The Bermudian house-building rally
Eighty years ago, Willett “Bill” Anderson left Southampton Glebe School to learn his father’s trade. He was 13 years old and following a tradition familiar to many families. His father, John Anderson, a master mason and fisherman, was very involved in voluntary house-building with his friends and family. This practice was described as the “house-building ralliy”.
At that time, voting was allowed only to land owners and banks were reluctant to lend to Black people. For these reasons, they devised a method to become eligible to vote as well as become homeowners. They were determined to be self-reliant by working together without financial support from the banks. Mr Anderson has built 20 houses with friends and family using this method.
When he was 21, he promised his mother he would build her a house. It took him two years to accomplish and in 1951 he went on to build the first of three for himself.
Bermudians during those times were more anxious to help one another and enjoyed the camaraderie centred around reaching a common goal. When they had saved enough money to acquire the land, it was always paid for in cash. At that time, there were several Black landowners who sold property in the White Hill area. There was also a syndicate of men who owned property from Paynter’s Lane in Sandys to the shoreline. Mr Anderson purchased the property for his present home in Granaway Heights from Samuel Simmons, a wheelwright, who owned the property from the Middle Road to the South Shore. His house was the third to be built on that estate.
House-building became a festive occasion with a party atmosphere, yet the work was always accomplished. Groups of men gathered before 7am on a Sunday and worked often until the night. Any spare time was devoted to house-building. At the end of the day, they often just sat and talked or played card games. The women prepared large pots of food — fish chowder, curried lobster or chicken, peas and rice — enough to feed more than 15 men. Mr Anderson was also a fisherman, and lobster was plentiful. One Somerset resident remembered pans of beef pie made with lots of green pawpaw, turnips and carrots with rice and lots of greens, which grew plentifully in Joe Proctor’s garden. There was always plenty of “strong drink”. On one occasion, the owner of the house they were building excitedly told of the meal his wife was preparing. To their surprise, the food was not for them. The Southampton Seventh-day Adventist Church was having its roof slated that day and the food was taken there.
In the 1920s and 1930s, it was common for men to buy land with the plan of becoming engaged. Once the engagement was formalised, they began to build a house that was completed in time for the wedding. The wedding was paid for by the bride’s parents and family, but the furnishing and building of the home was the responsibility of the groom, his family and friends using the traditional building rallies. Fathers and sons, master carpenters, masons, electricians and plumbers worked together to not only build the house but to pass their skills on to their sons and other young men. The well-known recently deceased plumber Junius B. Burrows learnt his trade from his father and together they assisted in many house-building rallies.
Before the use of architects, there were men skilled in laying out the house. In 1951, Mr Anderson used the services of his friend, the late architect Maurice Terceira. For his second house, built 40 years ago, he used the skills of Earlston “Rocky” Raynor, a taxi driver with architectural skills. Rocky had successfully designed and built several houses for himself. He was a determined man who said that if his plans failed the first time at the Department of Planning, he would go up there so many times that they got tired of him and eventually passed them.
When the earth was soft, all digging was completed by hand; there were no excavating machines. On Paynter’s Lane, the rock was so hard it required the use of dynamite, which at that time could be purchased from hardware stores. On one unfortunate occasion, one “cap” did not go off. One of the men went into the tank to begin building and the dynamite exploded, seriously injuring him. He survived but spent weeks in hospital.
Mr Anderson cut stone for his house from one of his own properties, usually after work and sometimes at night. There were very few trucks at that time, but contractor Adolphus Lambert had one, which was driven by his sons, Erskine and Goodwin “Goody” Lambert. After his regular work day, Goody would arrive to transport the stone. Many used the services of horse and box cart to transport stone to the worksite and also to carry rubble to the limekilns, which were found in the vicinity of the building sites.
Today we simply go into a hardware store, purchase cement and whatever is the latest product to paint our white roofs. During the early years of house-building, it was not that simple. Mr Anderson “broke rocks” for limekilns to make extra money for his house-building projects. Nothing in the stone quarry went to waste.
A limekiln is usually a simple cylindrical stone furnace about 20 feet high and tapered towards the top. It was used to render limestone into quick lime. Cedarwood was used as its fuel. It could take several days according to the size and quantity of lime to be produced and had to be tended day and night. Heavy smoke filled the air.
The old way of burning lime in a limekiln was to build up layers of cedarwood and stone, then set it alight. Many preferred cedar roots. Cedar provided a consistently hot fire, which was of great importance in this process. There were openings for the air, cedar and the introduction of the limestone. Other openings were for the carbon dioxide to escape and for the removal of the quick lime. The temperature rose to over 900F. The rendered lime was raked out and put into barrels. Lime was used to whitewash our roofs and make basic cement. It was highly dangerous work, which could lead to severe irritation of the eyes and nasal passages. Men who worked in this occupation often developed skin cancer. At one point, coal was employed but once the cedars died and the last of it was used up, limekilns were no longer viable.
The year 1993 marked when Orville Bascome, of St George’s, used his limekiln for the final time. The main ingredient of today’s purchased cement is quick lime.
Lumber was purchased from Butterfield’s on East Broadway or Ingram & Wilkinson or even Gorham’s on Front Street. Electrical and plumbing supples came from Standard Hardware and many of the other shops.
Francis Richardson was not only an electrician but he was skilled at sanding and varnishing floors. Sanding machines could be rented for the weekend from establishments in Hamilton or from George Ratteray in Somerset.
