2023 History Corner
'Dickie' Birds's Birdcage
Take a drive along Front Street and you can’t miss the Birdcage. Originally installed on August 16th, 1962, the Birdcage was the brainchild of then City Engineer Geoffrey “Dickie” Bird, who designed his namesake in order to protect (from the elements) on-duty constables posted at Heyl’s Corner back in the day when Queen Street was two-way. With the introduction of motor vehicles and nary a traffic light to be found, the need for a ‘bobby’ directing traffic at the busy City intersection was imperative.
With the advent of traffic signals, the need for a designated police officer became redundant but funds were paid to ensure a police officer was on duty whenever a cruise ship was in, to the delight of tourists.
Young PC Hubert Simmons joined the force in 1950 and quickly became a sensation in the Birdcage with his unique flair while directing.
The Birdcage initially had no actual point of entry as the railing went all the way around but Mr. Bird chose to believe that any police constable stationed at the post would have no problem going over or under the railing.
While the Birdcage has been upgraded and even moved slightly over the years, it remains a stalwart icon on Front Street. While it currently remains unmanned, save for the occasional brave tourist needing a photo op, there is still hope that one day we’ll get a bobby back in there!
SS "Bermuda" Sets Ablaze Along Front Street
Hamilton’s waterfront narrowly avoided being consumed in a raging inferno over 90 years ago when a luxury liner caught fire while moored alongside Front Street.
To prevent the ship’s oil tanks igniting, the captain of the SS “Bermuda” sank her at her berth as the bridge and superstructure were burnt away.
Operated by the Furness Withy Line for its New York-Bermuda run, the SS “Bermuda” caught fire on June 17, 1931 when a blaze broke out in one of the ship’s elevator shafts.
Within an hour the flames had spread and three of the 20,000-ton vessel’s decks were ablaze.
"There was an explosion just before British sailors and marines [stationed on the island] arrived to assist the Hamilton fire brigade but it was quickly established that the blast was the sound of exploding distress rockets ignited by the flames which had eaten into the chart rooms,” said a contemporary newspaper account of the disaster.
Bermuda's Captain Harry Davis helped to direct the firemen and flooded the oil storage tanks astern, causing the ship’s rear to settle on the harbour bottom.
It took three and a half hours to get the fire extinguished.
“Tourists crowded the waterfront, watching the partial destruction of the handsome vessel which brought them here,” said an Associated Press report. “When they came too close, police and marines with fixed bayonets pressed them back from the danger zone for there was still a possibility that the oil tanks might explode from the blistering heat.
“Tugs played streams of water from the outboard side while firemen ashore turned their hoses into the flames. Four men were badly burned and taken to hospital but there was no loss of life and no passengers were aboard.”
Stranded passengers were taken to a Bermuda hotel until Furness Withy could detour another one of its liners to the island to collect them.
SS “Bermuda” was eventually salvaged and returned to her Belfast shipyard for repair where she caught fire again and was completely gutted. Furness Withy replaced her with “The Queen of Bermuda’” in 1933.
*Except taken from a Bernews article, December 7th, 2011
Did you know that the building that houses the Bermuda Historical Society Museum and the National Library in Queen Elizabeth Park is actually called Par-la-Ville and was once the grand home of Hamilton’s postmaster, William Bennett Perot, in the 1800’s?
Its name, meaning ‘by the town’, refers to the fact that the home initially sat just outside of the City’s boundaries. It wasn’t until 1951 that the boundaries were extended to Bermudiana Road. The house was built between 1801 and 1817 by brothers James and William Perot. When James died in 1817, William bought his share of the property. Upon his death in 1839, he passed the house and its gardens (now the park) to his eldest son, William Bennett Perot who had been living in Par-la-Ville since his marriage in 1814.
The building at the southeast end of the property, currently housing Bulli Social, was also part of the property and was the first home of the Gibbons family business in 1916 where they had only one employee, Mr. Alfred Eve, who sold Royal Navy boots. The business brought in the first machine to stitch the soles of shoes.
Perot built the Georgian-style Perot Post Office possibly in 1842, the same year the Post Office Act established a penny post between Hamilton and St. George’s. Perot shared the ground floor with pharmacist James Heyl and his apothecary until 1847 when Heyl moved to his own building at the corner of Queen and Front Streets, the former Irish Linen Shop premises.
Perot planted the now majestic India-rubber tree in front of Par-la-Ville in 1847. Originally from Guyana, the tree had been sent to him by his son Adolphus.
Perot had been Hamilton’s postmaster since 1819 and he began to make his own handmade stamps which he signed. Today, these stamps, of which there are only eleven known to exist, are highly sought after. In 2011 one specimen was auctioned off at £114,000.00! Three specimens are included in the Royal Philatelic Collection, the private collection of the Royal Family and one is in the private collection of David Saul, a former premier of Bermuda.
In 1900, the Corporation of Hamilton bought Par-la-Ville and its extensive property (almost five acres), including mature gardens, stables, carriage house, cottage, rifle range and a tennis court, for £6,500.00. The property survived two proposed conversions into a hotel* in 1904 and again in 1907. The National Library moved from the Cabinet Building into the upper floor of Par-la-Ville in 1917. The new wing on the northern side was added in 1957.
William Bennett Perot died in 1871, leaving Par-la-Ville to his children, all of which had moved overseas. His son James Elliott Perot returned to Bermuda and lived in Par-la-Ville until his death in 1892.
In 2012, Par-la-Ville Park was renamed Queen Elizabeth Park to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
*The Corporation already owned the Hamilton Hotel, located where City Hall and the City Hall Car Park now stand. The hotel’s fate would be sealed in 1955 when it burned to the ground, making way for the future City Hall.
