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The 12 Black men of Devonshire

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Old Elliot School, named after the Governor, Captain Charles Elliot

Several months ago, I was asked by The Elliot School Alumni to write the school’s history in celebration of their 175th anniversary. My original text was far too detailed and lengthy for newspaper publication and therefore, upon their request, I have written a second version for public consumption.

The original Elliot School was built by 12 Black men on Jubilee Road in Devonshire. In 1840, six years after the abolition of slavery, these forward-thinking men purchased land to build a school because they felt children in Devonshire were deserving of an education. There are no available records to tell us whether these men had been enslaved or free, but it is known that they grew up during the era of slavery.

Stonemasons John Williams and William Robinson purchased, as tenants in common, 2½ acres of land for £80 from the three granddaughters of William Watlington. They then subdivided the land with the intention of building a school on a part of it. In 1858, Thomas Peter Burch, a Coloured man, presented a deed dated March 6, 1848 from John Williams and William Robinson to include the ten men listed below. They had each paid 1/- to become part-owners:

William Thomas Robinson (stonemason)

William Butterfield Jennings (planter)

Israel Smith (labourer)

Thomas Robinson (carpenter)

Thomas Smith (stonemason)

Richard James Jennings (carpenter)

Richard Tuzo (stonemason)

Richard Thomas Zuill (stonemason)

Thomas Peter Burch (stonemason)

Daniel James Johnson (stonemason)

The one-room school building was completed in 1848, and as a show of appreciation an advertisement was taken out to thank all who had contributed, especially the Governor, Captain Charles Elliot, who served Bermuda from 1846 to 1853. Captain Elliot’s main concern was the education of poor White and Coloured children. He is credited with being responsible for Bermuda’s public school education. The Governor had not only been generous with funds for the new school, but also gave plenty advice and encouragement. As a mark of gratitude, they named the school Elliot.

There were no inside toilets and no water tank. There was, however, one teacher, a piano and 50 students — some of whom were adults — who sat on wooden benches. There was only about a foot of land around the building, so the students played in the dirt road or near the pond.

It was interesting to note that in 1855 many of these men were signatories to a petition protesting a proposal by the Government to commit £1,000 to promote the importation of Portuguese labour.

Salaries for teachers were extremely low and had to be made up by whatever parents could contribute. In 1854, the school received £30 from the Government; £1.10.7 from the parents and £10 from the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Propagation of the Gospel. One provided for the building, while the other provided for teachers’ salaries.

The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge was a British-based charity founded in 1698 by Thomas Bray. It was closely connected to the Church of England and one of its aims was to actively campaign to provide basic education for enslaved persons in the Caribbean. By 1850, these groups built seven schools in Bermuda, including the Old Elliot School. Following the 1879 School Act, they withdrew their support and the schools were turned over to the trustees of the parishes in which the schools had been established. These trustees were to assume the responsibilities and continue to administer the properties assigned to them. The Government began to increase its support and control, which lightened the responsibilities of the trustees. As the population of the island increased, they realised that more and better schools should be provided, and schools began to be built where the greater concentration of the population lived.

Henry Robinson is believed to be the first principal of the Elliot School. There were 21 boys and 15 girls. Subjects taught were mathematics, spelling, reading, geography, church catechism and sewing.

One year later in 1849, he was replaced by Rebecca Ann Newbold, who is believed to be the daughter of Robert Newbold, a man of prominence in Grenada, West Indies, who had come to Bermuda for health reasons and died here.

A group of influential parishioners met in 1915 to discuss improvements to the Devonshire church and education within the parish. They acquired three properties and conveyed a triangular lot to the trustees as a gift with the understanding that it be developed into a building to be used for schools and community activities. The school was to be both secular and religious in accordance with the Church of England — available on Sundays or whenever the premises were not needed for secular education.

A well-designed, two-storey building was completed around 1926 and made available to the Department of Education for transfer to the Elliot School. The late Sir Henry Watlington provided the leadership and bore the largest financial cost.

On October 22, 1926, the Havana-Bermuda Hurricane struck the island and severely damaged the little one-room school. The children were moved to the new facility, which within a short time became severely overcrowded, and two-storey addition had to be made.

The principal from 1925 to 1960 was Rosalie Pearman-Smith, who was the wife of the Reverend Daniel Smith, a presiding elder of the AME Church

In 1922, Phyllis Tucker entered Elliot School and in 1930 she was the first Elliot student to win a scholarship to The Berkeley Institute.

Edith Wears-Ming attended in 1937. She later taught there and said she enjoyed her time as a student. Everyone was taught in one classroom and at one time there were 120 students. She described it as a lot of fun.

George Leon Burt attended in 1937. He recalled teachers Inez Tucker-Taylor, Hilda Harford and Maisie Robinson, sister of the late lawyer and Progressive Labour Party leader Walter Robinson.

The Education Act of 1949 established the right to free education for all children, and made education compulsory from ages 7 to 13. In 1969, this was broadened for children aged 5 to 16.

In February 1957, The Royal Gazette stated that the Elliot School had 298 students jammed into inadequate space with an average of 44 students per class. It went on to say that one of the classrooms belonged to the St Matthias Guild, which used it for nightly meetings. This required desks be moved in and out every school day.

Helen Rabain-Daley taught from 1956 to 1960. There were 41 students with little space and on rainy days gym class was taken inside the congested classroom.

By 1957, Lorraine Fubler was in charge of the original one-room Elliot School. On rainy days, water drained off the roof, gathering in puddles and splashing children going to the outdoor toilets.

For many years, the St Matthias Guild partnered with the school to hold May Fairs, where the children performed various dances and gymnastics. Representatives of the Agricultural Exhibition judged the plants, flower displays and floral hats. Funds were shared between the guild and the school.

