Thursday, 16 August 2007

About My Uncles

In my last post I mentioned a picture which hung in the dining room of 5 Holborn Road, of the Princes in the Tower. Our picture was a black and white print, not colour like the one above, and below the picture were these lines from Richard III, as spoken by Queen Elizabeth:

"Pity, you ancient stones, those tender babes
Whom envy hath immured within your walls!"

'Envy', in this case, personifies Richard III, the quintessential wicked uncle, at least as Shakespeare portrayed him. Personally, I belong to the revisionist school of thought which believes that Richard received a bum rap. Read Josephine Tey's wonderful novel, The Daughter of Time, and check out the Richard III Society of Canada, who each year on August 22nd, place an In Memoriam notice for Richard in the Globe and Mail. In case you're wondering why I'm mentioning this, it's because my daughter asked when I was going to write about "the wicked uncles". Well, I had no wicked uncles. They were all regular uncles ... each with his own foibles and peculiarities, but nothing out of the ordinary, except, perhaps, that the eldest three never married.

My very first post was about my Uncle Victor, the eldest of the Smedmore boys, who went to England in 1915 and joined the Life Guards of the Household Cavalry, was sent to France with the combined battalion of the Reds and the Blues which made up the Household Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force, and was killed in action in 1918. I never knew him of course, only what my mother would tell me about him, and what little information I found about him in the online Daily Gleaner, which reported on his joining up and on memorial services held after his death. The only picture I have of him is a large framed painting , which may have been a photograph which was colorized, showing him in his Lifeguard uniform.

I remember another picture of him, at 49 Beeston Street, one of a group of three soldiers in their khaki uniforms, but I have no idea where that picture ended up.
Victor was born in February 1886, and the next son, Norman, was born the end of November 1887. He is another uncle that I never knew, and in a way he's the real mystery man of the family. He doesn't seem to have been as popular with his sisters as was his older brother ... but then, getting killed in the war does give one a certain cachet. Norman, known by the family as Normy, also left Jamaica, but not to fight. Like many other Jamaicans he headed off to New York in June 1918, on board the ss Zacapa. On the ship's manifest he gave his next of kin as his mother at 49 Beeston Street, and stated he was going to stay in New York with a friend, Joseph Levy. Joseph Levy was the youngest brother of my father and had himself left Jamaica for New York in August 1917. Norman claimed on the manifest that he was going to the U.S. for six months but he certainly never returned to Jamaica. He lived there until his death in July 1953. I have no photographs of him and all I know of him is what I've been told by my mother, and what I've been able to find out through research. He settled first in Brooklyn where he worked as a traffic checker for the Public Service Railroad Company, and in September 1918 he filled out a registration card for the draft. After that he appears to have worked for the rest of his life in New York for Swift & Company, meat packers. Thanks to David Priever, a researcher in New York, I was able to get a copy of the administration of his estate from the Surrogate Court of New York ... like many of the Smedmores, he left no will ... and what ever else I know about him comes from this brief obituary in the Gleaner of August 8, 1953. That Norman was a Freemason doesn't surprise me as my grandfather and my Uncles Rodney and Owen also belonged to the Scottish Rite. I had not known that, like Victor, he attended Wolmer's Boy School, nor that he had worked for the lumber companies in question. I do know, from what my mother told me, that he would send money home for his mother and sisters, and I know, from a brief notice in The Gleaner that Elma went to New York on vacation in June 1951,so I imagine she must have visited Norman. One thing I do remember is how surprised the family was at how small his estate was -- according to the lawyer, Albert Stark, a mere $4,400. Considering that Norman never married, lived in lodgings and had worked steadily since arriving in New York, this small amount to be divided between his siblings, after all expenses had been paid, came as quite a shock.

I come now to the Smedmore uncles that I did know. The next one in the family was my Uncle Owen, born in November 1891 in Port Royal. To my mind he was the best looking one of the family and it always puzzled me that he never married.

I think one reason may have been that he had a speech impediment, a stammer, as did Rodney and Lucius, though I remember that Owen's seemed to be the worst of the bunch. There are probably all sorts of scientific reasons for speech impediments, but I feel pretty sure, from what my mother told me, that this was exacerbated by my grandfather's treatment of his sons. He had no patience when they stuttered and would tell them to speak up without stammering. I think Owen was probably shy. He worked all his life at D. Henderson and Company at the corner of King and Harbour Streets.

