Jamaican Historical Society Bulletin Vol 10 nos 3&4 Oct 1991 pp 17-21
JAMAICA INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITION, 1891
Jamaica’s economy in the 1880s was far from flourishing. The sugar industry was in a serious condition, with production only about a quarter of what it had been in the first quarter of the century. Many estates had gone out of sugar production altogether. The export of bananas to the United States, which started in the 1870s, was beginning to be a profitable business in which the small farmers could participate, but it had not yet become the major industry which was to develop later with the introduction of refrigeration and exports to Britain. Exports of rum, tobacco and some spices were Jamaica’s other major income earners. There was a great need to develop new industries and money earning schemes if the island was to pull itself out of the economic straits in which it found itself.
The idea of an Exhibition
If people from outside could be encouraged to establish trading contacts with Jamaica, and Jamaicans could be encouraged to go into new forms of economic activity, the economic situation might start to improve. Perhaps Jamaica could follow the example of other, more advanced countries, and put on a trade and industrial exhibition which would draw the world’s attention to the island’s potential. It is not clear who first proposed this idea of an exhibition, but it seems likely that it was A. C. Sinclair, a Jamaican, who was in charge of the Government Printing Office. There is sad irony in the fact that Mr Sinclair died on January 27th, 1891,the very day the Exhibition opened. Sinclair’s idea was taken up by William Fawcett, Director of Gardens and Chairman of the Institute of Jamaica, in the summer of 1889. Soon the recently appointed Governor, Sir Henry Blake, became interested in the idea and it was chiefly his enthusiasm, supported by that of his wife, which eventually brought the idea to fruition. At first the plan was to hold the Exhibition in November to December of 1890, but finally the date of the opening was set for the end of January 1891, and the closing date for May 2nd, 1891. From the first it was realised that this, the first such undertaking in the West Indies, would be an expensive and difficult project to carry out and there were many who thought it would never happen.
One of the major difficulties was raising the money to fund the Exhibition. The British Government was only prepared to give £1,000 and the Governor made it clear that the Exhibition could not be paid for out of public funds; money advanced by the Government had to be paid back. Three men, Louis Verley, George Stiebel and Colonel Charles Ward, guaranteed about half the estimated cost of the Exhibition and all over the island many Jamaicans signed as guarantors for various much smaller sums. Comments in the press make it clear that many of these guarantors thought they would never have to pay the sums they had contracted for. When it became clear that the Exhibition had lost money, and that the money collected at the gates and in fees from exhibitors would only cover about a third of the costs, many of the guarantors felt that they had been misled. While most paid up willingly enough, others questioned their position in court, or had to arrange to pay their debt in instalments. In all, the guarantors had to pay nearly £30,000 to cover the expenses of the Exhibition.
Preparations for the Exhibition
Preparations for putting on the Exhibition began in earnest late in 1889. Committees were set up to deal with various aspects of the planning especially the finances, the buildings, amusements, and the various types of exhibits. A committee was also set up in Britain to promote the Exhibition there.
It was fairly quickly decided to hold the Exhibition on the Quebec Lands north of the Race Course, but the question of the design and construction of the main Exhibition building took longer to settle. At first it was planned to have the building designed and constructed by an American company but, although a mission was sent to the United States, it proved impossible to find a contractor to take on the project. Instead, lumber for the building was purchased in the USA and started to arrive in Kingston in March 1890. The plans for the building were made by George Messiter, who was not Jamaican but had lived in Jamaica for several years. He had been involved with the restoration of the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Churches and was one of the architects of the new synagogue on Duke Street. His work was well thought of locally and his design for the Exhibition building won general approval. The work of constructing the building was done by local contractors and workmen. In spite of some stoppages, due to strikes, the work on the building was completed in time for the January opening, much to the surprise of many in Kingston, who had predicted it could not be done. The photographs of the Exhibition building which have survived all seem to be of the final stages of its construction: there appear to be no photographs of the completed building in its landscaped surroundings.
One of the most important aspects of the Exhibition would be the display of products and machinery from abroad, to show Jamaicans all the new and useful equipment which could increase Jamaican production. The other islands of the West Indies, Britain, Canada, the United States and European countries were all expected to send exhibits. The Exhibition was advertised in these areas, and exhibits came from all of them even from as far away as Russia. There was concern that not enough advertisement of the Exhibition was done in the USA and for a while it seemed that few exhibits would come from that important nation. In the end there were American exhibits, but they were outshone by the exhibits from Canada, which was the only country to have its own separate Exhibition building. The Canadians also sent a special gift of a sculpture, which was known as the Quebec Trophy and was set up beside the Canadian Annexe at the northern edge of the Exhibition grounds.
