The Great Exhibition of 1891 and the birth of Jamaica's hotel industry

MERRICK NEEDHAM

Saturday, January 31, 2015

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A presentation by Merrick Needham to the Kiwanis Club of Kingston on January 27, 2015.




WHAT still stands as one of the most spectacular extravaganzas in Jamaica's history was created partly because one of its two visionaries saw the potential in tourism, which was not to be realised for over half a century.


I am greatly indebted to the editor of that excellent publication, the Jamaica Journal, for much of the information on this remarkable event, and also to Dr Joy Lumsden.


The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London was the first modern international industrial exhibition. It was sponsored, and to a great extent planned, by the Prince Consort himself. Against great opposition it proved to be a triumphant success -- there were more than a million visitors during the six months of its opening and nearly 14,000 exhibits were shown.


Based on this spectacular success in 'The Mother Country', the Jamaican Great Exhibition of 1891 was the idea of a native born Jamaican, Mr AC Sinclair, who ran the Government Printing Office of those days and whose friends ridiculed his ambitious dream.


Fortunately for Mr Sinclair, Sir Henry Blake arrived as Jamaica's new governor in 1889 and the dream became reality. Sir Henry enthusiastically developed the idea and, apart from the potential for Jamaica's exports of the day, saw it as an early catalyst for tourism. Ironically, Mr Sinclair died on January 27, the very day on which the exhibition opened, and thus just missed the realisation of his great dream.


The first surprising feature was that the budgeted figure of £30,000, a sum equivalent at today's values to the better part of J$1 billion, was secured within Jamaica itself. Three wealthy Jamaicans guaranteed some 50 per cent of the budget. They were Louis Verley, whose name is commemorated by The Verley Home for Gentlewomen in St Andrew; George Stiebel, the Jamaican who emigrated to Central America as a poor youngster and in due course returned as a millionaire, became a custos and built the famous Devon House; the third was Colonel Charles Ward, noted benefactor who, among other acts of great generosity to the community, gave the Ward Theatre to the nation and was the nephew in 'J Wray & Nephew'.


Eventually they, and all the other smaller guarantors, had to cough up nearly all the originally estimated £30,000, as entry and exhibitors' fees covered only about one-third of the total expenses. At a meeting of the Exhibition Commissioners as late as early November 1890, it was recommended that the site for the Exhibition Building should be Quebec Lodge, where the Wolmer's Schools now stand.


Local contractors were used, despite the impressive dimensions of the main building which covered no less than 40,000 square feet, was over 100 feet at its highest point and was 500 feet long, comparable in size and dimensions to no less a structure than the former Tower Isle, now Couples Hotel, in St Mary.


For a year or so before the opening, a spate of rumours spread throughout Jamaica and discouraged participation in the exhibition. It was said that encouragement to farmers to send produce as exhibits was in fact intended to establish their volume of production in order to increase taxes.


Despite contrary speeches by the governor and a letter from him to the public, rumours in late 1890 became so wild that there were stories that the exhibition was bankrupt, that the governor himself had "run away" and that the costs of the exhibition were going to be drawn from the poor people's penny savings banks. This even produced a rush to withdraw money from some of these savings banks.


The most melodramatic rumour of all surfaced just as the exhibition was due to open -- black Jamaicans especially were warned not to attend, because the exhibition was said to be a trap to herd them together and put them back into slavery. It was some weeks after the official opening before country folk began to attend in large numbers, but once their fears were over they flocked into Kingston for the last days of the extravaganza.


In spite of gloomy predictions that it could never be ready on time, what was described as "the most extraordinary event in the history of the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies" opened as scheduled on January 27, 1891. Quite apart from 14 Caribbean territories, not only did Britain, Canada and the United States of America exhibit, but so did Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Greece, France and faraway Tsarist Russia, India, and Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known).


The opening day itself was absolutely spectacular. No less a person than the future King George V opened the exhibition. On arrival at the Waterfront to welcome the prince ashore, the governor and the King's House party joined a crowd of brilliantly uniformed officials at the pier. In Kingston Harbour, English, Russian and Spanish warships were drawn up in a great semi-circle and thundered a combined gun salute.


