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Saturday, December 07, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Woodbrook’s early origins
Woodbrook is best known today as being the liming capital of the island. There is little reminder of the old days save the sprawling mass of Lapeyrouse Cemetery and the names of the streets.
Woodbrook as a suburb is an amalgamation of three sugar estates. Woodbrook, the largest, was originally the property of Picot de Lapeyrouse, who came to the island in 1783 under the Cedula of Population. He planted bourbon canes, thus founding the first sugar estate in the island, which was to be the backbone of the economy from the late 18th century well into the 1920s. On his lands was a muddy patch of graveyard known as the Campo Santo, containing a single legible tombstone, that of Jean Creteau, who died in 1745. This was later to become the official burial ground for the city of Port-of-Spain and took the name Lapeyrouse Cemetery. The Lapeyrouse family sold the property, with its sugar factory, to Henry Murray in 1820. With the coming of Emancipation in 1834-36 Murray saw ruin staring him in the face and sold the lands to the mega-conglomerate of WH Burnley and Co, which was owned by the richest man in the island, William Burnley, and managed by his confederate William Eccles.
After William died in 1850, his son William F Burnley inherited the property, but was prevented from coming to Trinidad by a life insurance policy which forbade his entering the tropics.
The Woodbrook Estate fell under the management of Burnley Hunter Eccles, son of William Eccles. When Burnley Hunter died prematurely in 1892, the Woodbrook Estate was occupied by a huge, red-haired, Scots manager named Watson. He married a young local French Creole girl from the Rostant clan. They had a child named Ozzie. He employed dozens of indentured Indian labourers and retrofitted the ancient factory shell with modern machinery, including vacuum pans for manufacturing crystals. They also continued to make muscovado sugar or sugar loaves, which were like cones of hardened molasses, wrapped in dried leaves. These were for the local market, since they were cheap and popular, being essential as “browning” in creole cooking and as a key component of the cuisine of the many Venezuelans who were settling in the city at the point in time. Speaking of food, Woodbrook was famous for its pepperpot. This was a dish of Amerindian origin constituting the poisonous juice of bitter cassava (cassareep) infused with pepper (capsicum) and herbs to defuse its toxicity, stewed with meat and vegetables. Pepperpot was an essential food in times before refrigeration, as the cassareep possessed preservative properties and thus the stew, if kept going over a slow fire, could literally keep edible for years, with the addition of fresh ingredients periodically.
Also dating from Amerindian times, the vessel for cooking the pepperpot was the canaree—a huge earthen cauldron often containing several gallons, and greatly heat-resistant. The pepperpot at Woodbrook was said to have been nearing 100 years of existence by the time of the Watson management in the 1890s and was renowned both for its ancient canaree and excellent flavour.
The factory began to make a profit but tragedy struck when Mrs Watson and her son Ozzie were taken away by disease, leaving the Scotsman desolate. He left his job shortly thereafter. In 1899, the almost 90-year existence of the Burnley empire in Trinidad ended when Woodbrook was sold to the Siegert family, of Angostura fame. The sugar factory was demolished and the canefields laid out in lots for rent to a burgeoning coloured middle class. A small estate office was erected in 1907 to collect land rents and is still to be seen on the southwestern corner below Murray Street playground, the site of the old sugar factory. Streets were laid out which reflected the Siegert family—Carlos, Alfredo, Rosalino, Ana, Petra and Alberto. The lots were snapped up since there was a new respectability in the area. Coloured people of decent education were finding employment in the civil service and thus needed to escape from the barrack-yards of the city. Quaint gingerbread cottages sprang up which gave the district its signature style. In one of these cottages, the father of the nation, Dr Eric Williams, was born in 1911. Financial troubles plagued the Siegert family and as one of the sons was a mayor of the city, the larger part of it was sold in 1911 to the colonial government for £25,000. It remained a middle-class area and developed steadily, gradually being embraced by the city to become the mini-metropolis it is today.
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