Frances Elizabeth (Betty) St. Hill
(1925 - 2024)
Wife of Andrew Desmond Sheppard
Betty at "Sweet Sixteen"
As I begin to write this on 8 June, 2021, my Barbadian-born mother, Betty, is in her 96th year. Everything that I know about her has been related to me by her during her long life. She speaks of a very happy childhood growing up in a family of five, and loves to recall those times. Barbados was a British colony back then, and life for her was simple, filled with special family occasions, and always, always - music. School days segued into working days and then into a marriage which would take her to live in the neighbouring island of Trinidad and away from her parents and Bajan way of life for the first time.
Betty and all her siblings came into this world at their family home "Ypres", 1st Avenue, Belleville, in the parish of St. Michael, Barbados. She was born on 16 September 1925 to Esmée Ione D'Azevedo (Lobo) St. Hill and Henry Garnet St. Hill. Betty was the fourth of their five children and bears the names of both of her great-grandmothers - Elizabeth Frances Stoute and Elizabeth Frances (Amey) Tryhane. Her older sisters were Thelma (St. Hill) Burns (1915-2009), Clem (St. Hill) Mosher (1917-2000) who married Canadians in the forties and moved to Canada. Her older brother was Harry St.Hill (1921-1993) and her youngest brother was Louis St. Hill (1931-1992). Louis and his Barbadian wife Sylvia Boxill eventually settled in Canada, and Harry in St. Vincent with his Vincentian wife, Agnes Fraser. Betty was the only one who remained in Barbados for most of her long life.
Childhood and Teenage Years
Like her mother and sisters, (and up to a certain age her brothers) Betty's schooling was at the Ursuline Convent in Collymore Rock, which was just a short walk away from their home. In our mother's case, it was more of a hop, skip and jump down 1st Avenue, Belleville! She recalls being told by one of the nuns that it was not befitting of a young lady to be frolicking in the street, and one afternoon she was watched by one of the nuns from the window of the convent to make sure that she walked every step home like a proper young lady. . . (or else!)
Young Betty was bright and distinctly musical. She took lead parts in all the school plays and concerts, starting when she was just four years old. Not only did she tap-dance, she played the musical saw and the piano. She was first taught piano lessons by Miss Adele Barnes, and later Miss Alice Armstrong, a popular pianist who played at parties, dance schools and musical productions. Miss Armstrong wasn't a music teacher, but Betty begged her to teach her the swinging style and chord progression that she loved - and she did! Similarly, Mum saw Mr. Ben Gibson perform at a concert and was mesmerized watching him play the saw. She asked him to teach her and so said, so done. He would come to their home in Belleville to teach her how to play the saw. Like most middle class homes of that time, the piano was a central feature of family life in the St. Hill's drawing room. From a very young age, she took part in shows organized to raise funds for deserving causes in Barbados, such as the Girl’s Industrial Union, The Girls’ Friendly Society, The Old Gentleman’s Home and Madam Ifil’s Baby Crèche. It was at those concerts that she met Miss Armstrong and Mr. Gibson who were also performing, and she asked them to teach her.
Our mother became accomplished at playing the musical saw and performed on stage with this unusual instrument. Hers was an ordinary carpenter's saw, and she never used a handle (as is used nowadays) to bend it, she just held the end of the saw firmly with her fingers. That technique of playing the saw requires a strong hand and a perfect ear for music. I remember being amazed at how she held the wooden handle of the saw between her knees and, while pulling the bow at the S-bend of the saw to make the note, one of her legs was creating the vibration to produce the ethereal sound. It was captivating. Her parents had a green cloth case for her saw custom-made for her. It was the exact shape of the saw with a pocket to hold the violin bow and another little pocket to carry blocks of rosin that she would rub up and down the strings of the bow. Her name "Betty" in her father's ornate handwriting was embroidered in red by her mother on the front of it. One of her favourite songs to play was "The Moon of Manikoora" - a 1943 hit. How I wish we had a recording of Mum on the saw.
