A political pioneer gets her due

  • Photo by Akil Simmons
A portrait of Edna Watson is shown flanked by her contemproary Hilda Aitken and Dame Lois Browne Evans in the stairwell in The Sessions House. Mrs Aitken and Mrs Watson were the first women elected to Parliament in 1948. In 1963, Dame Lois was the first black woman elected to the House of Assembly.

    Photo by Akil Simmons A portrait of Edna Watson is shown flanked by her contemproary Hilda Aitken and Dame Lois Browne Evans in the stairwell in The Sessions House. Mrs Aitken and Mrs Watson were the first women elected to Parliament in 1948. In 1963, Dame Lois was the first black woman elected to the House of Assembly.

  • Photo by Akil Simmons
Members of the current House of Assembly and Paget Parish Council gathered in the stairwell and foyer of the Sessions House yesterday afternoon for the unveiling of the Edna Watson portrait. Shown at the centre from left to right: Dianna Tetlow, Speaker of the House Randolph Horton, Suzann Roberts, Meredith Ebbin and Shirley White.

    Photo by Akil Simmons Members of the current House of Assembly and Paget Parish Council gathered in the stairwell and foyer of the Sessions House yesterday afternoon for the unveiling of the Edna Watson portrait. Shown at the centre from left to right: Dianna Tetlow, Speaker of the House Randolph Horton, Suzann Roberts, Meredith Ebbin and Shirley White.


Edna Watson was once called “the bravest woman alive”. The accolade came from a fellow passenger, who spent 11 hours floating with her and eight other survivors in the waters of the Atlantic, nearly 400 miles off Bermuda, as they waited for rescue following a plane crash in 1939.

Born in Montreal on August 2, 1895, Watson spent the better part of her adult life in Bermuda, where she became a pioneering Parliamentarian, and founded the Committee of 25 for Handicapped Children, as well as a hospital for children with disabilities.

A woman with a social conscience, an adventurous streak and vast stores of physical courage, Watson won a bravery award for saving the plane captain’s life. Six years later, she survived a ship’s torpedo attack while serving with the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the Second World War.

Well into her middle age, she entered a new phase of her life, travelling the world solo, on board cargo ships. That was several years after she and Hilda Aitken made history when in June 1948, they became the first two women elected to serve in the House of Assembly.

But 33 years after her death, Edna Watson is largely forgotten even though the Committee of 25 continues to carry out her mission. A plaque at Child and Adolescent Services at the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Centre recalls its former name the Watson Ward where children with disabilities were cared for when their families were unwilling or unable to keep them at home. In this 400th anniversary year, when those who have contributed to Bermuda’s development are being remembered, it is as good a time as any to look back on her accomplishments.

Mrs Watson was a McGill University-trained physiotherapist who first visited Bermuda in 1924 with her husband of three years, Robert B Watson, a merchant and Royal Canadian Air Force gunner.

The couple lived in Westmont, a wealthy English-Canadian enclave in Montreal. Prior to her marriage, Watson worked in Toronto and Winnipeg, putting her training to use treating wounded Canadian servicemen transferred back home from the battlefronts of Europe during the First World War. Watson was eager to serve overseas but was disqualified by her youth. When the war ended, she taught school in Toronto.

In 1927, entranced by the Island’s charms and more than likely its climate, the Watsons took up residence in Bermuda. They built a home, Scarrington, on land they purchased off Middle Road, Paget and operated it as a guest house and a poultry and produce farm.

Robert Watson died in 1938, and Watson spent her first Christmas as a widow with her family back home in Montreal. She flew back on January 21, 1939, boarding Imperial Airways’ luxury flying boat Cavalier in Port Washington, New York for the five-hour trip to Bermuda. Two hours into the journey, the first sign of trouble came when an engine failed. The plane, carrying eight passengers and five crew, eventually lost altitude and crashed and sank within 15 minutes.

Everyone on board managed to scramble out of the plane. There was no life raft, no flares and only six life preservers, to which the survivors clung on to for dear life. Within hours, two passengers and crewman Robert Spence died. Rescue for the rest came just before midnight, nearly 11 hours after the crash.

