From Britain to British Guiana

This is the second of two posts that record stories told by my great grandmother of her life in British Guiana. For an explanation, and background, read the first post.

My From Britain to British Guiana

Mary Christina Spence

A short time ago I told you about my life and experiences in British Guiana, but time would not allow me to mention many interesting things. So I am now going to tell you about the journey from Britain to the West Indian Islands and on to British Guiana.

I have sailed from three different ports and from Liverpool and from Glasgow and nine times from Southampton. We are sailing this time from Southampton, not that it is the most interesting, but because I feel you all know as much and perhaps far more than I do about the Clyde. As a matter of fact we sailed from the Broomielaw 23 years ago about the middle of December in thick fog so you will realize we could not see much and it was bitterly cold so we all went into the saloon feeling very depressed and sad. Strange to say although British Guiana was our home you never hear anyone say ‘We are going home’ but just we are’ going back to Demerara’ but when we leaving Demerara we say ‘we are going home to Britain.’ It was just a great thrill when setting out for a holiday in the old country. Well we will now start the journey sailing from Southampton which was the direct route in the early part of this century (20th) British Guiana had a contract with the Royal Mail shipping company and they ran a regular fortnightly service from Southampton calling at Barbados and Trinidad and on to British Guiana. My recollection of Southampton is a lovely fresh town by no means big but everywhere flowers grew and spread and I am sure I would not recognise it as the same place. The Royal mail steamers were all fine big boats with good cabins and splendid food and well served. The only fault I found we seemed to be always eating and yet quite ready for it for the beautiful atmosphere would give everyone an appetite, but alas some poor folk never appeared until four or five days after sailing for it could be very rough in the Channel. It was quite an entertainment watching the new arrivals on deck and at this first meal. Mind you there is nothing worse than sea sickness and I was never too happy myself but I quite got over it as I got older. Nine out of ten make the mistake of staying in their cabin which is absolutely fatal. Get on deck eat dry biscuits and very little fluid. I can tell you a sure cure, have children to look after and if you have none help someone who is absolutely desperate and you will soon find your sea legs. Life on board is much the same each day, quiet for the first few days until everyone has recovered and then great fun and games of every kind, sports for adults and children, concerts and dancing, sometimes in fancy dress which caused endless fun for all the costumes had to be made on board an some of them were wonderful.

On the 4th or 5th day we passed the Azores, a strip of islands belonging to Portugal. The sight of land caused great excitement and gave one a longing to be able to land, but the royal mail never called at the Azores and never having landed I cannot tell you anything about the island except what I saw from the steamer. It was a beautiful spot of rocky coast brilliant with every shade of green and colour. The next week we only had the beautiful blue Atlantic waves to look at and nothing could be better, that lovely feeling of freshness, which seemed to put new life into one and the feeling of nothing to do, away from pots and pans and housework was grand and I confess I enjoyed the fortnight on board immensely.

Day after day passed everyone happy and friendly and each day getting warmer until right into tropical heat, everyone clad in light clothes, the awning up over our deck and it was grand to be able to sit and read and sew in comfort. The time passed only too quickly and once again great excitement – Barbados in sight, a little island with water as blue as the sky. As soon as the steamer anchored the Medical Officer for health came on board and if any infectious troubles like measles we were not allowed to land but if given a clean bill of health most of the passengers landed. This all took time but we had plenty to keep us entertained. The steamer was surrounded with a number of the most primitive boats just capable of holding two black boys shouting for money to be thrown into the sea and they dived for it and never missed. They would dive right under the steamer to the other side for a shilling. They are really wonderful divers and like fish in the water. They must make quite a fortune for it is hard to resist them. The next entertainment was the arrival of several black women looking quite picturesque generally wearing white frocks and their heads tied with bright coloured handkerchief and some wore wide brim hats to protect their faces from the sun. They had baskets with shells in great variety and coral and all sorts of things made with shells only suitable as souvenirs, also trays of sweets (homemade) and sugar cakes made from grated cocoa, but not all spotlessly clean. Only a selected few were allowed on board. After certain formalities passengers are allowed to land either by launch or by hired boats. I could never make you realize what tropical heat is like, but in spite of it everyone made for shore and enjoyed every minute of the time seeking shelter in hotels or visiting friends. The streets in Barbados are white which makes it very glary and the inhabitants wear dark glasses or veils to protect their eyes. The sea bathing is grand and Barbados or Little England as it is called, is considered a health resort and patronized very much by the inhabitants of British Guiana. The houses are mostly built of brick and wood, some right on the shore. The one I stayed in the tide washed practically up to the house and one could get a lovely dip into the sea by going down a few steps.

The happy and enjoyable day came to an end and at the appointed hour we all re-joined the steamer minus those whose homes were in Barbados and those going to the other West Indian Islands.

Our next stop was Trinidad, a wealthy island noted for its pitch lakes. I have never landed at Trinidad as it was quite an undertaking with young children and risk on account of the intense heat. Here all passengers for British Guiana transhipped into the intercolonial boat, a smaller steamer and in 36 hours we arrived in Georgetown the capital.

I am now going to tell you about life in Georgetown. You will be thinking that it is like living in this country but not anyway like it. There are no butcher’s shops, no greengroceries or dairies. There are 3 markets in Georgetown and no white people do their own shopping for food. Every morning the black cooks go to market with baskets which they carry on their heads and a list of things to buy. Each trade has a stall in these markets and you have to depend on your cook for what you get and you just have to take what they bring. There are no cake shops, all cakes are homemade but there are some very good caterers who can be got for special functions such as weddings and dances.

