Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Queen's Park Savannah

Carnival is not imaginable without the Savannah. We cannot be sure, however, whether Sir Ralph Woodford had this bacchanal in mind in 1817, when he created the Queen’s Park as a provision for healthy exercise and amusement.

Sugar Estates

In 1783, the Cedula of Population brought the Peschier family to Trinidad. Originally of French Swiss origin, this family received approximately 232 acres of land to the north of Port of Spain.

Henri Peschier, his two sons and his slaves cleared these lands, planted sugar cane and established a mill and boiling house for the manufacture of sugar. Quarters for the labourers as well as a home for the planter’s family were built. But hard times lay ahead when in 1786 Henri lost his two eldest sons. He himself did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labour, as he died in 1791.

The property continued to be worked as a sugar estate by the family, falling eventually into the hands of Célèste Rose Peschier. In 1816, her heirs sold the two parcels of land - which comprised the 56 quarrees granted to Henri - to the Illustrious Cabildo, the colony’s governing body, by Registered Deed no. 1219 of August 18, 1817 for the sum of £6,000, to be paid in three installments of 2000 pounds. The sale excluded a small portion of 6,600 sqft, which is to this day a walled-in area in the middle of the Savannah in which descendants of the Peschier family are interred.

Two years later, in 1819, the Cabildo made another purchase, this time from the Baron de Montalambert and the Abbé de la Quarrée of Hollandais estate. This had been sold some years before by Henri’s mother in law. For this parcel, the Cabildo paid the sum of £1,661 and 2 shillings.

This parcel of land appears to be that on which the front part of the Botanic Gardens is now laid out. It included the site of the President’s residence and the pasture in front of it. All these lands were cleared and a fence erected around them. From the lands originally forming the Paradise and Hollandais estates, the Queen’s Park was laid out at a cost of £10,363. Later on, the land for the pitch walk around the park was laid out.

Horses and Cows

For very many years, little mention is made of the Grand Savannah, and it was used mostly for the grazing of the cattle of the citizens of Port of Spain. In 1828, however, a traveller to Trinidad mentions that horse races were held there, at ‘Trinidad’s Grand Savannah’, as it was then called.

In 1854, the Grand Stand was erected and races held annually. Besides being a pasture and an open playground for local as well as inter-colonial cricket, horse racing, polo, football, hockey and other forms of athletic sports, the Savannah provided the residents of the town with their first golf course and the game was played with the grazing cows and running horses as special hazards.

With the relocation of horse racing to Arima, Port-of-Spain has sadly lost its last feature of what distinguished the city for many decades, if not centuries: being an equestrian city. Its great park in its heart, an open green ringed with trees, where fine thoroughbreds would canter through the early morning mists - this picture has now gone from the capital forever. In fact, only a few cities in the world today may be referred to as equestrian. New York’s Central Park has bridle paths and so has Hyde Park in London, and of course the Bois de Bouillon in Paris.

A pavillion built in the moorish style was erected in the Savannah in 1887. It stood midway between Government House and the Queen’s Park Hotel, and it was completed in time for a visit by an American cricket team in December of that year. The last cricket match at the Savannah was played in 1896, when the club moved to the Oval and the Pavillion was demolished.

The Savannah breezes were always highly cherished by townsfolk. In 1834, the 5th Regiment camped out in the Savannah after a number of deaths had occured due to fever in the St. James Barracks. Around the turn of the 20th century, several successful cocoa planters and merchants built their magnificient residences along the western side of the Savannah, and whoever had the pleasure of stepping to a window overlooking the Park in one of the Magnificient Seven would feel the cool breeze on his face!

In 1899, things went up and down in the Savannah: a man rose in a hot air balloon in Shine’s Pasture (now Victoria Square) and descended in the Savannah in a parachute! Another man, called John Denier, walked on a tightrope stretched from the Prince’s Building across to the Savannah.

In 1902, the electric tramway started a pleasure car running around the inside of the railings on the Savannah from 4 to 10 pm, a distance of two and a quarter miles at two cents a round. It proved to be very popular, especially on a Sunday afternoon, when the police band played in front of the Governor’s residence.

The Savannah breeze also could prove fatal. On January 23, 1913, the first aeroplane flight on Trinidad soil took place in the Savannah, when pilot Frank Boland crashed and was killed. In fact, the Savannah was used as a landing field by several early aviators afterwards.

The Parade of Bands came to Grand Stand at the Savannah in 1948, after the Town Hall fire, when the Prince’s Building became the temporary Town Hall. The Prince’s Building has since vanished - it stood on the empty ground between Chancery Lane and Frederick Street.

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