Later in the day when the prince declared the exhibition open, "There was wild applause, a fanfare of trumpets and an artillery salute". Nearly 8,000 people visited the exhibition on the opening day and the total count was more than 300,000. On the closing night, between 13,000 and 14,000 came to see the brilliant display of fireworks and to cheer the governor as he left the building.


Perhaps the sole lasting worldwide memento of this remarkable event is that all of 124 years later, as renowned a product as Dewar's White Label Whisky still carries on its bottles a reproduction of the prize medal which it won at our Great Exhibition.


This then was the setting and the occasion which produced the first great revolution in the Jamaican hotel business. From the beginning, the exhibition commissioners recognised that a major problem would be adequate and decent accommodation for both foreigners and rural Jamaicans. It was generally thought, also, that good hotel accommodation was necessary if Jamaica was ever to become a winter resort.


Long before the exhibition had ever been conceived, "there were litanies of complaints from intrepid foreigners who had to eat and sleep in Kingston's taverns and lodging houses". To remedy this sorry situation and to create a hotel industry, a special committee, backed strongly by the governor, brought about the Jamaica Hotel Law of 1890.


This law authorised Government guarantee of the principal and three per cent interest on all debentures issued by hotel companies, which would also be allowed to import all materials duty-free. In return, plans had to be submitted to a Government surveyor for approval and, remarkably for those days, all the Kingston hotels had to be completed within the year and rural ones within a year of the passage of the law.


So from those far-off days, the Government gave generous terms, effectively pledging Jamaica's resources if the hotels went bankrupt. Two were built in Kingston, the later internationally famous Myrtle Bank and the Queen's, as well as the Constant Spring in St Andrew. For its day, this last named hotel was remarkable; finished in that same year, 1890.


"It was considered luxurious, with over 100 bedrooms, sitting rooms, dining rooms, parlours and what was described as a 'magnificent swimming bath attached'. Its extensive ground, walks and invigorating climate, several hundred feet above Kingston, were advertised as providing the 'unfailing antidote' for invalids and those who were 'worn out, tired or nervous'. Two trained nurses were on duty during the season."


This magnificence was all sited too far, in the opinion of some critics. For casual visitors, the Harbour Street location of the Myrtle Bank Hotel was considered more convenient. "It sought commercial travellers" (those were the days before 'sales and marketing representatives!') "and even advertised a special Bachelor's Floor! There was a private pier, telegraph and telephone" and in being described as the coolest place in the city, it was said to suggest "the Riviera in its situation and general aspect". All of 30 years later, well after the end of World War I, it was reputedly still the only Jamaican hotel with running hot water.


The two original buildings have long gone, but the Constant Spring Hotel, rebuilt on a slightly more modest scale after the great earthquake of 1907, still exists impressively as the main building now of Immaculate Conception High School, amidst its original, spacious and well laid-out gardens.


Earthquake and fire on more than one occasion reduced all or some of the Myrtle Bank to ruins, but like the proverbial phoenix, it rose at least twice from the ashes, only to disappear finally in the modernisation of the Kingston Waterfront. Its sole vestige is a stately row of royal palms, lonely sentinels of a bygone splendour just west of the still-standing former United Fruit Company headquarters (which has a style contemporary with that of the Myrtle Bank as rebuilt after the great earthquake).


Interestingly, the third Kingston hotel to be built under the Hotel Law, the Queen's, was at the corner of Haywood and Princess streets. As proof of a surprising spirit of egalitarian care in those 'plantocracy' days, the Queen's was built specifically to provide "a comfortable lodging for the respectable peasantry of the island".


That great public benefactor, Colonel Ward, built this hotel, as he put it, "to supply a want long felt by country folk of the humbler classes, that, namely, of obtaining in Kingston comfortable quarters at prices within their means". During the exhibition itself it was filled with rural policemen and tradesmen who were brought into town to reinforce the city's hard-pressed security and construction personnel.


