A Three-quarter view of the Ferry Inn.

Decorated initial I

n 1989 I was being driven from Kingston to Spanish Town in an ancient Austin Cambridge taxi when my exuberant driver pointed to a building on the right of the road and announced that it was the oldest tavern in the New World. Even at the Austin’s stately pace the view was gone in an instant, lost in a blur of traffic on the busy Ferry Road. On several subsequent visits to Jamaica I asked about this tavern and was always met with blank stares. Most doubted or denied its existence.

My first new lead came in 2015 when I finally picked up my copy of Lady Nugent’s Journal of her residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805. The young, pretty and vivacious wife of the elderly but energetic Governor of Jamaica mentions visits to a tavern known as the Ferry Inn on three occasions, all in 1803; on February 10th, when the Governor's party breakfasted there prior to the review of the St. Andrew's militia by her husband, General Nugent; on May 27th, when " most of our family dined at the Ferry House, on the Kingston Road, and our dinner party was very small"; and lastly, on June 13th, when she writes: "13th—Sent carriages, soon after 5, into Spanish Town, for the Murphy family, who slept there. Soon after breakfast, General Nugent set off with Mr. Murphy in the curricle, to visit the estates between this and Kingston called the Camoens [Caymanas]. After second breakfast Mrs. and the Misses Murphy with me in the sociable, the rest of the party in kittareens, phaetons, and on horse-back, all proceeded to the Ferry Inn to meet the Admiral and a large party at dinner”.

The Ferry Inn. Mrs. Lionel Lee. c.1908. Ink drawing.

“We had sent on to order the dinner, a few days before, and all that Jamaica produces was ready to be served up. The poor Admiral [Duckworth] however, was so overcome with fatigue and the heat of the day that he was quite ill, and obliged to leave the table. In consequence we all separated early. Mr. and Mrs. Murphy went with the Admiral, and are to be his guests till Wednesday. I took my seat in the curricle with General N., and all our young people went in the sociable; and really if it had not been for Sir J. T. Duckworth's illness it would have been a merry party. As it was I was much entertained ; for the Inn is situated on the road between Kingston and Spanish Town, and it was very diverting to see the odd figures and extraordinary equipages constantly passing—kittareens, sulkies, mules, and donkies. Then a host of gentlemen, who were taking their sangaree in the Piazza; and their vulgar buckism amused me very much. Some of them got half tipsy; and then began petitioning me for my interest with his Honour—to redress the grievance of one, to give a place to another, and so forth; in short it was a picture of Hogarth."

Turning next to Cundall (pp. 138-143) he explains that “Until about the middle of the [19th] century various inns and posting-houses, or taverns, as they were generally called, were kept in Jamaica. Some were rendered unnecessary by the advent of the railway, and some were superseded owing to the more rapid travelling rendered possible by better roads. Of these the Ferry Inn, formerly the halfway house between Kingston and Spanish Town, has survived hurricane and earthquake, only to live on its departed glory, and no longer as a tavern.

In 1677 "An Act for the Ferry was passed, to make “a very convenient Way between the Salt and Fresh River in the Parish of St. Andrews and St. Catherine’s, which will be of great use and advantage to the whole Island, in causing a more near and easie Correspondence with the several Precincts” In return for the right to demand toll over the ferry, William Parker was bound to " compleat the said Way and Passage within twelve months from and after the making of this act. By the Act of 1677, "William Parker, his Heirs and Assigns " were " Impowered and Authorized, for the space and term of fourteen years from the making thereof, to ask, demand, sue for, recover, and receive as a Duty and Toll for the Transporting of any Person over the said Ferry, Seven pence half penny ; for every Horse and Man, fifteen pence ; for every grown Beast that hath no Rider, seven Pence half penny ; for every Sheep, Calf, or Hog, sixpence ; and that the said William Parker, his Heirs and Assigns, may and shall erect a Tavern or Victualling-house near the said Ferry, and shall not be compelled to renew or pay any License Money for the same." The tavern was erected in 1684. By 1745 the road was known as the Ferry Road.

Left: A side view of the inn and the characteristic rectangular stone blocks used for construction.. Right: The bridge over the Ferry or Fresh River and the inn, which appears at left.

Turning now to Carley (p. 187) we learn that the Ferry Inn is near a huge old cotton tree known as “Tom Cringle’s Log” and that it was the office of the United Fruit Company in the early 20th Century and is now (1963) a restaurant and night club. Research on the internet also produced two images of the Ferry Inn. On the British Library website there is a black and white lithograph dated 1840 from Adolphe Duperly's “Daguerian Excursions in Jamaica.” There is also a print by Joseph Bartholomew Kidd from his “West Indian Scenery; Illustrations of Jamaica, 1833 – 1840”.

In November 2015 I left my hotel in an altogether more modern taxi with confidence in finding the Ferry Inn. But it proved to be a long and arduous quest. Ferry Road is now the Nelson Mandela highway after the great man’s 1991 visit to the island. Tom Cringle’s log, the giant cotton tree, had collapsed in a storm in 1971. Nobody knew anything about Ferry Inn. Eventually logic dictated that we look for the Ferry River (formerly called the Fresh River) and next to it we found the Hydel Group of Schools and behind a wall could be seen a 17th Century building. Although some aspects of the building have been altered since Kidd and Duperly the fundamental structure is original and identical to their images; built of the same squared stone blocks which are unique to the Jamaican buildings of the period.

[A detail from] The Ferry Inn (Spanish Town Road). “Taken with the Daguerreotype by A. Duperly. Lith. par J. Jacottet. fig. par A. Bayott.” Collection: the British Museum available online. [I assume this is one of the items in the museum's holdings for which it grants use or assigns Creative Commons permissions. — George P. Landow

So my 1989 taxi driver was vindicated. Doubtless there are older taverns in the New World but this was the oldest in Jamaica. The only near rival is the Moneague Tavern which probably dates from the 1780s (Green p.106). But the interesting thing is how the Ferry Inn has disappeared from public consciousness.

Further reading

Carley, Mary Manning. Jamaica. The old and the new. London: Allen and Unwin, 1963.

Cundall, Frank. Historic Jamaica. London: Institute of Jamaica, 1915.

Green, Patricia. The evolution of Jamaican architecture. 1494-1838. University of Pennsylvania, 1988.

Wright, Philip. Lady Nugent’s Journal. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1966.

Last modified 29 November 2015