To be as "wealthy as a West Indian" was a common saying in England by the end of the eighteenth century.
Located in the heart of the city, Devon House is an oasis of lush greenery, a postage stamp of beauty at the corner of an intersection where two major arteries, Hope and Trafalgar Roads cross each other. Its lush pristine grounds and classic Jamaican Georgian architecture in the midst of concrete and asphalt catches and holds the eye as one drives by.
Though not technically a great house, since it was never a part of a plantation, it is included because it is a fine specimen of the plantation era and its designation by the Jamaican Government as a heritage site.
The land on which Devon House is built, was part of Devon Pen, belonging to the Anglican church. A pen (or penn) was where livestock and other agricultural supplies were grown in support of large sugar plantations. The land was granted by the English Monarchs to the Church as home to the serving Rectors of the Anglican Church. It was later acquired by George Stiebel, a wealthy business man of humble beginnings. The son of a Jewish German Merchant and his black housekeeper, George became Jamaica's first black millionaire. He built Devon House on the fountains of an old rectory on land he acquired from the church of England.
The House is a premier example of the Jamaica Georgian architecture with its neoclassical form, symmetry and wide sweeping stairways. It features many of the standard elements that were added to the Georgian style to adapt it to the tropical climate of the island; jalousied windows providing ventilation, wrap around porches enclosed with ventilated windows to offer protection from the sun while permitting light and maximizing the flow of the cooling breeze.
The inside is adorned with genuine antique pieces, authentic and reproduced Jamaican, British and French furnishings, as well as photos of the Stiebel family and distinguished visitors such the Royal family. The floor plans of the ground and upper floor are presented below. Photographs of the rooms can be viewed by clicking on the rooms with a camera icon.
The kitchen is notably missing from the floor plan because it was not part of the main building. It was located to the back of the house in a separate building, as was the custom of the day. This was a common feature of the plantation houses of the era; a safety measure to mitigate the risk of fire in the main bulding, as well as reduce the heat.
Solomon Schloss and his older brother Sigismund arrived in Kingston in 1833 from Frankfurt, via England, the same year the English Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that finally abolished slavery in Jamaica and the other West Indian colonies. The brothers were Jews looking for opportunity in the new world.
The Schloss brothers, chose Kingston as a destination because they already had family there with established business interests. In 1780, their paternal uncle had traveled from Frankfurt to England to start a business exporting British-made fabrics while their maternal uncle, Sigismund Stiebel, chose to move all the way to Jamaica. The British at that time, were encouraging Jews to go to Jamaica by offering them full rights and British citizenship in the colony.
Encouraged by their uncle Sigismund Stiebel, who was now securely established on the island, Solomon and his older brother, also named Sigismund, landed in Jamaica, soon followed by their younger twin brothers, Daniel and Leopold, leaving two brothers behind in Frankfurt. They were to set up a family business with trade links in Kingston, Bogota, Frankfurt, Manchester and London. They, like other Jews, served in the militia as proof that they had become devoted Englishmen. In 1839, they helped to build the new English-German synagogue in Kingston, as the old synagogue had become too small for the growing community.
In the 1821, prior to the arrival of the Schloss brothers, the housekeeper of Sigismund Stiebel -- the uncle that encouraged the brothers to move to Jamaica -- bore Sigismund Stiebel a son named George Stiebel. The housekeeper was of African parentage, and based on the timing of the birth would likely have been a house slave. Historical records -- Parliamentary Return (Accounts of Slave Compensation Claims) -- show that Sigismund had 3 enslaveds and his wife Eliza, had one. The person listed under Eliza's claim would more likely have been the housekeeper, i.e. George's mother, more so than the three listed under Sigismund, but this is only a hypothesis.
Sigismund, following in Jewish tradition, took full responsibility and cared for his son, moving him from his mother's quarters into the main house where he was grown under the care and discipline of his father. The bond and trust between the two grew with his father later setting him up in business. George's successes later in life suggest that he was a natural entrepreneur, a quick study and a self starter, so this seed money was just what he needed to begin his journey towards wealth. A journey that eventually led him to becoming Jamaica's first black millionaire, with honors bestowed by Queen Victoria.
