STORIES OF OUR FAMILIES
To forget one's ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.
Jessie Mabel Sheppard
1909 - 2002
Jessie (Sheppard) Brash in 1947 when she was 38 years old
Early Background & Childhood
Charles Sebastian Theodore Sheppard and his sweetheart Elsie Mabel Gomez got married on the 20th of January 1909 at the Presbyterian Church of St. Ann's, and settled down to married life in Port of Spain, Trinidad. It wasn't long before 23 year old Elsie was expecting their first child. Their daughter, Jessie Mabel, arrived on Monday 22 November that year.
Jessie's grandparents were English and Portuguese. Her Sheppard grandfather was Alfred, a Sergeant Major with the Trinidad Police Force born in Sussex, England, and her grandma was Virginia de Freitas, Trinidad-born daughter of Madeiran immigrants. Her Gomez grandparents on her mother's side were also all from Portuguese families who had settled in Trinidad.
Jessie's father Charlie played the mandolin and violin, and Elsie also played the piano. As in many middle-class homes of those times, a piano took pride of place in the Sheppard drawing room - one could say it was the centerpiece of the home where family and friends socialized and many musical evenings took place. About home life, Elsie wrote in her short memoirs "Music pervaded the air, father and children being the musicians." Little Jessie Sheppard sat at the piano from an early age, and began to play before her little feet could even touch the pedals.
Encouraging young Jessie's love for the piano, Charlie and Elsie arranged for their daughter to have music lessons with Herr Christian Wilhelm Nothnagel, a German musician and teacher who had settled in Trinidad and set up his school of music at 18 Gray Street, Port of Spain in 1899. His fees were $5 for 8 half-hour lessons and Jessie was tutored by him twice weekly. Jessie was privileged to have been given this opportunity, as Herr Nothnagel was no ordinary piano teacher. He had come from a family of notable musicians and had studied at Segeberg Seminary in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. He was qualified to teach with special emphasis in music, choral training and conducting and studies in the organ, piano, violin and cello. At his music school, called The St. Clair School of Music, he taught Piano, Organ, Violin, Cello, Singing, and Theory of music. He held students’ evenings for playing before small audiences monthly and prepared students for Trinity College of music or London exams. Undoubtedly, Jessie's early exposure to this classical musical environment led her to be the accomplished pianist she became. As time went by, she realized that her real talent was playing music by ear, and this she humbly considered as a gift.
An interesting family connection is that well-known Trinidadian soprano and vocal coach, Wendy Sheppard, is the great-granddaughter of Herr Nothnagel. She is also the great-grandaughter of Jessie's father, Charles Sheppard.
Aunt Jessie would fondly recall that when she was a little girl, she would take the train to Sangre Grande, where she loved to spend school holidays with Grandma Christina Gomez. The manager of the local cinema there would often ask her grandmother's permission for her to provide the live piano music for silent movies when the resident pianist was off. This she did when she was just eight years old. Jessie attended Bishop Anstey High School where, as a twelve year old, she would play marches on the piano for the students to march to their classroom. This would be the pattern of her long life - generously giving of her musical talent at countless venues and charity events, with joy and love. Some of these are recounted in a couple of newspaper interviews with her, and in an appreciation published after her death.
By age nineteen, Jessie had become the eldest of a family of thirteen children, with seven younger brothers and five sisters to help look after. Then tragedy hit the large Sheppard family. Their father Charles died in 1931 at only 45, leaving them and their young widowed mother to grieve and cope with his sudden death.
Fortunately, after graduating from high school, Jessie had obtained a steady job at the Post Office. Her mother Elsie wrote in her memoirs "this was of great help, as she could buy for herself such fineries as were needed and put by something for the "Bottom Drawer". It was at her workplace that she met Bernard, the dashing young man she fell in love with. Bernard would bring mail to the Post Office from the company for which he worked, and what started off as an "office romance" blossomed into courtship and marriage.
The eldest Sheppard sisters, l/r Ida, Jessie, Madge
at their Richmond Street home, Trinidad
The "Man" Jessie Married
How, when or why Bernard Brash acquired the nickname "Man" is anybody's guess. But the amusing story has been told that it started when he was a pretty cocky little boy and his mother's old lady friends used to call him "little man". The moniker stuck with him and he became known as "Man" for life.
Bernard Henry McNee (Man) Brash came from a most interesting family. Like his four siblings - Bianca, Francis (Frank), Victoria (Vicky) and Louisita (Toots) - he was born at Tucker Valley, Macqueripe, in the north of Trinidad where their father, Harris Brash, was the Manager of Sir William Ingram's large estate. Man's mother was Trinidad-born Corina Hart, daughter of Daniel Hart and Louisita de la Croix de Martini who was of Italian parentage.
