Condolences for the Passing of Capt. Hugh Whistler MBE
- February 12th, 2015
- in Lifestyle
It is with grief that aLookingGlass—creative team behind Virgin Islands Property and Yacht magazine—acknowledges the passing of Captain Hugh Whistler, MBE.
We would like to wish his family well during this challenging time and offer our gratitude for his dedication to preserving BVI history, and generously contributing his profound knowledge to VIPY in previous years.
Here are a few pearls of wisdom – articles by Hugh that taught us all something special about the BVI’s history and culture:
1) A BVI Hero
2) The Lady Constance
3) Saving the OGH
4) Designing for Dignitaries
5) The Deadly 1924 Hurricane
(1) A BVI Hero
BVIslander Samuel Hodge would forever stake his name in history, when in 1866 he bravely volunteered and fought in a battle against a ruthless West African tribal chief.
He fought heroically and fearlessly under the United Kingdom flag, with his West Indian regiment, eventually earning himself the highest honour bestowed upon a UK soldier of war: The Victoria Cross. Hodge would become the only BVIslander and first soldier of African descent to be awarded the prestigious VC.
The Cross is bestowed sparingly upon British and Commonwealth servicemen “for conspicuous bravery … in the face of the enemy.” Only 1,356 have been awarded since Queen Victoria instituted the award in 1856, at the end of the Crimean War. Since World War II, only nine have been awarded to UK servicemen, five to Australians. It is the equivalent to the US Medal of Honor.
Hodge was born in Tortola in 1840 and was only 26 when he was awarded his VC. At the time, the young soldier was serving with the 4th West India Regiment and would heroically fight in an epic battle to siege and capture Tubabecolong in Gambia, West Africa, on June 22, 1866.
As history tells us, some two hundred officers and men of the 4th West India Regiment led by one Colonel D’Arcy went up the Gambia River to attack the fortified stockade of a troublesome tribal chief. The regiment’s light artillery made little impression on the logs of the stockade, so Col D’Arcy called for volunteers to breach the wall by hand. Two officers and fifteen men answered his call and armed with axes he led them under heavy fire to try and force an entry. The two officers were immediately killed and only Col D’Arcy and Privates Hodge and Boswell were left unwounded to attack the wall with their axes. As soon as a breach was big enough to pass through, Pvt Hodge followed his colonel through. Pvt Boswell was killed, and Pvt Hodge, though badly wounded, cut open the gate fastenings, allowing the rest of the attackers to storm the fort and overcome the rebels. Col D’Arcy warmly praised Pvt Hodge in front of the rest of his force as the bravest soldier in their regiment, a fact they acknowledged with “loud acclamations” and subsequently recommended him for the VC.
This was Gazetted on Jan. 3, 1867, and presented to then-Lance Corporal Hodge in Belize, British Honduras, where his regiment was serving, on June 24. Sadly, he succumbed to his wounds only seven months later and was buried with full military honours in Belize. We know his widow was allowed to retain his VC—but from there the story fades and no trace of the VC has been found.
This poignant story meant a lot to me when I heard about it, not only as a retired Army officer, not only as a proud resident of the BVI since 1966 (as it was a great honour for a Tortolian to have won); but also because my great, great grandfather as a young Sapper won one of those first VCs in the Crimean war. This is why I was proud to make the exhibit of valiant L/Cpl Hodge’s deed, with a replica of a VC, to put into the Old Government House Museum. Also on display is a copy of the Royal Gazette entry of 1867, which bears official proof of L/Cpl Hodge’s valiance in battle. If the original VC could be found, it would be worth in the region of $200,000-400,000. All VCs are cast from the Russian bronze cannon captured during the Crimean war, similar to the two British cannon in front of Old Government House, which came here after serving in that war. There are many things that Tortolians can be proud of in their past—this is but one such story.
(2) The Lady Constance – A historical BVI vessel rides through the waves of time
She must have been a magnificent sight flying across Road Harbour, with her huge mainsail and three foresail sails up. Perhaps a rather unusual rig for a locally built boat, but there is a small black and white photograph to prove it—one of several photographs taken by then-Agricultural Officer WC Fishlock around 1910. Two years later, the collection appeared in a little booklet he had published, and then several more of his photographs were found at Kew Gardens in 2009.
