Tropical Travels in the Lesser Antilles: Naval Dockyards Society Tour of English Harbour,
Antigua: 17–24 May 2019
Vivid colours, rich material culture and enthusiasm characterised this study tour of a unique and well-preserved remnant of a British tropical 18th-century naval dockyard at English Harbour, featuring natural hurricane protection and a defensible harbour mouth. Also called Nelson’s Dockyard because of Nelson’s 1784–7 posting, it was inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2016.
Ten delegates utilised a BA group package with St James’s Club, Mamora Bay, St Paul’s, 30 minutes’ drive from the dockyard. The accommodation was superb, large rooms, beautiful views, first class cleanliness and service, varied restaurants and ample food. Member John Harris is thanked particularly for his impeccable arrangements. He had visited previously and gave a paper ‘The Naval Dockyard at English Harbour: Heroism or Logistics?’ at the 2015 conference: The Royal Dockyards and the Pressures of Global War, 1793–1815.
The Society’s host was Dr Reg Murphy, Director Heritage Resources Antigua & Barbuda National Parks and Secretary-General of Antigua’s National Commission for UNESCO. He is also a co-founder and President of the Museum of Antigua, a trustee of the Clarence House Restoration Trust, Antigua, Chairman of the Betty’s Hope Estate Project and a director of the Barbuda Research and Archaeological Center. He was awarded an MBE in 2018 ‘For contribution to preservation and promotion of Antigua and Barbuda’s history and heritage.’
We began Saturday 18 May with a walking tour of English Harbour Dockyard and Fort Berkeley, led by John Harris. The Naval Officer’s House was experienced by Patrick Leigh Fermor as ‘sad and echoing chambers…decayed almost to the verge of disintegration’ in 1947. Renovated in the 1960s, it is now the Dockyard Museum beside a group of Traveller’s Trees. This Madagascan native, Ravenala madagascariensis, signifies the transportation of species such as sugar cane and breadfruit around British colonies.
Restoration began with the Society of Friends of English Harbour, set up in 1951, which obtained a 36-year-lease and performed urgent repairs worth £9,000, raised from donations and visitor fees (40k a year). In 1955 a further £40,000 was raised by a Special Appeal Committee to completely restore all the buildings to their original state apart from the Clothing and Canvas Store. This committee disbanded in 1967, having regenerated a viable tourist destination, enhanced by yachting enterprises.
The government passed the National Parks Act in 1984, designating the dockyard a National Park Authority, ‘entrusted with protection of the cultural and natural heritage of the area.’ Desmond Nicholson, who arrived in 1949, depicted the dockyard in decay and continued its renovation from the 1980s, establishing the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John’s and the Dockyard Museum in English Harbour. He was President of the Antigua Archaeological Society in 1971, President of the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology 1979–83 and Director of the Dockyard Museum in 1996. We had plenty of time to look at the refurbished buildings and enjoyed refreshments from the restored Lumber Store, now a hotel. The buildings are mostly occupied by commercial companies, often continuing former activities, thus the Master Shipwright’s kitchen is a bakery and the Seaman’s Galley (1778, dismantled 1820s, rebuilt 1858) is a bar. The Officers’ Quarters are beautifully refurbished as small business units, still with water cisterns below.
To view pictures, click on them.
- HM Dockyard Antigua Gate, Guard House and Porter’s Lodge (1778)
- Naval Officer’s and Clerk’s House (1855), now the Dockyard Museum
- Pitch and Tar Store, now Admiral’s Inn
- Boathouse and Sail Loft pillars, made of volcanic stone 1796–7, restored 1993–4
- Copper and Lumber Store (1789), restored 1953–63, now a hotel, and Travellers’ Trees
- Officers’ Quarters (1821), now individual business units, above twelve water cisterns holding 1,000 tons in total (I. Stafford)
On Sunday 19 May the party was given a great welcome to the joyful service at Falmouth Anglican Church, accompanied by spirited singing and a vigorous steel band. Two non-communicants planned to inspect Falmouth Harbour, but all the premises were closed and docks inaccessible, then torrential rain made late entry to the church advisable. It was moving to see how enthusiastically the congregation belong to this place.
On Monday 20 May we attended a presentation in the Dockyard Officers’ Quarters by Dr Chris Waters, Assistant Manager, Heritage Department, and Desley Gardner MA, Heritage Resource Officer, on how the museum achieved UNESCO world heritage status and its current targets. We learned that the National Park (162 miles) comprises the Dockyard, Shirley Heights and the Middle Ground (high ground above English Harbour towards Falmouth Harbour, which protected the dockyard and where enslaved workers, soldiers and their families lived 1790s–1854). It is now deforested and overgrazed by goats, which erode the soil, but belong to the park. The park can oppose development plans which contravene its foundation criteria. A buffer zone of 152 km includes fortifications, Falmouth Harbour and military graveyards. The park has 160k visitors a year, 125k of whom are from cruise ships. Residents attend events such as Reggae in the Park, fishing tournaments and school visits. Local craftsmen provide all refurbishment skills as their ancestors did historically, in wood, stone and lime mortar (eight apprentice stonemasons were trained on the Clarence House project). The National Park must be self-sustaining and non-profit. Income includes marina mooring and commercial leases. Volunteers include the 1,000-member Tot Club, founded in 1991 which meets daily at the dockyard at 6pm, Girl Guides and Youth Antigua. Chris concluded by stating that they have plenty of capacity – what they lack is money.