Of course, tourism needs good roads, and although one visitor 30 years earlier in 1860 found "the badness of the roads an additional excitement", Sir Henry Blake realised that something would have to be done about this. Accordingly, in 1890, the main roads were taken over by the Public Works Department, new bridges were built and the railway completed its first 12 miles of extension. Over the next six years the road network was increased dramatically from 750 to nearly 2,000 miles.


But there was violent criticism of the hotels scheme; one newspaper said that "these hotels were doomed never to pay. They were designed, built and constructed on too grand a scale for a small and poor country... the hotels, with all the American management, energy and influence are disastrous failures". And the piece finished in tones of the strongest Victorian puritanism -- "they were conceived in sin, brought forth in iniquity and must finish most miserably!"


Others said that even if the hotels had been a success, the failure to advertise Jamaica following the exhibition doomed the tourist industry. One letter writer commented: "If we are to expect results... we must spend a little money... a bureau of information must be established, presided over by one capable of 'talking Jamaica' and who would so conduct the office as to render it an attraction for men and ladies to visit".


This far-sighted commentator may have had some satisfaction in seeing the establishment, albeit 20 years later, of the Jamaica Tourist Association, the forerunner of today's Jamaica Tourist Board.


Another complaint was Kingston itself and its lack of attractions. Visitors preferred the country and the country hotels, where they were apparently better fed, accommodated and attended to, than at either the Constant Spring or Myrtle Bank. These country hotels included one, constructed under the 1890 Incentive Law -- the Moneague -- which functioned perhaps more successfully than the big Kingston hotels did initially.


With horse-riding and boating on the Moneague Lakes as prime attractions in the 1930s, the Moneague still operated as a hotel in the early days of World War II, until it was taken over as part of the then formative Moneague Military Encampment.


Undoubtedly, although built about five years later, the premier country hotel was the magnificent, original Titchfield Hotel in Port Antonio.


While I think I can safely say that this sort of thing no longer happens -- and I should hope not, after more than a century later -- some of the trouble seems to have been within the hotels themselves. In fact, before the exhibition had even closed, there was complaint in no less a forum than the Legislative Council, the equivalent of today's House of Representatives, that the Constant Spring swimming pool was full of dirty water, the staff were rude and worse yet, at the Myrtle Bank, the American manager and the staff were described as being drunk for weeks at a time.


The Constant Spring never seemed to have been a great success, but the Myrtle Bank eventually became Jamaica's leading hotel, and even joined that small legendary circle of names that included Raffles in Singapore, Shepheard's in Cairo and Nassau's British Colonial. In Jamaican terms, it reached its zenith when the late Doyen of Jamaican tourism, Abe Issa, bought it in the mid-1940s and immediately broke down its colour barriers.


Nevertheless, despite all the pitfalls (and with remarkable similarity between the problems of over a century ago and some that we are still overcoming) the visitors to the Great Exhibition of 1891 would have seen that times had changed. Instead of the so-called "white man's grave" that had carried off many young Europeans on the sugar estates and in overcrowded army barracks, Jamaica by 1891 was declared to be "beautiful, healthy and fertile".


The widespread coverage which the exhibition brought in the English and American press clearly put us on the map in a new light. Perhaps we owe more praise than has been given to one of the most enlightened colonial administrators of the past. Captain Lorenzo Baker, the American father of the banana industry, described Sir Henry Blake as "ever full of indomitable enterprise and push... riding through the country hither and thither stirring up everyone who had a bit of enterprise in his nature".


Sir Henry himself introduced the slogan 'The Awakening of Jamaica'. And what sunbeams today follow that awakening and Sir Henry's foresight and courage of one century ago? The experience gained over these many years, the great increase in hotel rooms, our proximity to the world's largest travel market, North America, the perfect scenery and climate and, above all, the warmth shown by our people at their best, should augur well for the next century and more.


In 1893, the correspondent of the Florida Times-Union wrote to the editor of the Daily Gleaner "I never knew how beautiful the world could be until I saw Jamaica... I never was so surprised in my life, Sir, never!"




-- Protocol and logistics consultant Merrick Needham is greatly interested in Jamaica's history, which he feels is much neglected. He serves as civilian military historian on the Oversight Board of the Jamaican Military Museum and Library


   

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