The Lady Constance was built in 1903 in Baughers Bay by the Maduro brothers and used as what was described as the “government revenue cutter” for the commissioner of the day and other government officials to get around the islands. Besides getting to the outer islands, it was sometimes easier to visit West End or Cane Garden Bay from Roadtown (as it was then spelled) by boat than walking or by horse or donkey. According to Fishlock, besides revenue collection, she was used for communicating with St Thomas and made frequent calls there, usually meeting the steamers of the Quebec Line from New York and the East Asiatic Company from London. He rated her at 13 tons. She did not have a long life, as she was reportedly wrecked off St John in 1921, and was replaced by the motor launch Saint Ursula—a vessel that also lived only a short while. Only three-years-old, It ended up high and dry on the shore below the Government House in the Hurricane of 1924.
There are no known drawings of her lines, but I found a model boat kit that resembled her and thought she might well have been copied from a ship like her. It was the sloop Emma C Berry, built in Connecticut in 1866 and, with a 41 ft waterline and overall length with bowsprit of 65 ft, she seemed amazingly similar to The Lady Constance. She also carried a similar draught of 6 ft. The mast had to be moved back 10 ft and the rigging was altered on the model to suit the photograph. Today, she lives again in the Old Government House Museum.
Later, I asked Reuben Vanterpool to paint her sailing across Road Harbour as I had admired his historical paintings. This one has pride of place in my study.
To see more of the 1910 Fishlock photographs, which must be some of the earliest recorded ones of here, a copy of his fascinating little booklet, The Virgin Islands BWI—A Handbook of General Information, originally published in 1912, is on display in the Old Government House Museum. Others can be seen at the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum.
(3) Saving the OGH – The Saga of saving the Old Government House
In 1996, then-Governor David Mackilligin’s wife refused to live in their dilapidated house any longer. The roofs leaked, termites were everywhere, the plumbing and electricity were shot, cracks were appearing in many walls—so the governor and his wife were moved to temporary quarters on Beef Island. Built in 1926 around the hurricane-damaged building of 1890, Government House had definitely fallen into disrepair.
The building was condemned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the overseas government agency responsible for housing our governor and his family. The old house was scheduled to be demolished and plans were drawn up for a modern replacement to be built on the same site in Road Town. This caused dismay and horror among many, and the governor’s wife started a movement called The Friends of Old Government House to try and save the old building. They wrote letters, had meetings, got the local papers to write editorials, and drew up alternate plans—but all to no avail. The FCO would not budge, and the BVI Government was reluctant to consider alternatives. But, several events would happen in 1998 and 1999, leading to the building being rescued from its looming destruction.
A meeting in San Juan of the 8th International Conference of National Trusts sent to all concerned a resolution that “unanimously expressed its concern at the loss of another architectural gem of the Caribbean.” The FCO replied, determining the building “unsafe” and suggesting its demolition and rebuilding as the “best value-for-money” option available. No mention or consideration had been given to saving the old building and erecting a new government house elsewhere on the site.
Next, a pretty devastating article was printed in the London Times. Above a lovely colour photograph of the building was the headline, “£650,000 ‘monstrosity’ will replace attractive old Government House.” This savage article was instigated by Marcia Brocklebank, whose family owned property on Tortola. She also got the director of the World Monuments Fund to produce a detailed report, which said, “No proper historical and archaeological appraisal had been carried out.” This led to her employing Brian Morton, a restoration engineer. His report spelled out how restoring a building to become a heritage site was a very different task than transforming it into an inhabited residence again. “It is a considerable heritage asset to Tortola. Its history and association with Royal visits, together with its remaining decorations [he mentions a late governor’s wife Margaret Barwick’s murals], and structural elements, some of which date back to the last century, make it a very special building. … The loss of the building, once demolished, would be seriously regretted.” The report made sensible reading and became the basis of my involvement and subsequent reports.
Many others wrote in, including Professor Henry Fraser of the Barbados Parks Trust and even then-Governor Frank Savage politely joined in—and the pressure grew.
By then, Chief Minister Ralph O’Neal, bearing his title of the time, began to have a change of heart. He began to feel this mounting pressure from these many sources—which paid off. In September 1999, the chief minister called upon my services. At the time, I was a semi-retired contractor and designer who had supported the push to save the building. He called on me to do a quick study to see if the old building could be saved and, subsequently, what it could be used for. He also questioned if a new building could be built on the same property. My answers were all yes and I listed its many potential uses, primarily as a visitor center. I said, given the modest sum of $150,000, the old building could be restored. But first we needed to meet on site.
