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399 years, 120 Governors and five stately mansions

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'The very unsatisfactory condition of the Government House at Mount Langton is a source of regret as well as anxiety; it may well be doubted if the expenditure of large sums of money annually for improvements and repairs of an old house is, in practices, sound or judicious, and in fact that at no distant time a new one must be built…—

The Royal Gazette, 6 June 1882

From the time the English struck Bermuda in full force after the unpleasantness of a hurricane in late July 1609, it has been necessary to have a leader for the country.

The 153 souls who lost not their earthly guise in the wrecking of the Sea Venture off what is now St. Catherine's Point in that storm immediately developed an island mentality and divided themselves into two camps. Sir George Somers, later the titular “father” of Bermuda, headed up one encampment and the other was commanded by Sir Thomas Gates, almost a classic division between the navy and the army, viewed militarily. One could perhaps have been called Camp Patience and the other, Camp Deliverance, for those were the names they assigned to the two small boats they built in two separate bays for their deliverance to Jamestown, Virginia, their original destination.

With luck, minus two miscreants hiding out in the Walsingham jungle or thereabouts on the Main, the two camps and their followers made it to Virginia, only to have Somers volunteer to return to the island for some more pigs and cahows for the starving original settlement of what became the United States. Getting back to paradise in November 1610, Sir George promptly died after consuming 'a surfeit' of swine, and all but three of the humans at Bermuda then hightailed it back to Britain, instead of returning to Jamestown.

The three who chose to stay, Edward Chard, Robert Waters and Christopher Carter, became know as the “Three Kings of Bermuda”, but subjects they had not a one. After some 20 months, however, with the arrival of the

Plough in July 1612 and a cargo of settlers, the regal trio became subject to the dictates of Richard Moore, the first Governor of Bermuda.

Depending on how the count goes (with 'acting' persons and two 'triumvirates'), Bermuda has had 120 or so governors in the 399 years since Moore established himself at St. George's as the representative of the Virginia, later, in 1615, the Bermuda Company. Be that as it may add up, until the dissolution of the Bermuda Company in 1684, the governors were appointed by the board of directors in London and were in effect the CEOs of the Company on the island; some 20-plus men served in that period. (No female has ever been governor of Bermuda, which was probably pleasing to MCPs (Members of the Colonial Parliament) and others associated with such an acronym, then and now.

After 1684, the British Government appointed Governors as representatives of the Crown, though Bermuda has had its own parliament since 1612, and since 1968, a Premier and Cabinet of ministers to govern the country. From the time of the establishment of the Dockyard in 1809, military commanders dominated the post of Governor, with the last serving officer being Major General Sir Julian Gascoigne in 1964.

Over the four centuries minus a year since 1612, the governors have been accommodated in five stately mansions, the first three in St. George's and the other two in Pembroke Parish at Mount Langton. The first governor was forced to make a difficult decision between a house for the Lord and one for himself and came up with a fine earthly compromise:

“After this he prepared some timber, and put together the frame of a wooden church. But no sooner was it fastened together than it was blown down by the next wind-storm; this was partly due to the negligence of the workmen in charge, but mostly because the church was located on an bleak, exposed hill. So Governor Moore gave up the attempt and instead built a church of palmetto leaves. With the ruins of the wooden church he constructed a very fine house built in the shape of a cross. The practical arrangements of this house showed that Moore was talented in this sort of work, and the building proved well-adapted even to this day [1622-3] for the hospitality of each of the various governors in their turn.”

That Government House was a wreck by the mid-1680s and so Governor Samuel Day built a new one of stone, now surviving as the Globe Hotel, opposite St. Peter's Church in St. George's. When his rule was up, Day refused to relinquish the building, which became his private home. It is not recorded whether some the following governors lived in palmetto huts or what, but in 1721 a new Government House was erected on the site of what is now known as 'The Unfinished Church'.

By the beginning of the 1800s, business and military power shifted to the new town of Hamilton in the centre of Bermuda and the Dockyard a-building in the far west of the archipelago, with St. George's, the first capital, losing much including being host to the King's representative. A new Government House was erected on a Pembroke hill called Mount Langton, which served as a suitable residence from about 1820 into the early 1880s, when its dilapidation called for a new structure.

That new building ran over into difficulties (monetary and masonry), based on a design by William Hay, architect of the Anglican Cathedral in Hamilton. Two Bermudians, W. Cardy Hallet, the Colonial Surveyor, and the master carpenter, John Henry Jackson, were brought in to sort out the site. The present Government House emerged for accommodation in 1892, perhaps suitably imperial for the aspirations of a people whose then-empire encircled the globe, the largest such political entity ever known.

Bermuda is one of the last 14 of Britain's overseas territories, of which two are continental and the rest islands, or in the case of Cyprus, a part of an island. Bermuda was the first oceanic place to be settled by the English at the beginning of their rise as a world power and it has one of the oldest parliaments in the world, established at St. George's in 1620. Over almost 400 years, 120 governors and five stately mansions, much has changed in Bermuda, but fortunately two of the Government Houses and parts of two others are yet extant: all are considered historic structures, part of the heritage assets of this place.

Here only a taste of that heritage can be served up, but in 2012, in its stately series on Bermuda's historic architecture, the Bermuda National Trust will publish “Pembroke”, the next book on the outstanding built-heritage of the nine parishes: the two central Government Houses will be presented therein in full.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum of Bermuda, incorporating the Bermuda Maritime Museum. Comments may be made to director[AT]bmm.bm or 704-5480.

The first Government House, built in 1612, stood on Water Street near the Town Square (John Smith 1624).
The second Government House was erected in 1699 and is now called the Globe Hotel, here seen in the late 1800s (Bermuda National Trust Collections).
The third Government House was started in 1721 on the site largely occupied now by the Unfinished Church (Bermuda National Trust Collections).
The fourth Government House was built at Mount Langton in Pembroke about 1820 (Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection, Bermuda Archives).
The fifth Government House was started in 1882 and completed in 1892: Inset W. Cardy Hallett and John Henry Jackson (Moniz Collection, National Museum of Bermuda).

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Published March 12, 2011 at 9:00 am (Updated March 11, 2011 at 8:11 pm)

399 years, 120 Governors and five stately mansions

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