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Sandys Watch House: a monument with questionable function

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In the City of Hamilton, the house Wantley may be endangered but, out in the west, in “God’s country”, the uppermost parish of Sandys, a little monument of built-heritage has been restored, thanks to the generosity of Crisson Construction and an anonymous donor.

Like Wantley, it is on a main road for all to see, although its primary function may remain unconfirmed. Some say it was a lock-up for slaves, others an overnight cell for whomever had gotten foolish the previous night, before being take to town to stand before a magistrate.

Then it could have been the office and toolshed lock-up for the “parish waywarden”, who was responsible for the maintenance of the highways and byways of Sandys (pronounced “sands”, after Sir Edwin Sandys, one of the leading lights of the Bermuda Company, est. 1615). A recent photograph acquired by Horst Augustinovic puts the waywarden cat in with the incarcerated pigeons but only questions, not “all hell”, have broken out.

As one drives down the incline from Somerset Bridge before Scaur Hill, on the right is a small nine-foot-square Bermuda buttery, an architectural speciality of the island normally reserved for use as an early icebox or, in the case of Castle Island, a lovely latrine.

After a rehab by the National Museum of Bermuda some years ago, the Watch House needed some further TLC, so Michael Tatem and Crisson Construction came to the rescue, with the kind permission of the property owner.

The Sandys Watch House is thought to be the most pristine of all the parish watch houses, such as have survived.

Such lockups came into fashion towards the end of the 1700s in England and into 1839, when the Police Service was established (one is represented here from Castle Cary and is thought to be the inspiration of the British bobby’s helmet design). Towards the end of the first Industrial Revolution, unemployed folk were getting rambunctious and so the overnight jail became a popular resting place for some. A few appear to have latrines in one corner of the usual single-room building, but the Sandys Watch House does not appear to have had such a convenience for the inconvenienced.

A deed survives for the acquisition by the Parish Vestry in 1815 for a ten-foot square patch of land for the “erection of a watch house”, which gives a date after which our specimen was built. Other documents also mention watch houses for the other parishes, the main prison being in St George’s, sadly demolished some years ago.

Then the photograph taken by censor Victor Haag during the Second World War shows a sign on the building proclaiming “Ye Olde Watch Tower Built 1652 in use by Way Wardens as a Lock-up”. A 1975 replacement sign on the door in Bermuda National Trust archives revises that to a “Capital Lock-up”.

As self-described on a website, what we appear to need here is a “criminal historian” which, like the lock-up, begs a question or two, or perhaps just a mixed metaphor of the sort often heard by our compatriots.

Waywardens were private citizens who were given the job of maintaining the roads of the parish, including cutting back overhanging bushes; they could also level charges of the citizenry to pay for their work. There are references to waywardens for the parishes, especially in the late Dr A.C.H. Hallett’s monumental three-volume “Civil Records”.

However, they do not appear to have had the capacity to lock up miscreants, so we need that “criminal historian” to look into this matter to see who had such authority, say from 1800 until the establishment of the Bermuda Police Service.

Questions thus remain, but thanks to Crisson Construction so does the handsome little building, the Watch House of Sandys, now presiding over a dangerous stretch of road to and from Somerset Bridge.

What the parish waywarden would make of modern traffic will for ever remain a question, while the Watch House could also have been his office and a way station for some on the way to see the “Beak”.

Sandys Parish Watch House in 1943 by Victor Haag (Photograph courtesy of Horst Augustinovic)
The Castle Cary, England, lockup, or “Bobby’s Helmet” (Photography by Chris Downer)
The Watch House after restoration in May 2021 by Crisson Construction Ltd (Photograph supplied)

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Published July 17, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated July 19, 2021 at 8:12 am)

Sandys Watch House: a monument with questionable function

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