First black to hold a hotel licence
February 14, 1872 Born near Black River, Jamaica
1887 Sets off on a 115-mile journey to find work in Kingston and is hired by a bakery
1890 Enlists in the West India Regiment
1895 Is posted to West Africa to fight in the Ashanti War
1897 Travels with his regiment to London to participate in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations
1898 Shipped with his unit to South Africa to fight in the Boer War, but spends most of his time in St Helena, away from the action
1901 Is posted to Sierra Leone, where he serves for two years
January 10, 1903 Arrives in Bermuda and is discharged two months later
1903-1908 Obtains work in a bakery, but later manages Gosling’s canteen in Dockyard
1907 Marries Jane Victoria Smith, a native of Montserrat; the couple will later have two daughters
1909 Establishes his first business, Harbour View Bar, on Front Street
1919 Purchases the Canadian House on Reid Street and re-establishes it as the Canadian Hotel
1920s and 1930s Enlarges the Canadian Hotel, which becomes the foundation of his wealth
1939 Helps to sponsor the first tour to Bermuda by a West Indies cricket team
1940s Acquires Ripleigh and the Metropolitan building in Hamilton; becomes known for his philanthropy
February 14, 1962 Celebrates his 90th birthday at the Canadian Hotel
January 14, 1965 Dies while playing cards at the Canadian Hotel
James “Dick” Richards overcame the loss of his parents at an early age and a childhood of poverty in his native Jamaica to become one of Bermuda’s richest black men.
He was reportedly the first black person in Bermuda to have a hotel licence and was the island’s oldest bar owner at the time of his death. The Canadian Hotel, a hotel turned boarding house on Reid Street, Hamilton, was the business enterprise he was mostly identified with, and the most notable of the properties he amassed.
A colourful personality, he died at age 92 while playing cards with friends at the Canadian Hotel.
Richards had seen active service in Africa before he was posted to Bermuda in 1903 with the Third Battalion of the West India (Indies) Regiment. The soldiers were called “Bully Roosters” because of their colourful costumes.
Born near Black River, in the parish of St Elizabeth in Jamaica, Richards lost both parents at very early age. It forced him to rely on his own initiative to make his way through life, he later said.
In 1887, at the age of 15, he left home to find work in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. He made the 115-mile journey by foot because he could not afford boat or train fare.
The trip took four days — he started his journey on a Tuesday at about 6pm and reached Kingston on Saturday at 5pm. He found a job in a bakery, but was required to work day and night, including Sundays, a schedule that no doubt helped to develop his appetite for hard work.
In 1890, he enlisted in the West India Regiment, which was a division of the British Army. Five years later, he was posted to West Africa to fight in the Ashanti War. In 1897, he went to London with his regiment to take part in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
In 1898, his unit was shipped off to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. He spent only six weeks in Pretoria before being transferred to St Helena, an island in the South Atlantic, away from the action. He later said it was because it created an embarrassment for the British “for black West Indians to be allowed to fight for the Queen when black Africans were preventing from doing the same”. His next posting was to Sierra Leone in 1901. He served there for two years. He arrived in Bermuda with his unit on January 10, 1903 and was discharged two months later.
His first job was at the Bermuda Bakery, but he later found employment with the British Royal Engineers at Prospect, Devonshire, working as a labourer by day and assisting in the canteen at night. He so impressed the canteen manager that within four months he was offered a job managing the canteen at Casemates in Dockyard, which was run by Gosling’s. He held the post for about five years.
In 1907, he married Jane Victoria Smith, a Montserrat native. She encouraged him to form his own business. He took her advice, opening the Harbour View Bar in January 1909 on Front Street, Hamilton. Other establishments, either a bar, or a restaurant with bar, followed on Reid Street East, which became the centre of his enterprises.
In 1918, Richards purchased a property on Reid Street East on which he built the Canadian Hotel, thus becoming the first black man in Bermuda to own a hotel licence. The hotel was built in stages, with the first section completed in 1921. He operated the Canadian Hotel as a hotel and bar until his death.
