With sweeping views from Dockyard to St. George’s and remnants of a colonial navel history still evident, Admiralty House Park is both busy and beautiful community parkland.
Today, Admiralty House Park is a tranquil expanse of hillside stretching down to the twin beaches of Clarence Cove. Beyond is a panoramic North Shore view of Dockyard to the west and St. George’s to the east. But had it not been for the determination of the Admiralty House Park Association, formed in September 1974 and headed by the late Joyce Hall, the park could have had a different name and a different appearance: it could have become Bermuda College, complete with a hotel training school. That was the plan some members of the then United Bermuda Party Government wanted to adopt. But associations based there, such as The Group (later the Admiralty House Community Centre), the Pembroke Bermuda Scouts Association, the Sea Cadets and the Bermuda Sub Aqua Club, together with Pembroke Parish residents, objected strongly to the idea.
The cove had attracted some Government MPs who saw it as an ideal location for a hotel training school. Initial plans showed there would be five buildings around Clarence Cove, taking up 12 of the 17 acres of land. The project was estimated at $8 million dollars over a 10-year period. Had the Government not changed its mind, Pembroke Parish would have lost its only substantial parkland and its only public beaches.
Fortunately, it did change its mind; Stonington in Paget was chosen instead, and today it’s hard to imagine Bermuda College being anywhere other than its present location.
In the meantime, Admiralty House Park has retained its name, one of the first clues to its history centuries before any Bermuda College was imaginable. Drive into the park, and a derelict building with a dilapidated veranda roof looms into view. Apart from a few outhouses scattered over the grounds, that is all that remains of the admiral’s residence, most of which, for safety reasons, was burned by the Government in the 1970s.
Was the building once a magnificent mansion fit for commanders-in-chief of the America and West Indies Station? By many past accounts, apparently not. A chapter in William Eric Brockman’s Bermuda Growth of a Naval Base focuses on Admiralty House, explaining that in 1816 the colony bought a house and part of the present grounds from John Dunscombe for £3,000, transferring them to the Crown as the official residence for the naval commander-in-chief. Previously the admiral’s residence had been at Mount Wyndham in Hamilton Parish, but this new venue was preferable because of the growing importance of Dockyard and because it was nearer to the City of Hamilton, which one year earlier had become Bermuda’s new capital. It also, of course, had clear views of Dockyard and St. George’s, making it an excellent location for the admiral’s flag station. The paddock and kitchen garden were across the road where the Government’s Tulo plant nursery is now.
The house itself, Brockman surmises, had two storeys with possibly three or four rooms on each level and verandas. Surrounding it were outhouses comprising servants’ quarters, washhouses and stables. But, he says, “There was none of that dignity, that imposing solidity and orderly array of clipped lawn and box hedge, so dear to the heart of the 19th-century Englishman.”
Perhaps it was for that reason its first tenant, Sir David Milne, refused to stay at Admiralty House, preferring to reside at Mount Wyndham. Nevertheless, whatever Sir David thought, in the Royal Gazette of November 16, 1816, as quoted in W.E.S. Zuill’s Bermuda Sampler, reference to the property was positive: “The improvements and repairs of the elegant Mansion at the salubrious and delightful situation of St. John’s Hill, which was purchased by the Colony for the residence of the Naval Commander, are nearly completed for the Admiral’s reception.”
St. John’s Hill, by the way, became Clarence Hill after Prince William, Duke of Clarence, was posted in Bermuda aboard HMS Pegasus in 1822. Also in his honour, Abbott’s Cove became Clarence Cove, the name by which we know it today. In 1830, Prince William inherited the British throne and in that year, according to the Royal Gazette, a ball was held for the king’s birthday at Admiralty House. Dancing started from 9:30 p.m. and continued until 1:00 a.m., followed by a “magnificent supper” for 200 people.
