Endearing legacy of the Ruth’s Bay picnic
On a beautiful sunny day in July 1988, I sat with my great-aunt, Edith Burgess, as she recalled a church picnic held in 1903. She was 96 at the time and blessed with the remarkable gift of recall. It is only now that I realise she was recollecting a picnic held two years after the first Cup Match.
The Ebenezer Methodist Church on York Street, St. George’s, was built in 1841. It held the largest picnic in the parish at Ruth’s Bay, St. David’s. She described it as the perfect spot for swimming and a popular picnic site. The picnic was held on a Thursday, some time after the Cup Match and involved elaborate preparations similar to Christmas.
Her father, my great-grandfather, James Peter Butterfield, was a Sunday school teacher, much involved in church affairs and in the planning of the event.
On the day before the picnic, the chickens were killed and plucked. The starched white linen tablecloths and napkins were counted and laid out. China plates, cups, saucers and glasses were organised. The cutlery was cleaned and counted. The clothes for the day were made ready.
My great-grandmother, Harriet Giles Butterfield, rose well before dawn to prepare the food. Cooked food was always taken. The chickens were roasted in large iron pots on an iron stove whose heat was maintained by coal and wood. Farina pie was baked in the brick oven. In those days, farina pie was made with pork and beef. Chicken, she said, is a more recent addition. Macaroni and cheese was made, potatoes were peeled and boiled for the potato salad, which was made at the picnic site. The ham was wrapped in cheesecloth and all the food was then packed in large wicker baskets and oblong tubs with handles on either side. My great-grandparents had 12 children and most were delegated a task. Organisation was of crucial importance.
Shortly before dawn, a man with a horse and trolley travelled from house to house collecting the picnic baskets. They were taken to Market Wharf and loaded on to a boat called The Daisy, operated by Charles Christensen. Many trips were required to get all the food and the picnickers across to St David’s.
The Daisy was a second-hand steam ferry brought in from New York and owned by Mr Christensen and George Richardson. She began operating from Market Wharf to St David’s in 1895.
At exactly 9am, the picnickers arrived at Market Wharf — “dressed to kill”. The women wore long dresses with many petticoats and straw hats. The men wore starched suits and straw hats, too.
Daniel Richardson, with his donkey and dray, met The Daisy at St. David’s Wharf, located near the Black Horse Tavern. While he transported the picnic baskets to Ruth’s Bay, the young people helped by carrying some and walking to the picnic site.
The church provided the watermelons, lemonade and water ices, but each family were responsible for their own food. A large keg of ice was taken, but water was collected from a nearby house and used to make the lemonade.
Ruth’s Bay was located just below the St David’s Lighthouse. The picnic was held on the grassy verge, under the shade of cedar trees. In another area, pilot gigs sat awaiting the arrival of ships into Bermuda’s waters.
Tablecloths were laid out side by side so that families, who were friends, could be close to one another. The food was hung from cedar tree branches in an effort to escape the marauding hoards of ants.
Men took their croquet sets, children swam, played rounders, cricket and tug-o-war. Nuts and cookies were distributed as prizes.
Women organised the washing of the dishes in fresh water; supervised the children, took walks and caught up on the latest news.
Just after lunch, Daniel Richardson returned to St David’s Wharf to collect the water ices sent over from Wright’s Candy and Ice Cream store.
The children were sent at about 3pm to a nearby house for more fresh water. Firewood was assembled and a fire built in preparation for tea.
Four o’clock marked the arrival of boyfriends who came to take tea with their girlfriends. Tea was served with sandwiches, cookies and Christmas pudding, which was taken in the kettle or the cloth in which it had been boiled.
By early evening, everyone joined in the hectic preparations for the return journey to Market Wharf.
More recently I asked my 99-year-old cousin, Aileen Pearman-Wright, about her memories of the Ebenezer Church picnic in another era — the 1930s. She described it as a day filled with excitement. Her father owned a boat that he moored at Mullett Bay, but on the picnic day he moved it to Spurling’s Dock, which was across the street from their home. She remembered her mother grating the cassava, preparing the batter and baking the pie. Unlike the era before, she did not use beef. Cassava pie, potato salad, chicken, ham, cake and watermelon were always on the menu. Water ices — never ice cream — continued to be sent over in the afternoon.
Older aunts and senior members of the family joined all the children to travel to Ruth’s Bay on the boat. Care was always taken to provide sufficient pillows and whatever the elders needed to secure their comfort. It was one of the most anticipated family gatherings of the summer.
The Ruth’s Bay picnic tradition ceased in 1941 when the Atlantic Charter and Land Lease Act was signed between Sir Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt. This led to a painful episode in St David’s history. Many sacrificed their property for the building of the American base.
In 1942, Henry Mortimer “Tommy” Fox, owned Ruth’s Bay and more than 30 acres of land. He was an ambitious but humble man, a local whaler who grew fields of arrowroot among other endeavours. He declared at the time that he would do anything for the King of England and the war effort. His land was taken. Two years later, he was dead, surely of a broken heart. The devastation of his former property was more than he could bear.
The beautiful Ruth’s Bay was used by the American base as its dump. Trash was set alight, routinely sending black clouds of offensive smoke into the air. Recent maps of the area no longer include Ruth’s Bay. It exists only in the memory of a very few. Today it is a boulder-filled area hidden by evasive casuarina trees and barely visible from the sea.
The annual picnic continued at Fort St Catherine’s Beach. About twenty years ago it moved to Buildings Bay, where one of the congregation continued the tradition of setting up for her picnic with linen tablecloths, napkins, china, silver and crystal.
It is now 2021 and I am happy to report that the Ebenezer Methodist Church picnic continues. It is now held at Clearwater Beach. Sunday morning service is held at the beach, followed by a fully catered picnic.
My great aunt died in 1989, one year after our memorable conversation. She, and the dedicated ancestors of the Ebenezer Methodist Church, would be delighted to know that the picnic tradition continues more than 118 years later.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons, the mother of Sandys South MP Jamahl Simmons, is the 2020 winner in the Adult section of the Dr Stanley Ratteray Memorial Christmas Short Story Contest. Many thanks to Aileen Pearman-Wright, Ronnie Chameau, Rose Douglas, Rita Trott-Smith and beloved great-aunt Edith Burgess. Reference: Life on Old St David’s• Bermuda 1948 by E.A. McCallan