Born in 1932, Ruth Thomas spent her first 17 years in Devonshire Parish although she says, “I didn’t live deep into the heart of Devonshire. I was on the edge and what people don’t know today is they called it in those days Devonshire West.”
That’s why the grocery store she and her grandmother used was actually in Pembroke, on Friswell’s Hill, the Borderline Grocery, owned by Tony Mareira and his brother. She dreaded being sent on a Saturday because the store worked on a trust-me system—and people would pay what they owed on a Saturday because that’s when they got paid. “I had a great big German shepherd dog and I’d take him to the store. People were afraid of him so he’d lead me right to the head of the queue. Rice, flour, cornmeal were all stored in barrels—often there’d be weevils. And the grocer would dig out what he thought was a pound of your lard and butter and put it on a balsam tray, and then weigh it. But he could put his finger on the scale to cheat you. So if you went home and it wasn’t a pound, you’d have to take it back. I hated that!”
The area where she and her grandmother lived in Devonshire stretched from where the National Stadium is now (and where the Sixth Form Centre and Technical Institute were before that), down the hill southwards to Parsons Road. The neighbourhood was a “little space with a few houses and many, many gardens and farms, because we had lots of Portuguese farmers around. Where the Sixth Form Centre was, that was all trees, lots of trees—cedar trees, oleanders, fiddlewood trees, pride of India trees, lots of trees. And across the street lived the Sousas and they had a little house next door they rented to an English woman, a Mrs. Galleon, and she had five girls. Right next to that house was a huge farm—we called it a garden. And then there was our house and across the street from us, way up on the bank, there were Mr. and Mrs. DeSilva. They had a son, Henry—he was a photographer—and they had a farm. We bought fresh milk from them every day, which would come in glass bottles with stoppers. The children in the area called them Mr. and Mrs. Jessey. Her first name was Jessey so we didn’t realise we were calling Mr. DeSilva by his wife’s first name!”
In addition she remembers the Defontes family who were also farmers. “They had huge gardens with the usual herbs—a lot of watermelon, a lot of corn and a lot of Irish potatoes. Lots of onions—great big onions—and sweet potatoes. Next door were two houses belonging to the Byrons—they had five girls and in the Robinson family I think were three children. And that was our little neighbourhood!”
There were many benefits to the open space in the vicinity. “We very seldom had to buy vegetables—everyone had a garden and grew sweet potatoes and pumpkin. We all had a pawpaw tree with fruit both green and ripe. We bought from the farmers, though in fact very often they would give you stuff. Mr. Defontes always gave us a bucket of potatoes or of onions.
“Fresh meat was sometimes available because the farmers would slaughter a pig or a cow and we could purchase a piece of meat from them. And that used to be terrible—pigs always knew when they were going to be slaughtered—I can hear them squealing to this day. I used to run in the house with a pillow over my head. You always knew when you saw a cow in a farmer’s cart it was going to the slaughterhouse in the area where Miles is now.
“There were lots of barbed-wire fences to keep in the bulls, to keep them from running away. But every so often one would jump a fence and I can remember now Mrs. Defontes crying, ‘Run in the house, run in the house! Bull break loose!’ All the children would scamper. We’d be terrified.
“Sometimes a horse would run away, fall on the rocky road and break a leg. It would have to be shot and that would be sad.”
For children another benefit of so much open space was the endless opportunity for outdoor play. A favourite pastime was to try and catch the cicada insects ,or ‘singers’ as they were known, because of the sound they made. “They’d attach themselves to the cedar trees, and the minute they could hear you, they’d stop singing.” She remembers, too, a field of poppies that came in useful for one of her granny’s remedies. “She’d put poppies in a jar and add sugar and something else—maybe brandy.”
She has fond memories of playing with the other children in one big grassy space, bordered by trees. There they would play rounders and a form of cricket. “We used to call it ‘Over the wall’s out!’ If you hit the ball too far away, you were out! Instead of getting your six runs, you were out. And then under the heading of cricket there was ‘Tippeny go one.’ If you hit the ball two inches away from the wicket, you could only make one run, which meant you were out because somebody would stump you.
“All children’s games in those days,” she continues, “had very strict rules, and that was part of the disciplinary process that we were exposed to. Because you knew the rules and you followed the rules and if you tried to cheat everyone would remind you about the rules. That didn’t mean we didn’t try to cheat, but it also meant we were learning how to manipulate and learning how not to be manipulated. So our games were very strict. We played marbles a lot—not in that area, of course, because you needed a firm space.”
The children always enjoyed hide and seek because there were plenty of places to hide, while the clearings among the oleander hedges could be turned into playhouses for the girls. And pride of India trees were the best to climb. “Sometimes,” she remembers, “we’d steal corn—not to eat it but to take the hair to make hair for our dolls. But you always stayed in your neighbourhood, you stayed in your group—people weren’t mobile like they are now, and you were always within the sound of your mother’s voice. At tea time you could hear a mother calling a child and might hear her saying, ‘Johnny!’ And you would hear him answer, and it wasn’t ‘What?’ It was ‘Yes, mama.’ And she would say, ‘It’s supper time. Come on home now for tea.’ And you didn’t say, ‘Wait until I’ve finished my game.’ You knew you had to get home right away.”
