Monday 16 July 2012

Where the Belmont Tram went

The Belmont tram was probably the most important of the Port of Spain tram lines, as Belmont was the city's first suburb, densely populated. Belmont was initially an area of coffee and sugar estates, but, like most other estates surrounding the capital, those at Belmont had to be abandoned after the emancipation of the slaves, when the former labourers turned to find work in the city and shunned the estates. However, people still had to live somewhere, and soon shacks and settlements began to spring up on the no longer cultivated fields. Town planning was completely absent, and many of the curving streets criss-crossing Belmont and the narrow little lanes where hardly a car can pass date from the mid-19th century.
The boundaries of Belmont are the Circular Road in the north, Observatory Street and the East Dry River in the south, the Laventille hills in the east, and the Queen's Park Savannah and St. Ann's River on the west.
But even before the abolition of slavery in 1834, Belmont had an interesting history of African settlement—here for once the term "African" is to be taken literally and not as the lowest common denominator for political purposes. As described in the article about the Company Villages in this edition of the Digest, the British had abolished the slave trade in 1807. What ensued was that the British Royal Navy proceded to patrol the west coast of Africa to prevent slaves being taken to the New World by other nations or by illegal British ships. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Africans were freed by these patrols on the high seas, and some of them were brought to Trinidad. Coming from various tribes—Yoruba, Rada, Mandingo, Ibo, Krumen and others—they were given land at Belmont to settle. These Africans had never known slavery, were free people and came with the whole cultural spectrm of village life, priests, chiefs, tribal leaders, and often families. For a while, an area in Belmont became known as Freetown, named for these African settlers, and street names still commemorate those first men who lived there: Sampty Lande, La Rue Rada, Mayock Place. Freetown extended from the East Dry River, at the north end of Circular Road, and up into the Belmont Valley Road. In 1852 and 1866, other liberated Africans were given land to settle beyond Erthig Road, and many of the families living there are descendants of those.
In his "Reminiscences of Old Trinidad", written by L.O. Innis in 1932, he says about Belmont:
"In the 1860s, Belmont was mostly unoccupied land, belonging to white Warner and black Warner. The land over the Dry river known as Piccadilloy was called Grand Jardin (great garden); further north in teh same direction was Mango Rose; and more north, Belle Eau Road was known as Shapotie. The sugar factory stoo on lands now occupied by St. Margaret's Church and a house of Erthig Road, still existing and occupied, is thought to have been the estate manager's house. This area, known as lands of White Warner, was bounded on the north and east by Circular Road, on the west by the St. Ann's River, and on the south by Erthig Road, with the exception of a small area around Industry Lane which was known as black Warner's land. The old building of Mike's Taxi and Car Rentals is thought to have been the house of black Warner."
Olga Mavrogordato, in her book "Voices in the Street", quotes Sir Pelham Warner from his book 'Long Innings':
"In the fifties of the last cnetury, my father bought some twenty acres of land at Belmont—within a quarter of a mile from Government House—and he left four acres of these on which to build a church."
In fact, the church records of St. Margaret's show that Mr. Charles W. Warner, the then Attorney General of the island, gave two lots of land to build the church. These two lots of land are on what is now the eastern part of the church property. The Warner family was immortalised in the street names of that area, e.g. Cadiz Road (Mr. Warner's wife was Ellen Rose Cadiz); Archer Street (which should be Aucher, named after Aucher Warner, another Attorney General of the island); and Pelham Street (after Sir Pelham Warner, the distinguished cricketer quoted above). Charles W. Warner, whose grave you can visit in the Botanical Gardens cemetery, was the person instrumental in making Angostura Trinidadian: he facilitated the move of the Siegert family from Angostura in Venezuela to Trinidad.
Before 1904, there existed the Belmont Asylum, which now has moved to St. Ann's and became the "Mental Hospital". The Belmont Asylum had been founded in 1851 on the Circular Road, opposite to where the secondary school is now. Some of the street names around where the asylum most likely was commemorate planation owners of long ago, such as Smart Place and Weir Street.
Belmont in the latter part of the 19th century also saw a large influx of West Indian immigrants, namely from Barbados. Olga Mavrogordato links the wave of immigration after 1879 to the failure of the French Panama canal scheme. Belmont started to become a part of Port of Spain, which in those years was very overcrowded. The suburb's streets were straightened and widened as much as possible, but their winding character often remained. They were properly paved. The old shacks were replaced by proper little wooden houses. Only very few of these still stand in their quaint, picturesque gingerbread style; most of them have been replaced by more or less ugly concrete structures (yours truly was born and raised in one of the nostalgic wooden ones on Hermitage Road, which probably had been built around the 1860s, when there were only two houses in our street, the de Boissière's and the Henderson's).
In connection with the Belmont tram, mention should be made of a Belmont character named "Arthur Tramcar". The Belmont or blue tram started from the railway station, went up Almond Walk, along Frederick Street, turning east at Keate Street, up Charlotte Street and Queen’s Park East as far as the café and the big silk cotton tree (which fell this year) at the corner of Belmont Circular Road to return by the same route.
The fare for each journey was 5 cents. Tickets could be purchased at six for one shilling (24 cents). In 1895, the mules went into retirement and the trams were electrified. The new trams, imported from Philadelphia, were painted red, blue and green. They had seats that could be reversed by swinging round their backs. It was forbidden to speak to the motorman, and one was warned to wait until the car stopped before getting on or off. This did not prevent the famous city personality ‘Arthur Tramcar’ from performing spectacular feats of acrobatics on, in and around tramcars. He, to the delight of both passengers and onlookers, would rush a tram, leap on to the running board, and perform several cartwheels along the board that ran the length of the car, to jump off with the flourish of an Olympic star.
A lunatic rivalry commenced between Arthur and the motormen. Arthur took a bet one time that he could run right through a tram as it passed the crossroads of Erthig Road and Norfolk Street in Belmont, waited poised on Erthig Road, facing east. His brand-new, white watchekongs gleamed in the sunlight. The tram, traveling south on Norfolk, had picked up maximum speed from as far away north as Clifford Street. Arthur pounced as the tram bolted past and emerged triumphant on the other side of Erthig Road. For those of you who wondered, the word ‘watchekongs’ is derived from an advertisement that described canvas shoes as “Watch Your Corns”. 


Unknown said...

Wow, great history lesson.

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

Absolutely fascinating history of Belmont, I wish that this article was longer. The origin of the word watchekong is amusing. This article and others is a must read for every Trinidadian. Thank you.