His purchase in 1926 of an adjoining property, Stonehaven, made Richards the dominant landowner on Reid Street East. A distinguishing architectural feature of the Canadian Hotel was a stone lion that gazed down from the fourth storey. During the 1920s, Richards ran a high-society nightclub, the Lion’s Deck, at the hotel. During the Second World War, the hotel and bar were popular with servicemen from the two US bases, according to veteran journalist Ira Philip.
Richards went on to amass a string of properties, including Ripleigh on the corner of King and Victoria streets in Hamilton and the Metropolitan Building, on the corner of Union and Dundonald streets. He acquired both properties in the 1940s.
He spent his new-found wealth on numerous causes — scholarships, the Salvation Army and the Berkeley Institute. He was a major benefactor of St Paul AME Church, helping to underwrite the cost of its stained-glass windows, organ and balcony. He also contributed to charities in Jamaica.
Richards also sponsored sporting events. Like labour leader E.F. Gordon, a contemporary and fellow Caribbean immigrant, Richards was an avid cricket fan. Dr Gordon was instrumental in bringing the first West Indies cricket team to Bermuda in 1939 and Richards, along with Dr Gordon and others, helped to fund the cost of the tour.
Richards also organised a women’s version of Cup Match, which was played at White Hill Field during the 1930s. For years, billiards players in participating bars competed for the Dick Richards Trophy.
Richards, an imposing man whose physical stature matched his personality, lived a full life. He celebrated his 90th birthday by inviting friends to drop by the Canadian Hotel all day until midnight, when he cut his cake. By then, the property was operating as a boarding house, catering to about 70 residents.
He told a reporter from The Royal Gazette on that occasion: “I get on well. I make good progress from giving freely to charity. I don’t think anything is better than giving to charity. That’s my success.”
He died in the midst of a card game one month before his 93rd birthday on January 14, 1965. About 800 people braved blustery weather to attend his funeral at St Paul AME Church on January 17.
He was survived by his wife, two daughters, Ellen Richards and Doris Pearman, and three grandchildren. Other relatives included nephew Wesley Gayle, who became a successful entrepreneur in his own right as the owner of Sunset Lodge, a large guesthouse on North Shore, Pembroke West, which catered to black tourists in the 1950s and 1960s, during the era of segregation.
Today, his surviving direct descendants are grandson James “Jimmy” Richards, who is based in Jamaica, and great-granddaughters Sia and Sasha Castle, and Rebecca Raveneau. His granddaughters, Terry Castle and Carol Raveneau, are deceased.
Richards’s family sold the Canadian Hotel in 1984. Despite its dilapidated state, the building remains a Hamilton landmark. It was last used as a rooming house for single men and has been slated for development for several years.
Richards’s rags-to-riches story continues to resonate in his home town of Black River, where he became known as “Bermuda King” because of his benevolence. During his lifetime, he returned to Black River regularly and donated goods to the poor. He also built a Salvation Army corps (church), gave scholarships to students from his former school, Beersheeba Primary School, and purchased the land to build a brand-new primary school.
In September 2012, Beersheeba Primary School school alumnus Vincent Samuels paid a visit to Bermuda and revealed that plans are afoot to rename the school after Richards and to build a mini-museum in his honour.
“Unfortunately, I lost my mother and father at a very early age. As a result I had no one to school me and what little I obtained was through my own initiative.”
“Then in the year 1887 at the age of 15, I left home and journeyed to the capital Kingston to seek employment. Being very poor I did not have enough money to pay either the train or boat fare which would have conveyed me to Kingston. I was forced to walk it, a journey of 115 miles.”
“In 1890 I joined the West Indies regiment. In 1895 we were sent to Africa where we fought the Ashanti tribe. In 1897 I had the pleasure of attending the Queen’s Jubilee in England.”
“I started my own business in June 1909. My best business was done when I ran my own restaurant in addition to having a bar. At that time, you could get a good meal for anything between 8d (eight pence) and 1s (one shilling). Between the restaurant and the bar, I did a thriving business.”
“I have had a good life. I now own quite a bit of good property and I am comfortably off.”
“I have met three reigning monarchs — Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and, recently, Queen Elizabeth II. Who knows, I may be privileged to meet another?”
• Courtesy of Bermudabiographies.bm
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