Letters & Opinion


By Calixte I.S.N. George
Image: The National Trust wants to preserve the old prison site.

AS far as historic buildings go, Saint Lucia, when compared to the other islands of the Caribbean, has very few. Islands such as Martinique, Barbados, Antigua and even Grenada had longer, more stable colonial histories, which yielded a greater collection of structures. Saint Lucia only stopped changing hands between the French and British in 1803. Additionally, thanks to the destruction of Castries by hurricane (San Calixto, 1780), ‘accidental’ bombardment (Abercrombie, 1796) and fires (1927, 1948), and given that most construction was in wood, we have lost the vast number of our historic structures in the city. As a result, the Castries Fire of 1948, of which we marked its 70th anniversary on June 19-20 this year, brought about major transformation to the city of Castries. However Castries town never had many stone or brick structures as seen in other Caribbean towns like St. George’s, Kingstown or Bridgetown. Generally, stone or brick construction tended to be for public use buildings. The earliest colonial stone structures would had been for military use: fortifications, magazines to store munitions and cells or cachots.

Most of the historic public buildings around the city of Castries which we identify with today were built between the 1880s and into the early 1900s: Victoria Hospital (1887); Government House (1893); the Castries Market (1894); the Catholic Basilica (1899); the Morne, Vigie and La Toc Garrison buildings (1890s); the Old College Building [now Castries Parish Centre] (1889); the Curator’s Office at George V Park (1890s).

Image: The National Trust wants to preserve the old prison site.
The National Trust wants to preserve the old prison site.

One area in the town of Castries which had a fair collection of stone/brick structures has since been lost. The old warehouse buildings around what was Prince Alfred Basin have for the most part been demolished. The Commissariat Building in the same area, which at one time housed the Ministry of Communications and Works, was demolished to make way for the Inner Relief Road. The brick warehouse building last occupied by Bandag and the adjoining warehouse were recently knocked down, leaving just the M&C Queen’s Lane warehouses. The Peter & Co. Bldg on Manoel St. is the last vestige of the ‘waterfront’ at the Basin. Many cities around the world embraced their warehouse districts to create attractive, regenerated urban waterfront areas. Notable examples exist in Hamburg, Germany; Baltimore, Maryland; New Orleans; and London’s Docklands. Sadly, in the case of Castries, this opportunity for the most part is gone. The Carnegie Library (1924) is also another worthy historic structures which should be conserved.

However, there also exists at Upper Bridge St. a collection of public buildings which essentially form an historic complex. These four structures include the Police Barracks, Baron Asylum; and two structures which formed part of the Royal Gaol. The Barracks and Baron Asylum are the most recent of these structures, with the Baron Asylum being constructed around 1892. All the lands south of the river were once owned by the Crown, acquired by Mdme. Du Buc when the town was relocated from Vielle Carenage to its current location in the 1760s. On the western side of Bridge St. was the Royal Engineers’ Yard, now Du Boulay’s Bottling Company’s Factory.

Additional structures were constructed in the recent past for the purpose of the police, but these too have been vacated. None of these buildings are currently occupied. We observe that even as far back as 1844, Henry H. Breen, administrator and contemporary historian, acknowledges the importance of the Gaol.

Breen writes that ‘the public buildings that deserved to be noticed in connection with Castries, are the Government House, the Protestant Church, the Asylum, the Government Offices, the Catholic Church, and the Gaol.’ Of these, the only two structures which exist to this day are the Gaol and the Trinity Anglican Church.

In fact, the Gaol is the oldest known standing structure in the Castries City Centre, completed in 1827. The Anglican Church was constructed in 1831. By comparison, the oldest known buildings in Saint Lucia are identified as the Powder Magazine and Guard Cells at Morne Fortune, constructed by the French in the 1760s. However, according to Historian, Dr. Gregor Williams, the Royal Gaol was actually built using the remains of an earlier French structure which may well be as old as these Morne structures. Indeed, if we observe the 1784 French plan for Castries, there are clearly shown two structures at the site of the Gaol in what appears to be an enclosure or wall.

