Warwick’s hidden history

  • Getting the story: Thomas James and Cecille Simmons partnered on Warwick, the latest in a series of books by the Bermuda National Trust (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

    Getting the story: Thomas James and Cecille Simmons partnered on Warwick, the latest in a series of books by the Bermuda National Trust (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

  • Classic lines: the Riddell’s Bay Golf Club building, Warwick

    Classic lines: the Riddell’s Bay Golf Club building, Warwick

  • Roadside landmark: St Mary’s School, on Middle Road, Warwick, across from the Price Rite building and just west of St Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church and Empire Field

    Roadside landmark: St Mary’s School, on Middle Road, Warwick, across from the Price Rite building and just west of St Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church and Empire Field

Although Thomas James had lived on the corner of Burnt House Hill his entire life, he had no idea where its name came from.

He discovered the tragic story behind it when he started writing Warwick.

“One rainy Sunday afternoon, I spent about five hours searching through old newspapers,” he said. “Fire can turn up a lot in newspapers.”

On February 2, 1859, a seven-year-old girl accidentally set fire to dried brush and palmetto leaves while lighting Samuel Tacklyn Jr’s cellar fireplace.

The house went up in flames. Four young children died, including two who were locked in upstairs, while their caregiver was out. The remains of the burnt house remained on the hill for many years.

“The house was towards the bottom of the hill on the waterside,” said Dr James. “In the 1930s, an American bought the property and built a new house, calling it Burnt House.”

The story is one of many included in Warwick, the latest in the Bermuda National Trust’s architectural heritage series which covers more than 160 buildings in the parish.

Dr James got involved after retiring from Ettrick Animal Hospital in Warwick several years ago. “I was very bored,” he said. “I wanted something to occupy my time. I have always been interested in things historical and I like finding out things.

“I enjoyed going to the archives — looking at deeds, wills and so on and tracing the ownership of the property.

“I was very involved in the Hamilton book; I wrote the introduction to that and also the Pembroke book. Then I was given the opportunity to write the Warwick one.”

He completed it with help from project managers Linda Abend and Margie Lloyd and a body of volunteer researchers.

Cecille Simmons said the project appealed to her passion for collecting oral histories.

One of the people she spoke with was 102 years old; not all of them were from Warwick.

“I have gotten to know a retired postman, Joseph Lambert, who is extremely helpful,” she said. “He remembers who he delivered mail to.

“There are seniors who thank me just for giving them a call to ask them about something like this.”

She said working on several books in the series has changed her outlook on Bermuda. “Wherever I go, I ask, ‘Do you know about this house?’,” she laughed. “I am a nuisance. I am always on duty when it comes to this. That is the part that I really love.”

Her involvement started when the BNT was researching her home parish, Sandys. Her mother, Edith Snaith, initially refused to have her historic 1897 home, Cecille-o-Lodge, included in the book.

“She was good and reluctant and put up a struggle,” Mrs Simmons said. “She had a lot of concerns about giving information about her house — as many older Bermudians do.

“They don’t know the people and they are not quite sure what this project is about. I think there is a past history in Bermuda of getting information about your house because someone wants to get it.”

Although still working when Ms Abend asked her to help with the research on the next books, she attacked them with relish.

“I thought since I was a district nurse and knew lots of seniors, this would be something for me,” she said. “It’s about convincing people that their house is truly beautiful and would be an asset to the book.”

A painting of The Lodge by Chris Grimes was chosen for the cover of Warwick. The Windy Ridge Road building is one of the parish’s oldest.

Records from 1692 show it was then owned by Parnell Robinson, the widow of a mariner Solomon Robinson.

The house originally had a thatched roof and wooden walls that were later changed to stone to give better protection during hurricanes.

Other Warwick residents followed suit.

The parish is remarkable in that there were so many old houses built in the 1700s that survived to the early 1900s, Dr James said.

“At that time wealthy Americans tended to come for two or three months in the winter and often decided to buy a house here,” he said. “Several of them bought houses, which were probably very run down farm houses at that time and refurbished them — they appreciated their very simple lines.

“Then Bermudians came to appreciate the fact that these old buildings did have some aesthetic value in themselves. Instead of destroying them they refurbished them.”

The volume took five years of research, roughly a year to write and a year to proofread and print.

It includes sidebars on quarries, on Khyber Pass and the slave graveyard at the “Rubber Tree” across from St Mary the Virgin Anglican Church.

There is also a chapter on the various islands of the Great Sound.

For Dr James, the most challenging part was the time it took to understand the history of each house. “We benefit, now, from the fact that the library has the Bermuda newspapers online — from 1784 upwards to the 1940s,” he said. “With every house, I typically spent quite a bit of time there, trying to find out little bits of information that might relate to the people who owned these houses, just to help get a fuller picture of the life of these people.”

It is the ninth book out of ten planned in the series, and the final book, Southampton, will be completed in “two or three years”.

• Warwick costs $55 and is available at The Bookmart at Brown&Co, the Bermuda Book Store and Waterville, the Bermuda National Trust headquarters in Paget

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Published Dec 12, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Dec 12, 2019 at 7:17 am)

Warwick’s hidden history

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