For the architecture or heritage buff, the coastal town of Falmouth in Trelawny is a virtual gold mine. In the late 1700s, when sugar was king and the profits from the sweet gold made the fortunes of men, families and nations, Falmouth was considered to be the most cosmopolitan city in the western world, the “Paris of the Indies.” The town had five newspapers, an active literary and fine arts society and – arguably its most distinctive attribute – fresh running water. It was also home to a vast number of merchant shops and traders selling slaves, sugar, rum, fine furniture and logwood, as well as the Albert George Market, the largest and most popular coastal market at the time.
In the late 1800s, following the demise of sugar as a globally lucrative agricultural product, Falmouth began a steady decline in importance, and soon the harbor, which once welcomed close to thirty ships in one day, saw fewer than that in a month. Now the sugar money is long gone, but many of the splendid original buildings remain, some in ruins, others masterfully restored to their former glory. In recognition of its rich historical legacy, Falmouth has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, and is a Jamaican National Monument.
Falmouth has maintained a long and distinguished reputation as a center for commerce, both in the formal and informal sectors. Today the market is still one of the largest and most attended – especially on Wednesdays – when traders from all over the island congregate on the streets for “Bend-down market.” On Wednesdays, consumers can purchase all sorts of foodstuffs, haberdashery and home items at some of the best prices available on the north coast.
The town of Falmouth certainly contains the largest collection of Georgian style buildings in the country. Some estimates, however, claim this collection is also the largest in the West Indies! The number aside, some of the finest representations of buildings from the period are to be found here, and each of these structures tells a unique tale of different people’s lifestyles and of the economic and social significance of the town better than any written record could represent.
A committee of professionals, academics and concerned citizens formed the Falmouth Restoration Corporation, and this small group has been managing and overseeing the restoration of buildings around town on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps the most encouraging trend in the restoration of the town is the fact that not only are large public buildings and the grand stately homes of the merchant and planter classes being restored, but also the small private homes of members of the working classes, the emancipated slaves and skilled artisans.
Although the best way to capture the essence of Falmouth is to do a complete walking tour, there are some buildings that stand out, even more so after restoration. One such building is the Baptist Manse on Market Street near the waterfront, an imposing stone structure with a stately wooden staircase. Reputed to have housed the first Masonic Temple in Jamaica, this building has changed hands many times. Perhaps its most notable owner was Rev. William Knibb, famous Baptist preacher and abolitionist. Today it is a flagship structure in the town’s restoration. The completed project will not only contribute to the physical renewal of the town, but also to the cultural revival of the community. The lower level of the building will house a community-based initiative, while the upper level will be an art gallery displaying the work of local artists.
Say Hello To:
Dr Jim Parrent, Executive Director of the Falmouth Heritage Renewal, is the man in town to speak to. Under his leadership, the restoration of many homes and buildings in the town has been undertaken and completed, and that is just a tiny part of his contribution to the town! Depending on his schedule, he may guide you on a walking tour of Falmouth, or put you in touch with a trained guide attached to the Jamaica Heritage Trail, a community-based agency designed to stimulate interest in the heritage and architectural legacy of the town. Ask anyone around town where to find him, and if someone does not recognize the name, ask for “the white man who fixes the houses around town.” You’ll find him.