As admirals came and as admirals went, so more additions to the main house were carried out. In 1821, for example, Admiral Fahie ordered a wine cellar to be constructed “for the preservation of his health and of his suite.” A kitchen was added in 1824, a new dining room in 1828 and new stables in 1834. At times it was thought better to demolish the whole edifice and start again, but somehow that never happened.
In 1848, the colourful Right Honourable Earl of Dundonald—dubbed “Dauntless Cochrane” because of his exploits at sea both in the Royal Navy and in the navies of Chile, Brazil and Greece—took over as commander and promptly quashed plans to rebuild, saying, “It has been proposed to spend £11,000 on building a new Admiralty House. Don’t sanction it! Look at the Commissioner’s House [newly built at Dockyard]. It is scarcely credible that there is an 11-stalled stable and two coaches attached to this mansion.”
Though he stayed in Bermuda for just three years, Cochrane certainly made his mark on the property, earning the nickname “Earth Mover.” He made caves and tunnels. That’s why, for example, a tunnel exists to this day from nearby the tennis court on the eastern end of the property to the now Government nursery on the other side of Spanish Point Road. And that’s why a large cave exists by the cove. Dundonald may have been chary of colonial expenditure, but that did not prevent him from offering magnificent entertainment.
In May 1850, he gave a full-dress grand ball at Admiralty House for 350 guests. After the dancing concluded and the supper was enjoyed, according to the Gazette, guests were allowed a novel experience. “We descended a flight of stone steps into the tunnel, thence into a room hewn out of the solid rock, about 14 ft in height and 40 ft circumference, lighted by day through an aperture in one side….” In the centre of the cave was a table “furnished with small brown jugs from which each visitor might quaff a beverage…”
Subsequent admirals and officers’ wives held genteel tea parties in this cave. According to the late Chan McIvor, once director of the Admiralty House Community Centre, having tea with the admiral provided more social cachet than having tea with the governor at Government House.
Perhaps it depended on who the admiral or the admiral’s wife was. Georgiana Gholson Walker, a young American woman who joined her Confederate husband stationed in Bermuda from 1862 to 1865 during the American Civil War, was not impressed. She wrote in her diary, “Today I drove up to Hamilton in order to bring my Husband down and after to make a visit at Clarence Cove and one at Mount Langton [the home of the Governor]. I found Lady Milne [wife of Sir Alexander Milne] at home, evidently ready to receive morning calls. Admiralty House is a very pretty little structure about three miles from Hamilton; with neat grounds around and the House furnished handsomely but with no remarkable elegance. The Admiral is now absent on official duties. Lady Milne is a polite, agreeable person, but is wanting in that grace and ease of manner, which I must say are more characteristic of the women of my own Country than that of any other I know. One of the best evidences of an elegant and graceful woman is her ability to meet a perfect stranger with as much affability, as those whom she has know
n before. Lady Milne is Scotch and while that nation can boast of a people generally of sterling worth, they are certainly deficient in grace and elegance of manner, in that ‘suavita in modo’ which you find in France and the Confederate States.”
Some 20 years later, Julia Dorr, author of Bermuda, An Idyll of the Summer Islands 1884, made no such disparaging remarks about personalities but she also was unimpressed by the building: “Her Majesty does not provide for her representatives in Bermuda very luxurious or elegant mansions. Neither Mount Langton, the Government House, as it is called, nor Clarence Hill, the Admiralty House, are fine buildings. Indeed, they are quite the opposite.” However, in her ebullient determination to see Bermuda in the best possible light, she adds, “But both places are beautifully situated, with fine grounds and extensive gardens; and what does it matter if the house be fine or otherwise, when one lives out of doors?”
Admiralty House continued to be the residence of the commander-in-chief of North America and the West Indies right through World War II until the British Navy left in 1951. And during the 1930s and 1940s, dances continued to be held in the ballroom in the spirit of Dauntless Cochrane. During the 1980s, twins Alison Man and Katherine Jones, whose army-captain husband was stationed in Bermuda, shared their recollections of attending those dances before the days of motorised transport. “We’d be decked in all our finery and ride there on our pedal bikes,” they explained. “And we’d tuck our long skirts up so they wouldn’t get caught in the wheels.”