Samaritan Lodge and The Berkeley Institute
The Berkeley Institute was a long time in the making. Named for Bishop George Berkeley who, in the 1720’s, had a dream to open a school in Bermuda for Native American children living in the colony. He never realized his dream but it would be more than another hundred years that his vision for the school would come to fruition, albeit not for its intended purpose.
In 1879, a group of men organized in Wantley on Princess Street, the home of master baker and property developer Samuel D. Robinson, and established the Berkeley Educational Society. The aim of the intended school was to provide a secondary education to an integrated group of students. At the time, a secondary education was only reserved for white children.
It would take another 18 years for the school to be put into practice. On October 6th, 1897, The Berkeley Institute opened its doors on the ground floor of the Samaritan’s Lodge on Court Street, with Headmaster George DaCosta at the helm. The young scholars were made up of 15 boys and 12 girls. All but one were children of colour.
In 1899, a parcel of land on St. John’s Road was purchased for £300 by a Miss Eve, which became the site for the new Berkeley Institute and where it would remain for more than 100 years.
The Samaritan Lodge had also housed the Bermuda Nursing Association and for some 80 years, the Lodge helped its members with payments for sickness relief and funerals. It finally fell on hard times and the building was left unused and unattended until 1969 when the Cooper family bought it to use as a warehouse for the A. S. Cooper stores.
Sadly, the building was badly burned during the 1977 riots. The Bermuda Industrial Union bought the burned-out building in 1979 and demolished it. Today, the property on which the Lodge once stood is used as a parking lot and is located between 29 and 31 Court Street.
Painting by Dorothy Stevens. Collection of Masterworks Foundation. Samaritan Lodge. Photo by Ed Kelly.
A Clock for All Time
Once the only clock of its kind in Hamilton, ‘The Phoenix Clock’ has been a staple in the City for well over 100 years. Brought to Bermuda in 1893 by Edwin Troupe Child, a local jeweler in St. George’s, the clock was installed in Hamilton when Mr. Child moved his business to the City, first at Reid Street and then to Front Street. In 1894 he moved his store to 71 Front Street, now the Crisson Building, next to the Emporium, where he installed his beloved clock.
Child died in 1898 and the clock was moved to the jewelry store of Duncan McColl Doe in the old Hamilton Coffee House, the current Port O’ Call location. In 1913 Doe moved his store and the clock to the Colonial Hotel on upper north Queen Street on the east side. Doe moved locations again to the southeast corner of Burnaby and Church Streets, bringing his faithful timepiece with him.
In 1928, the clock was purchased by the Bermuda Drug Company Ltd for £500, a huge sum in that day, and was installed outside the business on the southern corner of Queen and Reid Streets and given the ‘Phoenix Clock’ moniker. It remained there until it was moved to its current location outside the Phoenix on Reid Street in 1990.
The clock was a special-order piece and cast by Boston watch and clockmakers E. Howard & Son. The company went defunct in 1881 and the location of the clock before it made its sojourn to Bermuda in 1893 remains a mystery.
From Sketch to Skyline
This month marks the 63rd anniversary of the opening of City Hall on February 11th, 1960.
Upon her death in 1933, Catherine Browne Tucker bequeathed the sum of £43,000.00, in memory of her father, to be used towards a new City Hall.
When the Hamilton Hotel at the top of Queen Street burned down in December 1955, the land left behind provided the perfect location for the new project.
Famed architect Wil Onions was tasked with the design. He brought on board Bill Harrington to design the interiors and the landscaping and together with the City Engineer at the time, Geoffrey Bird, the vision for a stately City Hall in the middle of Hamilton came to life.
Construction began in February 1958. In April 1959, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh paid a royal visit to Bermuda. Prince Philip accepted an invitation to view the well underway new City Hall.
Upon its completion, the new City Hall was opened to great pomp and circumstance with the Governor of the day, Sir Julian Gascoigne, presiding over the festivities, along with Mayor Roy Selley. The estimated cost of the build was £250,000.00, about $9,136,00.00 in today’s money!
In 2010, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of City Hall, former City Engineer Geoffrey Bird (1950 -1963) penned From Sketch To Skyline, a memoir of the construction of City Hall. The booklet is out of print, but you can read an electronic copy of it in the link below.
Fun fact – Geoffrey Bird also designed the iconic Birdcage on front street, aptly named after him.
Click the image below to read all about the construction of City Hall.
Point Pleasant Hotel
If you asked anyone where this hotel once stood, you may get a lot of blank looks but back in the early 1900's, the Point Pleasant Hotel was the place to be! It was the only hotel in Hamilton situated on the waterfront and open all year round.
Once located at what is today more commonly referred to as Albuoy's Point, the Hotel boasted 60 rooms costing between $2.00 and $2.50 per night, depending on the season. Oh, and guests could bathe for free!
What began as a warehouse owned by businessman Henry Cox Outerbridge, it appears the hotel began emerging by 1898 when Outerbridge erected an ornate wooden veranda on the upper levels where well-dressed ladies could be seen. Outerbridge continued with his warehouse on the lower level until 1913 when he converted the entire building into the Point Pleasant Hotel, complete with dining room and parlour, and electric lights and baths with hot and cold water. The cuisine was first-class.
In 1923, Outerbridge sold the hotel to Harold Hayes Frith. In 1933, the hotel was sold to the Corporation of Hamilton for £27,000 in an agreement that saw them sell the western portion of the lot on to the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club within the same month as they were looking for new, larger premises. The hotel was quickly demolished by the Corporation and that same year the new Royal Bermuda Yacht Club we know today was erected to the west of the former hotel site, the site which today is home to a park that proudly bears the name of its predecessor – Point Pleasant Park – which the City of Hamilton maintains ownership of.