Man's paternal grandparents were a Scottish couple - Francis Banks Brash and Jean (Jane) Graham McNee - who had emigrated to Trinidad shortly after their marriage in Glasgow in 1867. Man's mother Corina had been sent away to school at a Catholic convent in America where her aunt, Emmanuel de Martini was a nun (Sr. Mercedes). Corina also had an uncle who was a Catholic priest in Arima, Monsignor C.B. de Martini. Harris and Corina Brash raised their children in the Catholic faith, and lived in the rural Tucker valley estate. Harris Brash later managed San Carlos estate, about 9 miles north of the town of Arima, in the Heights of Guanapo, Northern Range.
Man's early education was by a Governess called Miss le Cadre, who lived with the family in their Tucker Valley home. He later went to St Joseph's Convent Arima from Heights of Guanapo, along with his sisters "Toots" and Vicky. When he got his first job in Port of Spain, he boarded with Addie Devenish, a lady whom Man loved and always referred to as his second mother.
Roaming the estates among crops of cocoa, bananas, coconuts, coffee and citrus must have been an idyllic and carefree childhood for Man and his siblings, though I'm sure they each had their share of chores around the homestead. They grew up joining in with the estate workers "dancing the cocoa". It is therefore unsurprising that in later years, he formed his own company, B.H. Brash & Co. Ltd., curing cocoa and coffee beans for export. His grandaughter Isabel Brash carries on the family love for cocoa beans in her Trinidad artisan chocolate business called Cocobel Chocolate.
Harris Brash and Corina Hart in 1904
Bernard (Man) Brash's parents
The Sheppard Family in 1828
Nineteen-year old Jessie is seated next to her mother, holding her sister Florence
With the blessing of her widowed mother and much to the excitement of her younger siblings, Jessie and Bernard Henry McNee (Man) Brash were married on 29 August, 1936. In her memoirs, Jessie's mother Elsie wrote "he was a fine young man and she a happy bride". Though the Sheppards were staunch Presbyterians, they were married at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Richmond Street, Port of Spain, a stone's throw away from the Sheppard family home. Jessie vowed to raise their children in the Catholic faith, as was required by the Church. She faithfully kept her promise.
Jessie & Man's Family
One year after Jessie and Man were married, they welcomed the first of their four children into the world, on 17 August 1937. They named their firtborn Bernard Harris Michael Brash - Bernard after his father, Harris after his Brash grandfather. Bernard married Ruth Ann Ganteaume and they had three children - Elizabeth, Rosanna and Bernard. He passed away in 2017 when he was 80 years old, having had an impressive career as Commander of the Trinidad & Tobago Coast Guard.
On 29 October 1939, along came the child that Jessie would affectionately call her "gold bead". Charles Anthony Brash was named after his grandfather Charles (Charlie) Sheppard. Charles joined the oil industry in Trinidad, becoming one of the country's leaders of the oilfield services sector. He is the Chairman and Founder of Well Services Petroleum Company Ltd. and has recently been honoured as a Trinidadian Hero for his his outstanding contribution to oil production over the past sixty years. Charles and his wife Rosalind Thavenot, are the proud parents of six children - Charles (known by his second name Anthony), David, Charlene, Rachel, Daniel and Isabel.
Maurice Brash, Jessie and Man's third son, became a well-known actor, singer, radio personality, and a highly sought after voice-over artist for many advertisements. He has performed in numerous television shows and soap operas, stage plays and presentations. Born in Woodbrook on June 10, 1947, Maurice was educated at Fatima College where he went on to teach French after studying Languages at the University of the West Indies.
On his return from a scholarship to France in 1975, Maurice led the St. Dominic Savio Choir to become most outstanding Secondary School Choir. In 1989, the French Government awarded him the “Palmes Academiques” for his contribution to the teaching of French language and culture. In 2015 Maurice was inducted into the Fatima Hall of Achievement for his outstanding contribution to his Alma Mater.
After three boys, Jessie must have been thrilled when, at 42 years old, she delivered their last child - a girl! Rosalind Elsie Theresa Brash, born on 5 April 1951, was the beautiful blonde baby of the family and was given the name Elsie after Jessie's mother. Her growing up years were filled with piano and vocal training. She has performed in several concerts, sometimes singing duets with Maurice. As small children, she and Maurice even sang duets on the Sunday afternoon "Auntie Kay Show" - a Radio Trinidad programme showcasing children's talent - before the days of television in Trinidad. Rosalind is an accomplished soprano, having won many awards at the annual music festivals. She has sung at countless weddings in Trinidad and Houston, where she lived for a while with her husband, David Voisin. Rosalind and David have one son, Daniel.
