Tue | Jan 22, 2019

Bairds bare Sligoville's rich past

Published:Saturday | January 29, 2011 | 12:00 AM
The church, built by John O'Sullivan in 1840 for use as a private chapel by his family, still looms large and is in use today. - Photo by Christopher Serju

Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer

SLIGOVILLE, St Catherine:

FOLLOWING THE instructions from postmistress Kathleen Hutchinson, I turn off at the square in Sligoville in my search to find the Bairds. Under my gentle coaxing, the car actually handles what passes for the roadway quite well, completing the task in better shape than my nerves.

I learn from Eunice Baird that my good fortune in finding them is due to her husband Harold not feeling so well, or else I would not have found them at home. This forced a delay in their plan to take home her sister-in-law Lydia Chambers. She and Harold are the real historians in the family and so I have struck pay dirt, it seems.

By the time I get around to talking with Mr Baird, I can't help but ask about something that has been puzzling me. Why are they all dressed in sweaters at this early hour? Simple answer.

"It is always this cold at this time of the year - from October to May. You have a creeping mist in the morning which settles on every thing, leaving a sheen on the floor and the furniture wet," Eunice explains.

"But it's a beauty to behold when it's coming over in the morning, when the sun is trying to come through," Lydia picks up the story.

"Partially, that's one of the reasons I decided to live up here because I used to visit a friend up at the camp up Newcastle (where soldiers are trained) and I really loved the climate."

Place of his childhood

So when he decided to build a house, Harold returned to place of his childhood. He was able to accomplish this for the princely sum of £4,500 borrowed from the Barclays Bank in Spanish Town around 1968/69. His father Allan, who served in the first World War, met their mother Lillian Maria upon returning home to Jamaica and "I came along" Harold, one of nine children explained.

Even though he operated a buggy taxi (horse drawn) in the Corporate Area, the former soldier decided he did not want to raise children there.

"He decided to come this side and was the first person who drove a truck up here. He opened a grocery and bar at the square and was involved in most of the developments in the area. The post office was operated at our house and my mother was the postmistress," Harold tells The Gleaner. The relocation took place in 1923, a year after he was born.

When the highly respected teacher W.B.C Hawthorne chose to relocate to Bartons, the elder Baird sent his son with the educator for him to get additional schooling. Afterwards, he would go on to Beckford and Smiths, which preceded St Jago High School and was upstairs the building which now houses the Spanish Town Parish Council.

In addition to things which happened during his lifetime, the Bairds, and Harold especially, even at 88, are very much up on the history of the place called Sligoville, Jamaica's first free village, established in 1835.

The place is named in honour of Howe Peter Browne, the second Marquis of Sligo who was governor of Jamaica from 1834-36. Sent from England to supervise the emancipation process for the newly freed blacks, he came up against the plantation owners who sought to abuse the system when confronted with the reality of paying their former slaves for work which before used to cost them next to nothing.

Finding a kindred spirit in Baptist minister Reverend James Phillipo, they joined forces to improve the lot of the ex-slaves in a struggle that would pit them against the establishment. The former owners, it is said, were instrumental in getting the governor recalled to England.

By then, however, he along with Phillipo had managed to buy, with money pooled by the ex-slaves, some 25 acres of land which was cut into quarter acre lots. Today, a monument in the square records the names of those 18 original landowners with Henry Lunan heading the list.

A source of pride for the Bairds is the Anglican church where a modern sign welcomes you to St John's, Sligoville. Built in 1840 by John Agustus O'Sullivan as a private chapel for his family, with a preacher in his employ who would come from Cedar Valley as required, it is now in the control of the Anglican Diocese. Harold and Eunice have in their position a picture commemorating the 1996 visit to the church by a descendant of the second Marquis.

It was O'Sullivan also who built the Sligoville Greathouse now in disrepair which is said to be the responsibility of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

Safeguarding their legacy

Proud of their role in Jamaica's history, residents of the many communities have formed a number of groups with the goal of preserving their heritage and safeguarding their legacy, with the Sligoville Support Community and Sligoville Benevolent Society among them. For these people, Emancipation celebrations take on a special significance, with more than 6,000 turning out last year when Ernie Smith was among the artistes who performed.

For all its peace and quiet, if you are willing to brave the cold, spend some time, you might get an idea of just how much history is asleep in those hills.