I have always wondered why there are so many weddings in June. I thought it was possibly because of the weather — not too hot and not too cool. In actual fact, the month of June is named for the goddess Juno — protector of women in all aspects of life, especially in marriage and childbearing. Over the years, I have discussed the subject of weddings with many seniors, who happily recalled our local traditions.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, courting was not allowed unless the young man wrote to the parents for permission to visit and become engaged. Visiting was allowed only between 8pm and 10pm, and there was no visiting on Sunday evenings as everyone attended church until 9pm.
A bride at an East Broadway residence in 1907 (Photograph from the Robert E.M. Bain Collection/National Museum of Bermuda)
Courting involved sitting in the living room under parental supervision. You always knew when the young man had overstayed his time because your mother would begin to hum a tune or your father would pace up and down. Parents always wanted to know the parents of the young man, and if they didn’t know them they would want to meet them.
You had to be courting for at least a year before you became engaged. Men who worked in the hotels were sharp dressers, but parents were more partial to a man with a trade. Couples married between the ages of 18 and 21, and young men had to write for permission to marry and state that they could afford to look after their daughter.
Ten to twelve pounds was all you needed to marry, as your friends always helped you. Rent was reasonable: ten to twenty shillings a month. Building stone was two to three shillings for 100 blocks. Land was ₤40 to ₤50 for an acre and a half, and you could pay in instalments. Pay for the average working man was about 21 shillings a week. By 1938, houses were selling for ₤100 a room.
Weddings were usually held on Wednesdays until about 1930 when the trend changed. Shops began to close for half a day on Thursdays, and that became the preferred day. In the summer months, weddings took place between 4pm and 5pm.
Below is an old rhyme once used to select a wedding day:
“Monday for health
Tuesday for wealth
Wednesday was the best day of all
Thursday for losses
Friday for crosses
Saturday or Sunday was no day at all
Marry in May and rue (regret) the day“
Rainy days were considered bad luck.
Wedding invitations were printed and hand-delivered or mailed to friends and relatives. The groom’s family, as well as the bride’s, sent out invitations. There were no cards within the invitation to tell you what gifts the couple wanted. In St George’s, they were printed by R.O. Clifford.
Gifts were never very expensive — ten shillings at the most. People gave what they could afford; eg, four tumblers and a pitcher, a tea set, a lamp with a wick, six berry dishes, six teaspoons, embroidered pillowcases. Many purchased from Patterson’s in Somerset, or Chesley White’s, Leseur’s or the Trading Company.
My father purchased my mother’s rings from Astwood and Dickinson’s. At that time they had shops in St George’s and Hamilton. Brides had no say in the selection of the ring.
The late Hattie Gilbert, who married in 1933, wore a ring made from a gold sovereign purchased from Gosling’s Grocery and Liquor Store on Cambridge Road in Somerset, and crafted by Alfred Bulford. Many wedding rings were also made in the Dockyard.
Most brides in the years before the 1940s wore wedding bands with a floral design but no stones. There was a practical reason for this: washboards were used for laundry and the stones would have been lost. There were no double ring ceremonies.
In 1939, my mother did the unusual: she went with my father to select her engagement and wedding rings. “I had to select those rings myself,” she said. “After all, I’m the one who has to wear them!”
She was also determined to have a wedding band with diamonds, as she had no plans of spending much time using a scrubbing board!
In 1906, my grandfather gave my grandmother the most beautifully carved and upholstered Cleopatra couch as an engagement gift. It sat prominently in their dining room on Queen Street, St George’s, until her death in 1971. Unfortunately, I do not know what other women received.
There were no engagement parties but some had small bridal showers and men took the groom out for a drink. You did not see the groom on the wedding day until you arrived at church. You could, however, “send him a message”.
Flowers for the wedding were gathered from the gardens of family and friends. There were snapdragons, clematis, sweetpeas, coralita, calla lilies or cream-coloured roses, which were often called bridal roses. Easter lilies were considered “bad luck”. The bride carried a large bunch of flowers on her arm, usually calla lilies. Ancient Romans believed that bouquets symbolised fertility, fidelity and a new life.
Family and friends gathered to decorate the church. Coralita, fern and a running vine called clematis were most often used.
When Hattie Maybury married Willis Gilbert in 1933, the ceremony was at 10am and they sailed off at 3pm on the Queen of Bermuda — “the honeymoon ship”, as it was then described. Her bridesmaids wore floral dresses with short sleeves, gloves to their elbows, black satin shoes and black straw hats with streamers. The hats were designed and made by Inez Cann a well-known hatmaker in Somerset, who later emigrated to America during the Depression. In 1929, Aunt Thelma wore a gown of crepe-backed satin. In 1940, my mother wore a gown of lace over a satin slip purchased from H A&E Smith’s.
