Bermuda’s longest serving Premier, Sir John Swan recalls life as a young boy growing up in a small cottage on North Shore.
Sir John Swan was born July 3, 1935, to John William and Margaret Swan in a cottage, still in existence, east of the First Church of God in Pembroke on North Shore Road, overlooking the ocean. With his older sister, Peggy, he spent the first six years of his life in that cottage which, like many houses of the time, had an outdoor toilet and was very small. The house had electricity, but it depended on shillings being fed into a meter. When the meter ran out and there were no more shillings, his parents would light the candles. However, there was no electric stove; instead, a kerosene stove took care of the cooking. Today, North Shore Road is fairly noisy as it constantly hums with motor bikes and cars, but then, in those years before the general introduction of motorised traffic, young John would hear the train running below his house and at night in bed church music wafting from the Pentecostal Church above it.
“Listening to that music,” he says, “was one of the best things that happened to me. It made me appreciate religion and rituals and the music of religion, particularly the Pentecostal religion which was very energetic.” Other sounds you don’t hear now, thanks to the cedar blight and to the introduced kiskadees’ diet, are the cicadas, locally known as “singers.” He was, as he says, a “real North Shore boy,” enjoying jumping off the rocks and swimming, as well as diving for mussels, scallops and octopus, and fishing with a small hook and line. As a pre-schooler, he attended a private nursery on the north shore close to West Pembroke Primary School.
When he was six, the family moved to a house on 42nd Street, or St. Monica’s Road, Pembroke, on Marsh Folly and near Pembroke Marsh, where eight years later, his younger sister, Sylvia, was born. Thankfully, here electricity did not depend on the meter and the kerosene stove eventually gave way to the gas stove. He has vivid memories of the neighbourhood, of the “disgusting” smells emanating from the Pembroke garbage dump which would sometimes spontaneously combust, the sporadic fires creating thick clouds of smoke covering the whole area. “That was my playground,” he says. “I grew up playing hide and seek, stuff like that, in the canes.”
Not that he spent much time playing as doing chores constituted a major part of his childhood. Many of the chores had to do with the livestock his family kept. John Swan senior had a livery on Marsh Folly which meant he owned horses, together with a carriage and a cart, which he would rent or drive himself to take passengers or make deliveries. But there were many other animals for his son to care for as well: chickens, a goat, pigs, a dog and rabbits. “I was not a sports person; I was a chores person,” Sir John says, “and I think that stood me well because I learned the discipline of getting things done. If my father came home and found out I hadn’t fed the rabbits, even at eleven o’clock at night, he would get me out of bed and make me go out in the dark and feed them. So you learn after a while that whenever you’re given a task, you better make sure you execute it. If not, there was a consequence, which is not true today.” Later he would work for his uncle helping to deliver bread on his truck. In 1943, when he was nine, he opened his first savings account at the Bank of Bermuda with two shillings and sixpence.
His sister Peggy did not share the chores, he explains. She was very smart and stood out as someone who had special academic potential. Young John, on the other hand, found schooling at the primary level of Central School, now Victor Scott School, extremely difficult for a reason undiscovered until he was ten years old: he could not see properly, to the point he was unable to read or write well or play sports. “It was very fortunate,” he emphasises, “that I had parents who never talked about my faults. I was never criticised by my parents because I couldn’t do things, so I grew up believing anything was possible. They were very positive and child caring. We all felt as though we were doing our best and that as long as you were doing your best, that was what counted more.” He also compensated for his lack of sight by developing excellent listening skills which again would hold him in good stead in his business and political career. His naturally retentive memory helped as well.
It was his teacher at Central School, Mrs Burch, who noticed he couldn’t see letters properly. She knew his parents, and promptly marched him down to the oculist where he was fitted with thick glasses. Even so, he had missed out on so much of the learning cycles appropriate for his level, he didn’t finish primary school until he was fourteen. As he points out, there wasn’t the diagnostic equipment, check-ups and medical care almost taken for granted today. Tragically, some years later, Peggy would become more a victim of this unsophisticated healthcare than her brother. Shortly after she graduated, very early, from the Berkeley Institute, she died, at the age of sixteen. “It was years before I discovered why,” he says. “Her face was slurred. Later I realised it was a brain tumour.”
To go back to Sir John’s boyhood, life wasn’t all hard work. There were visits to performances and movies at theatres and halls, in particular the Colonial Opera House on Victoria Street and the Aeolian Hall on Angle Street. Sundays were special days. The family church was St. Monica’s Anglican Church, and he would attend their Sunday school, as well as the Salvation Army’s Sunday school. Sometimes he would also attend the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He enjoyed a special meal, including his favourite dessert, strawberry Jello. Of course, attending church meant dressing more formally, but Sunday was also a family day for visiting relatives. “There were things you should do to build character,” he says. He has a memory of his mother inviting Jehovah’s Witnesses into their home. “She was very open minded. ‘It doesn’t hurt to listen,’ she’d always say.”
At Christmas time he would watch the Salvation Army band play on the streets and at their Citadel on Court Street. Cup Match in August could mean a trip on the train since the Bermuda Railways put on special trains for Cup Match. But given his father’s livery, a trip by horse and carriage was much more likely. The return journey from Somerset, he recalls, was very cold, particularly as they passed Warwick Pond where a damp fog would fall and they would cover themselves with blankets. Not so happy are Sir John’s memories of the Second World War: of the blackouts, of rationing, organised by Sir John Plowman, and of the coupons required. He recalls listening to news on the radio. “Reports of German U-boats were scary.” More immediately horrifying for his family were the shortages of animal feed, thanks to torpedoes destroying supply ships. These shortages meant some horses, cruelly, had to be destroyed.
Looking back on his boyhood, he says, “Everything was slower. There was no TV, no cars. We had to make an effort to do things—for example, we pumped the water for washing and flushing.” His memories are not rose-tinted, his family of course being acutely aware of shortcomings in healthcare. “There was no such thing as penicillin for infections,” he points out. “But there was a neighbourhood. It was a case of children being monitored, of people looking out for each other and children.” And for that, for the “angels” as he calls the adults in his boyhood looking out for him, he is extremely grateful.