An oil tanker located the ten survivors and transported them to the safety of dry land in New York and into the media spotlight the following day. Watson, aged 43 at the time, and one of three Bermuda passengers on the flight, was hailed as a hero for saving the life of the Cavalier’s captain Roland (Roly) Alderson. Watson literally helped keep him afloat. She also buoyed everyone’s spirits. Grateful fellow survivor, Bermudian Nellie Smith, later told The Royal Gazette: “Mrs Edna Watson was the life of the party. She absolutely kept us going, talking and joking.” The New York Times reported how Watson had swum among the group, “massaging muscles that had gone stiff with cold.”

Asked whether she was concerned about sharks, Mrs. Watson told the New York Times: “No, nobody said anything about sharks. But all felt that with three dead, they might be attracted.”

The Bermuda survivors returned home the following week on a cruise ship and to a hero’s welcome. Watson was escorted off the Monarch of Bermuda by the ship’s captain, Leslie Banyard. On August 4, 1939, in his last official act as Governor, Sir Reginald Hildyard, presented Mrs Watson with the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal, for saving the life of the injured captain by supporting him when the plane went down “at great personal risk”. (An inquiry later determined the crash was caused by ice on the carburettor and recommended the airline adopt sweeping new safety measures.) Captain Alderson never forgot Mrs. Watson’s heroism. He visited her in Bermuda a month before her death in March 1976.

Unfazed by that ordeal, and with the Second World War brewing, Mrs Watson prepared to enlist in the Canadian Army. She returned to Canada later in 1939, took a refresher physiotherapy course, and signed up with Army’s Medical Corps. Determined to serve overseas on her second attempt, she shaved a few years off her age in order to comply with the age requirement.

Mrs Watson served in England for three years. In 1943, she was sailing to northern Italy in a convoy of ships, when a German torpedo hit the ship on which she was travelling. The hull was damaged and the ship sank but everyone on board was rescued. Mrs Watson continued on to her destination where she help care for casualties in makeshift hospitals the army set up throughout Italy. Mrs Watson returned to Canada in 1946, where she established the physiotherapy department at a veteran’s hospital in Montreal.

In 1948, she moved back to Bermuda. The Island’s female property-owners had won the right to vote in 1944, after a 25-year campaign. They voted for the first time in a 1946 by-election.

In the 1948 general election, Mrs Watson was one of three women candidates. Nurse Alice Scott of Sandys was unsuccessful, but Mrs Watson was elected in Paget, and Hilda Aitken saw victory in Smith’s. Putting themselves up as candidates was a natural progression for Aitken and Scott, who had been members of Bermuda’s suffragette movement. Mrs Watson made her decision to stand more or less on a whim.

Mrs Watson told The Royal Gazette in a July 29, 1975 interview: “It was ten days before the election and some friends asked me to stand as a joke. I do remember that there was no Workmen’s Compensation at the time. I thought that was dreadful. On election day, I went to the polling booth and by the end of the afternoon, I was Member of Parliament for Paget. I had never even been to Parliament.”

She attributed her win to the notoriety of the Cavalier flying boat crash. “People remembered the Cavalier and I had just returned from the Army,” she said. “That provided a bit of glamour.”

Male parliamentarians wasted no time in putting Watson to work. Watson, who was the first woman to speak in Parliament, was appointed chairman of the Transport Control Board. It was a key appointment because Parliament had narrowly approved cars for Bermuda in 1946. Cars were a highly divisive issue Watson said she was given the post of TCD chair because no male parliamentarian wanted it. She chaired TCD during its crucial formative years, laying the framework for regulations governing the use of cars.

In 1949, she was appointed chairman of the Social Welfare Board. That post proved to be a source of frustration, she later said, because Government refused to allocate sufficient funds to address social issues.

Her frustration led her to found the Committee of 25 (‘for Handicapped Children’ was added to the name later). She invited 12 friends, who were asked to bring other 12 friends to the first meeting. Queenie Penboss, Doris Pedrolini, Yvonne Bowker, Rosemary Mitchell and Rea Wentworth are also identified as founders in the 1952 act that established the committee.