Jessie saw to it that all her children were sent to piano lessons at an early age. As very young children, she would seat them on her upright piano where she accompanied them during her numerous tea parties and social functions, many held for charity. At Christmas time she would have them perform for the sick at hospitals, as well as for the Princess Elizabeth Home for Children. Maurice recalls: "Her home at 23 O'Connor and then at 38 O'Connor Streets welcomed so many members of our family on both sides. At 23 O'Connor people we had never met would come into our drawing room and play the piano, because the neighbours said Mrs. Brash wouldn't mind. That was when you never locked the house. Our homes were always full of music and singing."
I have warm and happy memories of my Aunt Jessie playing the piano at Grandma Sheppard's legendary Christmas Parties where all of her grandchildren would be asked to perform. Auntie Jessie brought the family together around her piano at countless family gatherings. She also was an accomplished organist, and provided music at church for weddings of many family members.
Sadly, Jessie's husband Man passed away on 20th February 1970 at age 59. After his death when she was 60 years old she decided to start teaching and took over a small primary school called St. Anthony’s Private School. Three years later, she ran her school from her Woodbrook home, on 38 O'Connor Street. Her closest sister Ida, by then also a widow, moved in to live with her and together they nurtured and taught young children, always including music in their daily curriculum.
Jessie's contribution to music and culture in Trinidad has been invaluable. The newspaper articles which I've transcribed below give testimony to her life of music and the high esteem in which she was held. It's heartwarming to know that The Jessie Brash Memorial Trophy is presented each year to outstanding musicians at Trinidad & Tobago Music Festival.
Jessie passed away on 23 April 2002 in her ninety-third year, leaving behind a large family of whom she and her husband Man would be very proud today. Her rich legacy of music and kindness will live on forever in the hearts of all her family and everyone who knew and loved her.
1985 - Valerie singing at a family party in Barbados accompanied by Jessie,
Standing behind us are her sisters Flo and Ida
Sunday Express, February 28, 1993
In 1918 she provided piano music for silent movies. She was only eight then. She remembers feeling sad during a movie she played for “The Transgressors” about a father who neglected his daughter. How could one forget some of the “beautiful” actors - Ramon Navarro and Mary Pickford?
“I played for silent films when I went to spend holidays with my grandmother” said Jessie Brash, 83, of her grandmother Christina Gomez from Sangre Grande. There was a resident pianist, but I just filled in for fun. I did it about a dozen times.” The name of the Sangre Grande cinema eluded her, but not all of the memories were a blur. She recalled the “cocoa people” would pay monthly for a cinema box which was available to any family member.
The cinema manager, one Mr. Watson, usually asked Jessie’s grandmother for permission for her to play. for the movies. During sad scenes, she played such tunes as Hearts and Flowers or I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.
“The piano was below the screen so I had to look up at the screen while playing and change the music as was necessary. Silent movies were very nice. They had lovely actors and very handsome men,” said Brash, mother of Maurice Brash, opera singer, actor, teacher and Prime 106 news announcer.
She didn’t play for silent movies at the London Theatre, now Astor, in Port of Spain, but Brash remembers that it cost a shilling to go to balcony, six pennies for house and three pennies for pit. Ever so often, management had an “egg night”. Patrons who showed up with an egg got in free. Egg night, as you can imagine, was special.
As Bishop Anstey High School students, Brash and a friend, Lynette Brown, took turns at the piano playing marches and show numbers from the English musicals Showboat and The Girlfriend for their fellow students to march into their classrooms. They were about 12.
As a child, Brash received some basic training from a German music teacher living in Gray Street, St. Clair, who she remembers as Nothnagel. Twice weekly she was tutored in the classics. However, she thinks her talent lies in playing music by ear. She considers it a gift. It must have been a trait she inherited from her father, Charles Sheppard, whose instruments were the violin and mandolin. Her father was a partner in Salvatori, Scott and Co. Ltd., a general dry goods store that was located where the Salvatori building now stands on Independence Square, Port of Spain. “We used to have some beautiful music evenings” said Brash of her upbringing.
From the cinema to the school, Brash then took her talent to the Music Festival. She formed the Brash Quartet with violinist Elsie Pereira and cellist Beatrice Tibbets. They won at least a dozen certificates with their renditions of chamber music.
During World War II, Brash, comedian Lundy de Montbrun, Boscoe and Sheila Holder, and blind pianist Maurice Connor, entertained the American soldiers stationed in Trinidad. The Holders weren’t married then but Boscoe played piano and Sheila sang. Brash dressed her two sons, Bernard and Charles, like soldiers in khaki jacket and pants and took them to the weekly Sunday concerts which were organized to boost the Yankees’ morale. The musical evenings that Brash enjoyed during childhood have not disappeared entirely. She sometimes teams up with Syl Dopson on clarinet, John Henderson on cuatro,vionists Carl Stodart and Elsie Pereira, bass cellist Philip Habib and Ken Kelshall on the mouth organ at the Diego Martin home of pianist Yvonne Burnett, to make music.
