When Brownlow went to school
It was 100 years ago that Brownlow “Brownie” Place entered Matilda “Mattie” Crawford’s School at the top of Tills Hill in Pembroke. In those days, a teacher could set up a school supported by government funding and student fees.
There were two schools in his neighbourhood run by cousins Matilda and Edith Crawford, whose fathers had emigrated to Bermuda from Barbados.
The family lived on Ewing Street and his mother’s first choice had been Edith Crawford’s one-room school on the lower level of Alaska Hall, as she considered it closer to their home on Ewing Street. The problem was that it was so oversubscribed that children were practically sitting on one another. He was, however, accepted into Mattie Crawford’s School, which had three teachers and a student enrolment of almost 200.
Mr Place, who turned 107 last month, has recollected for us his school days and life in a Bermuda unknown to many of us.
Children, 100 years ago, began elementary education at age 7, and so off he went with an inquiring mind, a piece of slate and chalk. No set uniforms were worn and he seldom needed new clothes or shoes, as he was of a small physique and grew very little. In preparation for school, his mother cut his hair.
Mattie Crawford’s school was held in three rooms of a house that had a carpenter shop at the rear. There was no indoor plumbing and no electricity. Education was not free and his parents paid six pence a week. The school day began at 9am with the Lord’s Prayer, which was sung in a particular catchy melody. In the beginning, his age group sat together at one long table, but after the first year they progressed to a pencil and book. As they progressed, they sat to wooden desks that incorporated the seat. They began to use ink pens with nibs, which were dipped into an inkwell that sat in a hole at the top of the desk. Two students and oftentimes more, sat at each desk and everyone behaved. The use of the “strap” was infrequent — your behaviour had to be extremely onerous before corporal punishment was implemented. Reading books for Black children were not the same as those of White children, and occasionally they received hand-me-downs discarded by White schools.
There were classes in arithmetic, spelling, reading, writing and scripture. You quickly learnt your times tables and alphabet in a sing-song rhythm, a popular method used during that era. Mr Place’s mother encouraged reading and he was able to read and write a little before he entered school. He was a highly nervous child who did not perform well in front of the class. When “Brownie”, as his friends called him, was asked to solve mathematical problems on the board or read in front of the class, he could not perform, yet he could quickly solve and give the answer to any mathematical problem simply by looking at it and calculating it in his head.
There were no gym classes and there were no school fields. Instead, boys played “play ball” with a tennis ball and a piece of board. The girls played hopscotch. Sometimes students arrived early for school and played these games while awaiting the school day to begin. Mr Place added that school sports are a more recent addition to school life.
The school day ended at 3.30pm and you were expected to go directly home.
For breakfast, there was always Quaker Oats or Cream of Wheat. He always went home for lunch, which was usually a sandwich made with a generous portion of homemade bread. School summer holidays lasted for ten weeks.
Everyone in the neighbourhood purchased milk from a farm located where Dellwood Middle School is now located. He described it as a beautiful wooded area. The Tuckers, a wealthy White family, owned the farm but employed Portuguese workers who lived on the property. Specific milk containers were unheard of; you just took what you had, got your milk and paid for whatever you received. Milk was purchased daily, as there was no refrigeration. The property also had a freshwater well, but most families dipped water from their tanks.
Life was simple and Brownlow recalled his mother having only one pot for cooking and a tea kettle. All cooking took place in the chimney and all baking took place in the brick oven. Kerosene lamps with delicate glass shades provided light. His daily responsibility was to clean the very thin glass shades. Much care and caution had to be used, as purchasing a new one would have been costly. Chicken and eggs were an essential part of the diet; everyone had a chicken coup.
One hundred and seven years ago, the outside pit latrine/toilet was a normal facility. Mr Place laughingly confessed to avoiding it at night, as he was afraid of the frogs and cockroaches that congregated around them. There was a chamber pot that the family used at night.
