Wallblake House

Ageing Gracefully

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“Old things seem to have more life, more substance, more humanity in them.”
Robert Crumb

Like a society grand dame, Wallblake House presides serenely over the bustle of modern life in The Valley. It has been a fixture on Anguilla’s Facebook page for over 200 years and is our oldest surviving plantation house. During the prosperous ‘sugar period, plantations occupied The Valley, and merchants’ homes lined the road from Crocus Bay to the main Valley settlement. Wallblake was one of the pre-eminent houses on the island, built for the owner of the Wallblake sugar plantation, whose estate ebbed and flowed over the years as parcels of land were sold off or acquired through marriage, purchase or crown grant. At its peak it extended as far as the current airport.

Wallblake’s story intrigues; ownership squabbles redolent of the Cap Juluca saga and supernatural happenings in the cellar. The current building, dated to 1787 by a carved brick in the kitchen, is a relatively recent upstart. The original owner of the first estate here is thought to have been a sugar planter, Valentine Blake, possibly one of the original settlers to arrive around 1650. The pronunciation of Val Blake gradually changed with usage and became Wallblake.  Arthur Hodge was appointed Governor of Anguilla in 1727 and acquired Wallblake around 1716.

The current house was possibly built by his son Thomas Hodge, who inherited the estate on his mother’s death in 1798/9. What he built remains miraculously intact; the main house, outbuildings and the nearby ruins of the sugar works. The house remained in the Hodge family for at least 150 years. In 1883, the house passed in dubious circumstances to one James Lake and thence to his heirs. The last owner, Louise Marie Rey Lake, died without heirs in 1976 and bequeathed the house to the Catholic Church.

The construction of the existing Wallblake no doubt took many skilled stone-masons and carpenters. The basement, foundations, cistern and sugar works were all built from local stone, hauled possibly from East End or Scrub Island, and then hand cut using hammer and chisel and laid in courses. The lime that holds the stone together was made from burnt coral and shells mixed with molasses and marl. This was a very expensive project, possibly using shipwrights, as well as gangs of unskilled labour.

The design for a Planter’s house took advantage of the tropical climate. One or two stories, residences would be elevated to capture cooling breezes. The cellar space under the house would be used for housing livestock at night, storing commodities or housing the cistern.  Design influences came from various cultures: shutters from the French, dormer windows from the Dutch and the ‘Union Jack’ railings from the English. The sloping hip roof, with its pitch of 32 degrees-plus, is ideal for withstanding hurricane winds, while also providing for water collection.

The compact main house contains a dining room, sitting room and two bedrooms on its upper level. An elevated cellar at ground level housed machinery and sometimes, workers. The kitchen/bakery, storehouse and stable are positioned around the courtyard. The stone ruins of the animal round, used to grind the cane, are about 100 metres from the house. A slave village of wattle and daub houses would have been attached to the plantation – its location is still unknown. A slave return registered in 1834 identifies 131 slaves domiciled at the Wallblake estate.

The kitchen building, which is some distance from the main house, contains a remarkable oven that spans the entire 12 foot width of the building. A stepped brick chimney is supported by a beam of lignum vitae, one of the world’s hardest and heaviest woods, which once grew on Anguilla. The chimney is the only example of its type on Anguilla. The stone cistern, with an enclosed water collection area, is also unique and still holds water today.

Painstaking labour is evident in the wooden roof and impressive interior woodwork of the main house. Every board in the double panelling of each partition has been beaded. Intricate hand carving decorates the edges of the ‘tray’ ceiling, so named as they resemble inverted trays suspended from the roof, with carved wooden rope borders tacked onto edges to hide irregularities.

Nine years after completion in 1796, the French invaded, destroying Anguilla’s main settlements. All who could, fled east, and one crippled member of the Hodge family took refuge in Wallblake’s cellars. He was discovered, murdered and the house set on fire.

In the early years of the 20th century, Anguilla’s tycoon, Carter Rey, rented Wallblake, from where he supervised an impressive cotton and salt empire.  He also ran the only general store on the island, which provided everything from pins to molasses. This was housed in the same building as the cotton ginnery, a building still known today as the Factory, just across the road from Wallblake House. During Rey’s bachelor tenure, it is said that Wallblake was more spartan business headquarters than his home.

After Hurricane Louis in 1995, a three feet hole was gouged in the roof. On the heels of Luis, damp took a damaging hold with the passage of hurricane Marilyn. Extensive renovations begun in 1998 were completed in 2004. Costs of $235,000 were met by fundraising organised by local residents. The roof was replaced, some of the floor, 70% of the walls and all the doors, windows and shutters. Local builders copied original designs to the letter. A foundry in the states was commissioned to replicate the iron tie backs for the shutters. By scraping back to the bare wood, it was possible to find what are thought to be the original paint colours, which were then applied in the renovation.

Throughout its life the house and estate has played many roles – a school in 1827 for 132 children, including slaves and a court house in 1874, when archival documents were signed ‘Court House, Wallblake’ The Catholic Church used the house as a temporary place of worship and presbytery. In 1978 the Department of Tourism moved in, now Anguilla Finance and the Anguilla Community Foundation lease parts of the building. The house is also one of the sites on Anguilla’s Heritage Trail.

Lost to fire or decay, few historical houses survive. Modern building styles and techniques erode Anguilla’s precious vernacular. Wallblake remains, an icon of ingenuity and craftsmanship. David Carty wrote “it is the duty of all Anguillians to ensure that this beautiful mansion continues to grace the present with memories of the past.” Architecture has been described as music – frozen. We need to preserve the ancient notes distilled into Wallblake’s stones.

In our haste to keep up with modern life, we sometimes overlook the original or belittle the past. Plans to upgrade the Heritage Trail into a digital experience are underway, so soon you may be using a ‘latest version’ gadget to interact with Wallblake. Something the grand dame Wallblake just might approve of.

Thanks to Heather Nielsen and Martha Burrows, direct descendants of Arthur Hodge for their research, David Carty’s “Wallblake House: An Historic Past” and to Marjorie McClean and Aileen Smith. 
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About the author

Sarah Harrison spent four happy years on Anguilla, leaving (reluctantly) returning to live in the UK. She is now working as a freelance writer, investing in thermal layers, and trying to fix up an old house that is in constant need of attention.