It was also of great importance that Jamaicans should be encouraged to send exhibits of all the various items that the island produced, to be on show for the foreign visitors. To achieve this, local exhibitions were planned for various parts of the island during 1890. The biggest local exhibition was held in Montego Bay at the beginning of August, but others were held in Clarendon and St Mary in September, St Catherine in November and St Ann in December. In all, eight local exhibitions were held and the Governor and Lady Blake visited each one, urging Jamaicans to participate in their’ International Exhibition in Kingston. In spite of all this effort, the Jamaican exhibits were slow in coming in and the Jamaican sections of the Exhibition were not in place until after the official opening; even then there were complaints that the exhibits were badly displayed.
Naturally, with such a large undertaking, a number of problems arose. A very significant problem was that of persuading Jamaicans, especially in the country areas, to take part in the exhibition or even to attend it. During 1889-90 various rumours spread which discouraged participation. From the start it was feared that the attempts to get people to send produce to the Exhibition was an indirect way of finding out how much they produced so that taxes could be increased. The Governor had to make speeches and write a letter to the public to try to reassure everyone that there was no such hidden intention. In late 1890 the rumours spread that the Exhibition was bankrupt, that the Governor had run away and that money to pay for the Exhibition was going to be taken from the Penny Savings Banks where many poor had their savings. In some areas there was a rush to withdraw money, and again the people had to be reassured about the falsity of a rumour. The last important rumour sprang up as the Exhibition opened; black Jamaicans especially were warned not to attend the Exhibition as it was said to be merely a trap to bring them all together and put them back into slavery. It was many weeks before country people started to come in large numbers to the Exhibition, but by the time it closed on May 2nd their fears were completely removed and they were flocking into Kingston to enjoy the last days at this great event.
Other problems faced the organisers of the Exhibition in providing transportation and accommodation for the visitors to the Exhibition. Overseas visitors came on the regular shipping lines, or on specially arranged excursions from North America. They stayed at the newly built hotels in Kingston, the Constant Spring Hotel and the new Myrtle Bank Hotel, which had been completed in time for the Exhibition. Older hotels such as Streadwick’s Marine and Hill Gardens Hotels were also suitable for these visitors. Several hotels in the country parts, especially the Rio Cobre, Montpelier and Moneague hotels, were opened in the hope that visitors to the Exhibition would travel out of Kingston.
The Jamaican visitors to the Exhibition presented more of a problem. Some could come into Kingston on the railway, which set special fares which included admission to the Exhibition. More than 17,400 visitors to the Exhibition came on these railway tickets. For others, however, a trip by sea was the only realistic alternative, but proved difficult and expensive to arrange. One such service was put on by Captain Baker’s Boston Fruit Company to bring people from Portland and St Thomas to Kingston. Wagons and carts must have brought in many, while others did as rural Jamaicans had always had to do - they walked. Accommodation was provided for these visitors. The Oueens Hotel was built on the corner of Heywood Street and Princess Street by the Jamaica Hotels Company, especially for the occasion. It offered beds at 1/6d per night. Colonel Ward provided a building for country people to stay in and lodging houses had been urged to make as much space as possible available.
Transport in Kingston was provided by the Jamaica Street Car Company and by the Wagonette Company and the bus men, with their privately owned cabs. The Street Car Company applied to extend its tramcar line up East Race Course to the east entrance of the Exhibition. The application was approved, but only if the new grooved rails were used, not the old ones which protruded above the road surface and were a great inconvenience to other traffic. The Company had already stocked up on the old type of rails, and for a while it seemed there would be no extension to the Exhibition. The authorities had to give in and allow the old type of rails; the extension was completed in time for the opening of the Exhibition. The tramcars gave good service and the only complaint was that season ticket holders could not use their season tickets on the extension, which was an expensive burden to those who worked at the Exhibition.
In spite of problems the work proceeded, though slowly at times. There were some strikes among the workers on the Exhibition site. The Customs Office held up the bringing in of exhibits because of its limited opening hours and strict adherence to,procedure; it was given firm orders to speed things up. There were many complaints of the generally poor appearance of Kingston, and of the Race Course in particular. The Governor himself made great efforts to encourage a general clean-up of the city and some improvements were made.
In August 1890 a manager for the Exhibition was appointed, Mr S. Lee Bapty, an Englishman who had had much experience of running exhibitions in Britain and Europe. He arrived in Jamaica at the end of November, with his wife who was of Japanese extraction. He seemed to be a capable and efficient manager, but later his rather flamboyant and high-handed character was to cause friction. However, in December 1890 he set about getting things into shape for the Exhibition opening on January 27th, 1891.