Many brides had their hair styled by Ida Smith, Lillian Minors or Mrs Leslie Young’s American Beauty Parlour on Court Street. Frequently, hairdressers came to the bride’s home.
The groom and groomsmen wore tuxedos. Most men already had them because they belonged to lodges. The jackets had short tails with satin lapels and the shoes were black patent leather. Those who did not own a tuxedo wore their best suit.
In the 16th century, men wore boutonnières to ward off evil spirits and disease. Today, they are worn for fashion and to complement the bridesmaids’ bouquets.
Bridal gowns were always made by the best dressmakers — Edith Corbin-Dowling, Ora and Joyce Dowling, Cynthia Nearon, Louise Bean and Valeria Talbot were well known for their expertise. The fabric selected was either satin or lace, which came from America or H A&E Smith’s. Dress patterns were selected from The Woman’s Shop. Bridal dresses were usually made with high necks and if the sleeves were short, gloves went beyond the elbows. The bride’s arms were never exposed. The dressmaker always came to the house to dress the bride. Many brides wore buttoned-up shoes with a hook used to fasten them.
Veils were long or short with a wreath of clematis or artificial orange blossoms around the head. Many women recalled brides wearing corsets made with stiff, rigid rods called bones. This helped to create an hourglass figure. They wore a full under-slip and long pants. Dresses had bustles at the hip to make the skirt stand out; they also had a leg of mutton sleeves, high necks and they wore gloves. As an added discomfort, the bridal nightgown was always starched.
The veil is the oldest part of the bridal attire. Some say this began during the days of arranged marriages to hide the bride’s face from the groom. Others say it represented a modest, untouched maiden. Queen Victoria was the first modern bride to wear a veil cascading down her back.
In 1840, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, she made the white wedding dress fashionable. Instead of wearing her royal robes, she chose a white gown made from Spitalfields silk with a deep flounce of Honilton lace. She wanted a dress designed of British-made materials and to support the declining lace industry. Before this, brides wore their best dress or a new dress that could be worn for other occasions. Queen Victoria popularised the white dress and veil.
Many Bermudian brides follow the old rhyme originated from the Victorian era:
“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a sixpence in your shoe”
Something old represents a new chapter in the bride’s life and future with her husband. Something borrowed should be something from a happily married friend or relative. This symbolises a transfer of happiness and support from her family and friends. Something blue represents the colour of love, purity, faithfulness and modesty. The sixpence in your shoe symbolises lasting wealth.
The bride and her attendants were driven to church in a double — a carriage drawn by two horses. The groom and the groomsmen travelled by a double as well. Many described well-known carriage driver Donald Henry Dane as immaculately dressed in a white helmet and starched white jacket. He carried a whip decorated with white ribbons.
My 100-year-old cousin, Aileen Wright, who was in my parents’ wedding 82 years ago, once told me: “You’d better pray those horses behaved or you had quite a ride to that church.”
The bride was always on time.
Crowds gathered for more than an hour to see a wedding, which was considered the highlight of the week. During the ceremony, O Perfect Love was the hymn most often sung and in St George’s, the soloist Arthur Morgan was frequently asked to sing Because during the signing of the register. Church bells chimed as the bride left the church and many waited with a pound of rice — to symbolise fertility — to throw on to the newlyweds.
More than 100 years ago, many people married in their homes and there was no big wedding if the bride was pregnant. She was described as “a piece off a cut loaf”.
Sylvia Courtney, who is now 92, has been blessed with an excellent memory and an entertaining sense of humour. During her era, dating customs had changed slightly. Courting took place on Thursday and Sunday evenings. Her wedding in 1953 took place at St Mary’s Church in Warwick. By then, the wedding party was driven by car to and from the church.
She laughing when recalled that they paid for their bedroom set at Chesley White’s in instalments. It took them two years to pay for it and when they went to collect it, they had sold it to someone else. Thankfully, they were able to find another. She wore a gown of soft, lightweight, self-patterned tulle. At that time, Trimingham’s sold the best material. She had three bridesmaids, a junior maid and flower girl. Her bridesmaids wore mauve, yellow and a bright green. The junior maid and flower girl wore white. The wedding reception was held on a large lawn on Raynor’s Drive, where her grandmother and most of the Raynor family lived. It was a grand event despite the unfortunate incident, which occurred when the minister informed the couple that the soloist, who had arrived from America, would not be allowed to sing in St Mary’s Church because she was “Coloured”.