This spontaneous orchestra plays such waltzes as Ramona, Charmaine and Desert Song. When the spirit becomes infectious, some of the musicians give in to the mood. They drop their instruments, put their arms around one another and do a tango, waltz, fox trot or the rhumba.
These old-fashioned dances are a throw-back to the days when popular music had mellower melody and gentler rhythm. The times when people really danced. They moved around the room. Launched their heads back. Threw their feet in the air. The ballroom dances have been replaced by the soca bogle, the flex, the butterfly and the bubble. Style and grace in motion have given way to waves and gyrations. Nowadays, said Brash, people listen to noise.
And couples, she notes, “rent-a-tile.”
MELODIES FROM AN AGE OF GRACE
Newsday, Sunday May 5, 2002
We observe the passing of another outstanding woman, Jessie Brash, on Wednesday April 24. The funeral service took place on April 25 at the St Theresa’s Roman Catholic Church in Woodbrook where Jessie had been the organist for 30 years, never accepting any payment for a talent she felt she owed to her God.
Born Jessie Mabel Sheppard on November 22, 1909, the first of Charles and Elsie Sheppard’s 12 children, she married Bernard “Man" Brash in 1936, a union which produced four children, Bernard, Charles, Maurice and Rosalind, 11 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.
When her husband died in 1970, leaving no estate, Jessie acquired a small school from Marion De Montbrun at the corner of Roberts and Alfredo Streets in Woodbrook, and determinedly turned St. Anthony’s Private School into a haven for young children on whom she lavished love while giving them an adventure into learning, singing and an awareness of God.
But it was Jessie’s passion for music which was overriding. With her father she shared a love for music before her feet could barely reach the pedals. He even had her play the piano for a silent movie in a neighborhood cinema when his friend, the cinema owner, found himself minus a pianist one evening.
My memory of this upright woman was seated at the piano accompanying the dancers of Thora Dumnbell’s dance school with heart and soul. And this she did for more than 30 years.
Those were Jessie’s happiest years and we are told “Thora’s friendship was very dear to her, as was her friendship with Elsie Pereira and Beatrice Tibbits with whom she spent many years playing beautiful music, winning Music Festival awards and driving her late husband who had no ear for music, round the bend.”
In 1973, the indomitable woman purchased No. 38 O’Connor Street on the strength of her good name alone. A time when your good name was worth something. The house became a haven for many, from her children for whom she was a healing force, to her sister Ida and many whom she helped by holding charity events at the Woodbrook house. Her mother, Elsie, in a short appreciation of her children, once compared Jessie to a diamond.
Jessie’s children and friends felt the comparison was only valid in the worth of the stone, but not as a cold, hard and showy jewel, for Jessie was the essence of warmth, gentleness and genuine, unpretentious beauty. Hazel Ward-Redman once described her as the prettiest lady she ever saw.
But, said eulogist, Bernard Tappin, “her beauty lay in the gentlest of her voice and in the generosity she showed everyone, for none entered her home without being invited to share a meal, even when she didn’t know if there was anything in the kitchen to eat.”
Jessie’s faith in God was so strong that nothing phased her and up to the day before she was admitted to the nursing home, where she died peacefully, answered the question “How you going?” with the words “I’m going but ah eh gone yet!”
Jessie had begun a short semi-autobiography called “An office affair” which she eventually dictated to her close friend Ann Pouchet after diabetes had claimed her eyesight.
Jessie smiled at the piano, smiled when telling the only joke she could remember about the king who was castrated, smiled when organizing some little concert for someone in need, and smiled when singing the “ole lady walk a mile and a half” calypso as she tried to negotiate the walker with the help of Josephine, Anne Marie and Angela.
JESSIE’S GONE, CHURCH ORGAN SILENCED
By Angela Pidduck
Compiled by Valerie Sheppard - 27 September, 2022
With thanks for contributions from:
Rosalind (Brash) Voisin - Jessie's daughter
Joan (Sutherland) Leggett - Niece of Jessie's husband, Bernard "Man" Brash
Research reference for Nothnagel: "The Germans in Trinidad" by Fr. Anthony de Verteuil
Videos by Meindert van der Meulen - Valerie's husband
Jessie's children Charles, Rosalind and Maurice
surrounded by some of her grands and great-grands at a Sheppard Family gathering
Trinidad, 11 September, 2022