With its thick white stucco wall and commanding red gates, one of the most imposing structures on Main Street is Her Majesty’s Prison; here inmates from petty thieves to murderers were incarcerated for over 200 years. Closed in 1997 when a new prison was built at Tortola’s East End, the building has for years fascinated all those who passed it. As Tortola’s newest museum, it will continue to intrigue and educate all those who enter through its gates.
Inmates from petty thieves to murderers were incarcerated at this historical site for over 200 years
The prison numbers as one of the few fully intact buildings remaining from the Virgin Islands plantation era, which spanned roughly 100 years from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries. The islands’ first settlers were a ragtag group of 17th century Dutch adventurers, who built a fort on Tortola’s West End, now known as Fort Recovery. Soon though, the Dutch were supplanted by the English, who in 1672 annexed the Virgin Islands to the Leeward Islands Federation. These English settlers planted cotton and sugar cane on large hillside plantations and produced rum for export. As the population of planters, slaves and merchants expanded, it soon became apparent that there was an increasing need for civil services including importantly, a prison.
In February, my curiosity piqued by reports of the prison’s restoration, I went on a tour with project manager Hugh Whistler. Still a month or so away from completion, he took me on what would become a self-guided tour once the facility was open. Before I entered, I saw the brass plaque on the outside wall and noted that the prison was built in 1774. The tour began in the entrance courtyard shaded by a large breadfruit tree, and then continued through what was to be the gift shop and snack bar. Workers plastered and painted walls around us; stairs had been repaired and freshly painted shutters installed. Much work had been done, and I could see the museum taking shape before my eyes.
From the gift shop, we toured the cells. Dank and dark, and enclosed by stout iron bars, the prison’s cells vary in size and held up to14 inmates. Overcrowding and outdated facilities were both factors in the construction of the new facility at Balsam Ghut. Much of the original graffiti drawn by the prisoners remains, as do many of the bunks and cots. We walked past the condemned man’s cell and a display depicting an 1854 plan of the prison and other information including a list of prisoner rations.
The tour continued through a room depicting Virgin Islands military history. A large painting, by artist Reuben Vanterpool, depicts Lord Nelson’s 28-gun frigate HMS Borea during his 1787 visit to Road Harbour. On another display the story of Samuel Hodge VC, the first soldier from the BVI and the first of African descent, to win the Victoria Cross is told. Wounded in Gambia while fighting with the West Indian Regiment, he died two years later in Belize.
Without a doubt, the prison’s most notorious inmate was Arthur Hodge. Born in 1763, Hodge, a wealthy plantation owner was tried for the murder of one of his slaves. Known as a cruel and sadistic man, he was sentenced to death and hung in the prison in 1811 – an event that is considered a milestone in the abolitionist movement. The tour led past the area where Hodge and other prisoners were hung. Prisoners were buried in a lime pit at the rear of the facility, now covered over in concrete. Over the course of the years, the building was also used for various other purposes including the fire station.
Turning the prison into a museum has taken the work of many hands, but Captain Whistler – a former Royal Engineer who had lived in the BVI since 1965, was foremost among them. A retired BVI contractor, he was among those who lobbied to save Old Government House (the former Governor’s residence) from demolition, and later, when it was slated to become a museum, he became project manager. The restoration and repurposing of the Main Street prison had intrigued him since it closed in 1997. As part of his research he visited several prisons that are now tourist attractions in the Caribbean and Europe including the Barbados Museum, housed in the former British Military Prison; the Inveraray Jail, Scotland’s premier tourist attraction, and Colditz Castle in Germany where captured British officers were held during the Second World War.
- By Samuel Hodge
The restoration project has been conducted in conjunction with the Ministry of Communications and Works, through the Office of the City Manager, which spearheaded the project. Once officially opened as a museum, the prison will come under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education and Culture.
City Manager, Janis Brathwaite Edwards, who has been involved in the project from the onset, finds the project exciting and an enhancement to the area. One of her primary goals for Road Town, has been to improve Main Street as a destination and increase “foot traffic” to this historic road, which at one time was the only artery through town. Situated between, two churches founded in the 18th century (St George’s Anglican Church and the Road Town Methodist Church) and across the street from the Fireproof Building, another historic structure, the prison is well positioned.
“It is a prime attraction for Road Town,” she says. “I believe it will bring a new spark of life to Main Street.”
Author’s note: Sadly, Hugh Whistler passed away in February 2015 before the final completion of the museum. For information on when the museum will open, and to make donations of photos and materials related to the prison, please contact City Manager Janis Brathwaite-Edwards at email@example.com or call her at 441-8800.