Falmouth Jamaica is one of the best towns on the island to do a walking tour. It’s compact, well laid out (on a grid), and pedestrian-friendly – no cars are allowed in the center of town. Most importantly, the Georgian buildings for which Falmouth is well-known are almost all storyboarded and within a few minutes of the pier and the center of town.
A Little Intro to Falmouth
Falmouth, the capital of Trelawny, was established after the original capital, which was located near the Martha Brae River, became unsuitable for many reasons, including the fact that at 50 acres, it was just too small. So the town council appointed a commission, chaired by Edward Moulton Barrett, to identify a site for the new capital.
Moulton Barrett, great grandfather of the English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was a wealthy plantation owner whose holdings totaled more than 80,000 acres between what is now St. James (a neighboring parish) and Trelawny. Interestingly, the commission agreed to place the new capital on land that belonged to the Barrett family. Moulton Barrett wanted it to be called Barrett Town, but the residents preferred Falmouth, after the birthplace of Governor Trelawney*, then the governor of the parish. Falmouth, the new capital, was established by Thomas Reid in 1769.
The establishment of the new capital came at a time when Jamaica was the largest producer of sugar and rum, and Trelawny, which had as many as 100 sugar estates, the most in Jamaica, had at least 40 factories. All this made Falmouth a wealthy town, with one of the busiest ports on the island.
The wealth that sugar generated transformed the town and its residents. It translated into the construction of fine commercial and public buildings along Market Street, the main thoroughfare, and residences large and small. Falmouth’s population at the time was made up of not only whites, but also free blacks and coloreds many of whom, according to property records, bought land from Moulton Barrett and owned their own homes.
Falmouth’s fortunes rose and fell on sugar and its harbor. With the emancipation of slavery, production fell and the once busy harbor was found to be too shallow to accommodate steamboats that began arriving in Jamaica around the 1830.
Many of the buildings and homes that were built then remain, some in good condition, others needing repair. It is in recognition of this rich architectural and archeological legacy that a section of the town was declared a National Monument on September 5, 1966 by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.
How to Recognize Falmouth’s Georgian Buildings
Georgian architecture, named for King Georges (I, II, III and IV who reigned from 1714-1830), was the architectural style that was popular in England between 1720 and 1840. It has three basic distinguishing features: simple form, symmetry and detailing.
The style became fashionable in Jamaica from approximately 1750-1850 with modifications to fit the climatic conditions on the island. Hip roofs (with sloping sides and ends), fretwork, and sash and louvred windows helped air circulation in the harsh tropical climate. Other features include quoins (corner building blocks, usually larger and more prominent than the surrounding blocks), and columns. Commercial and residential buildings designed following the Jamaican Georgian vernacular began appearing in Falmouth around 1780.
This walking tour will show you some of the finest examples of Georgian and historical architecture that Falmouth has to offer. It can be done in two parts, each taking about 2 hours. The first part will look at the commercial buildings that are within a 2 block radius of the pier. The second part, which I’ll post tomorrow, will look at some of the private residences.
Albert George Market
As you exit the pier, you’ll see this clock tower and a portion of the Albert George Market, a prominent landmark, that was built in 1894. The market was named for Queen Victoria’s grandsons, Albert (Duke of Clarence), and George (King George V) and was the largest on the island at the time. The quoins, a feature of Georgian architecture can be seen to the sides of the arched entrance.
You won’t miss this imposing structure, which is directly to your right as you exit the pier. It’s the Falmouth Courthouse. Erected in 1815, it was one of the first official buildings in town. Of Georgian design, it was rebuilt after it was destroyed by fire in 1926.
Cases are tried on the upper level of the two-story structure. If you decide to take a peek upstairs when court is in session, remember to be quiet. You’ll also notice that everyone’s smartly dressed. They have to be, if they’re going to appear in court.
The lower level functions as a town hall and the mayor’s office. Use the courthouse as your landmark as you stroll around the town. The entrance faces north.
Continuing west past the courthouse, you’ll arrive at the Baptist Manse on the corner of Market and Trelawny Streets. This striking Georgian building was constructed in 1798 for the Athol Union Masonic Lodge of the Scottish Constitution. It was the first Masonic temple built in Jamaica. Unfortunately, the temple was sold in 1834, to the Baptist Missionary to pay off debts that were incurred during its construction.
It is thought that the manse was home to Baptist Missionary and Abolitionist, William Knibb (1803-45) and his family in the 1830s. The manse housed the William Knibb High School from 1951-75, and was home to the Falmouth Heritage Renewal, an organization that restores historic buildings in Falmouth.
Barrett House (Ruins)
Cross Trelawny Street, walk about a block and you’ll see the remains of the Barrett House (located almost across from the Bank of Nova Scotia Building). A merchant house, it’s believed to have been built around 1798 for a member of the family. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by hurricane in 1988 but the ruins leave no doubt about its former grandeur.
The Vermont House aka The Old Post Office
After checking out the Barrett House, double back on Market Street and continue walking south pass the Baptist Manse to the Vermont Building at Cornwall Street. Constructed sometime after 1832, for Thomas Vermont, this two story brick house cum store displays striking detailing, beautiful arches and quoins. The windows on the front and side provided good ventilation for the living quarters upstairs and the store below.
Following Vermont’s death, the house passed to a Mrs. Mary Atkinson and her daughter who had acted as caretakers of the house when Vermont was away. The Vermont House was once home to the Falmouth Post Office and a sauce company.
Turn right on Cornwall (or Duke) Street, walk about a block and you will be in Water Square and the market, the commercial center of town. Water Square was critical to the development of the town as its reservoir, which was built in 1798, provided piped water to Falmouth residents from the nearby Martha Brae River and gave the town the distinction of having piped water before New York City.
Phoenix Foundry aka the Dome
Leaving Water Square and the Market, take Harbor Lane to Tharp Street. There you’ll see the Phoenix Foundry, also called the Dome. Constructed in 1810, the Dome is one of the oldest industrial complexes in the island that still exists. It was used to repair ships that were docked in Falmouth Harbor as well as sugar manufacturing equipment. Excavations at the foundry have turned up iron, copper, and lead. Its dome shape as well as ceramic and glass artifacts that were also found there, suggest that the kiln was used to make glass and ceramics.
Go north on Tharp Street to Seaboard Street. As you near the pier, you’ll notice Tharp House which was built in 1790 by John Tharp, one of the wealthiest plantation owners in Trelawny, and the owner of Good Hope Plantation. Tharp House was his shipping office and residence. Rum and sugar were shipped from Tharp House and when Tharp went into slaves trading, slaves were received there. In recent years, Tharp House served as the office of the tax collector of Falmouth.
You can also see Tharp House on your left as you exit the pier. Unfortunately, the building is in disrepair and is not accessible to the public. However, you can see architectural details here that are repeated at Good Hope, Tharp’s main home.
* Trelawney is the correct spelling of the governor’s name. Somehow the second ‘e’ got left out of the parish name and was never corrected.