I remember him as gentle and generous. I could always touch him up for money at Christmas time when all the family gathered at 5 Holborn Road -- two shillings and sixpence or even five shillings, and then, of course, I would go to the other uncles and tell them how much I got from Owen, and they, not wanting to be outdone, would shell out as well.

I guess Owen felt he had an obligation to take care of his mother and sisters, once Victor had left for the war and Norman had emigrated to the States, consequently he lived at home with them, first at Beeston Street, and then later he moved with my aunts to 11 Dunrobin Avenue when the Beeston Street house was sold. I would say he had a very powerful sense of duty to his unmarried sisters and I know that he was a loving brother and brother-in-law. Sadly, he was on holiday when he died. The family had gone to White River for a vacation when Owen suffered a heart attack or a stroke while swimming.

In my next post I'll write about my other uncles, Rodney, Lucius and Julian. It may be a while as I'll be off line while on vacation for two weeks.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Going Home ... 5 Holborn Road

Ah ... going home. It means so many different things to each of us. Think of the quotations you've heard about "home". Well, I have already quoted Thomas Wolfe ... "You can't go home again." But there's also "There's no place like home" (John Howard Payne); "Any place I hang my hat is home" (Arlen and Mercer); "Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in" (Robert Frost). As for my feelings about home ... well, 5 Holborn Road was the place I spent the first twenty-two years of my life, from the time I was six months old, so I knew no other place as home.
In 2003 when I went to Jamaica after an absence of more than twenty years, I had the opportunity to visit 5 Holborn Road which I had not seen for many years. My parents had sold the house in the sixties and moved, first to 11 Dunrobin Avenue and later to 4 Carvalho Drive. One of the last times I saw 5 Holborn Road was probably in 1960 and it looked like this.

There were two gates opening on an unpaved circular driveway, around which were beds of gerberas (African daisies) which my mother loved, and two huge bushes of pink oleander framed the front verandah.
I was staying with my cousin, Rosemary, near Montego Bay in 2003, and we decided to come to Kingston ... I should say New Kingston ... for the weekend to visit family and friends. We wanted to stay at a moderately priced hotel and, knowing that 5 Holborn Road was now the Indies Hotel, I suggested we stay there. So we did the long drive from Montego Bay to Kingston and finally arrived at 5 Holborn Road. I must admit to feelings both of anticipation and some trepidation at seeing my home again. I had seen a photograph of it some time before, but the actual view was indeed a surprise.

My first reaction was: "Good Lord! They've paved over the lawn and the gerberas". But, of course they had to, in order to provide parking for their guests, and different as the outside of the house looked, I was pleasantly surprised on entering it to discover that, apart from renovations to the interior, I could recognize the house itself. It could so easily have been demolished in order to build a hotel there, but instead the owners had built an extension on the existing house and kept the character of the original building. The extension was built around the property to connect with the original outbuildings and garage and excellent use has been made of them. The rooms are on two levels behind the house with a courtyard in the middle, and if indeed the flowers in front were gone, it was more than made up for with the masses of tropical plants in the courtyard.
Here is a view of the upper level of the guest rooms, built around the original house. I stayed in number 12.

The added building extends to the old outbuildings and the detached garage is now part of the entire structure.

Along with the palms and ferns one finds a riot of colour with ginger liles and other tropical flowers. The former garage is the dining room and bar,where I enjoyed a typical Jamaican breakfast of salt fish and ackee.

The interior of the house has changed and yet I could still see traces of my old home. Here is a picture I took in 1960 of our dining room.

At the left rear one can see the door to the pantry, and at the rear the entrance to the latticed in back verandah. (I remember a picture that used to hang on the wall to the right of the window looking out on the back verandah. It was a black and white print of Millais's "Princes in the Tower".). The dining room is now the lobby of the hotel and looks like this.

As you can see, the entrance to the pantry has been blocked off; the back verandah now forms part of the lobby and office and is no longer latticed in, and the windows have been changed. The floors are still the gleaming mahogany that they were when I was growing up here and it was kept that way with a coconut brush and great amounts of elbow grease.

What were my thoughts on seeing my old home again? I was pleased that it had not been changed out of all recognition, and that in fact the renovations made were appropriate to the character of the house itself. It was, of course, no longer home, but it was welcoming and familiar, and strangely enough, seemed quite a bit smaller to me than it had been when I was growing up there.

One last thing ... occasionally I dream of home and family now gone, and when I do it is 5 Holborn Road that I see in my dreams.

Arras Memorial

Arras Memorial

Trooper Victor Dey Smedmore

Trooper Victor Dey Smedmore
My uncle Victor