Gregory Hall remembers his father drawing house plans on waxed paper. He says there were building codes in place, but things were not as strict as they are today. He recalled his father and brother digging a tank by hand. Once the tank was deep enough, he built a plywood platform with legs. The earth was then shovelled up on to the platform for his brother to send it up to the surface. In more recent years, he assisted a friend who was replacing wooden floors with concrete. To their amazement, the floorboards were lying directly on planks and branches of cedarwood, which were placed directly on to the earth. An even greater surprise was when they discovered that area of the house had no foundation as we know it. Stone had been quarried for the building and the stone block had been placed directly on it, forming the foundation.
Before Webster Morrissey began to build his house in 1964, he studied many designs in American magazines. He then approached Somerset carpenter and architect Walter Stanley O’Mara who had studied architecture through American correspondence courses. According to Mrs Morrissey, construction began on June 18, 1964. When the roof was to be slated, friends and family arrived early in the morning to begin. Ladders were put up and slate handed up to the wooden frame of the roof — some on the edges and others to the valleys of the roof. As soon as this was completed, the men began to make up the mortar in a large cement mixer — thus beginning the process of handing bucketloads to the masons slating the roof. It was a beautiful sight, as they moved in unison to lay the slate overlapping to a precise measurement, leaving spaces for air vents in specific areas. Occasionally they came down for prepared sandwiches, but work went on until the entire roof was completed and then the main feasting and imbibing began. Robin Joell, the neighbour across the street, suggested they use his large open veranda to lay out and serve the food. Mrs Morrissey and her friends prepared a feast of beef stew, curried chicken, sweet potatoes and rice. For dessert, there was gingerbread. Beer and rum in great quantities were provided to celebrate the accomplishment and the joy of neighbour helping neighbour. One year and a day later, on Father’s Day in 1965, the family moved in.
On some occasions, so many masons turned up to slate a roof that other work had to be found for them.
When the banks finally faced the reality that Black people were going to own land and build their homes without bank financing, they began to offer loans and mortgages. First the banks offered financial help if you built to the wall plate. Then they offered a loan just enough to put on the roof. On many occasions once you did this, another stipulation was added: you had to have the house plastered before you became eligible for the mortgage. Despite all of this, Black Bermudians succeeded by working together in groups to get the houses completed. Men would check around the parish to see who needed their roof slated and in groups they accomplished the final stages of house-building. Once mortgages became available, Mr Anderson felt people forgot they were building a home and built houses as big as guesthouses, causing the borrower to become beholden to the banks.
In the early days, building was carried out on Sundays because people worked on Saturday. Regrettably in many cases, once the house was completed, some homeowners suddenly found religion and were unavailable to assist others. Despite this selfish behaviour, groups of dedicated men and women continued to assist one another in the quest for homeownership.
In 1958, Wilbur and Venita Smith began the building of their home in Southampton. Mr Smith, a master carpenter, had studied architectural drawing through City & Guilds and quantity surveying through a correspondence course.
Mrs Smith took food preparations to a whole new level. The men would arrive just after 6amand sat down to scrambled eggs, bacon, muffins and freshly perked coffee. Sometimes she made extra-large muffins, sliced off the tops and filled them with scrambled eggs and bacon, then put the tops back on. By 7am, the work began. Walter Smith and Eugene Robinson were the carpenters, former MP Reginald Burrows was the plumber, “Junior” White was a mason but considered an “all-rounder”. Leon Wilson was also a mason. Sheridan Raynor and four other Raynor men completed the wall plate using a very large concrete mixer and handed buckets of cement to one another. Arthur “Pompeii” Lambert built the fireplace. He was an expert and much in demand.
When Reginald Burrows MP built his first house, Mr Smith built his kitchen cabinets in gratitude for plumbing his house.
Peas were soaked on Saturday night. Mrs Smith’s sister, Sylvia, came to help on Sunday. Immediately after breakfast they prepared for lunch. They made either black-eyed pea or red bean soup, peas and rice with lots of pig tails. They stewed down chicken necks and backs, and served bread pudding and gingerbread for dessert. Mineral and beer were plentiful.
For an afternoon’s break, there were a few nibbles but toddies were also enjoyed. The men preferred either Cockspur rum or whisky.
At the end of the work day, other wives arrived and fish chowder laced with black rum and lively conversation followed. There were extra celebrations when the foundation was dug and the slab put on top of the tank. There was even more celebrating when the wall plate was reached.
Mrs Smith purchased all her meats from the old Lindo’s located in a wooden structure where Garthowen Estate is today. On Fridays, there would be long lines of people waiting to purchase fresh meat. Mrs Smith purchased 5lbs of everything — pork sausages, pork chops, hamburger, chicken necks and backs. As a wedding gift, her aunt, Martha Carter, gave them a refrigerator; a real luxury. She would break everything in portion sizes, wrap them in waxed paper then greaseproof paper. Foil and plastic wrap were unavailable then.
It seems that the roof-wetting ceremony is part of our African culture. This ceremony is called libation. In African culture, the ritual of pouring libation is an essential ceremonial tradition and a way of paying homage to our ancestors. Once the last roofing slate has been placed, prayers are offered and black rum poured over a portion of the roof. Black rum was used, as it was more affordable. It was a call to the ancestors to ward off evil spirits and a celebration of achievement. It was considered a blessing for the house and those who resided within it. This ceremony was always followed by much feasting and, of course, lots of “cocktails”.
With special thanks to the many seniors who willingly share their invaluable memories. I am truly blessed to know all of you.
BNT Bermuda Architectural Heritage Series (Pembroke)
Bermuda’s Delicate Balance 1981
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons SRN, SCM is a retired nurse, writer and historian