Falmouth Field Guide

Davidson House

Long assumed to have housed unmarried officers from the nearly adjacent Fort Balcarres, recent documentary research tells a very different story about the sizeable two-story galleried house overlooking the harbor at the corner of Charlotte and King Streets. In 1822, William Wray and John Gairdner, merchants and partners, purchased this unimproved lot from Samuel Barrett Moulton Barrett for £100.1 Presumably John Gairdner took control of the property and then died because the next reference to the property is in the 1837 will of Mary Gairdner, a free woman of color who was probably John’s wife. To a Mr. John Finney, who was away from Jamaica, Mary Gairdner gave “my Bay Creole House.” If Finney did not return, the house was to revert to her son, Thomas Davidson, who also received the house she lived in and her household furnishings.2 Apparently illiterate, Mary Gairdner signed her will with an “X” rather than with her name.

Like a number of free women of color in town, Mary Gairdner was an extensive landowner in Falmouth in her own capacity. The first mention of Mary Gairdner as a landowner is in a lot of land in the Reid Town section of Falmouth. In October 1800, Mary Gardner [sic], purchased a part of lot 55 on Upper Parade Street from John Baillie for £150.3 Later her will provided each of her four children to remain in the houses where they were living at the time of her death in 1837.4

Today, the “bay” lot includes the large house and two service buildings. Sitting directly on King and Charlotte Streets, the main house is a two-story, U-shaped structure facing the harbor. A keystone over the east doorway bears the inscription August 1838, suggesting that whoever took control of the house after Mary Gairdner’s death, either John Finney or Thomas Davidson, embarked on a significant remodeling or reconstruction campaign. Compared to other homes in Falmouth, this house is large; at 64 feet long with a 25-foot deep central block and wings that extend an additional 13 feet, it occupies a significant percentage of the 50 x 120 foot lot. Much of the house was constructed of light red brick laid in Flemish bond, with several yellow-brick jack arches. Portions of the brickwork were lime washed twice, first with ochre then a lighter ochre or white. The brick was then covered with lime stucco and scored to resemble ashlar stone. The upper stories of two wings that project from the core of the house towards the south are frame; a portion of the east wing retains early beaded horizontal flush sheathing. The hipped roofs have a traditional roof crown, seen on buildings throughout Falmouth. A gallery surrounds the house on three sides. The balustrade on the upper level gallery features a decorative punched design and thin posts and appears to be later Victorian era. Examples of the same pattern can be observed on buildings all over town. The interior of the house has not been documented, however there is an account of a grand stair curving up to the second story from near the front door.

At the back of the property is a long, shallow service building measuring 64’ 8½” by 12’6”. Constructed of brick, the structure abuts the property wall. Montpelier Estate in St. James had a very similar building, built as part of the complex surrounding the new overseers house in 1831. A masonry building with a shingled roof, the long, narrow, eight-room structure may have housed house slaves, as well as cooking and laundry facilities.5 During the 1960s or 1970s the exterior received a coating of stucco and a decade later the roof was reconstructed. During this phase, the interior was gutted and rendered with stucco. A masonry partition divided the building into a 27’ long space and a second space that was 34’ 9”. These were subdivided into five smaller rooms with individual doors and one larger room. The smaller rooms may have been living spaces while the space west of the masonry partition was used as workspace or a servants’ hall. Currently, no evidence of a chimney is visible, though one could have been removed. It is also possible that the structure never had a chimney and cooking was done in one or two of the smaller buildings previously on the site.

A small service building stands in the corner of the walled yard along the south property line but was also gutted and rendered with stucco. Enough of the stucco has fallen away to see rough masonry of yellow and red brick, laid primarily as headers. Two small building were indicated in this same area on a 1950s town plan, however only one remains.

1 Samuel Barrett Moulton Barrett to William Wray and John Gairdner, 20 March 1822, Deeds, Island Record Office, volume 712, folio 108

2 Mary Gairdner Will, 3 March 1837, Wills, Island Record Office, volume 117, folio 143

3 John Baillie to Mary Gardner, 1 October 1800, Deeds, Island Record Office, volume 505, folio 154

4 Mary Gairdner Will, 3 March 1837, Wills, Island Record Office, volume 117, folio 143

5 Higman, B.W., Montpelier Jamaica: A Plantation Community in Slavery and Freedom 1739-1912. Kingston: The Press University of the West Indies, 1998, 113