JEAN RHYS HOUSE in Roseau Has Been Demolished

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A report by Polly Pattullo

The childhood home of the writer Jean Rhys in the centre of Roseau, Dominica, has been demolished by its new owner. It is understood that a four-storey office block is to be put in its place.

The house, which stood on the corner of Queen Mary Street (now Independence Street) and Cork Street for perhaps 150 years, had been in a poor condition for some time, and was further damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. But those who treasure literary heritage will mourn its passing.

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Rhys’ father, Dr Rees Williams, moved his family to the house soon after her birth in 1890. A Welshman, he had gone to Dominica to take up a government job as a medical officer and married Minna Lockhart, Rhys’ mother, whose Creole family with Scottish roots owned Geneva estate (the setting for parts of Wide Sargasso Sea) in the south of the island. A two-storey building, made of wood with a stone foundation, it was typical of Roseau’s fine colonial architecture. A yard was behind the house with a kitchen, stables and servants’ quarters, and separated from the street by a sturdy stone wall. A singe-storey annex became Dr Williams’ surgery. (Most recently, it became a tailor’s business run by Haitians.)

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Rhys lived in this elegant home for the first 16 years of her life before she left for England in 1906. Her childhood memories of the house and the yard are described in her autobiographical fragment, Smile Please; they also feature in Voyage in the Dark, in ‘Heat’, the short story in the collection Sleep it Off, Lady, and in Tigers are Better Looking.

An imposing mango tree – at least 130 years old – is – as of 5 May – still standing in the yard and bearing fruit but it is doubtful that there will be a place for it in the new development. It, too, featured in Smile Please: ‘I walked out of the sun, into the shadow of the big mango tree. I laid the fair doll down… Then I searched for a big stone, brought it down with all my force on her face and heard the smashing sound with delight.’

Dominica seeped into the soul of her writing although she only returned once, in 1936, and on that occasion it is not known whether she visited her old home. Certainly, her letters from that time do not mention it.

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When Dr Williams died in 1910, the property was bought by a member of the extensive Shillingford family who, much later, gave the house as a wedding gift to his daughter, Edelyn, on her marriage to “Sparrow” Winston.

The house retained its original features for many decades. Aileen Burton, whose family home was across the street, remembers the property in the 1960s: ‘It was such a beautiful Creole house filled with antique furniture and built to capture the natural elements of fresh air and ventilation through the jalousies while maintaining its privacy through half shutters on the windows. It was protected by full outer shutters which were opened every morning and closed on the ground flour every evening at 6pm. There were four large bedrooms upstairs. The main bedroom was opposite our house and had a large bed, a day bed and a separate dressing room. On the ground floor was the dining room and drawing room, both with well-polished wooden floors and glass cabinets filled with crockery and crystal. On the Cork and Queen Mary Street corner was a long closed verandah where, in the evenings, visitors would have tea. On Sunday mornings, at about 11am, my grand aunt would go over for an aperitif of a good rum punch.’

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At carnival time, Ms Burton also remembers that the house was the starting point and refreshment venue for the Band Mulâtre, a group that was accompanied by a local jing ping band. On the Saturday before carnival, the Winston family hosted a famous ‘Samedi gwa’ dance, which was attended in style by the town’s bourgeoisie.

Another child’s memory comes from Anthony Toulon, a retired businessman, who has lived on Queen Mary Street for most of his life. ‘As a small boy in the 50s and 60s,’ he said, ‘I would go from our home into the Winston’s yard. I remember a cow pen, with two cows and a fierce bull. And one time I drank the hot milk squirted into my mouth from the teat of one of the cows.’ Mr Toulon adds that the house had a ‘nice feeling – like a traditional old Roseau home, with jalousies and a cool atmosphere.’