However, Breen (1844) dates the Royal Gaol to 1827. He describes the structure as follows:

‘The Gaol, usually styled the Royal Gaol stands on the south side of the Castries river. It is a massive stone building, 78 feet in length, from north to south, and 36 in width, consisting of two stories and a garret, and having a covered gallery or verandah in front. The ground floor is divided into ten cells, which are used as cachots, or places of solitary confinement. The upper floor contains seven rooms, besides two apartments for debtors; and the garret is divided into three large rooms, generally allotted to females not confined in the cachots. This building was commenced in 1824 and finished in 1827, at an expense to the colonial revenue of 5,417 sterling. It is well ventilated, is surrounded with a strong wall, and provided with a residence for the Gaoler, apart from the inmates. There is a surgeon attached to the establishment, who visits the prisoners every day.

This Gaol is one of the best in the West Indies, and in point of cleanliness, order, and general management, has been creditably conducted by Mr. W. Morrison, the present keeper.’

The structure was of course modified over the years and as our population exploded and incidents of crime increased, the ‘Royal Gaol’ became excessively overcrowded. A fire in 1997 caused its eventual abandonment, with the opening of the Bordelais Correctional Facility in 2003.

There can be no doubt that all cities and societies must grow and progress. And inevitably, it requires reconstruction, repurposing and redevelopment to deal with current demands. However, a society should also cherish its heritage and its history as a means of embellishing and enriching its people and the story they can tell. As a society, we generally have a very narrow view of anything to do with prisons and incarceration. The immediate view might be that this is just the Gaol is just an old building in the way of progress. However, we have seen around the world old prisons being embraced to tell stories that can be very appealing to people. In Martinique, at St. Pierre, it was an old cachot or cell which was preserved within another structure that kept alive the lone survivor of the 1902 Mount Pelée eruption. We can think of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Robben Island, the prison in which Nelson Mandela was confined to for 18 years, is now a major tourist attraction for Cape Town. One of the most popular sites in London, the famous Tower of London, has at its heart the iconic White Tower – though built as William the Conqueror’s castle, it served for most of its existence served as a prison! There are many examples all over the world where prisons have been converted into all sorts of uses. Jails have been converted into tourist attractions, museums, schools, music academies, hotels. From Melbourne , Australia, to Bodmin, Cornwall, old jails have been given new leases on life. And let us also not forget the notorious slave holding prisons on the African coast, the most famous being Elmina in Ghana.

Historic structures such as prisons are particularly important because they are public-use buildings, owned by the state. The state has a duty and a responsibility to set the example to the country as it pertains to conservation of the national patrimony. If the state does not show regard for properties within its stewardship, why then should we expect the same from private interests?

The suggestion that has been floating around is that the Government wishes to construct the new Halls of Justice and Police Headquarters at the Upper Bridge Street site. Certainly, this is a very understandable venture as both facilities are badly needed. And of course, the desire for that site stems from the desire to locate these services close to the city centre, on land already in the possession of the Crown.

However, the Government made no formal statement to this effect. In fact, the last known pronouncements of policy positions by the Government was for the construction of the Police Headquarters at La Toc, through the conversion of the premises occupied by the Golden Hope Hospital, and the construction of the Halls of Justice at Barnard Hill at the site of the National Cultural Centre. With respect to proposals for the latter, most would be aware of the strong opposition met, particularly by the creative arts sector. What was especially concerning was the plan of temporary facilities for both the courts and relocated cultural centre.

Sadly, despite not providing any policy pronouncement, demolition works commenced at the site of the Royal Gaol within the week of Monday 3 September, 2018. Demolition is considered a form of development under the Physical Planning Act of 2001. It appears that this demolition work did not have any planning approval. Additionally, no notice was issued to, nor any plans shared with, agencies whose input should be sought in the development of historic sites, namely the Saint Lucia Archaeological & Historical Society (SLAHS) and the Saint Lucia National Trust (SLNT).

