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St. Nicholas Abbey

Saint Peter, Barbados

Built in 1658, for Lt.-Colonel Benjamin Berringer (1620-1661) and his wife Margaret Foster (1636-1681). St. Nicholas Abbey is one of only three Jacobean mansions that still stand in the western hemisphere - the other two being Drax Hall, also in Barbados, and Bacon's Castle in Virginia. Today, the mansion has been restored to its original splendour and its sugar planation is once again fully operational, producing its own rum. The Barbados Tourism Authority lists St. Nicholas Abbey as one of the “Seven Wonders of Barbados,” attracting several thousand visitors a year.
The white-washed Dutch-gabled frontage with tall finials of carved coral stone and corner chimneys would look quite at home in the English county of Dorset. Inside, its treasures include Wedgewood pottery and Chippendale furniture. The fireplaces and walled herb garden were almost certainly part of the original Jacobean design brought over from England.

The early history of St. Nicholas Abbey is tinged with murder and intrigue: Berringer shared the sugar plantation of 356 acres with his business partner, Sir John Yeamans (1611-1674), 1st Bt., later 3rd Governor of South Carolina. Yeamans and Mrs Berringer - Margaret Foster (1636-1681) - had an affair and when this came to light after a heated argument, Berringer left the estate for Speightstown in 1661.

At about the same time that Berringer left, it is said that Yeamans arranged for a third party to poison his business partner. But, another source tells that their feud resulted in a duel - either way, Berringer died that same year. Almost immediately afterwards, Margaret married Yeamans and the two plantations were merged together, becoming known as the Yeamans Plantation.

After the death of Yeamans in 1674 at Yeamans Hall Plantation in South Carolina, Margaret took for her third husband William Whaley (b.1659). She outlived him too, earning herself the nickname ‘the black widow’. When she died in 1681, the plantation passed to her eldest son, Jehu Bellinger. Jehu only survived his mother by one month, and after his death the plantation passed to his daughter, Susannah Berringer and her husband George Nicholas.

Susannah loathed Sir John Yeamans, the assumed murderer of her grandfather, and refused to associate his name with the estate, renaming it the Nicholas Plantation. When the price of sugar fell in the 1720s, the Nicholas’ were forced to sell the property to Joseph Dottin (1690-1735), the member of a prominent Barbadian family. He provided each of his daughters with a plantation by way of their wedding gifts, and it was Christian Dottin (1728-1782) who was gifted the Nicholas Plantation in 1746.

Christian, heiress to the Nicholas plantation, had married Sir John Gay Alleyne (1724-1801) 1st Bt., for whom Mount Gay Rum is named and the father of Sir Reynold Alleyne for whom Alleynedale Hall is named.

Sir John did much to improve the Great House: Considering the Jacobean style outdated, he added the triple arcaded portico, sash windows, and the intricate Chinese Chippendale staircase upon which his son, Sir Reynold Abel Alleyne (1789-1870), 2nd Bt., was said to have ridden his horse up in pursuit of a lady! 

In 1763, to celebrate the British victory that concluded the French and Indian War in North America, Sir John replaced the Cherry trees that had lined Cherry Tree Hill (the entrance to the estate) with Mahogany trees – the first of their kind on their island and which still stand today. 

More significantly for the prosperity of the Nicholas Plantation, Sir John Alleyne added rum distillation to the sugar, molasses and syrup already being produced there for the European and American markets. At the height of production, the Nicholas estate was considered to be one of the most successful plantations in Barbados, and likely, the Caribbean.

Following the death of his first wife in 1782, Sir John married his first cousin, Jane Abel Alleyne (1765-1800), daughter of Major Abel Alleyne (1699-1747), of Mount Steadfast, Barbados, whose widow purchased and lived at the Dorothy Q. Homestead in Massachusetts. Sir John continued to live at the Nicholas Plantation until his death in 1801.

Christian’s will stipulated that the plantation should pass to her children, but their only son had already died aged twelve while at school at Eton, therefore the Nicholas Plantation reverted to the Dottin family. But, with the Napoleonic Wars raging across Europe, attempts to track down the descendants of Joseph Dottin proved futile. During this time the estate began to incur considerable debts, which led to it being possessed by the Court of Chancery at Bridgetown.

THE CUMBERBATCH FAMILY

In 1810, the plantation was purchased for £20,500 (the amount of the accrued debt) by the brothers Lawrence Trent Cumberbatch (d.1834) and Edward Carleton Cumberbatch (d.1821). Lawrence died a bachelor and therefore the family estates fell to Edward’s only son, also named Edward Carleton Cumberbatch (1795-1835), who forfeited his fortune for love:

The young Edward had fallen in love with an English lady, Mary Gertrude Ashe, of Belvidere, Bath. As the daughter of a less than well-off musician who could provide no financial assistance to the running of the Cumberbatch estates, Edward’s elders did not approve of the match. His father made a provision in his will that Edward could only inherit if he held off from marrying Mary for five years – hoping within that time Edward would see sense. Edward did not wait, marrying his beloved one year after the death of his father, and so the estates reverted to his uncle. When his uncle Lawrence died in 1834, the estates (Nicholas and Ebworth) were passed in 1834 to Edward’s only sister, Sarah Cumberbatch (1797-1862), and her husband Charles Cave (1796-1887), the co-heir of the Cave family fortune derived from banking.

Around 1834, the plantation became known as St. Nicholas Abbey. Sarah Cumberbatch (1797-1862) and her husband Charles Cave (1796-1887) were thought to have combined the property’s name with ‘St. Nicholas Parish’ in England (where the Cumberbatch family lived) and Bath Abbey where the couple were married.

The Cave’s eldest son, Stephen Cave (1820-1868), had predeceased his father and therefore St. Nicholas Abbey was inherited by their second son, Lawrence Trent Cave (1825-1899). Lawrence Cave and his wife Lucy Greenwood (b.1842) were the first owners of the plantation not to live there; they resided in Florence before returning to England. 

In 1899, the estate passed to their eldest son, Charles John Philip Cave (1872-1950), who was again an absentee landlord, though he and other family members did visit the plantation in 1935 when it was still producing sugar and syrup at the old mill. A home movie was shot during this visit that can be seen at St. Nicholas, giving a fascinating insight into life on a sugar plantation. Production of sugar and syrup ceased at the plantation in 1947, when it was outsourced to a larger factory on the island for economical reasons.

In 1964, Charles’ son, Lt.-Colonel Stephen Cave O.B.E., inherited St. Nicholas Abbey. In 1978, he moved to Barbados and became the first landlord to live there full-time since the 1800s. Stephen Cave delighted in sharing the treasures in his home and he opened the house to the public, making it one of the first heritage attractions in Barbados. Cave died in 2003 and having no children of his own left St. Nicholas to his nephew, James Joseph Petri.

THE WARRENS AND ST. NICHOLAS ABBEY TODAY

In 2006, Petri sold St. Nicholas Abbey to it’s present owner, the renowned Barbadian architect Larry Warren. He and his wife, Anne, have meticulously restored the property to it’s original splendour as an operational sugar plantation. Their mission is to develop St. Nicholas Abbey as an heritage attraction, cultural centre and self-supporting plantation in order to sustain this exceptional legacy for future generations to enjoy.

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