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With the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, Jean Rhys’ name became well known in literary circles worldwide, and visitors to Dominica had the opportunity to see the places, such as her home, that are associated with her life and writings. But a major change came on the death of Mr Winston in the early 1980s, and the house was sold to a inter-island trader called Vena McDougall, who turned the building into Vena’s Hotel. At that point much of the interior was adapted to accommodate guests: the cool drawing room was cut up into small rooms, and aluminium louvres replaced the wooden jalousies that Rhys had peeped through to see the happenings in the street. As she wrote in Voyage in the Dark: ‘I was watching them [the masqueraders] from between the slats in the jalousies dancing along dressed in red and blue and yellow, the women with their dark necks and arms covered with white powder, dancing along to concertina-music dressed in all the colours of the rainbow and the sky so blue.’

The yard, however, retained some of its charm, and in the 1980s it became a pleasant restaurant known as the World of Food. The huge mango tree still provided shade, and at that time a plaque associating Jean Rhys with the house was nailed to its base. It remained the only tribute to the writer. Harry Sealey was the restaurant manager at the time and remembers how people would come there because of its associations with Rhys. ‘The Dominican-born journalist and academic Edward Scobie would bring his students there,’ says Mr Sealey, ‘Tourist groups would also come and, in 1990, the cast of the UK television series, The Orchid House.’

With the destruction of the house, there is now little that physically remains of Jean Rhys’ Dominica. Her mother’s home, Geneva, is no more, nor is the house at Hampstead, in the north of the island, where she spent six weeks in 1936. Mr Toulon, who witnessed the recent demolition of her Roseau home, noted that the house had been strongly built. ‘It was sturdy. It took a while to take it down,’ he said.

As the Dominican historian Lennox Honychurch so presciently wrote in his book Historic Roseau, published in 2000, in commenting on the house and its literary associations: ‘Unfortunately, there is little to show inquisitive visitors. Soon perhaps there will be nothing….Once again, here in Roseau is an example of yet another lost opportunity to capitalise on our historical and, in this case, our significant literary connections.’

44 thoughts on “JEAN RHYS HOUSE in Roseau Has Been Demolished

  1. That’s a dam shame for a country who speaks of ecotourism and culture. We accept to much shit in our beloved country, only time will tell. The stealers of our money, who turn around buy and destroy our heritage and turn the town to a concrete jungle, only a moment longer. This too must come to an end.

    1. For so many years the building stood there in ruins why didn’t you all raise funds to do all the great things you are talking about now. You just sit there and complain. Covid19 is here, what are you all doing to help anyone. After hurricane Maria what did you all do to help anyone.

    2. It’s not Skerrit to to blame, we must all hold the corrupt people of D/ca responsible cause they were always corrupt they only needed a negative leader and they got two of them in the person of ROOSEVELT Skerrit and Charles Savren, Dominicans too mischievous and shameless to have these two shameless (San hunt) guys at the helm

  2. I am very disappointed to hear of this. A stronger appreciation of heritage – of the broad spectrum of culture is required; historical, artistic, environmental and all aspects of sustainability such as gold standard grade listing. This building could have been preserved and saved for the nation and secure interest for visitors in perpetuity – and of course for our own people. This was a pan-Caribbean treasure. Another office block will not add interest and architectural charm to Roseau, especially on a corner plot. Will a plaque be placed on the proposed building?

  3. This building should not have been destroyed. Like the cabrits buildings it should have been enhanced and retained as a historic site.

    1. A Country that does not preserve it’s History is like a Tree without Roots!
      We need to stop the Bleeding in Dominica.

  4. I feel emotional and sad reading of the demolition of this beautiful heritage of Dominica. Though I reside in the United Kingdom, that building is always there when I visit. Also I am the proud owner of one of Jean Ryse books.
    That building would be preserved and not a stone moved if it was in the UK.

  5. Jean Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, moved to England in 1906 at age 16 (due to a poor relationship with her 3rd generation Dominican Mother). Jean briefly visited Dominica 30 years later in 1936 at age 46 and died in England in 1979 at age 88.
    Amongst other things, Jean was a novelist, short story writer and essayist who was born in Dominica.
    Let’s complain about the black history that we’ve lost in Dominica rather than the demolition of an abandoned family plantation house of a woman who did not live in Dominica.

