Fern Gully over the years . . .

last updated in March 2011

'The Fern Gully of the Parish of St. Ann, leading directly down in its extensions to the coast at Ocho

Rios, has long been considered one of Jamaica's prime showplaces. I believe that almost all authorities now agree that the town's name is a corruption of the

Spanish Las Chorreras, which signifies "the cascades"

or "waterfalls," rather than the "eight rivers" which

is the translation of the contemporary epithet. And I

am sure that better experts I have long considered that  Fern Gully was once a series of cascading falls,

tumbling downwards to the sea and bringing the

needed soils upon which the present community of

Ocho Rios is built.' 

                                         Alex Hawkes, October 29, 1970
It has, so far, proved an impossible task to pin down the exact origin of the 'Famous Fern Gully'; in 1981 an eight-man technical committee advising the relevant Minister on rehabilitating  Fern Gully, gave him a brief
history of it, as far as they were able, 'but informed the Minister that its
origin was either
obscure or lost.'
May be there is someone out there who will be able to help us out!
 None of the early maps of Jamaica in the 18th and 19th centuries, that I have looked at, give any indication of Fern Gully, nor, in almost all cases, of a road following such a route.
 The map on the left comes from A Tourist Map of the Island of Jamaica published around 1900 in a pamphlet entitled A Happy Month in Jamaica, which was produced by the United Fruit Company to attract tourists to the island. [I am still trying to get access to a copy, online or hardcopy, of the pamphlet.]
 This is the first map I have found which names Fern Gully and shows the road through it; the map was intended especially for cyclists, who would certainly have appreciated the information on roads, and on gradients, which the map included.
Possibly Fern Gully started out with an underground river flowing through caves, the roofs of which later collapsed. Some have suggested that it was created in the 1760s by a flash flood, but do not seem to indicate the source of this information. Edward Long, in his History of Jamaica (1774), wrote:
 But this does not seem to refer to 'Fern Gully' rather to the road eastwards into St Mary.
 However, in 1785, it is said, the House of Assembly authorised expenditure on altering and completing the road from Moneague to Ocho Rios Bay, and, that in 1800 the Journal of the Assembly referred to that road as passing through the Gully.
It is also suggested that Fern Gully was at first called Ocho Rios Gully, but I have not so far found that name being used: can anyone throw some light on these claims?                                                                  jamaica.history(at)outlook(dot)com
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However, I have recently discovered references to it as the 'Gully Road', so I am able to include some of those here.
the Gully Road 
 So far the earliest usage that I have found of the name 'the gully road' is in Twenty-nine Years in the West Indies and Central Africa: A Review of Missionary Work and Adventure, 1829-1858, by the Rev Hope Masterton Waddell, famous Presbyterian missionary in Jamaica and, especially, West Africa. In an account of his travels in the island in 1837-8 he wrote:

'At Ocho Rios I turned towards the interior up a road which I was told would lead to Goshen where our brother Mr Jameson lately arrived had settled. It was called the "gully road" and was a strange and ancient looking way but whether a work of art or natural formation could not be known. Its name partly describes its character. It led inwards between ranges of forest clad hills and was walled on both sides by continuous lines of moss grown rock mantled with creepers like old ivy clad mason work. No stream flowed there nor was the way encumbered with loose rocks and masses of debris and heaps of sand like an old water course.

The surface seemed of smooth solid rock. It was a piece of antiquity as if it had been made or discovered by the Spaniards and then forgotten. Neither man nor beast appeared for miles nor watchman's hut nor provision ground nor any sign of human labour on stone or tree. Fine timbers grew untouched or lay rotting where they fell. All was old and grey, silent and solitary. After plodding mile after mile through that gloomy and lonely avenue without seeing a living thing or means of outlet I began to be anxious for some escape from the defile before night. At length the way brightened, the hills opened, the summit was reached, human habitations were discovered and by various though unusual paths I gained my destination. I had been misguided in taking that way. The right one called the barquadier road led from Frankfort wharf where I had spent the night with the watchman two years before, up the sides of the mountains and through the magnificent scenery of the White River with which I had the pleasure at a later period of making a delighted acquaintance.' 

It is clear from this excerpt that the name 'gully road' was well established, but also that ferns were not, apparently, particularly notable in its vegetation; at least the writer did not mention seeing them in the 'gloomy and lonely avenue'. The Rev Mr Waddell seemed in fact somewhat put out that he had been misdirected to this unattractive route rather than the more 'magnificent scenery of the White River' which would have taken him directly to Goshen.
It would be good to find some earlier references to the 'gully road', which was certainly not noted by Lady Nugent in March 1802 when she passed through St Ann, by the coast road which she described as 'frightful; so narrow and rocky, and the precipices dreadful'. Who else described the 'gully road' in the first four decades of the 19th century?
It also seems that the planting of ferns along the 'Gully Road', if it was ever done deliberately, must have happened in the three decades between Waddell's time and the early 1870s, when it was the 'ferniest gully' one visitor had ever seen!

