The History of Hamilton
For more than a century before Hamilton became the capital it is today, discussions had festered from one end of the island to the other about the need for a more central location for commerce to take place. The ‘old towne of St. George’ had served its purpose well but with the growth and dispersal of the population and the arrival of Governor Henry Hamilton in 1788, the stage was set for the parish of Pembroke to assume a new role as the heart of trade.
Ambitious Bermudians flocked to buy up lots of land in the proposed ‘new towne’ and built warehouses and wharves along its waterfront. With its sheltered harbour the new location was agreeable to many who patiently awaited the decision about the new town from Governor Hamilton. Hamilton had had a less than stellar military career and his appointment in Bermuda afforded him the opportunity to make up for his short-comings. He embraced the merchants and threw his support behind the new town and gave it his name. He proved to be very well liked as well as successful and committed to the new town. Hamilton would leave Bermuda in 1794 and serve as Governor of Dominica until his death in 1796.
An Act of Bermuda Legislature declared Hamilton a ‘town’ in 1793. It is worth noting that between 1778 and 1784, soldiers from the American War of Independence were stationed regularly in Bermuda and many homes in Hamilton were used by the Government as garrisons for these artillery men. The islands of Bermuda would go on to serve a major role in the American War of 1812, developing into the Royal Navy’s largest and most crucial base in the western hemisphere.
The allotted land for the town of Hamilton measured one hundred and forty-five acres, roughly one quarter square mile. In January of 1795, with the purchase of the lots of land in Hamilton complete, a meeting took place wherein the freeholders elected a corporation. The Corporation of Hamilton had taken over and to this day continues to serve the people of the capital.
The merchants of Hamilton continued to thrive through their privateering efforts, thanks in part to the American Revolution. Construction in the town was booming; warehouses were erected with their owners’ gracious homesteads looming not far. The sheltered harbour was now a thoroughfare for trade ships and their wares from as far south as the West Indies. The port of Hamilton with her wharves saw the import and export business explode.
With the rapid growth of Hamilton as a centre of commerce, it seemed only fitting that it become the country’s capital, much to the dismay of the St. George’s townspeople. In January 1815, the seat of Government officially moved to the new capital amidst great jubilance and numerous celebrations. The town had a new motto, Sparsa Collegit – to gather the scattered, representative of the new town bringing together people from all corners of Bermuda.
In 1852, a new form of commerce would hit Hamilton – tourism. The island was in a recession with regard to the number of visitors to the island and this was attributed to the fact that the capital did not have a decent hotel. Cruise lines had removed Bermuda from their schedule due to the lack of suitable accommodation. The Hamilton Hotel, constructed on what is now the City Hall car park was opened to the public in 1854. It first offered thirty-six guest rooms and after years of upgrades and extensions would fully house up to six hundred guests. The fate of the Hamilton Hotel would come in the wee hours of the morning of December 23rd, 1955 when it burned to the ground in spectacular fashion. Due to a convenient wind direction that night, the rest of Hamilton was spared in what was at that time, the largest fire the City had ever seen.
In 1897, prior to the consecration of the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, the Corporation of Hamilton and its Council celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria when the Legislature conferred on the town the title and dignity of ‘city’. Further celebrations followed and the entire island delighted in the chance to contribute to the festivities. Arches were built across roads in the city, decorations adorned the facades of the shops, renovations were carried out on the old and lights strewn on the new. Today the last reminder of this joyous time is the beautiful bandstand that sits proudly in the park that bears the much-loved monarch’s name.
In 1933, Catherine Browne Tucker, daughter of George Somers Tucker, former Speaker of the House and alderman of the city, bequeathed more than $120,000 to be used towards the construction of a new City Hall in Hamilton. It would be more than twenty-five years before Ms. Tucker’s dreams were realized and work would commence on the impressive structure that sits today at 17 Church Street. On February 11th, 1960, the doors of City Hall were officially opened with much pomp and circumstance by then Governor, Julian Gascoigne. The building housed the municipal offices, two art galleries as well as a theatre. Today the building is not much changed and over the years has received many a visiting royal.
City elections still take place every three years with a Mayor and eight councillors elected to serve the constituents and visitors and locals alike. With a little over one thousand residents, the City’s population flourishes to over thirteen thousand every day with commuters from each end of the island making their way to their respective jobs in the capital. Today the Corporation of Hamilton continues to serve the City and her people through garbage collection, street and sidewalk sweeping, the wharf and sewer system, road and park maintenance and the collection of City taxes.
The vibrant colours that enliven the facades of the building and shops throughout Hamilton are a testament to those who work, visit and reside within its boundaries. The names of past merchants and privateers still adorn some of the buildings on Front Street. The names found in old and archived ledgers and records still resound in everyday conversation and the descendants of the Hamilton fathers can be found in some of those daily commuters mentioned. Hamilton is a city steeped in history from Front Street to North Street. Visitors can take a walking tour with the Town Crier, encompassing the entire City with no lack of information to absorb. This tour, as well as the self-guided walking tour will send you on a journey back through time and the nooks and crannies of North Hamilton, a residential enclave offering colourful accounts of the historic importance of this community.
Hamilton has weathered many a storm, literally and figuratively. It stands today on the world stage as a pillar of international business; the birthplace of captive insurance. A cosmopolitan city with so much to offer her visitors from the lush beautiful parks and galleries to the quaint boutiques and array of restaurants, many with commanding views of the serene harbour. Simply put, Hamilton is Bermuda at its best.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited the City Hall on 17th February 1975, together with His Royal Highness Prince Philip who had previously visited the site of City Hall in April 1959 during a world tour, while the building was under construction.
Other distinguished visitors have included His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Snowdon, Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra, His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester, former Prime Minister The Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Michael Ramsey. During a visit to City Hall in 1961, the former President of the United States of America, the late Mr. Harry S. Truman signed the Visitors Book as a "retired farmer".