House 'By de Mill' rich in history

WHEN the Barbados National Trust's Open House Season continues at Byde Mill House on February 7, it will focus on one of the country's most sensitively restored heritage houses which harmoniously bonds a legacy of architectural and historical significance with the inimitable style of its owners.

Located on a small knoll in the fertile St. George Valley, this magnificent three-storey coral stone plantation house nestles amidst imaginatively landscaped grounds surrounded by acres of whispering sugar cane. The parish boundaries of St. George, St. John and St. Philip meet in the middle of the garden and the property commands views of the island's south and south-east.

No record exists to confirm the origin of the name, but local tradition claims it derived from its position "By de Mill". Certainly the old sugar mill, now used as an attractive and functional adjunct to the swimming pool, must have been a prominent landmark in the past.

The gracious country mansion dates from just after the 1831 hurricane, but the documented history of the property goes back to 1670 when Richard Bendyshe of England leased Byde Mill Plantation to Thomas Batson of Barbados.

The property subsequently passed through the hands of several members of the Bendyshe and Roberts families before its acquisition by Sir Stephen Anderson in 1746. The Anderson family continued to own the plantation for at least 100 years and it was during this period that it was leased by one of the most fascinating figures in Barbados' history, the Hon. Joshua Steele.

Steele, a wealthy Englishman, inherited Kendal, Hallets and Guinea plantations through his deceased wife's family and travelled to the colony in 1780 to view the properties. This was at the age of 80, after a remarkable career as a linguist, musicologist, horticulturist and vice-president of the London Society of the Arts.

Distressed by the institution of slavery, he established a series of initiatives on his estates to improve living and working conditions and introduced a system of self-government for his slaves.

Of benefit to the wider society, he founded the Barbados Society of Arts, the principal aims of which were to encourage multiculture, provide occupation for the indigent white population, develop the island's economic prosperity and reform its laws. He became a member of His Majesty's Council and a member of St. John's Parish Vestry.

Steele's innovative bent also came into play at a domestic level. Choosing to reside permanently at Byde Mill, he imported a wooden house from the United States, a two-storey structure which came complete with carpenters for its assembly.

Sadly, the wooden construction of the island's first "pre-fab" made it susceptible to destruction by the 1831 hurricane. But its early foundations are still visible today under the present verandah.

Steele, who remained at Byde Mill until his death in 1796, shared the house with Statia, a slave with whom he had two children. His will provided for them to inherit his property, but the law courts overturned the bequest. He nevertheless had the presence of mind to arrange for their transportation to freedom in England.

Byde Mill is also remembered as the site of the outbreak of the Confederation Riots of 1876, despite the fact that the property was in no way connected with the prevailing political and social turmoil.

The riots had their origins in a British policy proposing to link Barbados with some of the neighbouring islands for the purpose of establishing direct Crown Colony rule for the Confederation. To be effected by Governor John Pope-Hennessy, and designed to circumvent the power of the oligarchy in the House of Assembly and improve the living conditions of the masses, the proposal lit a powder keg of conflicting agendas and intrigue, which culminated in the insurrection.

Today a haven of peace, Byde Mill is a classic example of the relatively recent resurgence in appreciation for elegant country life in gracious surroundings evoking the romantic ambience of a bygone era.

Its present owners, Marylee and Dick Bacharach, purchased the property in 1970 from architect Jimmy Walker and his artist wife Jill of "Best Of Barbados" fame. As professional interior designers, the Bacharachs have painstakingly restored and subtly enhanced the lovely old house without sacrificing any of its unique character or charm.

Essentially a Georgian structure, with signature symmetry and perfect proportions, Byde Mill has a classic double-entrance stairway, with sweeping verandahs on two sides and hooded upstairs windows, all designed to optimise the cooling breezes and compliment the effect of the surrounding centuries-old shade trees.

Inside, public rooms flow gracefully one to another. From entrance hall, through drawing and dining rooms to library, all are rich in interesting detail with arched doorways, fine mouldings and many other intricate and enchanting touches bearing the owners' hallmark.

A large open stairwell leads upstairs to four delightfully different bedrooms where fans turn gently, suspended from tray ceilings, and every window reveals a colourful tropical view.

At garden level, fine arcades of flattened arches surround predominantly utility and recreational areas including an office, laundry, playroom and storage/studio.

The house is furnished with impeccable taste reflecting the owners' flair and passionate involvement with life's finer things. Many of the pieces were meticulously handcrafted from local mahogany in the property's various outhouses where the Bacharachs once operated a business creating exquisite replica furniture.

A feast for the senses, Byde Mill is also replete with immaculately maintained antiques, paintings, objets d'art, family heirlooms and collectibles, all displayed to maximum effect within the stunning setting that has been featured in a lengthy article in House and Garden magazine.

Out in the extensive grounds, the old sugar mill has been artfully outfitted with a wet bar, washroom and changing room for the swimming pool, and has been extended to include a covered verandah forming an idyllic location for outdoor dining and entertaining.

The impressive garden is planted with a fine collection of interesting and unusual tropical shrubs, palms and mature trees including the rare Lignum Vitae. Orchards brim with citrus and guava, while the old plantation "pond bottom" has been drained and planted with numerous varieties of exotic fruits.

A final glance through history's pages reveals that fate may have factored into the present ownership of this lovely old country mansion. When Mrs. Bacharach moved to Barbados from the United States, she was unaware that by some strange coincidence she was a direct descendant of a Barbadian who could well have once walked the grounds of Byde Mill.

Her ancestor, John Haywood, moved to North Carolina in 1730 where his subsequent record of outstanding public service was permanently acknowledged with the naming of Haywood County.

Mon, Feb 5, 2001

Terry Ally