    1. Thanks for this very sensible comment. Too many of us allow our emotions to control our thinking. Her contribution to Dominica was zero.

    2. People like you will never understand,the fact is our ancestors built it,our kids could have learnt a lot from it,not about the famous person that lived in it.But that’s your thoughts man.

    3. Anywhere else in the world Jean Rhys’ childhood home would be a tourist attraction. As disgraceful as colonial rule was money could be made by conducting guided tours of the colonial architecture in Roseau/Dominica

    4. To see an old building that so many of our ancestors saw, connected us with our past, but yeah, I’m sure the four story block will reflect our black culture better! Not the fact that the writer brought our nation to the worlds notice regardless of her colour!!

  6. The destruction of one important element of Dominica’s literary history sadly smacks the face of the need for preservation of our heritage. Hopefully whatever structure on the site will recognise or even capitalise on its famous resident. What an opportunity to blend the old with the new! The situation is calling out for effective conservation measures.

    1. As a fellow ex-pat West Indian born in Grenada of Polish parents with photos of my very early childhood year in Dominica, I’m disappointed in this and the other poor receptions towards a piece of Dominica history. The mere fact that this historic contribution was made, that you read it, that we all read it, that so many visitors have come to see the house where she was born, that Dominica can lay claim to having been the birthplace of a famous author…should I go on? The name Jean Rhys will live on for the ages to come, and along with her so does Dominica. Be proud of Jean Rhys as part of Dominica’s history regardless of what or whose perspective – history cannot be changed.

    2. She gave the world words, which when read illustrates parts of the Dominica she grew up in. She was an ambassador.

  7. I lived in that area virtually all my life, in fact, for over 15 years right next door that I could look down into the yard. I ate many sumptuous mangoes from that tree, which also protected our home through hurricane David. Despite the history and cultural heritage the structure had deteriorated to becoming more of an eye sore and – as an old wooden structure – a fire hazard.

    I’d only hope that the new and modern edifice incorporates significant features of the old; that it captures and retains some elements of its history and our Caribbean architectural styles… maintaining a link to its historical value.

  8. Yes, it would be nice to have that historic structure restored. But who would foot the bill? Even if the government had declared it a historical structure to be kept, it is still private property that is an eyesore and also a fire and environmental hazard. Unless someone came forward to pay the huge restoration costs it was necessary to take it down.

    1. what about the library is that not the peoples place. A disgrace to see how that has been allowed to fall appart and right opposite such a lavish building! but is that worth any historical value. The place that our people spent time learning and reading , that had devloped so many Dominicans is that ready for the trash heap. We can pave paradise and put up a parking lot…

  9. A Country that does not preserve it’s History is like a Tree without Roots!
    We need to stop the Bleeding in Dominica.

  10. Jean immortalized Dominica in classic Literature to a global audience. What a treasure. Wish the young and not so young could appreciate her contribution.

  11. We as a people are failing to recognise the importance of buildings such as these to our historic and economic realities. This, and other buildings such as the home of His Excellency President Clarence Seignoret and the Cherry Lodge, are all so, so valuable to our tourism product, yet we fail to see it. These buildings should be protected by law and renovated in order to maintain their value as income generators for the country. Shamefully, as they all crumble with no outcry, protest, or concern on the part of those who most stand to benefit from their preservation, is the citizens, we move closer and closer to a city of concrete walls with nothing of any significance remaining as an attraction for the tourists who come to our shores. Sad indeed…… we will feel the impact but by then, it will be too late….. shame

  12. why are we so against preservation.It saddens me.
    what will our children learn about our heritage?

  13. Could the legacy of Jean Rhys be still preserved on the modern replacement construction on the site, by naming it after her?

