he was a cadet and she, a lively schoolgirl. Charlotte Dundas and Lefroy were to have a supremely happy marriage.
In January 1871, Lefroy was appointed governor of Bermuda. He was 57, and good looking despite fashionable Dundreary whiskers and moustache. He was shy with strangers, but quickly made friends. A strong religious faith guided his life. He had no experience on the battlefield. The challenges of colonial rule were unknown to him. What would he contribute to Bermuda?
In April, Lefroy, his wife, and daughters, Emily, 23, and Maude, 21, set sail from England, accompanied by three servants. One of his sons was studying law in Toronto, the other son had joined the British army. His daughters were not highly educated; they did not expect to have to earn a living, but hoped to find a husband and to make his home a place of cheerfulness, peace and love. In Bermuda, they enjoyed riding, sailing and a lively social life. Emily sketched and painted watercolours, but she was nowhere near as good an artist as her stepmother. The Bermuda Archives has a fine collection of Charlotte’s paintings of brilliantly coloured flowers she found growing in Bermuda.
Very soon after arriving, the new governor’s household was busy arranging a ball at Mount Langton to honour Queen Victoria’s birthday on June 2. There was no proper ballroom, but a disused convicts’ chapel had earlier been dismantled and reassembled on the verandah to act as a lumber room. This was quickly cleaned out, the floor washed and the walls hung with coloured cotton material. The dining room was used for dancing and the lumber room made an excellent supper room.
Later that year, Lefroy presided over the opening of the Causeway. It had taken seven years to complete work on building a link between the island of St. George’s and the mainland. The cumbersome ferry would no longer be needed. On September 19, 1871, soldiers in scarlet uniforms, brass buttons and highly-polished black boots and riding smartly groomed horses, followed by families in best clothes, their wide-brimmed hats and bonnets sheltering old and young from the fierce afternoon sun, made their way to the Causeway. At 2:30 pm, Governor Lefroy arrived, his scarlet tunic carrying a display of medals, a fine cocked hat with fluttering white feathers, proclaiming the supremacy of Queen Victoria and the British Empire. He headed a procession across the Causeway and declared the road open. The House of Assembly had earlier voted 12 to 11 that it should be free of toll charges.
Lefroy had always been interested in geology. Now he had time to study botany. Although unfamiliar with the climate and soil of Bermuda, he paid for two men from the famous horticultural centre in London, Kew Gardens, to tend the garden at Mount Langton. But they did not have sufficient experience and one gardener returned to England immediately. And sadly few plants imported from Kew Gardens survived.
In 1873, HMS Challenger arrived in Bermuda. On board were a dozen scientists making an oceanographic tour of the world, each with a special interest. Lefroy attached himself to the party and was an invaluable guide during their three-week stay. He was able to show them Bermuda’s oldest geological area—the strip of land between Harrington Sound and Castle Harbour—where limestone had hardened into almost crystalline form.
Government House had for too long been considered too small and too inconvenient, but Lefroy would not discuss proposals for replacements until the jail and the mental hospital had been replaced.
A particularly happy family celebration was the wedding on St. Valentine’s Day 1874 of Lefroy’s daughter Emily, to his ADC, Captain Charles Chenevix Trench. Government House was festooned with flags and coloured Streamers. Triumphal arches up the drive had words picked out in oleander leaves– ‘health and happiness’ and ‘love and fidelity’. Flags and a decorated archway welcomed guests arriving at the church for the wedding. Seats had been reserved for leading citizens, Members of Parliament and their families. Policemen were strategically placed to control crowds of spectators. Ladies in brightly coloured dresses mingled with soldiers in crimson and scarlet uniforms. In a pure white dress, a veil of French tulle falling over her shoulders to the ground, a wreath of orange blossoms on her head, the bride arrived punctually with her father at the church.
She was met at the door by six bridesmaids, wearing white muslin dresses with wreaths of blue Convolvulus— her sister Maude, Miss Gray, Miss Gosling, Miss Wellesley, Miss Somerset and Miss Aplin. While the organ played a wedding march, the bridal procession was followed up the aisle by Charlotte Lefroy who was escorted by Chief Justice Wood.
Supported by clergy from different parish churches, the Bishop of Newfoundland conducted the service. There were loud cheers as the happy couple drove off, followed by their families and a large number of guests invited to Government House for a second breakfast.
Before leaving Bermuda in 1877, Lefroy was seriously ill, but recovered his health to some extent on the voyage to England, encouraged by hearing that the Queen had honoured him with a knighthood. Government House had for too long been considered too small and too inconvenient, but Lefroy would not discuss proposals for replacements until the jail and the mental hospital had been replaced. The hospital was completed before he left Bermuda and Lefroy had the satisfaction of seeing patients more comfortably housed.
The Lefroys had enjoyed their years in Bermuda. Like others before and since, his hopes for improving and extending schooling, especially for immigrant families, were frustrated by a limited budget largely supplied and controlled by the British government in London. Lefroy enjoyed his responsibilities as commander in chief of the troops and did his utmost shorten long periods of imprisonment for military offences and had much sympathy with black Bermudians, who formed two thirds of the population.
Now retired, Lefroy was happy to return to London. There was time to attend lectures at the Royal Society, to contribute to scholarly journals and to renew friendships and family ties. Two years later, Lefroy and his wife set off again for Tasmania, where he had been asked to spend a year as acting governor. It was not an onerous responsibility, but an opportunity for his questing mind to learn a little of Australia’s history and to study the unique varieties of trends and plants growing wild on an island still largely unexplored.
Slowly health and strength failed, and he died peacefully in January 1890.
Helen Lefroy, who lives in Winchester, England, is a great great-niece of John Henry Lefroy. This article was adapted from a lecture she presented at a meeting of the Jane Austen Society in Bermuda in 2000.
The third edition of ‘Lefroy’s Memorials’ was published by the Bermuda National Trust and is available from the Trust and the Book Mart.