Betty in costume for a school play
Our mother's Lobo grandparents lived at "Raeburn", Hastings. It was a large, traditional Bajan home on the south coast, situated on the beach, very close to the Ocean View Hotel. Her grandfather, Isaac Clement Lobo was of Sephardic Jewish descent and worked in the shipping business. Her recent childhood recollections of visiting her grandparents, in her own words:
"Grandad Lobo would dress up with gold studs, straw hat and his cane, and with Grannie we would go down to the Ice House in Bridgetown. Victor Goddard was the eldest one*, he was in charge then and there was the grocery on the basement. And then there was the cold storage counter where they had plums and grapes. He would say 'Bring Betty over let her choose something.' He would slide back the door and say 'What would you like, dear? Have a plum or an apple or a peach'. Victor and his wife - that’s the old Goddard parents - were very friendly with V.B.C Hart."
* (of the Goddard family who owned The Ice House on Broad Street, Bridgetown.)
Vivian Bertram Clyde (V.B.C.) Hart was married to Millicent Louise Boyle (Millie). Millie was my mother's great-aunt, sister of her grandmother Lillian Lobo. He was the Proprietor of Chelston Lime Works on Culloden Road, a member of St. Michael's Vestry and, for a time, Churchwarden. He was also an officer of the Barbados Volunteer Force for over twenty years. They lived at a house called 'The Shrubbery' in Collymore Rock. My mother often visited her and went to stay with Aunt Millie for a couple of months. She fondly recalls one of her treasured dishes belonged to Aunt Millie - a heart-shaped dish for serving stuffed eggs. "Millie loved anything at all that had a heart, all her linen was embroidered with V.B.C. and a heart. Aunt Millie was very ah … well in those days… I wouldn’t say she was wealthy but she was well-to-do. She had a car and a chauffeur to drive her out at night and she would put on a Spanish shawl. She lived in 'The Shrubbery' - as you came out of George Street. It was a real sin when that beautiful property was demolished in the middle of the night to make way for some commercial enterprise."
l/r Betty, her cousin Denis Hart, and fiancee Gloria Melizan
(Denis was one of her Great-aunt Millie's sons)
Betty's father Garnet St. Hill had a fine tenor voice, and was himself a well-known entertainer on the local amateur stage. He was a talented bones player - a skill he taught my brother Peter. He gave of his talents in shows at the Empire Theatre and at other fundraising events for charity. His parents were Henry Graham St. Hill and Annie Wall Bourne. My mother recalled that her Grandma Annie was also musical, she played the piccolo, as did Betty's father. She was short lady, always dressed in long skirts and boots, Mum remembered. We wondered how the ladies of that generation ever managed to wear such attire in the warm Caribbean!
Working Days in Barbados
After leaving school, Betty got a job as an operator at Cable & Wireless. This is where she was working when she first met my father. She recalled:
"The wireless station was in Fontabelle near Mannings. I used to have to work at three places - Dover where the cables came in, Bridgetown office where the cables and wires were received and sent out, and the wireless station where the wireless was received and sent on if it had to go by wire I didn’t do wireless, I did the cable line at the wireless station. I was only 16 and working with big men like Louis Weatherhead (Peter's father), and Harold Bowen - all big grown married men. I got the job through Uncle Colin.* He was the Officer in charge of the town office and was friendly with Mr. Douglas who was the General Manager for Cable & Wireless. Minnie Alleyne and me - her father was the Officer in charge of Dover. I worked the Port of Spain circuit at Dover."
*Colin Lobo was a brother of Betty's mother.
British West Indies Airways (BWIA) was established in Trinidad and began operating on November 27, 1940 flying between Trinidad and Barbados. Their agents in Barbados were S.P. Musson & Co. Ltd. located on the Bridgetown wharf. In early 1943, seventeen-year-old Betty joined the small BWIA operations staff.