One of the Committee’s first acts was renovating Packwood Seniors Home in Somerset a 16-week project. The Committee enlisted help from service clubs and tradesmen who volunteered their services. The following year, the committee established the Children’s Convalescent Hospital in Dockyard catering to children with disabilities under age 16. The home closed in 1957 mainly because of lack of funds.

Mrs Watson and Hilda Aitken served only one five-year term. Mrs Watson said she believed opposition to the hospital which is now Lefroy House for seniors caused her defeat. Mrs Watson never publicly discussed segregation. But she was a Member of (Colonial) Parliament who represented the most conservative parish in segregated Bermuda. At a public meeting in 1953, Mrs Watson made it clear the hospital would have a policy of non-discrimination for patients and nursing staff.

Still her defeat was considered a major. House Speaker Sir John Cox, an arch-conservative, said: “I consider the House of Assembly has suffered an immeasurable loss in her defeat. Her courage in tackling the boards on which she served has been quite remarkable and she was able to hold her own from the beginning with members far more experienced than she.”

After 1953, she devoted her energies to the Committee of 25, but also took time out for solo travel on cargo ships that took her to places like Egypt, Nepal, India, China, Japan and Bali. She gave talks about her travels, wrote a book and found an agent, but it is not clear if she ever found a publisher. Mrs. Watson, who never remarried and had no children, clearly relished her freedom. She told a reporter in 1961: “It’s wonderful being footloose and fancy free with no strings attached.”

While Mrs. Watson was travelling, major political changes were taking place in Bermuda. By 1965, Bermuda’s two main political parties, the Progressive Labour Party and the United Bermuda Party had emerged, and the property vote had been abolished.

In 1968, the year of the first election under the two-party system, Watson put herself forward as a candidate for the Bermuda Democratic Party, which was formed by a group of disaffected PLP members. The BDP made a poor showing at the polls, and eventually disappeared, but Watson introduced the party’s platform of social reforms prior to the election, saying the government had never been willing to spend money on social welfare and that Parliament should thank women who had carried the load up to that point.

Two years earlier, Mrs Watson was among a number of prominent women who expressed concern about Bermudian women’s apparent reluctance to serve on juries, after they had recently won the right to become jurors. She told The Royal Gazette suffragettes would have been ashamed of their political lethargy and that women were still heavily influenced by their husbands

“But in this day and age most women should think for themselves,” she said in a September 17, 1966 interview. “I suppose their lives are too easy. They do not worry about a problem if it does not affect them directly. They are narrow in their outlook, not much travelled and not interested in political commentary. They are only interested in their general social lives and families.”

In 1975, she was still active, addressing the issue of equal pay for women on a women’s rights panel.

When Mrs Watson died at age 80 in March 1976, she was praised by both parties in Parliament. The UBP’s Dr William Masters said she was a woman of great personal courage, and Opposition Leader Walter Robinson cited her pioneering work for women’s rights. Her funeral and burial took place at St Paul’s Church, Paget.

Despite her accomplishments, the significance of Edna Watson’s election has frequently been overlooked. Hilda Aitken is often referred to as the first female elected to Parliament. That’s technically correct, but only because ballots in Smith's parish were counted on the first day of the 1948 election. Ballots in Paget, where Mrs Watson stood, were counted a day later. Elections were held over several days to give property owners the opportunity to vote in every parish where they owned land. But women took their seats in Parliament on the same day.

The oversight continued until Friday. For many years there has been a portrait of Hilda Aitken hanging in the House of Assembly as well as one of Dame Lois Browne Evans, who in 1963 became the first female black Member of Parliament. But Edna Watson has been conspicuous by her absence from this small gallery of female political trailblazers.

Now Parliament, in its wisdom, has finally corrected this oversight and recognised Edna Watson’s accomplishments with a painting as well.

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Published Jul 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm (Updated Jul 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm)

A political pioneer gets her due

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