Watch houses of the Town of St George
Some of Bermuda’s watch houses have been in the news over the past several months. In particular, a recently restored Sandys Parish watch house, and the one located next to Flatts Post Office in Smith’s Parish. It is notable that the Flatts watch house is owned by the Bermuda Government and was listed as a Grade 2 Historic Building in 1999.
It has been suggested that the purpose of these watch houses remains somewhat of a mystery. However, the document below entitled An Act to Regulate a Civil Watch within the Town of Saint George, dated April 5, 1800, sets out quite clearly the intent of those who established watch houses and the powers conferred on the watchmen who were appointed by the mayor and aldermen of the Town of St George.
The Act came into effect on May 1, 1800. I believe that there were probably watch houses in every parish in the 1800s, although I have yet to confirm this. However, we can conclude that the other watch houses scattered throughout Bermuda served a similar purpose to the St George’s watch house.
Watch houses were places where appointed watchmen met at night, as instructed by the Mayor of St George — or one of the aldermen. At the “ringing of the bell”, they were to patrol the streets and lanes of the town at least once every hour. If they found “Negroes” who could not “give a satisfactory account of themselves”, they were to be detained at the watch house and taken before the mayor or one of the aldermen “the next morning to be dealt with according to the law”. Further, the extensive powers of the watchmen meant they could search all places where “Negroes” lived and could even break down a door to conduct a search.
5th day April 1800
Unanimously passed the Corporation
Joseph Laborn, Sec.
John Esten, Mayor
Whereas an Act of the Legislature of these Islands for the establishment of a Civil Watch within the same is now in force and whereas it has been thought expedient (in order to render the said Establishment more beneficial to the Town of St. George) to make respecting the same certain regulations which shall not be inconsistent with the said Act of the Legislature aforesaid.
It is therefore enacted by the Mayor, Aldermen & Common Council of the Town of Saint George that from and after the passing of this Act the Mayor (assisted by one or more of the Aldermen of this Corporation) shall be authorised to hire by the year for a stipulated sum a certain number of men not exceeding the number of eight to do the duty of Watchmen within the precincts of this Town.
And it is hereby further enacted and the Mayor or one of the Aldermen is hereby empowered to administer to each and every one of the said Watchmen previously to their entering upon the discharge of their duty the following oath: “I do swear upon the Holy Evangelist of Almighty God that I will duly serve the Corporation of the Town of Saint George in the Office of Watchman for the year ensuing or until I shall be lawfully discharged therefrom and that I will well and truly do and execute all things belonging to the said office according to the best of my skill and knowledge, so help me God.”
And be it further enacted that the Watchmen so to be appointed and ordered out as aforesaid, shall convene on such nights as they shall be directed by the Mayor or Aldermen at the Watch House at the ringing of the bell that they shall patrol the streets and lanes of this Town once in every hour during the night and that they shall separate at daylight in the morning.
And be it further enacted that the said Watchmen shall be authorised and they are hereby required to take up and convey to the Watch House all Negroes found in the said streets or lanes who shall not be able to give a satisfactory account of themselves which Negroes they shall carry before the Mayor or one of the Aldermen the next morning to be dealt with according to Law.
And be it further enacted that the said Watchmen shall have power to visit and search all Negroes cabins and other suspected places of their resort and shall seize any goods or other effects whatever that they suspect to be stolen and shall report and deliver the same to the Mayor or one of the Aldermen of the Corporation who is hereby authorised and required to take cognisance thereof and in case the entrance of a Watch into any cabin or place of Negroes resort be refused or delayed it shall and may be lawful for such Watch after application for that purpose having been first made to the master or owner thereof; and in case of his or her …. to any white person being in or about the dwelling house to which such cabin or place of resort is appurtenant to break open the door of any such cabin or other place of resort that due search may be made
And be it further enacted that in case the Watchmen shall meet with any obstruction in the execution of the duty required of them by this Act, they shall then call in the Constable or any other Inhabitants of the Town of Saint George that may be nearest at hand who are hereby directed and required to give to the said Watchmen every assistance and support in their powers.
And be it further enacted that this Act shall be in force from and after the first day of May next.
One of the surviving watch houses in St George’s is on my property at “Whitehall” and is an important relic of our built cultural heritage.
• The Reverend Erskine Simmons is an AME pastor who has a watch house on his property