She remembers those early days in detail:
"The Manager was Percy Taylor, the Accountant Mr. Parkinson, and an old lady called Annie Bayne who was Mr Taylor’s secretary. There was Mr. Medford - the operations man who saw about the airport and so on. Three of us worked at the front desk: Barbara Farmer, a young fellow called Gibbs and myself. The two messengers were King and Austin. BWIA operations were in a small place before they opened their office in Cavans Lane. We had to book reservations. In those days a lot of workers were going down to Trinidad. We had to arrange for Dears Garage to pick them up at such and such a time. It was like a little travel agency. We had to see about their ticket and give them their receipt to go on the taxi when it came."
Courtship and Marriage
World War II was declared on 3 September 1939, and Andrew Sheppard, the tenth child in a family of 12 children in Port of Spain, Trinidad, enlisted to serve in the army. He became a Lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Engineers, Trinidad. In 1942 he went on a short vacation to Barbados. The friend with whom he was staying took him to the YMPC to see a rehearsal for an upcoming variety show to be performed at the Empire Theatre in Bridgetown. It was there that he first laid eyes on seventeen year old Betty St. Hill who was practicing her tap dance routine for the show. He was struck by her shapely legs and vivaciousness. As cliché as it may sound, it was simply love at first sight. They were introduced and later that week Betty asked her mother if she could invite him to a party they were having at her grandmother's beach house "Kalcachima", which was next door to where is now the Accra Beach Hotel on the south coast. And so the romance started. A brief courtship by letters and a couple more visits ensued.
On July 16, 1943, 20 year-old Andrew wrote to Betty's father, "Dear Mr. St.Hill . . ." declaring his undying love for his daughter and asking for her hand in marriage. In the beautifully penned letter which our mother kept all these years, he expressed the uncertainty of the times:
“We must all appreciate the glaring fact that the destiny of this World and its peoples is being decided in what undoubtedly is the most widespread and horrible War the World has ever known, and we must also accept conditions as they are, making the best of everything and improving them when possible.”
He also wrote a touching letter to Betty's mother.
"You know that all Bets and I want now is each other, and until we are permanently together we will never know real happiness. I honestly do not feel that I could continue without Betty’s constant love and companionship, which means life to me.”
Neither Andrew nor Betty had yet reached the legal age of consent when they were wed at St. Patrick's Church Barbados on 31 July 1943. Our father had given the St. Hills two weeks notice to prepare for the wedding. He had won them over with his sincerity and charm. Not only had Betty fallen in love with this handsome young man, but so had all of her family.
Betty and Andrew started off married life in a boarding house in Port of Spain, Trinidad. They didn't have much, but they had each other. They were young and madly in love. Betty found Trinidad to be an exciting place, very different from her home, and quickly adapted to a new way of life. She found the Sheppard family warm and welcoming and couldn't get over how beautiful all her sisters-in-law were. Dad wrote in his memoirs: "It was war-time and everything was in short supply but we were grateful for the availability of certain consumables from the NAAFI (British Navy, Army & Airforce Institute) and the US Army Post Exchange." In later years they would reminisce about those happy days, and tell us about the batman assigned to Dad when he was in the Army. He would proudly show us all his army buttons and badges that he kept in the same leather gun holster he used, and we all knew the heavy khaki-coloured "army blanket" that would come out to cover us when we were sick.
