Road Harbour 1963 and Joe's Hill Road 1965

The Good Life

In 1962 there was but one paved road on Tortola and the dentist was named Dr. Hurt

Story and Photos by Tony Sweeting

My first experience of living the good life was when I joined an overseas British bank and my first posting was for three years to Nassau, the Bahamas in 1957. In those days Nassau was the exclusive haunt of European royalty, aristocrats and millionaires mostly from North America and Canada, and in the 1950s celebrity really meant something – not just being on television for five minutes. So in 1960 when my three years was up and I had to return to London I was told that my next job would be in West Africa. My response was, "Thanks, but no thanks."

The next two years were spent in London checking dozens of sets of shipping documents every day for goods being exported to the places that I longed to be in the Caribbean. One day on my daily commute to the City of London I read a travel article in a national English paper entitled The Forgotten Islands. It was about the British Virgin Islands, and although I had a vague idea about the islands I realised that not once had I seen any shipping documents cross my desk relating to exports from the UK to the BVI. I decided then and there that there must be an opening for starting an importing business in the BVI importing British consumable goods, such as foodstuffs, liquors etc. On the strength of that idea I wrote to all the UK firms I was familiar with suggesting that they should appoint me as their agent in the BVI – they all replied saying that they had no agent for that Territory, and anyway WHERE WAS THE BVI?

 

In late 1962 I had acquired a collection of potential exclusive agencies for the British Virgin Islands and having left my London job, sailed across the Atlantic from Hull in UK to St Thomas in the USVI on board a Danish cargo vessel that had provision for 12 passengers and soon I was boarding the ferry called The Youth of Tortola at the dock in Charlotte Amalie on the last leg to Tortola. Sailing into Sopers Hole at West End, Tortola I got my first view of the BVI – a couple of concrete buildings, several wooden shacks with corrugated iron roofs and privies built out on stilts over the sea. After the luxury of the Bahamas I gulped and thought to myself, "Oh My God what have I done!!!." First impressions of Road Town were more encouraging and I hired a taxi to the Treasure Isle Hotel on the outskirts of Road Town run by Wing Commander Charles Roy and his wife Betty members of the Roy dynasty.

I soon got to meet what few Ex-Pats there were living on the island including Peter Haycraft and his wife Penny. Peter, a Master Mariner, had been Captain of the "Youth of Tortola" and because of his daily journeys to and from St Thomas was always being asked to do shopping for people in the BVI. When his contract working for Sir Alan Cobham was up he decided to set up his own importing business doing exactly what I had planned to do. I had money to invest, he needed funding to expand so we decided to join forces as RoadTown Wholesale (known for evermore as RTW). He already had exclusives with several firms including the most important one on which all future successes were founded (PET MILK). I added the agencies I had acquired and the business went from strength to strength.

 

When we first moved into the newly rented warehouse on Main Street, Road Town situated opposite Roland Hodge's Bargain Center and James Martin's butchery we wondered how we could possibly fill all that space but that didn't last long. Peter had already agreed to employ a former policeman called "Duggie" Douglas who was a tremendous asset . He knew and was respected by all the local islanders and didn't stand any nonsense, and there were some real characters around in those days. One such was a rum soaked harmless but alarming man called "Jump" who would come up to you nose to nose and shout at the top of his voice "You got your appledawid?" (Supposed to be Affidavit). What or why nobody ever knew.

Among the Tortola businessmen the king had to be J.R. (Jose) O'Neal, importer of building materials and all sorts of other hardware as well as (I think) being Agent for Landrover 4wheel drive vehicles; others who come to mind were H.R. Penn builder and general store owner; another builder was Clarence Christian; and the manager of the VI National Bank was Leslie Allen who had the vision to see the potential of RTW. Several up and coming future politicians included Lavity Stoutt, Ralph O'Neal,and Cyril Romney. There was Harold Harney, an attorney, Doctor Osborne who had a pharmacy shop as well as being one of the local doctors, Esme Downing who had a clothing, fashion and general store, Mrs Brudenell-Bruce and her daughter Diana, owners of Little Denmark, the best gift shop in town and Roland Hodge opposite RTW from whom we rented our warehouse. He sold general hardware and furniture at his Bargain Center and who was a sometime money lender. He would sit outside his store and if he spotted some poor unfortunate who hadn't paid his debt Mr Hodge would shout at the top of his voice like a town crier: "Hey you, ME WAN ME (colorful expletive) MONEY!!!!" for all and sundry to hear. The most eccentric of all was James Martin the butcher whose place was also opposite RTW. Every Friday was killing day when he would drive a "beeve" as he called it, hanging onto its tail, down the main road and up the hill to just behind his premises, tie the beast to a tree and slaughter it then and there. That would get his blood lust up, he would pick an argument with his wife and chase her down the street. Then the next day being market-day it was back to normal. big beaming smile and raucous laughter.

 

...getting around the island to the west and north of Road Town could only be achieved by four-wheel drive vehicles

As the only paved section of roadway ran from Fort Burt to the Roy family's Pasea Estate, getting around the island to the west and north of Road Town could only be achieved by four-wheel drive vehicles, the vast majority of which were Landrovers. There was no highway along the shoreline getting to West End which meant some grindingly low gear mountain climbing with heart stopping hairpin bends at the Towers and similarly hazardous efforts to get to the Ridge Road and down to Cane Garden Bay. Driving all these roads after rain was like negotiating rock strewn river beds, East End was the only place with reasonable access.

 

Need a haircut? If you didn't have a wife or friend to do the job there was an employee at the Agricultural Station (which was located where the Botanic Gardens is today). Ask for Rufus, you sat on an upturned box out in the open and he snipped away. Desperate for a dentist? An ex-pat who was formerly in India had the frighteningly off-putting name of Arthur Hurt. He and his wife Norrine lived near Treasure Isle Hotel and were renowned for their Sunday curry lunches. Luckily I never had to put his dentistry skills to the test and what was most disconcerting was seeing a foot operated dental drill in the corner of his surgery.

 

Road Town Wholesale was expanding rapidly and as all imports were discharged from ocean going freighters at St Thomas and then transshipped to Tortola by small sloops, it became increasingly frustrating having to wait for and rely on local sloop captains to find time and space for our goods. So Peter decided the only thing was to use his nautical skills to go to the UK, buy a Scottish fishing trawler, sail it across the Atlantic to Tortola so we would have our own vessel. A great idea but it nearly bankrupted the business because MV Kilros would need a reliable replacement engine before attempting such a hazardous journey. Duggie and I had to do a lot of judicious juggling of RTWs limited finances as cargoes piled up in St Thomas and we had to pick and choose which were the most likely to produce the fastest return to put money in the bank. We managed to keep the business afloat, while Peter and his crew kept the Kilros afloat, bringing her into Road Harbour amidst much jubilation, and dear old Kilros served RTW faithfully for many years.

In 1964 I went back to UK, got married and returned to Tortola with my bride; we lived in a house rented from H.R. Penn situated between Fort Burt and McNamara, and in 1968 we decided to leave Tortola, returning to UK for family reasons. In those early days we all worked hard and played hard, you had to be adaptable and always expect the unexpected.