Just recently, while tracking down another topic in 19th century Jamaica, I came across a reference to 'Moncrieff's Gully' in an account written by an anonymous visitor to Jamaica, presumably around 1860. The 'gully' described, from location and physical character, seems to be what was later named 'Fern Gully'. So far the only other use of this name that I have found is in a volume of the MANUAL OF CONCHOLOGY [study of mollusc shells] 1904, page 10, about a shell found in 'Jamaica: Moncrieff Gully, parish of St. Ann'. It will interesting to find out if anyone has references to the gully under this name.

The Dublin University Magazine,  June, 1861

pages 678-9

Scene and Customs in the West Indies - Jamaica
Descending the northern face of Mont Diabolo we soon entered a district the scenery of which again was quite unlike what we had hitherto met . . . .
We entered the wonderful volcanic fissure or ravine extending for two miles northwards called Moncrieff's Gully. Though the sun was still powerful his influence did not penetrate these deep shades. The gully is just wide enough to allow two carriages to pass while the rocks on either side tower abruptly to the height in some places of about three hundred feet but so dense is the foliage that it is only occasionally that the rock itself is detected. From every crevice and fissure and from the base to the summit trees large and small start forth, arch over, and interlace their branches, and tower far up into the blue chink of sky that is visible. They are densely covered with parasitical plants and seem to be corded together with singular vegetable ropes. These latter, in their turn, are also bound with convolvuli and spomseas [morning glory] which, springing from below, catch the depending suckers and climb up them. throwing out at every leafy articulation a red, white, yellow, blue, or purple blossom.
Occasionally a fallen tree, with its load of parasites and stay like ropes, bridges the ravine; and as a stray slanting beam broke through some slight opening, the effect was enchanting. I thought of the passage, "And the glorious beauty which is on the head of the fat valley shall be a fading flower."(1) Sometimes at a later hour, when the fire flies and glow worms begin to show their tiny lanterns against moss and fern and tree, the effect is beautiful, realizing much of the force of Quarles' quaint metaphor "Golden lamps hung in a green night" (2).

(1) King James Bible/Authorised Version
Isaiah 28:4 'And the glorious beauty, which is on the head of the fat valley, shall be a fading flower, and as the hasty fruit before the summer; which when he that looketh upon it seeth, while it is yet in his hand he eateth it up.'
(2) The quotation is actually from a poem by Andrew Marvell, not by Francis Quarles, who was a far inferior poet:

Andrew Marvell
He hangs in shades the orange bright
Like golden lamps in a green night,
And does in the pomegranates close
Jewels more rich than Ormus shows:

It is interesting that the word 'fern' occurs only once, perhaps relating the description more to the Rev Hope Waddell's grimmer account than to Marianne North's 'ferniest gully'!

By the time Marianne North travelled this route in 1871-2 it had become
'the very ferniest gully'

 Marianne North [click on her picture for more information] was one of the many artists who have visited Jamaica over the centuries.
 During her visit in 1871-2 she spent some time on the north coast and wrote of travelling back to the south through St Ann 'ascending by the very ferniest gully I ever saw'. This surely must have been what later became famous as 'Fern Gully' already well planted with ferns in the early 1870s, but not at that date identified by the name it later acquired. The painting below seems to be of the 'Fern Walk' in the mountains near Newcastle, but it does illustrate the type of vegetation she was recording.

Marianne North,

Recollections of a Happy Life, 1894, p110

(writing about her stay in Jamaica in 1871-2)

'I was sorely tempted to take a small vacant house there called Eden

Bower for ₤3 a month, with endless

cocoanuts and grass for the horses,

and  allspice to pay my rent (fever

also in plenty). Prudence, however,

drove me back to the civilised side of

the island over the Monte Diabolo. Ascending by the very ferniest gully

I ever saw, where the banana leaves were absolutely unbroken by any

wind, we came to a kind of alpine

scenery a wide waving table- land of

grass with trees dotted about it, oranges, allspice, and different

timber trees hung with orchids, but

not in flower.'