By 1944 Betty and Andrew had moved south to San Fernando, where our father got a job with Leaseholds Ltd. in Pointe-à-Pierre. It was there, at the Pointe-à-Pierre Hospital, that their first three children were born: Stephen, born on 20 November 1944, then in 1946 a little girl who sadly, only lived one day. They were living in Vistabella, San Fernando, when I was born on 10 September of 1947. By 1949 they had moved to Barbados, where their next child Peter was born. Andrew got into the life insurance business and became a very successful salesman. But he was restless, and this was to be just the first of many moves and several jobs as we lived between the two islands, Trinidad and Barbados After a gap of seven years, their next child Lillian was born in Trinidad, where we lived at 9E Hart Street, Mon Repos, San Fernando. My father managed the San Fernando branch of the Singer Sewing Machine Company there. In the fifties they moved back to Barbados where Frances (1958) and Alan (1962) were born, then back to Trinidad where their youngest child Audrey-Mae was born in May of 1964. It was in Barbados that we finally settled and where they made their permanent home. We could say we lived the typical expat life, only that it was limited to two neighbouring Caribbean islands. Through all of the uprooting and moves, our mother was good natured, supportive and happy. She totally believed in our father and loved him endlessly. He was her everything
Dad and Mum loved to dance, and during the days when my brother Alan was the lead singer with Spice & Co., and when my sister Audrey-Mae danced in the show, they could often be seen on the dance floor at the popular Plantation Spectacular run by Joyce Straker. Neither of them had real hobbies to speak of, as their family of seven children took up all their time. Betty was artistically gifted, and sewed all her own dresses and clothes for all her daughters. She made all our school uniforms. costumes and wedding gowns for me and for my sister Audrey. She taught me how to sew my own clothes, and how to do embroidery - skills I used to make baby clothes when my children came along. Mum would knit woollen baby booties in her own special style whenever a new grandchild came along. Dad collected music records and we almost always had a piano. Those were their simple pleasures, as Betty played the piano at home every single day, well into her nineties. Every family party became a sing-along around the piano.
In later years, Mum played the piano at the Ocean View Hotel in Hastings, and for those memorable afternoon teas at the Casuarina Hotel in Dover, run by our friend Bonnie (Western) Cole. Sandals Resorts now stands on the site of the once beautiful Casuarina Hotel. Perhaps Betty Sheppard is best remembered by hundreds of locals and visitors who enjoyed the lavish Sunday Planter’s Buffet lunches at Fisherpond Plantation House, St. Joseph, run by John and Rain Chandler. There “Birdie” as she is affectionately called, became the sweetheart of everyone, playing special requests of oldies and goldies in her own sweet style. She played by ear and had the gift of smoothly segueing from one tune to the next, guided by her heart. She never prepared a set-list, but had a huge repertoire, and her own signature start to every session. Mum continued to play lunchtime gigs at Fisherpond up until she was 87 years old. Betty was always gentle and polite in her manner, and this endeared her to everyone who knew her.
I cannot remember our mother being really sick or ever being hospitalized, except for her stays in the maternity ward. But Dad developed heart disease, starting in 1966 and ending tragically in 1991. The unspeakable happened in Venezuela, where we had arranged for him to be seen by a cardiology surgeon there. He had suffered a heart attack in Barbados and was languishing at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital I.C.U. with no improvement. So we made arrangements for him to go by air ambulance for treatment in Caracas, accompanied by Peter who speaks Spanish fluently. Sadly he suffered another heart attack upon arrival at the hospital, and that one was fatal. His beloved Betty was waiting for her flight from Barbados to Caracas to join him when she received the news of his death. She was devastated. The love of her life, gone at age 68 after 47 years of marriage. Her Andy was like the song she loved to play - "Unforgettable".
Betty was crushed with grief, but continued on bravely without the love of her life. However, just two years later, she again suffered the loss of her eldest child Stephen, who died in January 1993 at just 48 years old. Again, she bore her pain with grace, always surrounded by her other six children and family, and always with her music to comfort her. I know how much her heart and soul endured and her capacity for unconditional love and forgiveness set an example we can only strive towards. She was unassuming and always gracious. Those who knew her well enjoyed her sharp sense of humour which could often diffuse a sticky situation!
The union of Andrew Sheppard and Betty St. Hill in 1943 produced a family of seven children, 23 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren who are spread across the world.
Our beloved mother, Frances Elizabeth (Betty) Sheppard, affectionately called Bird, "Birdie", Granny Bird, peacefully slipped away to her eternal rest in her 99th year, on Thursday 25 January, 2024. She was surrounded by all of her children, in person and virtually for those who live abroad, as we bid her one last goodbye. This kind and gentle soul who touched the lives of many through her joyous music and gentle manner knew how much she was loved. She has left a song in our hearts.
"When you are sorrowful look again in your heart,
and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight."
~ Kahlil Gibran
Friday 26 January, 2024
Betty at Fisherpond Plantation House with great-granddaughters Mahlea and Kayla Archer