Growing up as a child of mixed race must have been difficult back then, especially in schools attended by the children of the plantocracy and the more privileged. Being of Jewish descent must have made it doubly difficult. Tired of being the subject of taunts and maybe even physical abuse at school, George dropped out and ran away at the age of 14.
Having searched diligently for him, his father eventually found him working in a carpenter's yard. Incensed and frustrated, his father decided to apprentice the young man to a shipbuilder where he could learn the trade of a carpenter. At the end of his apprenticeship, he was to be given employment in his father's business. This would have been around 1835, a couple years after George's cousins, the Schloss brothers, had landed in Jamaica. It's reasonable to assume that the employment given after George's apprenticeship would have been at Stiebel, Brothers, and Company, a company where Sigismund and Samuel Stiebel and Solomon and Sigismund Schloss were the principals (later restructured in 1845 without Sigismund Schloss [see insert]). It's not clear how long George's stint working there lasted but by 19, he was involved with the reconstruction of the Ferry Inn on Spanish Town road, a well known landmark between Kingston and Spanish Town.
In his early 20s, his father gave him enough money to buy a ship. He began transporting cargo between North and South America. He quickly turned one ship into three and expanded to trading between other islands.
In 1844 he began shipping guns to the slaves in Cuba who had become restive having heard that slavery in Jamaica had been abolished. That enterprise however, came to an abrupt halt when he was thrown into a Cuban prison on a gunrunning conviction. He later escaped with the help of a guard who he befriended after learning that they were both freemasons.
Note: George was also briefly imprisoned in Santo Domingo.
He was caught up in Spain's 1861 Annexation of the Dominican Republic, which had been independent for 17 years. His letter to the British High Consul accounting his experience can be found here...
He fell in love with Magdalen Baker, the Jamaican daughter of a Moravian missionary. Her parents however, were unapproving of their union because of George's background and history as a gunrunner. The couple, out of Magdalen's obedience and respect for her parents, waited many years until both parents died before marrying in 1851. Children soon followed; a son, Sigismund, and daughter, Theresa... but so did tragedy.
As the story goes, all three of George's ships were lost at sea. A result of a bad storm. George, who was on one of the schooners that sank off the coast of Venezuela, swam to the shores of Venzuela after securing a money belt filled with the valuables he could gather, to his waist.
Not much is known about the event that led to the loss of George's ships, but it was the reason why he ended up in Venezuela, a fate that ultimately set him on the course to wealth. With a young family in Jamaica to support, Stiebel stayed in Venezuela, determined to recoup his lost fortune. He became a peddlar, buying and selling goods. George eventually met Antonio Liccioni, a Corsican trader and mule train operator from Ciudad Bolivar.
Rumors of the existence of gold aound the Yuruari river had circulated around the town of Ciudad Bolivar since 1842, when a Brazilian named Pedro Joaquim Ayares appeared in the town with gold samples. Pedro claimed that the gold came from the Yurari river. The story gained more credibility in 1849, when a Frenchman, Luis Plassard, again brought stories of finding gold in the area.
George's friend, Antonio Liccioni who frequently travelled the area as part of his trade, had intimate knowledge of the area. Antonio was convinced there was potential for gold in one of the old Spanish mines. He eventually registered some claims, and on January 18, 1870, he along with George Stiebel and ten others, formed a partnership called Compania El Callao (El Callao Company also known as El Callao Mining Company) to reopen an old Spanish mine located close to the Yuruari river about 100km from the border with Guyana. George Stiebel was named Chairman of the Board of Directors and Antonio Liccioni later bacame the President of the company.
They found gold but the vein was irregular. It was a promising start but they needed more equipment and a mill. They borrowed money to get supplies and eventually were able to sell some shares in Paris which gave a much needed infusion of capital, albeit a dilution to their equity. Once the mill was established, mining began in earnest with greater quantities of gold being extracted. The gold extracted steadily increased from 100 kilograms in 1871. By 1886 El Callao had become the world’s leading producer of gold producing 5.6 tons of gold at its peak. By 1892, the amount declined to 1 ton and was totally depleted by 1912.
