STORIES OF OUR FAMILIES
To forget one's ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.
GEORGE HAVELOCK SHEPPARD
(1917 - 1961)
George Havelock Sheppard was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on 16 December 1917 to Charles and Elsie Sheppard. His father Charles Sheppard worked at The Miller Stores in Port of Spain as an Accountant. Charlie, as he was known, was the son of an Englishman, Alfred Sheppard who was a Sergeant Major in the British Colonial Trinidad Police Force; his wife Virginia was the daughter of Madeiran immigrants. George’s mother Elsie came from Arima, where her father Joseph Gomez ran the Miller Stores there. The Gomez family were also of Portuguese descent.
Elsie was a full-time mother and housewife, as George was the seventh of their twelve children. They were (in chronological order) Jessie (Brash), Madge (Gonsalves), Joseph (Boysie), Ida (de Sousa), Bertie, John, George, Robert, Sybil (Gibbon), Andrew, Audrey (Clark) and Florence (Johnson).
My father Andrew was the youngest boy in the line-up and, thanks to his handwritten memoirs, we know that George was educated at Queens Royal College. He wrote:
“Being the last of six sons, obtaining a place in the Government-run main secondary school was a problem for my brother Robert and I because we had four older brothers attending that college, Queen’s Royal College, and their regulations did not permit any more than four pupils from any one family. Consequently, Robert and I found ourselves at St. Mary’s College, otherwise known as C.I.C. (College of the Immaculate Conception)..."
The Sheppard family lived at 30 Richmond Street, Port of Spain. This was located at the corner of Richmond and Park Streets on the site that is now the Honda Dealership. Sadly, Charles Sheppard’s health deteriorated and he died in 1931 at 45, leaving Elsie a young widow to raise twelve children. George was just a 13 year old schoolboy.
In his memoirs, my father recalls that after their father’s untimely death, their mother took in boarders to supplement the family income. Because of the large quantities of bread the household consumed, she employed Mr. Harris, a Barbadian baker, to bake fresh bread every day for them. He would come to the house and start baking before dawn. His mother arranged for Mr. Harris to bake extra bread which she sold to friends of the family who lived in the neighbourhood. These had to be delivered to the customers before 7:00 a.m.
“Ma had several bread bags made, some to hold one or two or more pan loaves. Each customer had a nail on the back or front porch to hold the stringed bread bag. The empty bag would be replaced by the full one. Each bag had the customer’s name. Problem – transportation. Andrew, Robert, George borrow Boysie’s, Bertie’s and John’s bicycles, surround the bicycles with bags of bread and make sure you return for the owners to get their bicycles to get to work. We “students” had to eat breakfast quickly and walk to school – and get there in time. Many times we failed as evidenced by the black and blues on our hands or backsides as administered by our school masters. But this was all part of life. We loved Mama and understood the situation.”
George knew the meaning of responsibility and hard work from a very young age as, one by one, his older siblings found jobs and their earnings helped their mother raise their large family. It was against this background that George started his working career as a youngster.
In 1940, New Zealander Lowell Yerex (1895 - 1968) founded British West Indian Airways in Trinidad & Tobago. BWIA became the country’s first national airline, and George became one of their faithful employees for most of his adult life.
In 1942, when he was 25 years old, George married Elenora Juliet (Nora) Laing. The following year their first child was born. She was the eldest of 5 children born between 1943 and 1959 - Patricia (Pat), Marjorie, Stanley, Linda and Donna Mae. It is unclear exactly when George started his career as an engineer in aviation, but we believe that it was throughout his marriage and up until his untimely death in 1961 - a span of at least nineteen years.
I have not yet found official records of George's experiences while working with BWIA but my cousin George Gonsalves recounts this memory from when he was fifteen:
"In 1956 we flew from Barbados to Trinidad and the flight was supposed to make a stop in Grenada. It was evening and as we were making the approach to Grenada, the pilot announced that we would be going on to Piarco direct. As it got darker, we could see flames coming out of one of the engines. My mother became hysterical and my father calmed her down by saying, 'Sweetheart, it’s nothing to worry about, it happens all the time'. We landed at Piarco on a foam-flooded field with fire engines and such equipment accompanying us as we progressed on the field. After we landed we learnt that Uncle George had been frantically running around making things happen as he shouted, 'My sister and her family are on that plane!' The headline in the Guardian the next morning was, “Plane lands at Piarco on a wing and a prayer."
George came from a devoted Presbyterian family. His grandmother Sheppard's father was among the Madeiran founding members of St. Ann’s Church of Scotland, where the family all worshipped and participated in many social fundraising events. Charles and Elsie Sheppard were active members of the church's community during the time when the young Rev. Ernest Wilfred Havelock was the much-loved minister. In 1915, Reverend Havelock announced that he felt a call to serve in the Great War and left the ministry in Trinidad, intending to return when the war was over. However Lieut. Havelock, Royal Fusiliers B.W.I., died of wounds he suffered in active duty on 18 September 1916, at the age of 33 years, leaving a widow and one young son. The following year, George Sheppard was born, and his parents gave him the middle name Havelock after the good Reverend. His first name George was after his uncle Dr. George Gomez, his mother’s brother, who passed away in St. Kitts just three months after his father, Charles Sheppard.
George was a warm and kind family man, he loved a good party and a good joke. He also had a love for boating and the sea. His older brother Bertie was a keen yachtsman and no doubt George enjoyed following his adventures. On Sunday, 22 October 1961 George was enjoying a day out at sea fishing with his his 15 year-old son, Stanley and his good friend Irving Cook. It was then that he suffered a fatal heart attack when he was only forty-three years old. It was a sad, shocking blow to his wife Nora and their children, as it was to our entire family and his many friends and colleagues. I remember distinctly exactly where I was at our home in Barbados when my father received an overseas call on the black telephone with the rotary dial. It was the first time in my life that I saw him break down and cry inconsolably. George’s youngest child was not yet two, his oldest eighteen years old.
In years to come, George’s only son Stanley Michael Sheppard also joined BWIA where he worked as an engineer. Tragically, Stanley passed away at age 37, survived by his young wife Marilyn (de la Rosa) and their children Marina, George and Alan.
Like all of his brothers, George was a Freemason, and an active member of the Prince of Wales Lodge in Alexandra Street, Port of Spain. I'm told that to his memory, a shield that bears his name hangs on the wall in that Masonic Temple.
From family photos belonging to George's children, we see him on the tarmac in Iceland with aircraft, and outside the door of Capital Aviation, where we believe he received training. We also see George in London with his wife and young children. My favourites are those of Uncle George the way we fondly remember him - enjoying life with his family and friends under the coconut trees at the beach. In some of them I can almost hear him telling another good joke! Thanks to George's family for sharing some of these special photos that can be viewed here.
In my father's memoirs dated 1988, writing about his mother Elsie he mused:
"In 1961, her worst blow to date was George’s death. He was number seven – “all good children go to Heaven”.