People of the Bermuda Railway
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A name synonymous with the Bermuda Railway was that of the line’s chief engineer, Harold Jennings Kitchen, whose job description seems to have been “keep the damn thing running.”
Kitchen had earlier experience on mining and other railways in South America, and in the 1920s worked for the Drewry Car Company in England, which designed and manufactured the Bermuda Railway’s rolling stock. Kitchen himself designed the gearbox used on the line’s power cars.
Kitchen came to Bermuda in the late 1920s, while the railway was under construction, probably to represent the Drewry Car Co. He was soon appointed the railway’s chief engineer, a position he held throughout the life of the line.
By the end of 1931 the line was finally in operation. Once the inevitable teething troubles of the early years were over, Kitchen had to maintain and run a railway that, in its best years, made only just enough money to cover its running costs. Depreciation and preventative maintenance were luxuries, while interest payments and dividends for the company’s backers were unheard of.
Kitchen and the Bermuda Railway became masters in making do with what they had. With very few exceptions, all the railway’s rolling stock had arrived by 1933. After that the railway’s Middle Road shops had to find ways of rebuilding damaged or worn stock with what they had on hand, often cannibalizing one piece of equipment to keep another one running.
During World War II, the great increase in traffic cause by the construction of the American bases just made a difficult situation worse. While income rose, so did wear and tear on both stock and line, while shortages of supplies and labour added to the railway’s problems. At the end of 1942 the managing director, who shared with Kitchen the responsibility for the daily running of the line, went to the United States on a business trip and simply didn’t come back. From then on Kitchen did both jobs.
With the railway staff he kept the line running through it all, but after the war it soon became clear that the situation could not go on. The Company pulled out in early 1946, selling the line to the Bermuda Government, who immediately put Kitchen in charge.
Despite an apparent desire to keep the Railway running, the estimated cost of putting it back into shape soon changed the government’s mind. Harold Kitchen was appointed Director of Public Transportation with the unhappy task of overseeing the closing of the railway and the introduction of bus transportation to replace it.
Kitchen did this job with his usual efficiency. The last section of the Railway closed in 1948, by which time the efficient bus system which still serves Bermuda was operational. But as Colin Pomeroy puts it, “Harold Kitchen’s heart was never in the task of running the Bermuda bus system” (p. 114).
Harold Kitchen died in Bermuda in December 1950.
Ronald Stemp joined the Bermuda Railway as general manager in August 1931, two months before opening day. He would run the railway, alongside company Secretary William Curtis and Chief Engineer William Kitchen, until he resigned at the end of 1942.
Stemp came from a railway family: his father was a traffic superintendent on London and North Eastern Railway in the U.K., and Stemp himself had previously worked on railways in Argentina.
While Harold Kitchen had to keep the railway physically operating, Stemp and Curtis had to deal with the railway’s board of directors in Bermuda and the line’s distant owners in London, not to mention the Bermuda government — and Bermuda public opinion.
The fact that the railway never made money, and found itself in increasing difficulties as the 1930s came to a close and war approached, meant that Stemp found himself under growing stress.
In 1941 and 1942, Stemp spent a lot of time in the United States working to acquire new locomotives for the railway. But at the same time he became convinced that the railway would be unable to stand up to the competition from motor transport that most people expected would come once the war was over.
His surprise resignation came in December 1942. His resignation letter remarked: “Once buses are allowed on the roads and merchants are allowed the use of trucks for delivery, the railway will cease to function as a revenue-earning concern.”
From the beginning of hostilities Stemp had wanted to make a greater contribution to the war effort, learning to fly at the Bermuda Flying School as early as 1940. After leaving the Bermuda Railway Company, he apparently spent the rest of the war serving in the Royal Air Force.
The other names on this page are of individuals, all white individuals at that, and all but one were British. The Bermuda Railway was managed by these and other British men, but without the workers who built it and then operated it, both white and black, there would have been no railway.
Black Bermudian labourers built the railway along with general and specialized workers brought in from Canada and the United States. Kanyen'kehà:ka (Mohawk) ironworkers from Kahnawake near Montreal came in to work on the steel bridges at Ferry Point, Flatts and Somerset.
Once the railway opened, in segregated Bermuda railway management was white, as were its office employees, while operating and maintenance staff were mixed. There were some black drivers but until 1947 conductors, who dealt directly with the public, were always white.
In 1944 the railway staff numbered 128, and aside from 18 management and office staff, the remaining 110 were the workers who maintained the track and the rolling stock, the drivers who ran the trains, the conductors who dealt with the public, the cleaners and the station staff.
It seems only fair that the essential role of these workers should be recognized.
If Chief Engineer Harold Kitchen was ubiquitous on the railway, his wife Gladys Kitchen was always there too, though usually in the background. She can often be seen in photographs from the period.
In 1932 and 1933 she edited the Bermuda Railway Magazine, published both for the railway staff and for a wider Bermuda public.
It was well known that the chief engineer took his job seriously. He was available day and night, he did everything, and the railway came first. The stress this led to was constant and as son William later put it:
“A very important part of the Bermuda Railway was Mother. Father was a very sensitive man who, as is required of the Yorkshire race, put on a varnished, tough facade, but behind the disguise was easily discouraged, and with due reason, on the Bermuda Railway.”
During World War II, as Bermuda worried about an Axis attack, Gladys Kitchen offered her help and her house in handling emergency cases. A 1942 letter from General Manager Stemp thanked her for her offer: “I do appreciate your offer of assistance to the Railway personnel in the event of injury.”