Wales Street is the shopping centre, just one long street with shops on both sides, but only drapers, groceries wholesale firms. You never see such a thing as ready-made frocks, just the materials and it has then to be made up. There are some very good black dressmakers. All hats have to be trimmed at home. Now do not imagine that we were a dowdy lot far from that, but when coming to Britain for a holiday we got as little as possible and got rigged up in this country. It is quite a common saying, ‘We came home with plenty of money and no clothes and return with plenty of clothes and no money,’ which is only too true.

The black women are out every day from house to house selling fowls eggs, fruit and vegetables and they very often send their children who are not always very smart.

Often they came to my door selling and I would require the price of the goods to be told. The mother says,’ bit and a half and a gill but the lowest price is a bit and a half’ thus losing a penny. You will not understand what a bit and a half and a gill is. We use American dollars and cents. A bit is 4d, half a bit is 2d and a gill is 1d which equals 7d in English money. One day a small black boy came with a basket of eggs to my door to sell. I bought 12 which cost one shilling or 24 cents. It had been raining and when leaving he slipped on the bridge and broke the balance of his eggs and started to cry and before many minutes he had a crowd of small black boys jeering and laughing at him and by no means sympathetic. We were watching them and we heard one boy say,’ Go along boy you would reach home and had your warm licks and cooled down. We felt sorry for the poor boy and on hearing this my husband called him and asked him how many eggs were broken and he gave him the money for them. I wish you could have seen the jeering crowd, their surprise and disappointment that he would not get his warm licks. Another day I saw a black woman passing with a tray of fruit and I called her but she did not hear me. Her friend called to her, ’Black lady with the tray, the white woman calling you.’ I smiled to myself for I saw the funny side. There is a lesson to be learnt from this for I feel that everyone, black or white is a lady provided they conduct themselves in a ladylike manner, being kind, polite and just helping all who need help, for we are all human, all travelling the same road and aiming at the same goal. There was a good tramcar service which would take you to any part of Georgetown for one price, 2d be the distance long or short. It was well patronized by all those who did not run their own motor car or large vehicle, but in recent years it has ceased to exist and I am told greatly missed. There were very limited walks for children or anyone to go to every afternoon. The sea wall was the favourite walk as it was cool with the breeze straight from the Atlantic. Saturday afternoon was always a special day as the Marina Band played on the seawall and the place swarmed with children of every nationality as well as numerous motor cars and carriages for the band was splendid and well worth hearing.

Life in the country was very different. The west coast was cut off from Georgetown by the Demerara River, Berbice by the Berbice River and Essequibo by the Essequibo River. There was a daily steamer from Georgetown to and from Berbice and Essequibo and a ferry boat running every hour to the West coast. Every home had a trap of some sort as there was no other way of travelling to the ferry. Our home Edinburgh House was 10 miles from the ferry and some homes quite 20 miles or more. The black people had to depend on cabs owned by a few black or East Indian men and they passed our house packed to overflowing and the poor …. as thin as rakes and the wheels on the verge of falling off which did often happen. This is the only way they would get up to Georgetown and back and the price suited their pockets even at the risk of landing on the road. They were quite content and of course some cabs were better than others.

I mentioned in my last talk that British Guiana was rich in gold and diamonds which were found in the interior or bush where my husband worked as Government Gold Officer. He had to weigh the gold and diamonds and each individual was given a permit to take to the Head Office in Georgetown where they had to pay Royalty on it before being allowed to sell or send it out of the colony. I suppose many of you visited the exhibition of 1938 in Glasgow and you must have seen the exhibits from British Guiana. They had a splendid display of gold and diamonds and samples of wood in great variety, also fruit, vegetables and preserves and limes. The principal exports are sugar, rum, molasses. Balata, bauxite, gold and diamonds.

There are many species of humming bird and a very tiny beautiful bird with green and blue feathers and the famous robin, the ques-a-dit?with yellow and black feathers and parrots. We had a parrot in our childhood days who could talk quite plainly and we were very fond of him, but he had one great fault and was a tell-tale tit. We were allowed to play under the house but not allowed to go into the sun, as tropical sun can cause trouble and believe me we were no saints! We often disobeyed orders and as soon as Polly saw us in the sun he shouted, ‘Ethel, Mary, Norah all in the sun’ and that ended our pleasure for we were ordered back into the house and Polly was not very popular with us on such occasions.

There were many churches in Georgetown and the country districts of every denomination. We belonged to St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. My great and chief elder keeps me in touch with the church news. St Andrew’s have just celebrated their 127th anniversary. When the minister the Revd Norman Berins? in an appropriate address pointed to the wonderful place in the life of the city and the community. I cannot tell you anything about British Guiana as it is now, but I do know it is a very different place to when I left 23 years ago. I have very happy recollections of the many years I spent in British Guiana and would like very much to return on a visit. There is a Negro saying that if you drank creek water and eat labba you will end your days in British Guiana. I have done neither so my fate is settled!

Here I will leave you to form your own opinions about life in the tropics. It certainly has its advantages and disadvantages but on the whole it is an easy life, interesting and enjoyable. It is the same all over the world over, life it what we make it, so it is up to each individual wherever they are to get the best out of life and to strive to make all those around them happy.

Mary Sleigh: "Mary Spence,  photo probably taken in 1940s. This picture is how I remember my grandmother, a kind, reserved and gentle person."

Mary Sleigh: “Mary Spence, photo probably taken in 1940s. This picture is how I remember my grandmother, a kind, reserved and gentle person.”


  1. Before decimalisation. Now worth 5p.

  2. 2d refers to 2 pence in our currency before decimalisation

  3. There is a saying in Guyana that “if you drink the creek water and eat the Labba (bush meat) you’ll return to the Guyana”