When Vestry ruled

In our penultimate feature on Barbados’ education system, we take another look at the Vestry System. For today’s article we chatted with Major Samuel Headley who, while not a recipient of a Vestry Scholarship, is familiar with how it was executed.

by Neville Clarke

The Vestry System in Barbados was chaired by the parish priests of the Church of England (The Anglican Church).

It consisted of the plantation owners or their representatives and other “persons of worth” in the district. The theory was that only those who had something of worth would qualify to be members of that governing group.

At a later period, major shopkeepers qualified to join this select group.

The vestries provided the administration and the management of the parishes. Vestry funds were channelled into the upkeep of roads, sanitation, almshouses as well as the education of the poor through the awarding of Vestry Scholarships.

Major Samuel Headley

In Bridgetown, the church warden was the chairman of the vestry and he awarded scholarships to students at Harrison College and Combermere. The church warden had wider scope and a wider area over which to preside. The Christ Church Vestry performed a similar role in the award of scholarships to students attending the Foundation School.

The St. Andrew Vestry was intimately involved in the award of scholarships to students attending the Alleyne School.

St. James and St. Thomas had vestry systems in place, but during this period of Barbados’ history there were no secondary schools in the parishes. Before the two schools were amalgamated, the St. Lucy Vestry awarded scholarships to students attending the Parry School, while it was unclear if students attending the Coleridge School in St. Peter benefited from any Vestry Scholarships.

Former permanent secretary, Major Samuel Headley, in sharing his experiences of the Vestry System in the parish of St. John, told Barbados TODAY, that St. John was the most conservative parish in the late 1930s.

He further stated that The Lodge School, a boarding school during this period, had been established to cater to the educational needs of the sons of British officials and other “persons of worth” living in Barbados.

British trade officials came to Barbados first before going on to Guyana and other countries on the South American continent. The counterpart to the Lodge School was Codrington High School, a boarding school during this period, which catered to the educational needs of females.

Headley said that at the age of nine, his father, Easton Headley, despite his limited exposure to education, entered him as a candidate for a vestry scholarship in St. John. He recalled that when he was entered as a candidate, the lone black man who qualified to be a member of the vestry of St. John was B.L. Barrow.

Headley said Barrow was a major property owner, owning land which stretched from Martins Bay to Bath, St. John. He further stated that after completing the examination, the teachers at The Lodge School where the examination was held, recommended him to the Vestry for the scholarship.

Headley however, said the Vestry chose Bunkins Medford, age 13, for the scholarship.

He pointed out that a Christian- minded Barbadian headmaster, the Rev. Harry Beau-John Gooding, a

former lecturer at Oxford/Cambridge summoned his father to bring him to visit the school.

Headley said the headmaster promptly confessed to his father, his amazement at the fact that their recommendation was ignored. He stressed that as a result of the decision of the members of the St. John Vestry he was never the recipient of any Vestry scholarship.

Headley pointed out that the headmaster proceeded to ask his father if he was able financially to raise

$12 plus $4 for “extras” to pay the first term’s fees, thereby making it possible for him, a pupil of the school to qualify for an internal scholarship in the school.

He further pointed out that once he was a pupil of the school he would automatically qualify for the internal scholarship.

Headley recalled that as a bonus the headmaster extended an invitation to him to become a boarder at the school.

He stressed that while his father saw it as an honour, his mother, Claudine Headley, who had spent her teenage years in Panama feared for the safety of her first son. Headley recalled his mother saying: “My son has to sleep at our house in Venture, St. John every night, and if it means walking to meet him on the journey home, that has to be done.”

Headley, who is now a consultant and a real estate agent recalled that when he became the head boy at the school at the age of 17 all of the white prefects refused to serve under him except his youngest prefect who was then 14 years old. He said years later, the former student who was a boarder confided in him that every night after he refused to join the other white students in the protest, he was tortured after lights-out in the dormitory. His parents later succeeded in securing a transfer for him to Harrison College where he won a Barbados Scholarship in Mathematics.

In 1959 Barbados was changed from the Vestry System into a more modern system of local government patterned after that of the United Kingdom.

Two main sub-regions known as Districts were formed in Barbados, and the majority of the vestry parish councils, which acted as local government were consolidated and transferred into these larger areas. The Bridgetown City Council was also established.

They were simply known as the Northern and Southern districts, and the City of Bridgetown Council. Each of these districts was run by a Chairmen, and the City with a mayor affiliated to Barbados’ political parties.

Based on the large taxation base available in the City of Bridgetown, the vestrymen of this constituency had access to considerable sums of money. The temptation to use these funds for the purpose of political gain was correspondingly high.

It has been said that this fact, combined with a tremendous oratorical appeal, served as the power base of Ernest Deighton Mottley in the City. First elected to serve the vestry in 1942, Mottley would faithfully follow his white predecessors in ensuring that the funds amassed within the confines of his vestry were used for no other purpose than to support those who belonged to that particular vestry.

Mottley became affectionately known as the “City Father” and was a power in the City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It has been said that the abolition of the archaic Vestry System pulled Mottley’s power base from beneath him. He eventually became the first Mayor of the short-lived local municipality of Bridgetown.


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