In Somerset, wedding receptions were held under a tent on the lawn of the bride’s home or at Tin Top, opposite Allen Temple AME Church or Christley Hall on Cambridge Road, which was owned and managed by Clara Gordon, the wife of E.F. Gordon. The first wedding reception at Christley Hall was that of Claudine Robinson, followed in 1946 by that of Sinclair and Alice Simmons. For the Simmons reception, the popular Sidney Bean Trio played as the bride arrived and then went off to entertain at Cambridge Beaches Hotel.
In 1933, few children attended weddings. They were considered adult affairs and there was no music. The minister blessed the table and the couple were toasted with fruit punch. The tables were covered with white linen cloths. Fern and white paper flowers were pinned around the edges. Mineral, purchased in Somerset from Foley’s Mineral Water Factory, was placed evenly on the tables in a rainbow of colours. There was a special table for the wedding party. Guests did not sit at the table; they would go up in groups to help themselves or to enjoy sandwiches and cake passed around on trays carried by the bridesmaids. Sandwiches made of ham with hot Coleman’s mustard or egg were popular. The fruit punch was made with small pieces of cut apples and oranges floating in it. The best man and groomsmen carried it around, pouring from large pitchers. Liquor was always served outside — either black rum or a sweet wine.
Edith Dowling Snaith looking lovely in a garden setting in 1940 (Photograph courtesy of Cecille Snaith-Simmons)
Originally, Foley’s Mineral Water Factory was located behind the Foley Homestead on Manchester Street, which is now 38 Somerset Road. They not only provided the mineral but also large blocks of ice, which was chipped in pieces for the wedding drink. It was delivered by Norris Cann in a horse and cart. As the business grew, it moved to Long Bay Lane and was eventually purchased by Barritt’s.
Archie and Lillian Minors on their wedding day in 1932 (Photograph courtesy of Cecille Snaith-Simmons)
The wedding cake was made a week before the wedding. It was usually a home-made, three-tiered cake. In St George’s, Stephen Dowling, who was employed at the St George’s Hotel, specialised in “icing and trimming” wedding cakes. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Archibald Jones of Jones’ Bakery was renowned for decorating wedding cakes as well. There were two plain or groom’s cakes decorated in gold leaf. The bride’s cake was always made with mixed fruit to signify fruitfulness and decorated in silver leaf with a small cedar tree seedling on the top. This was planted after the reception to commemorate the new union. The cakes sat directly on top of one another. One pound cake at the bottom, half-pound in the middle and a quarter-pound cake sat at the top. This cake was not cut until the “turning out”, held on the Sunday after the wedding. On the evening before the wedding, friends and family, armed with knives and aprons, came to cut the reception cake, described as “cut up” cake. Sandwiches were made on the day of the wedding.
Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons SRN, SCM is a retired nurse, writer and historian
There was a time when women would attempt to tear pieces off the bride’s dress or rip flowers from her bouquet for good luck. To avoid this, the bride would turn her back, toss her bouquet, and quickly run away.
On the Saturday before the wedding, the house for the newlyweds was set up by friends and family. Often the unsuspecting couple bore the brunt of pranks. Before the age of the indoor toilet, the chamber pot or potty was used. Alka-Seltzer was sprinkled into it and a surprise explosion of fizz greeted whoever used it first. Sometimes copious amounts of powder was sprinkled between the sheets. One bride recalled an even funnier prank. Every time they edged closer to each other in the bed, a bell would ring. If they did not move, there was silence. It took them quite a while to figure out that someone had tied a small bell to the bed springs. Removing it was not an easy feat and a big disruption to their long anticipated first night together.
The blinds (shutters) of the home were kept closed until the “turning out”. Hattie Gilbert described this as part of our African culture. On the Sunday after the wedding, the newlyweds and the entire bridal party attended church together. This was followed by a meal at their home or that of their parents. The “turning out” was when the three-tier wedding cake was cut and those who were unable to attend the wedding were sent samples in small, waxed-paper-lined,cardboard boxes.
Today, wedding cakes are ceremoniously cut and distributed at the wedding reception and numerous photographs are taken to commemorate the event.
With sincere thanks to the many seniors who share with pride the stories of our Bermudian traditions and culture.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons SRN, SCM is a retired nurse, writer and historian
A Brief History of the White Wedding Dress (Yewande Adeleke)
History of the Veil (wedding historian Susan Waggoner)
Wedding Traditions Explained (Wikipedia)