Mr Place was 12 when Marcus Garvey, the renowned Black activist, arrived by boat in 1928. It was a planned visit to Bermuda; however, when the ship docked at No 6 Shed, the Bermuda Government would not allow him to disembark. Mr Place’s father informed him of Garvey’s arrival and he quickly joined the crowds of people on the corner of Reid Street and Parliament Street, where the Hamilton Post Office was once located. He was able to see Garvey’s imposing figure as he stood at the stern of his ship, The Black Star. It was a very disappointing day for Black Bermudians, who were looking forward to hearing him speak. Mr Place reiterated that at that time Bermuda lacked Black leadership and the people were looking forward to Garvey’s positive and motivational message.
Although his family worshipped at The Salvation Army, he attended the Anglican Cathedral Sunday school with his friends, as well as The Salvation Army. He later discontinued attending the Cathedral Sunday School because of what he called racial practices. It was at The Salvation Army where he met Clifford Richardson, a remarkable and creative Sunday School teacher. He had a unique method of teaching the Scriptures, which began when he placed a sandbox on a table. The children stood around it while he used figurines to convey the lesson. During Easter, he used the three crosses and Jesus’s tomb. His lessons were unforgettable.
Most children left school at about age 13, and Mr Place was no exception. He was looking forward to joining his father, one of the pioneers in the establishment of the Bermuda Recorder newspaper. His father had been inspired by Marcus Garvey’s belief that Black people “should do for self”. And so he was disappointed and angry when his father insisted he learn the plumbing trade.
His father, Brownlow “A.B.” Place, took him to see a contractor who employed him as an apprentice plumber on the construction of the Astor Property at Ferry Reach. Every day of the working week, he pedalled his bicycle with his 13-year-old former schoolmate Earl Cameron, who later moved to Britain where he became one of the first Black actors in the British film industry.
“Brownie” left his home on Ewing Street at 5am to cycle to Ferry Reach. Work began at 7am. One of his tasks was to melt the lead for the plumbers, while the another was collecting sufficient wood to maintain the open fire needed to melt lead pellets in a heavy metal pot. The wood had to be adequately covered to keep it dry or work could not commence the next morning. When the weather was inclement, they were allowed to leave early because crossing the Causeway was highly dangerous on a bicycle.
In the mid-1930s, “Brownie” finally was able to join his father at the Bermuda Recorder where they worked together for 40 years. In 1979, shortly after the death of his father, he terminated his position with the newspaper.
Brownlow Place is a Bermudian treasure with so many stories to tell and an accurate chronicler of life in Bermuda a century ago.
In 1925, the Bermuda Government purchased land from the heirs of F.A. Rees for the construction of a school for the ever-increasing number of Coloured, school-aged children. This school would incorporate the Matilda and Edith Crawford schools as well as the Reverend Rufus Stovell’s School and the Silk House School run by Mary Louise Williams.
The Central School, today named Victor Scott Primary School was completed in phases by 1931. The contractor for the school was master mason Rufus Alexander Simmons. The carpenter for the project was Adolphus Dillas. Almost 2,000 students attended the school with an average of 60 students per class. In the 1970s, I interviewed Enith King and Ruth Talbot for the Bermuda National Trust’s Architectural Heritage Pembroke book. Ms King described the day in 1928 when she walked from her old school at Alaska Hall to the new Central School, which had inside toilets and drinking fountains. Previously, they used outside toilets and dipped drinking water from an open tank.
By Monday, May 18, 1931 all four schools were settled into The Central School. All students marched on to the field dressed in summer uniform. The girls wore royal blue pleated skirts, white middy blouses with sailor collars, and red neckties with red or white ribbons in their hair. The boys wore khaki pants and white shirts.
In 1937, the Dellwood property at 7 Cedar Avenue was purchased from Sarah Tucker by the Bermuda Government, which decided it was time the parish should have a school for the less affluent White children.
In closing, I would like to thank Mr Place for constantly reminding and encouraging me to write on the Black Bermudian experience. It is a history that has often been unwritten and forgotten.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, historian, writer and author of The Bermuda Cookbook
The Bermudian Heritage Museum
BNT Bermuda Architectural Heritage Pembroke (2017)
Historical information on The Central school was provided by the late Ruth Tuzo-Talbot and Enith King