About the same time, Antonio Gallenga, a famous Italian writer, and correspondent for the Times of London, visited the island and wrote, in The Pearl of the Antilles, in 1873, of riding up 'the famous "Gully Road" '.
In 1883 Marianne North's friend, Lady Brassey, wrote in her journal of her short stay in Jamaica; she wrote in glowing terms of her family's drive through the moonlit 'Gully Road'. She and her husband and children were on one of numerous cruises on their ship, the 'Sunbeam'. Certainly from her description the 'Gully Road' already deserved the 'Fern Gully' title which it was to assume in about ten years time.
Anne Brassey 
Also in 1883, William C Bates wrote of his visit to Jamaica in Appalachia, the journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club of Boston. He also described the 'Gully Road':
 Rufous-throated Solitaire
The term 'Gully Road' continued to be the accepted name for the road out of Ocho Rios towards Moneague, until, it seems, the promoters of the Moneague Hotel decided that the phrase 'Fern Gully' was more appealing in their advertisements, perhaps in part because of the 'Fern Craze' of the period. [see more on the 'Moneague Hotel']
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 There is also the suggestion that 'Fern Gully' was created when it was planted with ferns by George Samuel Jenman in the 1870s, when he was on the staff of Jamaica's Botanical Gardens; he is also acknowledged as something of an expert on Jamaican ferns. This sounds a reasonable possibility, but no evidence seems to exist to support it.
In an editorial in October 1879 on Jenman's last report as Superintendent of Botanical Gardens the Gleaner referred to 'a new fern house where the scientific culture of this exquisite branch of the Flora of Jamaica can receive due consideration' and to 'ferns, of which a specimen of a fine species, a native of Jamaica, but new to science, has been added to the gardens'. However, neither when Jenman left for British Guiana at that time, nor at the time of his death in March 1902, is there any mention of Fern Gully. In his introduction to his Hand-List of The Jamaican Ferns Jenman in fact makes it clear that his work on ferns had been confined to the Blue Mountains, particularly the southern slopes, and urges the need for similar work on the northern slopes. It seems fairly certain that, whatever Jenman's contribution to the study of Jamaica's ferns, he was not responsible for the wonderful Gully.
          (Click on the title page to see Jenman's introduction to the list.)
 In an article in the Gleaner last year Hilary Robertson-Hickling wrote 'I would encourage all Jamaicans who want to see Fern Gully, which was planted in 1888, to go to see it before it disappears.' (02 09 '07)

Others also seem to believe that Fern Gully was planted up in the 1880s, and this certainly seems a reasonable proposition, since, as we shall see, the first mentions of 'Fern Gully' seem to come in 1890; Michael Burke wrote in the Observer (29 12 '05) '. . . that Fern Gully is a dried-up river bed in which a retired army major planted over 500 species of ferns in the 1880s. I learnt this while doing research for Jamaica Corner on IRIE FM in the early 1990s.' Olive Senior writes that it was first planted out in the 1880s by a superintendent of Public Gardens.

However, I have so far not been able to find any mentions of this project, whoever carried it out! Again - perhaps someone can provide further information on this?
 Who was John Hinchley Hart, and did he have anything to do with Fern Gully? Find out more HERE
Or before that there was Nathaniel Wilson - did he have anything to do with the Gully Road? More HERE  
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 D T Wint, about 2 decades earlier than the 1933 meeting.
 While doing a little research for this site, I came across another claimant to the creation of Fern Gully, whom I have not seen mentioned elsewhere. In the account of a meeting in St Ann's Bay, in 1933, attended by the MLC, D Theo Wint, was recorded a claim by Charles Nicholas Heming/Hemming, a Land Surveyor of Claremont in St Ann, to have surveyed Fern Gully for the Government, and to have planted all the ferns there, in 1895. The audience apparently agreed with this claim, but in a letter printed a few days later another St Ann resident 'pooh-poohed' Heming/Hemming's story. 
           Daily Gleaner, May 8, 1933
 I had hoped there would be other comments on the matter, but so far have not found any. Heming/Hemming was indeed a surveyor, from 1896, and could possibly have been involved in some programme of rehabilitation of the Gully, a fore-runner of many later; indeed a Public Works report for 1895-6 referred to the improvement of the drainage of the Fern Gully road.
 But Fern Gully certainly existed before 1895, referred to, though not by name, by the Governor, Sir Henry Blake, in 1890, and constantly mentioned in advertisements for the Moneague Hotel.

So, for now, that is where the search for the beginnings of Fern Gully must stand; it will be great if someone can come up with further information on the topic.
Please email - jamaica(dot)history(at)outlook(dot)com
          Daily Gleaner, May 15, 1933
 Some sources:
'The Preservation of Fern Gully', Dulcie Powell, Jamaica Journal, Vol 8 No 2 & 3, Summer 1974, pages 66-71
                             'All Along The Roadside'
                                   Fern Gully, c1904
 from The Island of Sunshine, 
a book of poems 
by 'Tropica', Mary Adella Wolcott.

                                                                 your comments, please