  14. Yes we need development,but I think that instead of demolishing such buildings they should be modified and run as a business venture, and instead the small rundown houses that are clustered up in Roseau could be bought and the land used for building whatever is needed…killing three birds with one stone ( 1 whatever building that’s needed would be built, 2 the area would be upgraded as well as the real estate and the people who sold their properties can relocate into better conditioned homes it’s .I think we should stop demolishing good things to build better ones and instead demolish bad ones and build better ones in their places…it’s just my little six pence on the matter…namaste..peace

  15. Anywhere else in the world Jean Rhys’ childhood home would be a tourist attraction. As disgraceful as colonial rule was money could be made by conducting guided tours of the colonial architecture in Roseau/Dominica

  16. What a travesty! Almost as bad are the comments of those wondering what she gave to Dominica, they’ve obviously never read her books. Our built heritage is so significant that the UNESCO includes it as an artefact of human culture to be preserved. Do we in the Caribbean not understand that sun, sea and sand; which are also abundant in the Maldives, Hawaii, Seychelles and numerous others, is not enough to support a tourist industry? If we keep destroying what actually makes us unique, our heritage and culture including our architecture we will wake up too late to to reverse course and with nothing to replace it with. Wide Sargasso Sea introduced me to Dominica many years before I could visit.

  17. The Dominican Government should have prevented the destruction of Jean Rhys’ family home. Dominica is destroying its culture and heritage. The house could have been repaired and turned into a Museum. Dominica is destroying it pastI am horrified!!!

  18. It was sickening to see such an interesting part of our heritage as the Jean Rhys house go down to the wrecking ball. And go down so easily, so stealthily, almost like under the cloak of darkness. There was no recognition of the home’s significance; no cry of hold on, let’s do something; not a peep. Nobody took that house under their wings; and then it began deteriorating. From there its fate was sealed; Vena or no Vena. It saddened me. I remember fondly its elegant polished floors, its myriad jalousies, and its spacious, airy living room. It could have been a valuable piece of history that our Tourist Association could have protected, if not for its historical significance, but for its tourist dollars, like Rose Hall in Jamaica. But now, let’s shed no more tears. Save some for the Cenotaph when it too goes down; for the Gardens when we get a housing development there; for the military cemetery at the Morne when the ghosts of Joseph Jones and others buried there come to haunt those who build houses on their graves.

  19. Very sad indeed. I will miss it. It could have been renovated to become the public library. I own one of Jeans books’ Wild Sargasso Sea’.

  20. I read most of the comments. While I agree that we should preserve our heritage, we should also act to implement all the noble things that we talk about. Did we raise $1.00 towards renovation and preservation of the building. No! We just talk and pretend to be the most patriotic, and smartest. But never lift a finger to help. Do your homework. In most countries where these types of restorations are done they are done by private foundations. And I am talking about countries a hundred times richer than Dominica.

    1. We have raised the issue now that this demolition, a manifestation of the total disregard for historical importance, legacy and value to country, has been executed!!

      So maybe now, finally, we can build momentum to do that which you suggest!! But we must hold policy makers to account when they fail to understand and recognise the importance of those buildings to our historical, literary and cultural value, and so fail to act in order to protect them.

      Why not make the first donation, then share? Peace!!!

  21. Some recognition to say the least. Many people, by gaining regional or international notoriety bring recognition to their homeland or which ever country they associate themself to.
    Vincent Van Gogh for example one of the most famous artists ever who did over 2000 paintings, was depressed most of his life, seen as a mad man by many who knew him, scrunted all his life, a penniless painter. Took his own life. Had nothing else to contribute to his country. A doctor whom he once gave a paintig freely gave it back to him because that doctor felt it was not worth anything.
    Today, every painting of Vincent VanGogh is sought after for fortunes. Even fake VanGogh paintings sell for hundreds of thousands. His old home is an attraction that brings millions of tourists.

  22. I’m writing a life of Jean Rhys and very glad to have seen inside that haunting building before its demolition. But what a loss. This article expresses it all beautifully, but I’ve also done a very tiny literary homage on http://www.mirandaseymour.com. Let’s hope the mango tree survives, and thank you, Polly Pattulo, for such an eloquent expression of what everybody who admires Rhys’s writings about Dominica must feel

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