We went for a stroll around the neighborhood this morning – but not a leisurely stroll as thunder was rumbling all around. The streets were very quiet, as today is National Heroes’ Day, a public holiday. This week is Heritage Week, when we reflect on the legacy of our National Heroes, and on our history – the good, the bad, and the ugly. We are aware of, our own ambivalence about our colonial heritage, but putting that aside, this piece of heritage was a rather depressing sight: Vale Royal.
In his message for National Heritage Week, Jamaica’s Governor-General, Sir Patrick Allen, sounded as if he was gently pressing us to do more:
As we celebrate our heritage and the contributions of our national heroes, I encourage all Jamaicans to get into action now for the sake of our nation. Believe in yourselves and each other, so that together we can make Jamaica a habitable place.
Jamaica is one of those places where, whichever way you turn, there is work to be done. Projects started, but never completed. Hopes and dreams that never quite turn into reality. Plans made that never materialize into actions. I am not talking about Government specifically – just generally.
I hope that the Governor-General will take note that very little action is being taken nowadays to maintain at least one part of Jamaica’s national heritage. It is not an encouraging sight at all.
This is Vale Royal.
Described in many articles as “the official Prime Minister’s residence,” Vale Royal has hardly been used as such. In fact, it was considered too small, after it was refurbished in 1962. It was re-purposed as the official residence of the Finance Minister. In December of 1962, the House of Representatives approved Vale Royal as the official residence of the Minister of Finance and in February of 1963, the House approved the construction of a new residence for the Prime Minister of Jamaica – Jamaica House.
However, Prime Minister Edward Seaga and his family did live there in the 1980s. Built in 1694 (not “1964” as posted on the Office of the Prime Minister’s website) by a wealthy planter named Sir William Taylor and then known as Prospect Pen, the property was sold to the government in 1928, when it became the official residence of the British Colonial Secretary (then Sir Reginald Edward Stubbs).
According to the Office of the Prime Minister’s website:
In recent times, the residence has been left unoccupied and is used for state functions, ceremonies, meetings hosted the Prime Minister and entertainment including an annual luncheon with members of Parliament and Christmas treats for children and the elderly.
On our morning walk, we observed its dilapidated state. The pictures tell the story, I think.
What was particularly concerning was that there was absolutely no sign of security on the property. The guard house at the gate was empty. The front door of the main house was standing open. It seemed deserted.
Recently, we have noticed that there is no longer a small Jamaica Defence Force garrison at the property, which obviously guarded it and kept things in order. I suppose the soldiers must be very busy elsewhere.
Incidentally, a 2016 newspaper article, using information obtained through the Access to Information Act, reported that in 2015 the Government spent J$7.4 million on maintaining the unoccupied property – including utility bills totaling almost J$4 million. I wonder what the budget is now.
It’s no exaggeration to say that poor Vale Royal looks like many of the older properties in our part of town: sadly declining, knowing its best years are behind it, waiting either for squatters to move on or (more likely) for a “developer” to knock it down and build an apartment block.
This is not only a lovely property, a piece of history. It has potential as a public place, owned by Government and therefore owned by the people of Jamaica.
If no one wants to live there (and clearly they don’t – I once heard it had a “duppy”) here are a few suggestions:
- It could be a nice art gallery or museum, with a small cafe. A place to chill. The surrounding large piece of land could be beautifully landscaped and planted with native trees and plants, a public park.
- It could be an educational site, where schoolchildren could do tours, with a kitchen garden and a bee-keeping operation.
- And (this is a big one) it could become the home of the Institute of Jamaica (or one of its several museums) – since the Insitute is facing major structural issues, as are many of the older buildings downtown. It could all be safe and dry up at Vale Royal! Of course, there would be considerable cost involved in this.
In any event, we fervently hope to see Vale Royal given a little “TLC.” Please!