We then took a delightful boat trip, steered by Mannix, through the harbour mouth, giving good sea view of Fort Berkeley, the dramatically eroded limestone Pillars of Hercules, a turtle and pelicans off Freeman’s Bay, ending in Tank Bay west of the dockyard. Afterwards some of us crossed Tank Bay to enjoy a wonderful lunch in the Boom Restaurant near the powder magazine, overlooking the dockyard.
On Tuesday 21 May we viewed the beautifully restored and furnished Clarence House. This former commissioner’s, then dockyard supervisor’s house, was built 1804–6, on the hill overlooking English Harbour. From 1856 it became the official country residence for the Governors of Antigua and the Leeward Islands but was ruined by three hurricanes in the 1990s. In 2016 it was re-opened, completely rebuilt for $3.3m provided by millionaire yachtsman Sir Peter Harrison. We then visited the ruins of Shirley Heights military base, the cemetery at Blockhouse Hill and Dow’s Hill Interpretation Centre.
On Wednesday 22 May we experienced Betty’s Hope Plantation, Fort James, Fort Barrington (captured 1652, this fort erected 1779), and island capital St John’s, including Antigua museum and cathedral. A small museum interpreted the plantation well and the two windmills have been superbly restored, but the site suffers from erosion by goats and a lack of maintenance. The windmill machinery came from England, restored by Lawson M. Whiting New York. The trains were supplied by Gregg of New York. The sugar boiling pan was made by Carron Ironworks. In the evening Reg Murphy and Chris and Tori Waters dined with us.
More pictures to view
- Fort Berkeley (1700–1815) from the sea (I. Stafford)
- Fort Berkeley Magazine
- Clarence House (1787)
- Group at Clarence House (I. Stafford)
- Deane Clark’s evocative water colour of Betty’s Hope Windmill. Smock mill, with tail pole, in roughly coursed stone and shingle clad top.
- Carron Ironworks sugar boiling pan
- Sugar cane trains supplied by Gregg of New York
- Dr Chris Waters, Assistant Manager, Heritage Department Antigua Dockyard and Dr Ann Coats NDS Chair (I. Stafford)
- Desley Gardner MA, Heritage Resource Officer Antigua Dockyard (I. Stafford)
- John Harris and Dr Reg Murphy in front of the Officers’ Quarters
On Thursday 23 May we made a concluding informal visit to the dockyard, where some members took the courtesy boat to the Boom Restaurant for coffee. Most delegates enjoyed a restful last day on the 24th, but two took the shuttle bus into St John’s for further exploration. They discovered the Police Station, Governor-General’s House, prison, Botanical Gardens, and historic Redcliffe Quay. One found The Best of Books bookshop.
This is a mere overview. The enthusiasm of our guides, bus drivers and local people brought a beautiful landscape and seascape to life. We saw the major military sites and had plenty of time to explore the Dockyard. Antigua has a wonderful relaxing atmosphere and depths of history and culture.
Celia and Deane Clark report the effect of the development of new tourist-related uses on English Harbour surroundings.
In Chris Waters’ talk introducing us to the dockyard and its designation as a World Heritage site he said that there was a requirement for a second access road to the yard as another means of escape. The new road snakes up the hill above the dockyard, leaving a scar that is clearly visible from Clarence House across the harbour. He said that they plan to plant trees to hide it. When I explored it, I did not see many new trees, but there were several other useful new facilities: a small sewage plant, a large space for rubbish from visiting yachts and somewhere to deposit their waste oil. Graham Knight of Antigua Sails, a business that has been going for 50 years, told me that the road was needed, particularly if there is a fire in the yard. It was only approachable by the narrow road to the entrance between a rock face and the Admiral’s Inn before it was built. The chain across the road at the other end is only there at the end of the season – i.e. in May. There is a desalination plant at the back of the peninsula.
Antigua Sails – a privately owned business in a large new building up a side road – used to manufacture sails inside the dockyard, but like most of the yacht-related industry, moved out of the dockyard when the buildings such as the Copper and Lumber Store were converted to tourist use – in that case, self-catering apartments with bar, restaurant and meeting places below. Antigua Sails needed more space. The only original yacht-related industry still in the dockyard is electronics. The chandlery also moved out. Antigua Sails now manufactures canvas products and lets the large sail loft on the ground floor to another sailmaker.
When Graham and his business partner Rena first set up Antigua Sails fifty years ago there was not much yachting – in Falmouth or the dockyard; chartering was not big then. There was only the yacht club and a little village to the east. It has grown by 75% and so has Falmouth village. They are now joined together. Bars, shops and restaurants were all closed when I explored it because it was the end of the season, but a well-stocked supermarket at the head of English Harbour caters for local people and visitors.