Today the ballroom is boarded up and the derelict house is closed to visitors for safety reasons. But the grounds and cove, officially made a park in 1986, are now much loved by the community. Some of the organisations mentioned earlier are still there: the Sea Cadets, the Pembroke Community Centre and the Bermuda Sub Aqua Club, which has just celebrated its fortieth anniversary. The Bermuda Senior Islander Centre meets in the old stables. During the summer, the park is a favourite venue for children’s camps, one of which, The Young Stars, was run by Ronald Smith from the Clerk’s Cottage last summer. A tennis court and a skateboarding rink on the eastern hillside are additional attractions.
Walking the Trail
At the entrance, steps lead down to a short pathway that in turn leads down to the cove. But a longer, rockier path on the hillside just to the right of the house allows more shade and observation of the flora and fauna and eventually spectacular views of the ocean. James H. Stark’s description of the natural scenery in his Stark’s Illustrated Guide 1890 is still apposite, up to a point. “On a hillside overlooking the sea, in a most sequestered spot, is an exquisite piece of gardening. Mosses, ferns and many tropical plants grow in such profusion and grace, peeping from under rocks, and climbing over them, that it is only by critical inspection that you perceive their presence there is due to cultivation.”
The tropical plants today include palmetto groves, a slope of mother-in-law tongues so closely planted they do look as if they are chattering, sago palms and screw pines. But Stark would have seen a plethora of cedars, most of which were killed in the 1946 cedar blight. Casuarinas have replaced them, although a few cedars did survive and dot the hillside. Mexican pepper and wild mimosa mix with pink oleander and bay grape. As the path meanders down to one of the two beaches, the cave entrance is hidden on the left. The sheltered lagoon with another small beach on the southern side gleams brilliantly turquoise. Garfish glide beneath the surface.
The pier by the beach allows a clear view of the North Shore and Dockyard on the left. When Sir C. Wyville Thomson, chief scientist on the Challenger Expedition of 1873, went to pay his respects to Admiral Fanshawe, he rowed over from Dockyard instead of arriving by the more sedate horse and carriage.
In his account he says, “We rowed across a glassy sea, clearly mapped out into patches of bright purple and stripes of the most vivid green by the reefs and the sandy spaces between them. Over the reefs in some places the water was only a fathom deep or less and we could see the great round masses of brain coral beneath us…. Clarence Cove, the landing-place for Clarence Hill, the admiral’s official residence, is an enclosed little bay, with the dark cedar woods coming close down on all sides to the water’s edge…and in the garden a little mound marks the grave of a middy, who died poor boy!”
The lone grave he mentions can still be seen on the grass by the cove. For years it was the subject of local lore, dramatically recounted by Zuill in his Bermuda Journey: “The story goes that a jealous lover, seeking revenge, hid himself in undergrowth near the supposed trysting place of his rival, and sure enough, soon saw a figure approaching, smoking a cigar. The glowing tobacco came nearer until a shadowy form stood close to the bush behind which he was hiding. Frenzy seized him, and springing out of his ambush he fell upon his victim and stabbed him to death. Only then did he pause. Looking intently at the dead man, he saw that he had killed a midshipman whom hitherto he had never seen.”
It’s a story that might have appealed to the Victorian love of melodrama. But the truth is sadder and more realistic. The grave is dedicated to Charles Francillon, midshipman on board HMS Spartan and son of Francis Francillon, purser in the Royal Navy. He died April 12, 1813, “in the sixteenth year of his age.” The property at the time—before it was bought by the Crown—was used as a fever hospital, so it is far more likely he died of natural causes such as tuberculosis or yellow fever.
These days, children bathing in the lagoon need not think about the perils of childhood in the nineteenth century. Nor need they be aware that once Clarence Cove was for naval officers and their families only. Colonial has given way to community: the park is open to everyone.