So, armed with my proposed site plan, which incorporated ideas from a plan by the late Michael Arneborg, I met with the governor, chief minister, and other senior government officials in the yard behind the old house to lead them through what I described as a “visualization tour.”
I told them to imagine the abandoned garage being demolished, opening up an entertaining terrace to allow for a great view of Road Harbour and an inviting breeze. I asked them to imagine the house keeper’s house demolished, to expose parts of the old fort walls, built by Royal engineers in 1796, the first building on the site. This would make room for a 70-seat reception hall for “additional space I felt a governor’s house should have,” I told the officials. And this would provide for the transition from the old to the new.
We then moved into the old kitchen garden, where I proposed the new house would be sited. “You are now standing in the new living room, and if you peer through the bushes you should be able to catch a glimpse of the harbour,” I told them, adding that “if that large eucalyptus tree were cut down—[the only tree we’d cut down later to provide for the new house]—an impressive view out to the sea and outer islands would be exposed”.
They must have believed me, and listened to all the protestations, because soon after that meeting the Chief Minister called me to say that the Government’s Executive Council had approved my ideas, OGH was to be saved and he would like me to be the BVI project manager to pull it all together. Never has the old proverb “be careful what you wish for” been more apt! The next two years would prove somewhat difficult and frustrating—supervising the restoration work and of the construction of the new buildings- but ultimately rewarding.
(4) Designing for Dignitaries
Old Government House:1925-1926 The Old Government House (OGH) was designed by Thomas F Tomlinson AMICE, an engineer from Trinidad, and was built by his key workers and local labour Clerk of Works Cecil Georges, whose job it was to record all the materials and labour costs for the job. Unfortunately, his detailed records were all destroyed in a fire in Antigua from where, at the time, the BVI was under governorship. Now 104 and living in Road Town, Mr Georges was never the less able to provide a wealth of details and sketches to provide for historic displays at the OGH.
Mr Georges recollects a time before heavy machinery and high-tech gadgetry ruled the job site. In the 1920s, hardships were more prevalent—especially on a small island. In fact, besides a small concrete mixer, everything else at the OGH was done by hand: pouring and lifting the concrete by barrow and bucket, pumping up water from a well in the lower garden (which is still there), raising the shuttering three feet at a time—it must have been backbreaking work. Sand was collected from the beach and gravel from the ghuts by boat, mule and cart. Steel and cement in barrels came from Denmark via St Thomas, and were unloaded on the shore below and carried and rolled up the hill. Fifteen months of arduous work. All a most remarkable story as told by Mr Georges, a modest Tortolian gentleman—one of many local stories that should be more fully recorded before the past is forgotten.
Reception Hall: 2002 Brian Russ of West End brought out his local crew to take my design of this facility and turn it into the multi-functional venue it is today. This 28- by 38-foot hall was designed to seat 70 people, a structure that could be used with either Government House (old or new), or on its own for investitures, parties, lectures and fundraisers. Special attention was given to the key design elements of the OGH: its arches and fort-like parapet lines to its flat roof. The Reception Hall had a pitched roof (to cope with the wide interior span), but this would hardly be visible from close up or in the garden below, so the gutter would become the top parapet line. These lines were also built into the divider wall between OGH and the Reception Hall. Arched doors were incorporated and painted the OGH’s trademark Vigilante green. The budget was tight but the skilled workmen chamfered the edges of the roof beams so that once they and the grooved plywood roof was stained with a cherry stain the end result was quite elegant.
From London, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its architects strongly resisted the Reception Hall concept. They argued that it was not needed, and that the governor of an overseas territory should not be entitled to such amenities. They went as far to say that it may not be safe for the governor to enter. After this notion, I sent my plans overseas for the FCO for approval. However, by this point in time I had lived to see some ten administrators and governors, so I felt I knew best what was needed. Indeed, the Reception Hall has lived up to the gratitude of its occupants, including the first governor to use the facility, Tom Macan, who told me upon departing office that he had recommended to the FCO that all governors and high commissioners have such a reception hall.
New Government House: 2003-2004 This building was designed by Stephen Gorton RIBA of Onions Bouchard & McCulloch, and built by Meridian Construction; and I was clerk of works and BVI project manager. Gorton had the difficult task of using an existing set of drawings that needed to be altered to cater to a newly desired elevation. Three sets of elevations were drawn, from which one was chosen to be built. Some arches were added, and some planned sandstone columns and stained wood doors were kept in areas where the pitched roofs gave a more modern look—but the parapet detail was the clincher.