Dividends from the mine were paid out consistently for eleven years, sometimes every month. By 1875, the dividend was double the original investment. In 1876, it was 5 times and in 1886, it amounted to 34 times the original capital.
George returned to Jamaica in 1873 a very wealthy man with an investment in a mine that continued to grow from strength to strength. But, the joy of returning and reuniting with his family was soured by the loss of his son who had died while he was gone. History is not clear on whether he knew of his son's passing prior to returning home. It is also unclear how long George remained in Venezuela but there are clues to make an estimate. We know he still had his ships and was actively trading in 1861 when he was briefly imprisoned in Santo Domingo, so it is a reasonable assumption that his time in Venezuela would have been no more than 11-12 years.
Now 52 and financially secure, he moved his family to London, bought a house on Wimpole Street and sent his daughter, Theresa, to finishing school in France.
He commissioned his cousin Leopold Schloss, to buy several properties in Jamaica; two sugar plantations called Lloyds and Retreat, a wharf on Church Street, a coffee plantation called Mullett, and Minard Penn in Browns Town, St Ann. The house at Minard Penn became the family's favorite vacation spot.
In 1879, he closed the transaction to purchase Devon Pen consisting of 53 acres from the Church of England. In 1881, George commissioned Charles P. Lazarus to build his dream house, a palatial residence he called Devon House, on the foundation that was the church rectory. It is worthwhile noting that this was the period when the El Callao mine was seeing exponential growth in production and its dividends, with George growing wealthier each year.
For 10 years, George and Magdalen, their daughter Theresa, and her husband Richard Hill Jackson, who had become the mayor of Kingston, lived like Jamaican royalty in the newly built residence. During this time Richard and Theresa had six children that all lived at Devon House.
With its elegant single staircase in the grand lobby, European antiques and handcrafted mahogany furniture, Devon House was a sight to behold. It still is. The bedrooms, with their Southern-style verandahs, grand ballroom, library, gaming room, grand Wedgwood ceilings and exquisitely carved fanlights above the doorways, earned Devon House the honor of being a National Heritage Site, bestowed by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.
Magdalen, his wife, died October 12, 1892. She was buried at the St Andrew Parish Church cemetery n Half Way Tree. George's daughter Theresa returned to England the following year, with her children except one, Douglas, who remained in Jamaica with his father and Grandfather at Devon House. A year later in 1895, the child contracted Typhoid and died. And, a week later, his father Richard Hill Jackson also died after a swim in the family pool. The cause of death was officially attributed to Influenza but is also believed to have been a heart attack.
Theresa who was in England must have been devasted by the news of losing her son and her husband in the space of a week. Her grief amplified with each mile that separated her from Jamaica and her inability to attend either funeral. As a mother and wife, this must have been quite difficult. Both Richard and Douglas were also buried at the St Andrew Parish Church cemetery in Half Way Tree.
Heartbroken and in his 70s, George Siebel died in 1896 leaving behind his daughter, his remaining grand children and his beloved Devon House. He was buried with his in the churchyard of the Half Way Tree Parish Church. Curiously, this was also the time when El Callao, the gold mine, was on the cusp to depletion.
George Stiebel served as Custos of St. Andrew, where he was instrumental in providing the funding for the Great Exhibition of 1891, an event aimed at opening new markets for exports and promoting tourism. Stiebel received the honor of Companion of the Most Distinguished Order (C.M.G.) in recognition of his services to the island from Queen Victoria.
The palatial elegance of the house, spilled out beyond its walls to the surrounding 53 acres of property, on which there was a carriage house, stables, a blacksmith shop, staff quarters, a kitchen, a pool and a tennis court on the east lawns. Additionally, George Stiebel who was a lover of horses and frequently attended horse races, built a racecouse to the back of the property and hired a trainer to train the horses.
