Monday 27 August 2012

The Story of the Government House

 It will be interesting to record some of the facts regarding the construction of this old building as well as some information concerning it given by the late Mr. Thomas James St. Hill, six months before his death at the age of 90 in the 1930s, who, as a boy, had played around it and had frequent opportunities of roaming about its rooms. 
In describing it he said the house had no pretensions to architectural beauty, but the interior was nicely furnished. The ceiling and sides were of plaster of Paris; the walls were of tapia made from black pick-mock roseau, grown in the forest, split into three, with the pith scooped out and tapia laid between. 
The tapia was covered with white lime plaster, and plaster of Paris was laid over all. There was a chandelier in each of the two large rooms, the drawing room and the ballroom. Stucco work was around the chandeliers, while a gilt frieze ran around the rooms at the top. The doors were of cedar and nicely worked in design; the locks were brass ones about eight or nine inches wide, the staircase was six feet wide, the balustrade of which was of mahogany with turned rails. 
A marble stair ran from the ground floor to the landing, comprising twelve steps of black and white. There was a front gallery twelve feet wide, and, apart from the two large rooms described above the interior, was not otherwise large, so this gallery was often used as a dining verandah for balls and other purposes. The principal doors were of glass; there were no jalousie windows, but glass sashes; the reception room was marble-tiled and the staircase to the west, leading from the dining room to the garden was of red tiles. The upper part that ran to the north was two-storied, otherwise it was a one-storey building.
Mr. St. Hill further stated that this building, which had at one time been used as a Government House, was occupied for a good many years by the Hon. Ashton Warner, Chief Judge of the Colony, until his decease in 1830. Mr. Warner was the last occupier of this building, and from that time it fell into decay and ruin. On being asked why it was never tenanted subsequently, he remarked that it was supposed to be situated in an unhealthy locality, being greatly exposed to the north winds and that someone had died there of a malignant type of fever.
When giving the information recorded above, he also drew the ground plan of the building from memory. These measurements were duly checked by a local architect and found to be correct in every detail. This plan, however, has unfortunately been misplaced by the architect. It would have been interesting to reproduce it along with this photograph and the description of the interior. It would also be of interest to find out from what point this view was originally sketched. Mr. St. Hill further stated that when the Prince's Building was being built in 1861, this old property was demolished in order to obtain bricks to be used in the construction of the new building.
From parliamentary papers relating to the island of Trinidad of 18th February, 1823, we gather that the Belmont lands were leased to the government from January 1803 and that these were the lands "on which the Government House and buildings and the negro houses are erected". And further "at the time of the original contract for lease of land by colonial government there was only a small house 36 ft. x 18 ft. built of American timber, shingled and floored and a small hut covered with straw upon the said lands: the former building was newly shingled and repaired by the government previous to its occupation of the property".
As 'Paradise Estate' was bought by the government in 1825 and the great house thereon used as Government House, we think it could safely be averred that the governors who occupied this house were governors Hislop, Munro and Woodford from 1803—1825.
We are glad to be able to place on record these important facts regarding this historic building about which, until now, little has been publicly known. Indeed, there is one common theory about this place that this document explodes and that is that, the building on the Belmont Hill was never a Government House. There is abundant evidence to disprove this. Trinidad is thus greatly indebted to Sir Normal Lamont and the late Mr. T.J. St. Hill.
We are further indebted to Mr. T.I. Potter for the information regarding this property and the section taken at law by claimants to the land, as subjoined:

The old 'Government Cottage' on Belmont Hill.
The history of the old ruins to be seen on the crest of the hill which overlooks the city and the harbour of Port of Spain from what is now called Belmont Pasture is interesting.
The Belmont Estate, which apparently did not comprise much more than the present pasture and the ridge to the north-east of it, although the whole district to the south has taken the name, was a very old occupancy held by a Spaniard whose name is not recorded, because very probably, he was a squatter. In 1780 this man sold his holding to one Riviere, an immigrant to this island from St. Vincent. Riviere, in his turn, sold the occupancy to Don Francis Pasqual de Soler, who conveyed it to Edward Barry (a member of the firm of Barry & Black) on the 16th December, 1784, for the sum of "$900 of eight bits", (whatever that may be).
Edward Barry died some time after the purchase and the representative of his estate leased the lands and buildings, the cultivation (only 'provisions and plantains') having been abandoned, to the governor of the island as a site for a country residence, at a yearly rental of $1,200, and gave him a preferential option of purchasing the property at a fair valuation whenever the heirs of Barry could give a legal title to the lands. The residence was erected the same year, and Governor Hislop was the first tenant of it.
In the year 1811, the heirs of Barry got into financial difficulties, and Messrs. Park and Heywood took the Belmont property in execution. The court ordered an appraisement to be made, and the governor, Major General Monro, was notified of it. He objected to the inclusion of the governor's residence in the appraisement, and it appears that nothing was done until the 30th April, 1814, when notice of the order for appraisement was served on the new governor, Sir Ralph Woodford, who at once referred the matter to the attorney-general (Henry Fuller) in order that the interest of the crown in the property might be represented in the suit. On the 24th May, 1814, he directed the attorney-general to limit his objection to the valuation of the buildings.
The title of Belmont Estate was then raised, and the matter came into the court of first instance before the chief judge (John T. Bigge), who, after hearing the arguments of the attorney-general and the representatives of the heirs of Barry, dismissed the claim of the crown, and held that this title of the heirs of Barry to Belmont Estate was good, and he warranted it.
The attorney-general appealed against this decision to the court of civil appeal, which, at that time, was the court of intendant as regards matters relating to lands of the colony. This court had very large powers there.
The governor was the president of this court, and he had as his legal assistant a judge of the colony, who was called the 'assessor'.
After hearing both sides, the president reversed the decision of the chief justice, and decreed that the act of a servant cannot forfeit the right of the lord paramount, that no grant had been issued to any one, of the lands forming the Belmont Estate, and that there was no prescription against the crown in the colony, therefore His Majesty had never been divested of the ownership of the lands which formed Belmont Estate; but that the heirs of Barry could sue for compensation under a recent British proclamation dealing with crown lands and lands occupied in the island, which gave compensation in land to occupiers, in certain cases, where lands were resumed from them for public purposes; and that the rent received by the heirs of Barry would be taken into account in considering the question of compensation.
The representative of the heirs of Barry applied for leave to appeal to the Privy Council, which was granted, and the vexed question was submitted for final decision to that tribunal.
The case of the claim of the crown to the lands of Belmont, and the alleged arbitrary action of Sir Ralph Woodford in the matter formed one of the many grievances of the Committee of Landholders of Trinidad, headed by the late Joseph Marryat, M.P., in their petition in 1816 to the Secretary of State against what they considered to be the aggressive and tyrannical administration of the government of the colony by that governor.
Belmont Estate eventually became crown land, and the 'Government Cottage' was occupied by the governors of the colony until the 'Great House' of the 'Paradise Estate,' (which property had been purchased from the Peschier family and was converted into the Botanical Gardens and Queen's Park) was fixed up as a govenor's residence. It was then apparently abandoned and fell into decay. It is today the site of the Hilton Hotel.

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