For Harold Kitchen the stresses of running the Bermuda Railway and then public transportation in difficult circumstances contributed to an early death, in December 1950. Although many in the Bermuda House of Assembly proposed that Gladys Kitchen should get some sort of a pension in recognition of her husband’s service, in the end she received simply a one-time payment of £1,000.
Gladys Kitchen returned to England shortly after her husband’s death.
William J. Curtis joined the Bermuda Railway Company in August 1931, two months before opening. He started as the company accountant, but soon become company secretary as well.
Over the years it was Curtis who had to maintain the complicated links between the Bermuda Railway Company and its owners, the Bermuda Railways Investment Company (BRIC) in London. He also managed the link between the operating railway and its board of directors, and between the railway company and the Bermuda authorities.
When Ronald Stemp resigned as general manager of the railway at the end of 1942, he suggested that the “thoroughly competent” Curtis should become the new general manager. In fact Curtis and Chief Engineer Harold Kitchen henceforth acted as joint managers.
By now Curtis was also a full-fledged director of the Bermuda Railway Company which, as the end of the railway approached, would sometimes place him in a difficult position juggling the the interests of the railway’s owners and those of the local company.
By the end Curtis was convinced that the railway could not be viable in a post-war Bermuda that had allowed in motor vehicles.
Along with Kitchen, Curtis stayed on to manage the company for the first year after it was sold to the Bermuda government at the end of 1945. But where Kitchen stayed in Bermuda to become the country’s Director of Public Transportation, Curtis resigned July 1, 1947, and returned to England.
William Kitchen was Harold Kitchen’s son, and he too worked on the Bermuda Railway in the early years. As he later said in a 1978 letter to The Globe and Mail: “I also worked as an apprentice to the English Electric Company, which made the Drury rail cars, and later joined father on the railway.”
Nineteen years old, he arrived in Bermuda on Jan. 7, 1932 on the SS Norwegian, which was bringing in new railway stock. He became an assistant engineer in the running shed at Middle Road yard, but apparently also had the occasional opportunity to pilot a train if the system was short a driver.
On December 7, 1934 The Royal Gazette reported on William’s 21st birthday party: “On Saturday night at the Elbow Beach Hotel one of the most brilliant social events of the season was held by Mr. and Mrs. H. J. Kitchen in honour of their son William on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday.”
He left the railway in 1937 after a disagreement with his father over an unauthorized adjustment to motor coach #12 made while the senior Kitchen was away. Although the modification was apparently a success, his father fired him on the spot, saying: “You have disobeyed my orders. There is no room for two chiefs on this railway, and I am not the one to go.” William later remarked, “Something that only Dad and I understood was how to retain our father-son relationship, whilst severing once and for all the connection of our professional endeavours.”
During the World War II he joined the Canadian Naval Reserve where he reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander. After the war he worked in Canada as an engineer.
William Kitchen wrote a series of articles chronicling the history of the Bermuda Railway that were published in The Bermudian magazine in 1981-82 as “The Railway that Vanished”. The Bermuda Archives have the original manuscript of this memoir, including various appendices that did not make it into the magazine version.
Robert Augustus Cummings was the first promoter behind what would become the Bermuda Railway Company. He wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, but he was the one who eventually got the Bermuda legislature to take it seriously.
Cummings was a British-born civil engineer based in Pittsburgh, PA, with extensive experience in the United States and extensive Bermuda connections. In 1920 he proposed a system of “buses on rails” to a parliamentary committee. He also offered to carry out the railway survey in 1922, but the contract went to the more experienced but cheaper William Foxlee.
After Foxlee’s Report had given a green light to the railway, however, Cummings, in concert with the newly established Bermuda Construction Compony, proposed an island-wide “motor car railway” that would use gasoline-powered railcars and trailers. He claimed it would cost no more than £175,000 — a far cry from the actual cost, as it would turn out.
Eventually Bermudians were convinced and in 1924 the legislature passed the Bermuda Railway Act and, once Cummings had managed to raise the money in England, the process of building the line could begin.
It took a lot longer, and cost a lot more, than anticipated. In the process, Cummings was eventually sidelined by the British owners of the railway, who were apparently not impressed with his performance. Although Cummings’ name remained on the Bermuda Railway shareholders list until the end, he played no active role after 1929.
Sir Stanley Spurling, so important between the wars that he was known as “Bermuda’s Prime Minister” — although as a colony Bermuda had no prime minister — was a solid opponent of the railway from the beginning. He was firmly in the “pro-motors” camp, which wanted to rescind Bermuda's 1908 ban on motor vehicles and permit motor transport.
Yet by the end of 1932 he was a director of the Bermuda Railway Company, and by 1946 its vice-president and chairman of the board. What happened?
Although Spurling had opposed the railway from the start, once it became clear in 1928 that Bermuda had made its choice, he told the House of Assembly that, despite his personal disagreement, “it was now the duty of the House to see that the Railway Co. got a fair show.” His change of opinion riled other pro-motors supporters, but he stuck to his position.
Stanley Spurling represented St. George’s in the House of Assembly for almost 40 years, twice served in the governor’s Executive Council (equivalent to the cabinet) and also on the Legislative Council (today’s Senate). In Bermuda terms, he was a progressive. He supported women’s suffrage long before it came to pass, he supported trade union legislation, and in 1946 became the first chair of the colony’s Public Transportation Board.
Would he have kept the railway? Probably not. He remained a supporter of motor vehicles and, when it became obvious that the railway could not continue, was prepared to see it go.