Dr Dylan Kerrigan
Writing about 19th-century Port of Spain, the historian Suzanne Goodenough quotes the words of colonial town planners from 1871 describing the expansion of Port of Spain and the first glimpses of housing on Woodbrook Estate.
“The town (Port of Spain) is not happily situated for extension hemmed in by Queen’s Park (Savannah) and the Bay, all of which space is occupied though much less closely built on than it might be, abutting onto the malarious swamps to the east its only direction is westward beyond Richmond Street, along with St James and Tragarete Roads and north-east up the Laventille spurs and towards Belmont. New Town is filling in well and a row of cottages now shows across the Tragarete Road on the Woodbrook Estate.”
On November 1, a famous square mile in our local national story – Woodbrook –celebrates its 110th birthday and the anniversary of its purchase by the Town Board from the Siegert family.
What today is often most well known as the liming capital of Port of Spain and the annual heart of the Carnival arts has seen many changes in that century and more of life. From its origins as a sugar plantation to its development for housing, and from a place of colonial values to one of more nationalistic ones, to its role in the Carnival and theatre arts, and the impact of its churches, schools, and sporting venues on the lives of its residents – Woodbrook has a lot of different stories to tell.
To commemorate this lifetime, the Woodbrook Residents Committee (WRC), in collaboration with the National Trust, is putting the final touches on a coffee-table book about the social history of the suburb. Growing Up Woodbrook – A Tapestry of Then and Now reflects on the different cultures, people, and histories who came to live, mix, and adapt to each other in this one square mile, and who in many different fields made a big impact on the nation for an area so small.
For the book to sing the outcomes of these events and the lives who made them, it is more about the living history of the Woodbrook community, than an academic tome. The WRC – whose members include Lynette Dolly, Grace Talma, Wendy Sealy, Petal-Dawn Hinkson, Kathleen Gittens, Rhonda Wilson, Ronald Chuckaree, Miguel Browne, and Ray Holman – has spent almost ten years on the project, applying its hive mind to the collection of data, in the main first-person recollections from across eras.
In the best TT fashion, they have combined their contacts and memories to collect stories and tales from current and former residents. These personal recollections span back to the 1880s and 90s, with some families able to provide handed-down stories and documentation from these early times.
The meat of the recollections and stories covers the period 1930s to the 1970s. But we also have content and reflections up to the present time too.
Where there have been gaps still to be filled in the story the Woodbrook Residents Committee has reached out further and collected even more stories to fill those gaps.
The book also uses materials from historical archives, published books and local newspapers.
In addition to the invited recollections and family stories and histories, video interviews and oral histories with a selection of sons and daughters of Woodbrook have also been collected, as well as photos.
If all these stories have a common feeling running through them it is the affection the storyteller holds for Woodbrook.
While the Woodbrook story is one of mixture and change, it is also the individual stories of how the environment of a place produced many who have been central to the story of TT itself. Some were local to Woodbrook for a short time, some for their whole life. These include Beryl McBurnie, Eric Williams, George Chambers, Capt Cipriani, Marion O’Callaghan, Norman Tang, VS and Shiva Naipaul, Noble Douglas, Rudranath Capildeo, George Bailey, Audrey Jeffers, Carlisle Chang, Pat Bishop, John Buddy Williams, William G Demas, Hannah Janoura, Clive Pantin, Claudia Jones, Andre Tanker, Ellie Mannette, Ray Holman, and many more whom you will meet in the book.
In terms of resources and amenities, Woodbrook has been fortunate throughout its lifetime. This too had a great impact on the lives of residents.
However, over the last 20 years, Woodbrook has seen the growth of commercialisation and a decline in residents. While many of its pretty gingerbread houses have long gone, some remain. Nonetheless, the resident community is still full of fondness and memories. Yes, new ideas are needed to take Woodbrook forward for another 110 years, such as the possibilities for sustainable heritage tourism and a way to make the memories and history of the community live on for other generations. Perhaps there is a sustainable heritage tourism idea here to be reproduced or followed in relative ways for other historic communities of TT too?
Growing Up Woodbrook – A Tapestry of Then and Now unfolds across 12 chapters. These include stories of migration; the role of women in Woodbrook; a short sociology of the area; the golden era of Carnival; heritage tourism and the creative industries; sporting life in Woodbrook; and in the last two chapters, a living memory of Woodbrook from the words of many current and former residents, and a final heroes’ gallery of many outstanding Woodbrook residents who contributed to the national development of TT.
If only the planners writing in 1871 could have seen what Woodbrook was going to become. No fear, you can read about it for yourself early next year when Growing Up Woodbrook – A Tapestry of Then and Now hits bookstores.
Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist and author for the Growing Up Woodbrook – A Tapestry of Then and Now: An Amazing Square Mile in History Project.