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A passion for patching up Bermuda’s historical gems

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Mason Dean Saunders working on wall around the Military Cemetery on Grenadier Lane in St George’s (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

When Dean Saunders started repairing a wall at Fort Albert in St George’s he could not believe that people turned up to have a look around.

“There were people from all races, ages and nationalities,” he said. “So many people said they never knew this place was even there.”

They were curious because the old fort, now on the St Regis Hotel property, had been inaccessible for decades.

“The St George’s Foundation has been doing a lot of cutting around Fort Albert to beautify it,” Mr Saunders, a mason, said. “They also put in new ramps to open the place to the public. A few months before that, you couldn’t even get in there.”

One of the things he loved about Fort Albert was the Yorkshire stone used to build parts of it.

“It was quarried in England and brought over on a ship,” he said.

It is particularly hard and has a yellow colour.

While working at the fort, he was amazed by the curious people who popped by.

Mr Saunders said that more needed to be done to utilise Bermuda’s historical sites.

“You could have a coffee house at Fort Albert to attract people,” he said. “The views from the top of the fort are stunning. You can see out, but people on the ground can’t see in. It would make a great event space.”

Mr Saunders has spent much of his life fighting to preserve historical sites such as this one, armed only with a trowel, mortar and a few gardening implements.

His handiwork can be seen in a number of historical places such as the old ammunition dump at Ferry Reach in St George’s. Recently, he has been tackling sites near Fort Albert including the St George’s Military Cemetery just down the road on Grenadier Lane.

The Bermuda National Trust subcontracted Mr Saunders to do the cemetery work, thanks to a donation from Chubb Bermuda.

When the cemetery was consecrated in 1806, Napoleon was Britain’s greatest enemy. Royal Engineers built the wall around the oddly shaped 1.66-acre patch of land. Today, roots and tree stumps are the biggest danger to the old walls.

“Many of Bermuda’s historical sites are in poor condition from people not taking care of the vegetation,” Mr Saunders said. He pointed to a large tangle of roots and stumps in the corner of the cemetery. “I took those off of this wall.”

Bermuda walls are particularly vulnerable to plant invasion because their porous nature makes them a sponge for moisture.

“Birds fly over and drop seeds that grow in the cracks,” Mr Saunders said.

Some particularly invasive plants, such as ficus trees, can bring a wall right down.

As part of the work to repair the walls in the cemetery, he had to take the caps off the top of them. Inside, he found mainly fill.

“Whatever I take out, I put back,” he said.

He works hard to make sure that things do not look too modern after he has repaired them. He uses traditional methods, wherever possible, such as using lime mortar the way masons did hundreds of years ago.

For this particular project, he also used a secret ingredient: cow manure.

“I used some from the cows up the road,” he said. “I added it to the mortar to darken it. If you start plastering and plastering the wall, you take away the character.”

Grave subject

Buried in St George’s Military Cemetery are members of many British garrisons stationed in Bermuda at different times. Most of the people were victims of yellow fever, a mosquito-borne illness that took the lives of more than 13,500 people in Bermuda in the 19th century.

The headstones carry heartbreaking stories, such as a military doctor who came to the island to treat victims of yellow fever, only to die from it himself, or a 21-year-old soldier who died just three weeks after joining his regiment here. There are also many young children interred here including Esther Jane and Mary Ellen Beswick, the baby daughters of Corporal Frederick Beswick, who contracted yellow fever, four months apart. The inscription on their grave reads: “But keep from sin, don’t curse and swear, for this youthful child, Mary Ellen, did tell her parents she was going to heaven”.

While working, Mr Saunders keeps an eye out for treasures such as an old hog penny, which would be worth thousands.

“I haven’t found one yet,” he laughed.

The 56-year-old runs Saunders General Maintenance, installing doors and windows, but his passion is conservation and restoration work.

The St George’s Military Cemetery, otherwise known as the Yellow Fever Graveyard, was consecrated in 1806 (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

“I could do stone work all day,” he said. “It is fun and challenging. You never know what you will come up against.”

He often works on his own.

“It’s nice,” he said. “There is no one to bother you.”

It takes really bad weather to chase him away.

“It’s a wall. It gets wet,” he shrugged on one particularly wet and windy day.

He started doing the work back in the late 1980s in his twenties.

“I was working for Government back then, helping Leslie Barrett with the Unfinished Church in St George,” Mr Saunders said. “He was in charge of public works back in the day.”

Mr Barrett’s enthusiasm was infectious.

“Before I started working with him I never really thought of doing this,” Mr Saunders said.

Mr Saunders and several other men were sent to West Dean College in Chichester, England, to train in stone masonry techniques.

“I spent every day for the next seven years working on the Unfinished Church,” Mr Saunders said. That structure at the top of Government Hill Road in the Olde Towne had become unstable and dangerous since it was abandoned, near completion, in 1894.

“We decked it out with all the staging and fixed all the arches,” he said.

All these years later, that first project is still his most challenging to date, and a challenge is what he loves.

“It was fun,” he said.

When The Royal Gazette spoke with Mr Saunders, he was getting ready to move on to work at Fort Victoria, which stands a short distance west of Fort Albert.

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Published January 16, 2024 at 8:09 am (Updated January 17, 2024 at 2:20 pm)

A passion for patching up Bermuda’s historical gems

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