There is a poinciana tree on the grounds of the Old Elliot School, which was planted in a ceremony at one of the fairs by Lady Woodall, wife of John Woodall, who served as Governor in Bermuda from 1955 to 1959.

At some point, even the new school could not accommodate the students. Winifred Darrell-Simons, who taught Standard 3, explained that owing to extreme overcrowding and while they were awaiting the building of a new school on Hermitage Road, they were transferred to the barracks at Prospect where the principal was Edna Mae Scott.

In A.C. Hollis Hallett’s Chronicle of a Colonial Church, he writes that Roger Wood wrote his will in 1653. He died in 1654 leaving two shares of his land in Devonshire, part of the Devonshire College lands, to support a free school. In 1951, the Bermuda Government acquired five acres of this land on Hermitage Road and in 1965 completed the existing Elliot Primary School.

The school was built by Burland, Conyers & Marirea on the design of the Dalton E. Tucker School, but with modifications. It was the first school in Bermuda to have push-button electrically driven folding walls to divide three long areas into six separate classrooms with video study and equipment for each room.

At the opening ceremony, former principal Rosalie Pearman-Smith added a message to parents: “You have a wonderful school, so I ask you to please teach your children to respect it and let us make a good get-ready because this is the secret to victory.”

On September 13, 1965, the new principal, Rosalie Harvey, began the school year with 300 students.

In 1990, Reginald Ming OBE, described as a man who saw the importance of preserving history, proposed the Old Elliot School and land on which it stands to become a trust to be known as the Old Elliot School Trust. Upon the death of Mr Ming, Gloria McPhee became the chairwoman and under her leadership the building underwent an archaeological study as well as major restoration and renovations which cost more than £100,000.

In 1945, it was used as The Skinner School, which was later renamed Howard Academy. In 1960, it accommodated the overflow from the second Elliot School and was later used by Helena Brice for the Boys Brigade. For 20 years, it was rented by the New Testament Church of God and more recently as an upholstery shop.

The present chairman is Leon Simmons, the only living survivor of the original trustees. Mr Simmons is also the great-great nephew of John Williams, one of the two men who originally purchased the property. The long-term plan is to transform the building into a living museum.

Helene Simmons-Brice is the oldest living student of the Elliot Primary School. She entered school in 1929 at the age of 5. When the bell rang at 9am students and teachers assembled outside, said prayers and quietly moved to their classes. There was a recess period followed by an hour for lunch. The school day ended at 3pm. During break time and after, schoolchildren played hopscotch, netball and skipping. Everyone wrote on slates until they graduated to exercise books.

The uniform consisted of a navy blue skirt, white blouse, brown shoes with white socks and a red and blue tie. Her kindergarten teacher was Pearl Richards and her needlework teacher was May Francis. One of her highlights of those days was travelling by train to the home of Ms Francis in Crawl to do needlework lessons during the summer holidays.

Mrs Brice’s great-uncle was William Robinson, one of the two men who purchased the original property on which the school stands. Before her retirement, Mrs Brice was matron of the Devonshire Rest Home.

Other known descendants are those of William Butterfield Jennings, one of the original owners and builders. William Jennings’s known descendants are Wenona Jennings, who served for 31 years as a missionary in Liberia, West Africa, and the Reverend Leon Jennings, of Vernon Temple AME Church.

Lawson E. Mapp attended Elliot from 1943 to 1951. He recalled that at that time he lived with his grandmother and, although she lived ten minutes from The Central School, all of her children attended Elliot School. She had great faith in the headmistress, Rosalie Pearman-Smith.

“We walked,” he said, “from Friswell’s Hill past a rubber tree just outside Orange Grove Cottage. We would puncture the bark until a white, milky substance oozed from it and the next day we would retrieve this substance and use it as pencil erasers. Occasionally, we were late and the punishment was to walk around the school barefoot and chant that we would endeavour ‘to be on time in the assembly hall’.”

He recalled several teachers including Mr Basden, Mrs Fubler, Maisie Robinson, Ms Kennedy, Mrs Harvey-Francis, Hilda Harvey-Harford, Ruth Hodgson and Mr Smith.

“There were outside privies and no running water to wash your hands. We played cricket and football, and occasionally [Alma] ‘Champ’ Hunt came to teach sport.

“Every Ash Wednesday, we attended the service at Christ Church where Reverend Keith Harmon was the rector and Lawson Lambert rang the large bell for service and funerals.

“Mrs Ming, mother of Reggie and Emma, had a tuck shop where we could buy mineral, coconut cakes, glass candy and peanuts. We also brought packed lunches from home. Sometimes we attended the one room school near the Ming house and during the lunch period, we would wander in the dunes near the school but kept our distance from John Ming’s cows.”

From 1984 to 1989, Lawson Mapp represented Pembroke East Central as a United Bermuda Party Member of Parliament and served as the second Black Mayor of Hamilton from 2000 to 2006.

Cecille Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, historian, writer and author of The Bermuda Cookbook

• Cecille Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, historian, writer and author of The Bermuda Cookbook. With special thanks to Margaret Lloyd who researched the Old Elliot School for the Bermuda National Trust Architectural Devonshire Edition published in 1995. Her research notes provided much of the invaluable information used in the writing of the original history. of which this writing is a summarised version. Thanks to Leon Simmons for the information on the formation of the Old Elliot School Trust and for his 34 years of service. To the many other contributors, I thank you.


Heritage (Kenneth E. Robinson PhD 1979)

BNT Architectural Heritage-Devonshire 1995

St Matthias Guild booklet 1913-2013

The Royal Gazette (February 1957, March 1965, June 1965)

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Published May 13, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated May 12, 2024 at 11:43 am)

The 12 Black men of Devonshire

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