Opening and Running of the Exhibition
Plans for the opening were well advanced. The Prince of Wales had agreed to be Patron, and his son, Prince George who was in the Royal Navy and had visited Kingston on earlier occasions, so was well-known to .Jamaicans, was to open the Exhibition. The opening had been planned by the Exhibition Committee of which the Governor was Chairman and Louis F. McKinnon, an experienced public official, the Secretary. The Committee had also made decisions about the awards of contracts for the entertainments and catering for the Exhibition. Since these contracts were on a monopoly basis, problems arose when there was dissatisfaction with the services supplied.
The opening day. January 27th, which had been declared a public holiday, went well, justifying all the expectations of the promoters. It was a fine day and Kingston was brilliant with bunting and decorated arches. Prince George came ashore from his ship, HMS Thrush, at 10 o’clock in the morning, to be greeted by Sir Henry Blake and other dignitaries. The royal party next went to the Town Hall for an official welcome from the Mayor of Kingston. The prince then drove with the Governor, to King’s House through the cheering, brightly dressed holiday crowds who thronged the city streets. At approximately 12.30 pm the Prince and the Governor with their party arrived at the main entrance of the Exhibition building; the opening ceremony followed watched by a large crowd. Mr McKinnon made a welcoming address to which the Prince replied. The Old Hundredth hymn and God Bless the Prince of Wales were sung and the Bishop of Jamaica prayed for God’s blessing on the Exhibition. The Governor presented the Prince with a gold key and the Prince declared the Exhibition open, to the sound of enthusiastic cheering, a flourish of trumpets and a Royal Salute. Then the official party toured many of the Exhibition buildings before leaving.
The rest of the day was full of events for the crowd of over 7,000 visitors to the Exhibition. The bands of the Kingston Volunteer Militia and the 1st West India Regiment played on the bandstand at 2 pm and 7pm respectively. The doors of the main building were re-opened at 2.30 pm to admit a throng of eag~vg1fors. There were piano and organ recitals in the early evening, and at 7,30 pm the first play of the Exhibition season was put on at the Exhibition Hall by the London Dramatic Company which was to provide the plays and variety shows for the next fourteen weeks. At 9.30pm the Prince and the Governor, with their party, returned for the magnificent fireworks display put on by Paine’s, the well-known British company. The fireworks ended at 10.30pm and at 11pm the Exhibition closed; the opening day was over but fourteen weeks of entertainment, excitement, problems and controversy lay ahead. There were two main aspects of the Exhibition’s attractions - the Exhibition Courts filled with Jamaican and foreign exhibits, and the amusements, entertainments and refreshments provided by contracting companies and individuals.
The foreign Exhibition Courts were filled with the fascinating products of 19th century industry. Canada had an Annexe to itself, while Britain and other European countries displayed their products in the main building. Probably the most intriguing exhibit was Thomas Edison’s recently invented phonograph which was being seen for the first time in Jamaica. This temperamental machine had to be moved from its first location to a quieter spot where there was less vibration to affect its operation.
Jamaica’s exhibits suffered from being poorly set out and scattered in various parts of the building. It was felt that Bapty should have given some attention to organising the Jamaican court, although it was not strictly his job. He spent some time setting up a Japanese Court which was chiefly based on items brought by his wife and himself. As time went on organisation improved and free cups of coffee and cocoa could be obtained at the Jamaican court, while excellent Canadian bread baked in Canadian equipment was also given away. Certainly visitors learned much from the exhibits and at the end of the Exhibition were able to buy some of the products displayed when they were sold off cheaply.
It was clear however that many people would come to the Exhibition for entertainment and amusement as much as education and information, and to attract them to return, novel attractions would be needed, The Amusements Committee had asked for tenders for various such attractions including among others, a captive balloon. No one was prepared to provide a balloon, but in some of the drawings of the Exhibition on souvenirs and publications a balloon is seen hovering over the buildings. However, there was Mr. Bopp’s merry-go-round, a skating rink, a shooting gallery, a maze, a camera obscura, a trained seal and an Amphitrire (there is no explanation of the nature of the last item). After the first flush of enthusiasm it was felt that new attractions would be needed to keep up attendance, but little was done to provide them.
There was entertainment every night the Exhibition was open. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, there were fireworks displays and there was music from the bandstand. The London Dramatic Company put on popular British plays and variety turns; the high point of the Company’s season was a performance of Sheridan’s School for Scandal in which the Jamaican-born actor Morton Tavares played the leading role, Sir Peter Teazle. Some grievance was felt because the London Company a contract prevented any local groups putting on performances at the Exhibition Hall. The only local performance seems to have been a comic lecture by W. C. ‘Funny’ Murray a hear dialect performer on March 20th and some serious lectures on topics such as ‘Rice Cultivation’ and the forthcoming ‘Chicago World Fair’. Special events were put on at the Exhibition - on March 10th there was a Flower Show; on March l8th an American Fete when a group of excursionists from Boston attended; on Easter Monday there was a Carnival and over 9,000 people attended; in April there were a Dog, Cat and Poultry Show, and a Fancy Dress Ball; on April 18 there was a ‘native’ dance at the Skating Rink and on April 24 the Governor allowed everyone to attend the Exhibition free.