Falmouth Harbour is one of the few deep-water harbours in the Caribbean which is not a commercial harbour with cranes and big ships unloading. It belongs to Antigua, controlled by National Parks and Port Authority. Its three marinas are privately owned and managed. Super yachts can get in via the deep-water channel and tie up at the docks. There few places like this in Antigua. Commercial shipping goes to St Johns where freight is offloaded.
Graham Knight has a connection with Alverstoke in Gosport where he owns a house. His relative Simon Shoesmith has a business in Royal Clarence Yard. Graham said that piles from Royal Clarence Yard are said to have been reused in the slipway at English Harbour. They had the broad arrow mark on them. There are other ties with Portsmouth: ships sail back and forth bringing supplies.
They gave me the Antigua and Barbuda Marine Guide for 2018, which was typeset and ready to be uploaded to the printers when Hurricane Irma struck. The guide is printed in Sarasota Florida and Irma affected their ability to receive the copies. “People stocked up and battened down for the expected exceptionally strong winds. However… Antigua was spared the worst and it was back to business after a day or two.” They also gave me a beautiful brochure of the 32nd Annual Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta which took place this April. Over dinner Dr Reg Murphy told us of his ambition to build a replica Antiguan schooner in the dockyard, and his plan to visit Buckler’s Hard in the New Forest when he comes to Paris in October for the UNESCO National Commission of which he is Secretary General. As he also worked on the restoration of one of the Betty’s Hope Plantation windmills and Chris Waters would also like to know more about the origins of the bricks of which the dockyard was built, Deane and I are offering to arrange a visit for him to Bursledon Brickworks and Windmill which belong to the Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust.
The St James’s Club in Mamora Bay where we were staying is opposite Graham’s house, and the noise from it is a nuisance, particularly on Thursdays’ Caribbean nights! Local people would very much like to see the restored Clarence House, but so far there’s been no response to their requests. Clarence House, the Dockyard Commissioner’s residence, later also used by the governor of Antigua in the summer months, was one of the highlights of our trip. It was brilliantly restored after it was severely damaged in a hurricane. Local craftspeople including stonemasons, carpenters and decorators made a first-class job, so much so that it’s hard to believe that it’s a replica. It is beautifully furnished with original early nineteenth century tables, chairs, prints – and some excellent reproductions. Sensibly, wedding and other party guests are not allowed inside! There is a separate professional kitchen and other facilities around a brick terrace where guests can celebrate! Deane and I were reminded of Uppark near Petersfield, also a remarkable replica of the house where Nelson stayed on his way to and from Portsmouth, fully recreated by the National Trust after a disastrous fire.
Jane Bowden-Dan: The NDS’s Study Tour was, for me, truly wonderful. Soon on arriving at St John’s airport after the eight-and-a-half-hour flight, I was entranced by the tropical birds and bright colours of bougainvillea and so many other plants. Our visits to English Harbour Dockyard were probably the highlights of a truly fascinating trip. Not only a Study Tour, but a first holiday across the Atlantic for me: I revelled in the facilities of the all-inclusive St James’s Club resort (especially the restaurants!). The week was both mind- and body-stretching, because I went sea-bathing in both bays in the complex and could not resist dancing at the Beach Party on Thursday evening.
In thanks and appreciation of the time and effort dedicated by Drs Murphy and Waters and Ms Gardner and the marvellous work being carried out at the dockyard, all the delegates agreed to donate the remaining balance of their tour fees (£515) to Antigua Naval Dockyard to purchase an item in the name of the NDS.
Reg Murphy has the last word: ‘Our heritage is your heritage.’
Dr Ann Coats (and pictures not otherwise attributed)
Nelson’s Dockyard National Parks, http://nationalparksantigua.com, email@example.com
FB: Antigua Naval Dockyard & Related Archaeological Sites, UNESCOWorldHeritage, @archaeologyhistoryantigua
FB: Nelson’s Dockyard National Park @nelsonsdockyardnationalpark
 UNESCO Antigua Naval Dockyard and Related Archaeological Sites, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1499. Inscription places a responsibility on the owning country to protect and preserve the site but awards no money. It ‘brings an increase in public awareness of the site and of its outstanding values, thus also increasing the tourist activities at the site. When these are well planned for and organized respecting sustainable tourism principles, they can bring important funds to the site and to the local economy.’ http://whc.unesco.org/en/convention/. However, excessive numbers of visitors can swamp sites and cause environmental damage.
 Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands (John Murray, 1950; Penguin, 1984), pp. 196-200.
 K. Blackburne, The Romance of English Harbour (Antigua: Friends of English Harbour, 1954; 8th Edn 2011), pp. 46-50.
 Desmond Nicholson, English Harbour: The First 2,000 Years (Antigua: Nelson’s Dockyard National Park, 2002), pp. 70-71, xiii-xv. Nicholson was born in Southsea.