Retirees set on Restoring Historic Treasure destroyed by Fire

    JN Group

    After losing their historic Whitfield Hall Great House in a devastating fire last year, Maurice John and Sheila Allgrove, senior citizens, found themselves in the midst of profound grief.

    The approximately 230-year-old hostel, which they owned and operated for the past 57 years in the Blue Mountains in St Thomas, was more than just a source of income; it was a place they had poured their hearts into. Despite the immense loss, the Allgroves have refused to let the tragedy defeat them as they will be restoring the hostel.

    In the wee hours of July 27, fire, the work of arsonists, gutted the hostel, an adjoining cottage and an outside kitchen resulting in an estimated loss of $60 million.  All guests had left the day before and the staff living quarters were unaffected. The building was insured.

    Among the lost treasure were antique furniture and furnishings, such as a weight-driven clock dating back to 1801; several Tilley lamps that were in use for more than 100 years; a Kerosene  fridge and deep freeze, books of family history that belonged to the previous owners, paintings by Mr Allgrove’s uncle and other heirlooms.

    Any effort by the nearest Jamaica Fire Brigade Station to save the building would have been futile as fire trucks are not able to access the area.

    “I find it extremely difficult to comprehend that anybody up here would burn down Whitfield,” bemoaned Mr Allgrove, who is 85 years old.

    “All the people who work at Whitfield and their families and I have been close for all of my life so I would not expect anybody to do anything like that. As a boy, I ‘lived’ in every yard from Penlyne Castle to Epping Farm.  Countless numbers of my friends are from there although many have passed on,” he said, as he tried to make sense of the tragedy.

    Throughout the years, the hostel had withstood major hurricanes, such as Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, Hurricane Charlie in 1951, and many others which caused only minor damage. Additionally, it was unaffected by the 1907 earthquake and the 1909 and the 2002 flood rains.

    Whitfield Hall Hostel, located a mile from Penlyne Castle, provided rustic accommodation for its visitors, and had no electricity. It sat on 40 acres of mountainside, 25 of which are dedicated to coffee farming. Originally, it was part of a 301-acre property before 50 acres were added to the forest reserve by the Government in 1926. From 1943 onwards, it was further subdivided.

    Prior to the Allgroves becoming owners of the great house, Louise Stedman, Mr Allgrove’s mother, had leased it from the owners from 1925 to 1936 and operated it as a guest house while pursuing a tourism venture, taking tourists to the peak and across Jamaica on horseback.

    The property holds much sentimental value to the Allgroves. It was also a repository of cherished memories for hundreds of guests and nature lovers, locally and abroad, who have stayed at the site which also served as a campsite for hikers. The scenic charm of the area, a spring, the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee and the crisp mountain air are always a constant lure for repeat guests.


    “The majority of our business were people going to the Blue Mountain peak because we are the last inhabited house below Blue Mountain peak,” Mr Allgrove pointed out, while adding that the hostel was able to accommodate up to 32 people and many campers in tents in front of the main building.


    Ricardo Williams, a former guest, said the Whitfield Hall Hostel was an ideal place to rejuvenate.


    “You got this feeling of real peace and oneness with nature. If you wanted to take yourself away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it was really one of those places you could go,” he said adding that he is looking forward to the restoration of the property.


    The former civil engineer and consultant disclosed that they will be able to restore the building with the intervention of their long-time insurers, JN General Insurance.


    “Actually the people who owned the hostel immediately before me, from 1950 to 1964, were insured with them when it was NEM Insurance. I took over the insurance and I have been insured with them from that time.”


    “It is our plan to rebuild the main building with slight modifications in the design but the same footprint of the previous one,” Mr Allgrove disclosed, while estimating that the restoration process may take a year or more.


    In the meantime, the Allgroves are providing limited accommodation for up to seven persons in a two-bedroom cottage which is located on the same property, a ‘stone throw’ from the destroyed buildings.


    Although the property is steeped in rich history, it was never a registered heritage site with the Jamaica National Heritage Trust which has oversight for the promotion, preservation, and development of Jamaica’s material cultural heritage.


    “I never pursued trying to get it as a heritage site,” Mr Allgrove said.

    Was this article helpful?