Swimming, of course, was very popular in the summertime. “Devonshire Bay played a big part in our lives because a lot of churches had their Sunday-school picnics there—for me it was the Brethren Gospel Hall—and of course you didn’t just eat—you went swimming as well. I remember Mr. Byron getting his horse and cart and loading up all the children and taking them to Devonshire Bay.” As well as swimming, they played games during the picnics and sang hymns.
But children in the parish also liked to jump off the rocks on the North Shore. “There was a lot of activity around Devonshire Dock. Sometimes the big boys would throw you in—but they were always careful—they didn’t throw you in and leave you there. You either could sink or swim so you opted to swim to survive! That’s often how you learned to swim. And believe it or not, some of the old timers in those days used to say, ‘You can’t go in the sea until you learn how to swim!’ So where were you going to learn how to swim? Because you certainly didn’t have swimming pools! They used to say, too, if you were swimming and it started to rain, you would get boils. So they would call you out of the water.
“There was a lot of fishing off the Devonshire Dock. But some people would have a little boat and they would go out fishing. The old timers didn’t like anyone to go fishing on Good Friday because if you did that, you would get lost at sea. I know a family whose three sons went fishing on a Good Friday and they never came back.
about the area,” she continues, “at night time it was very dark because there were no streetlights, so you made sure you came home early. People would avoid the graveyard at Devonshire Church and the Roman Catholic cemetery not too far from Devonshire Dock.”
Children typically had different groups of friends—from the neighbourhoods, from Scouts and Guides but also from school. Though she went to the Central School in Pembroke where head teacher Edith Crawford disciplined with her cane, other children went to the Elliott School on Jubilee Road. The children at Elliott were forbidden to go near the marsh, but they were sorely tempted by the ‘bluebell’ vines there (morning glory). “You could use the vine for playing ‘weddings.’” The children would pretend to be on a wedding-carriage ride and use the vine to hold participants together.
The vine was also useful as a substitute for skipping rope. While two of the children twirled the rope and one skipped, they chanted different rhymes. One chant was influenced by funerals. “If someone died in the area, you’d know,” she explains, “because all the shutters would be closed. The person would be laid out in the living room and the minister would come and give a service. People would stay with the dead all night. Friends and relatives would come and squeeze into the house. The body was taken by a horse-drawn hearse to the person’s church and then to the Anglican church for another service and then burial. Everybody wore black or grey or in some cases white and looked very sombre.”
Some of her most vivid memories have to do with music. “There was always music in the home,” she remembers. “Granny had one of those old gramophones that you had to crank up. His Master’s Voice was my introduction to The Messiah. My granny used to say the “Hallelujah Chorus” was consumption music because it took a lot of singing! There was a radio and my granny used to sing a lot in the house. And I remember going to a wonderful organ concert at Devonshire Church by E. Power Biggs. I loved the pipe organ because we didn’t have one in our church.”
Because there were so few houses and no motorised transport, it was possible in her neighbourhood to hear sounds all the way from Hamilton. On Sunday afternoons she could hear the Scouts band or the Salvation Army band. And sometimes in the evening during the summertime, she and her granny would sit out and hear the singing floating up the hill from the Evening Light Tabernacle. But the neighbourhood music she particularly loved, and which would forever haunt her imagination, would emanate from the neighbouring Prospect Garrison.
“There was a lot of music in the area because of the regiment. First thing in the morning you were awakened by the sound of the bugler playing the reveille and in the evening you’d hear him again—playing the taps. Very often you’d hear the musicians practising, and sometimes they’d go on to the Prospect Field which is the National Stadium now and which was much smaller then.”
When she was two or three years old, she would run over to the field to watch the soldiers parade and practise. Also there was a church in the area and you heard them playing their music on Sundays. The band marched the regiment to church and then marched them back to their barracks.
“I used to think watching and hearing them play was the most beautiful thing on God’s Earth. Because they had brass instruments and the sun used to shine on those instruments, so as they moved around with their instruments glittering in the sunlight, I used to think it was all gold. I used to think, I still do, of music as golden. Whenever I hear music I particularly love, shades of gold just keep flickering in front of my eyes.”
Born June 14, 1932
A former teacher, Ruth Thomas became Bermuda’s education officer and was responsible for creating and administering Bermuda’s first government-run preschools. But her lifelong commitment to the arts and Bermudian culture led to her appointment as the government’s first cultural officer. She is also a singer, actress and through her troupe, Ruth Thomas and Company, a promoter of Bermuda’s history, legends and traditions. She received her MBE in 1994.