At the very least, such agencies should be consulted, and the public should be made aware of the proposed designs. The demolition thus far has thankfully, in the main, not commenced on the two historic structures forming part of the Royal Gaol.

However, with no idea as to what the proposals are, there is no comfort in this. These agencies which have an interest in built heritage should be provided with the opportunity to properly document such sites.

There is also the reality of the known burial ground on the site, of individuals hung at the gallows. These people buried there, as macabre as it may appear to some, are still part of our history as a people.

What should ideally be pursued is that whatever plans being proposed should seek to incorporate the structures of the Royal Gaol. Good designers and planners can certainly be charged to contemplate potential schemes to this end. In fact, it could potentially be used to a revenue-generating element of the proposed judicial/police complex. Castries is sorely lacking in attractions for visitors and such an historic element to a proposed Hall of Justice could enhance the project as a whole.

It must be stated that the wish to create such a police and judicial complex at that site was proposed back in March 1999 in the Castries 2020 Urban Design Strategy. Sadly, this proposal did not see the need to preserve the prison structure and proposed its demolition so as to create parking for a proposed Halls of Justice on the site. The Vision Plan of 2008 identified the area as ‘Existing Historic Police Station – Proposed Renovation’. It provided no further details, except that it did show a riverbank road traversing the site. A July, 2011, proposal by a Trinidadian interest, PRIMIS Corporation Ltd and the D.ZIGN Collaborative to the Government of Saint Lucia sought to develop the same site of the Royal Gaol as part of a redeveloped Police Headquarters. The proposal was for the creation a new police headquarters building of 27,000 square feet. Again, in 2011, the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court undertook a study led by ACLA Works and a number of other professionals to design options for courts throughout the ECSC jurisdictions. Saint Lucia, being the headquarters of the Courts required the largest facility. The 2011, the proposed 4-level structure of over 115,000 square feet was estimated to cost in the region of EC$120 million. The site offered by the Saint Lucia at the time was Barnard Hill.

In 2016, mindful of the sensitivity concerning the Barnard Hill site, the Government was proceeding to acquire a 17 acre green-field site at Coubaril for the Halls of Justice, on the western side of the Millennium Highway in the vicinity of the Owen King-EU Hospital. While this site was out of the city centre, it did afford close proximity to the proposed site for the OECS Commission Headquarters, lovely sea views and a tranquil environment with lots of space for parking and the location of an expansive judicial/security services complex. The obvious benefit of a green-field site was that there would be no need for any relocations or demolitions.

The site upon which the old Police Headquarters and the Royal Gaol sits is approximately 2.67 acres or 116,305 square feet. The four historic structures take up roughly 13,000 square feet or about 11% of the site, with the Gaol structures a footprint of about 5,600 square feet. Surely, creative design can find innovative solutions to fit the necessary services.

Whichever the direction of the authorities, it should be done transparently, consultatively and following due process as it pertains to planning approvals. All environmental considerations should be taken into account, including the built and historic environment. Government must be a responsible developer as well. It is within our interest to conserve and celebrate the little we have left. It is only fair to the generations who built our country, and the future generations to whom we must past down their right inheritance.

Breen, Henry H. St Lucia, Historical, Statistical and Descriptive. 1844.

De Peyre. ‘Plan de la Radeet De la Ville du Carénage Isle Ste.Lucie’. 1784. Bibliotheque National de France.

Old Melbourne Gaol

NLBA (W.I. Ltd) et al. Castries 2020: An Urban Design Strategy. March 1999.
Idea 2007.National Vision Plan, Northwest Quadrant Plan, p.223.

ACLA Works et al. ECSC Halls of Justice Final Report. D-Summary of Construction Costs.p.40.

1 Comment

  1. Oh give me a break; will you dreamers take all this crap, file it in some library
    somewhere where only like dreamers, can go research, smoke a joint and fall
    asleep. You dreamers are paid by the public purse to research, maybe write about
    but not to dictate policy. We appreciate your knowledge in these matters, but please
    let it rest there and don’t let your obvious political bias take hold of any reason, if any.

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