The entire operation required a substantial staff to maintain day to day operations. There were several housemaids/laundresses, a butler, a cook, grooms for the horses (of which there were many), a horse trainer, a coachman and a small contingent of gardeners.
Today, the property sits on 11 acres -- one-fifth of its original size. The remaining forty acres or so, were carved off and developed when the property was sold for the first time in 1923. It was this division that facilitated the development of roads such as Devon Road and Waterloo Aveneue, along with the structures that now exists in the vicinity.
Today, the the former buildings and lawns on the 11 acres that were retained have been repurposed as part of the general redevelopment. The carriage house and blacksmith shop are now a restaurant and shops. The staff quarters have been converted to the Courtyard Shops. The Kitchen is today a bakery. The tennis court and the race track are now portions of the parking lot.
Devon House is the last surviving of three elaborate private homes built in the 19th century by three millioniares, George Stiebel, Daniel Finzi and the Verley at the intersection of Hope and Trafalgar Road. This crossroad was once known as "Millionaire's Corner". The other two houses were Abbey Court House, owned by the planter-merchant Louis Verley*1 and his wife Eliza Jane (nee Lazarus), now replaced by the Abbey Court Apartments/Condominums, and Daniel Finzi's Reka Dom, now the YMCA.
The mansion was sold to Reginald Melhado in 1923. He kept 11 acres of land with the house and sold off the remaining portion. Furniture from the house was auctioned off in a public auction.
The house was again sold in 1928 to Cecil Lindo a businessman and after his death in 1960, his wife moved out leaving the house vacant.
The empty property caught the attention of developers who wanted to demolish the building and develop condominiums on the property. Much the same script and fate as that of Abbey Court.
Edward Seaga, then minister of Development and Welfare, heard of the plan and immediately issued an interim preservation notice under the National Trust Act that prevented its destruction. It was later purchased by the government to be preserved as historical landmark and monument.
Devon House was completely refurbished in 1982 under the purview of Tom Concannon, an English Architect at the Town and Planning Department. It was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Today, its a national dream realized. A focal point for national culture, culinary arts and craft to be enjoyed in a natural sorrounding of trees and gardens.
The land on which Devon House is built, was part of Devon Pen, belonging to St Andrew Parish Church in Half Way Tree. A Pen was a term used to denote either a livestock-rearing farm or a rural residential property. Pens were big business, supplying meat, dung and other livestock byproducts or animal labor to plantations and local markets. It was not uncommon amongst the plantocracy for owners of large estates to also own pens operating as satellite operations to the larger estates. By 1770s, almost every large Jamaican plantation had pens for raising stock.
During the years when Britain and other countries sought to colonize new lands, religion played an important role. The Spanish pushed the beliefs and practices of Catholic Church and the British the Protestant beliefs. As such, clerics played an important part in colonisation. Jamaica was no exception. Clergymen were appointed to the island to provide religious instructions to the people.
Reverend John Zellers was the first cleric appointed to the Parish of St Andrew. As part of the commission of this holy role, the Church, i.e. he and subsequent clerics, were given 600 acres of land by King Charels II, at an annual rent of a penny per acre and the condition that ther would fight for the King in the event of a war of insurrection.
Devon Pen was part of the lands granted, or the glebe as such grants were called, to John Zellers.
Devon House is located at 26 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica.
It sits on approximately 11-acres of land about half a mile east of Half-Way Tree Clock Tower in the heart of the business district of Kingston. The Bob Marley Museum is located on the same road about 1 mile further east, making it convenient to visit both properties on the same day without being rushed.
Make it your second stop if you do both in a day. There is much more to do beyond a tour of the house. There is an excellent restaurant, a gift shop, coffee, ice cream and pastry shops with several other shops featuring local merchandise, arts and crafts. It is all set in a courtyard in the midst of lush gardens, a very casual, laid back and relaxed atmosphere.
The grounds are also not to be missed, the inviting well manicured lawns, gardens and trees all beckons for exploring.