Outside the Exhibition there were a circus, another theatrical Company at the Theatre Royal, and a special Exhibition Race Meeting which was held on April 15th and 16th. Kingston had never had such a feast of entertainment. Not surprisingly, when the Exhibition dosed on May 2nd, most people felt very flat and wondered how they would now spend their evenings!
The catering at the Exhibition caused some controversy. Again there were monopolies, but not by foreign companies. At first Gardner’s, a prominent city restaurant was to have had the sole concession but their restaurant would have been a temperance establishment, even if it did serve some of the best ice-cream in Kingston. So arrangements were made with C. A. Merritt, wha had managed the Constant Spring Hotel when it opened, to run a restaurant in the main building and a bar outside the Exhibition Hall. There were few complaints about the catering, except from Mr Rondon, another icecream maker, who set up business in Allman Town, since he had not been awarded a contract with the Exhibition.
The question of monopolies caused much annoyance. The English Electric Company which was given the contract to light the Exhibition did the job badly: the lighting was inadequate and there were frequent breakdowns. The Jamaica Electric Company had to be called in to help them out.
The monopoly which caused most controversy was that given to A. P. Baker, an English photographer, who had the sole right to take photographs of the Exhibition grounds and buildings. Local photographers such as the Duperleys, Brennan, Cleary, and Johnston were not allowed to take photographs until the last two weeks of the Exhibition when public outcry caused the removal of the monopoly. The Colonial Standard accused Bapty, the manager, of being in cahoots with Baker for their mutual benefit from the photographs. Bapty sued George Levy of the Standard for libel, but lost his case and left Jamaica immediately, leaving behind a very tarnished reputation. Baker did sell some of his photographs here, but probably went back to Britain with his negatives and prints. It seems likely that this unedifying situation explains in part at least, the very small number of photographs of the Exhibition which have survived - a few of the main building before completion and two murky photographs of its interior seem to be all that exist. Apart from the Lascelles deMercado Pavilion, of which there was a line drawing in the press, no other building nor any of the grounds have left any visual record at all. Consequently, much of the Exhibition can only be reconstructed in the imagination.
It was decided not to extend the Exhibition beyond May 2nd, and on the last day, 13,500 people attended for a final look at the exhibits, a final ride on the merry-go-round, to buy the last engraved souvenir tumbler, to see the final display of fireworks.
In spite of a variety of problems, the Exhibition had been enjoyed by all classes of Jamaican society; there had been over 304,000 admissions to the Exhibition over the fourteen weeks. Memories remained and souvenirs were kept for years of what had been an outstanding event in the lives of a generation of Jamaicans.
Unfortunately, as has been noted already, the Exhibition had totally failed to cover its expenses. As people gritted their teeth and paid up the sums they had guaranteed, the question of the fate of the beautiful main building had to be decided. There was much pressure for it to be made a permanent structure and several schemes were drawn up for its use, but no one was prepared to cope with financing the maintenance of the building. Some events were held in it during the rest of 1891 and in early 1892, but by the summer of 1892 the building which had been sold to the Public Works Department for £800 was being dismantled for the timber which was to be used in other buildings. Soon the grounds were virtually abandoned and deserted. In 1908 there were plans to build a hotel on the site, and after the earthquake in 1907 refugees were sheltered in tents on the Quebec Lands. In 1909 it was decided by the Kingston City Council to relocate the Wolmer’s School from its pre-earthquake site near the Kingston Parish Church to the lands north of the Race Course where the school still stands.
On Jamaica’s economy as a whole the Exhibition had no startling impact. Many Kingston merchants had actually suffered from the competition of exhibitors who sold goods at the Exhibition. Some new ideas were taken up and new business ventures started, but there was no immediate tourist boom and the new hotels slid into bankruptcy. Jamaica’s economy had to await many more profound developments than an Exhibition before it began to show signs of emerging from the long period of depression of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
This brief account of the Jamaica Exhibition of 1891 has only touched on some of its aspects, but there is still much more to be told. The newspapers of the time, the Colonial Standard, the Jamaica Post, the Daily Gleaner, Gall’s Newsletter and the Budget are full of fascinating sidelights on the preparations for the Exhibition, and its actual events. Maybe this small beginning will encourage others to take a closer look at this Exhibition and the participation in it of all sections of Jamaican Society.