Each individual building was kept white, which helped to create a unifying result throughout the landscape so that all three buildings fit comfortably on the hillside overlooking Road Harbour. When the projects were finished, then-Chief Minister Ralph O’Neal, who lent his continuous support to the project, commented that he admired the buildings as he rode in on the ferry from his residing district in Virgin Gorda—a satisfying compliment given to difficult projects that came in on time and under budget.
(5) The Deadly 1924 Hurricane
At 3 pm on Friday, Aug 27, 1924, the brunt of a severe hurricane hit the BVI and caused serious damage to many buildings. Main Street was choked with smashed buildings. Twenty-nine people were killed and around 80 badly injured. Most of the population was made homeless and destitute. We know what happened as the then-Commissioner Capt Otto Hancock’s wife Agnes kept a detailed record and later wrote it all down to describe to her family in the UK how they survived. That eight-page typed letter is on display at Old Government House and can be read in the very room that she and her husband their two sons, age 4 and 6, their cook and two maids sheltered from the violent storm, as the rest of the building was flooded and destroyed around them.
Here are some extracts from her blow-by-blow account: 2 am: It’s the morning of Thursday, Aug 28. Awoke to find Otto on his crutches [he had lost a leg in the Great War]. He had been downstairs to look at the barometer, which had dropped alarmingly since the night before.
5 am: Warning signal was blown through town. … A very curious morning: wind coming fitfully in small gusts, sea calm, wind due north [of] our dangerous quarter.
3 pm: The wind is very strong. … Sea now roaring into harbour over reef. We shut upstairs and barred all doors, and shutters, securely.
6 pm: Wind getting worse, barometer falling fast, gusts getting more frequent.
8:35 pm: Wind now terrific, and we can see lightning through cracks of door, but all sound of thunder drowned by the wind.
11:43 pm: I said to Otto: “I shall light the lanterns in case electric light fails.”
11:45 pm: Electric light suddenly went out. [The generator shed had blown away.] Terrible noises and bumpings. Sounds as if the verandah and roof are departing!! [They did] Trying to dodge the water which is pouring through the ceiling. … Moved to pantry, where three maids are. Put meat safe in front of door… and cook with her back to it. Put up umbrella and tried to keep babies dry.
1 am: The barometer shows signs of rising, very slightly, but how we got through the hours of 12-6 [pm], I don’t know. We just watched the doors, nailed up more supports and hoped for the best.
6 am: We hear voices outside, but are almost afraid to open a door, as [wind] is still blowing hard. Finally we did … and were struck dumb by the sight we saw. It was worse than dreadful. Nothing but wreckage all around us, trees torn as if they were twigs. All the mountains black and brown, and looked as if they had been burnt.
Government House was essentially destroyed and had to be rebuilt, which is the structure you see today. Only the two-foot-thick walls of the pantry and living room survived. The schooner Fardjina was ashore below (where the tennis court is now). The government launch, Saint Ursula, was aground in the cleaning hole below Fort Burt. In Roadtown (as it was then spelled), “A house stood here and there, but most of them just masses of wreckage, completely blocking the road. The sea did much of the damage as it came up and literally floated the wooden houses off their stone foundations,” Ms Hancock wrote. The injuries were extensive and the sole nurse was hard pressed to cope. The commissioner’s wife had been concerned about a patient in the hospital with a broken leg as she could see that the building’s roof had been torn off, but the patient had the presence of mind to roll under his bed and survived, though buried in debris.
Help came from St Thomas first. A launch with food, medical aid and a BVI DOCTOR and took eleven of the worst injured back to St Thomas. HMS Valerien arrived 10 days later from Antigua with the Leeward Island’s governor and more supplies of food and clothing and all the ship’s crew worked for two days helping clear up. But not before Commissioner Hancock with one gang started clearing the high street from one end and Mr Roy started from the other end, “shaming certain lazy individuals into helping,” as Agnes Hancock succulently put it.
The day after the hurricane, the gardener showed up with a basket of fruit. “This is what the breeze left, Mistress,” Ms Hancock recalled him saying. The offering allowed them the first laugh they had had since the storm terrorized the territory. It went on record as being the strongest “breeze” that anyone could remember.