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History of Jamaica's Legislature
History of Jamaica's Legislature
Jamaica’s first House of Assembly held its first meeting on January 20, 1664, at St. Jago de la Vega (now Spanish Town). The exact site where the Assembly met while Spanish Town was the seat of Government still remains a mystery, but it is believed that the Assembly may have met at any of the following places:
At this period, Governors of Jamaica had to reside where and how they could – there was no official residence provided and at times they lived in hired houses. On this point, no clues have yet been found as to where the Governor resided at the time of the meeting.
The Spanish Chapel of the Red Cross, destroyed by zealous Cromwellian troops, was rebuilt by the English by 1663. Whether it was used for the first meeting of the assembly is not known, but in later years it was definitely used for meetings of the Assembly. In a pamphlet entitled “A View of the Proceedings of the Assemblies of Jamaica …” pg. 37, there is an extract from a letter written on December 4, 1715, which says: “The Grand Court is sitting as also the Assembly (which as former Assemblies have done on Court time) is sitting in the Great Church.
Reference in the above extract to the Court House has suggested that if a Court House in fact existed in January 1664, it would have been the most likely place for the Assembly meeting to have been held. Civil Courts had been established in June, 1661, by Governor D’Oyley, so it seem possible that there might have been a Courts building in St. Jago de la Vega in 1664. On March 16, 1665, the House of Assembly passed “An Act Concerning the Court House”. But no copy of the Act exists in the Archives at Spanish Town. Had it been found, it might have indicated whether a court house already existed in January, 1664, or if the Act was passed to enable a court house to be built for the first time.
It has been claimed that during the period when the Assembly met in Spanish Town it also met occasionally at Port Royal but no evidence can be found to substantiate the claim.
House of Assembly Building
On June 9, 1744, the House of Assembly passed “An Act for erecting a House or edifice for the use of the Council and Assembly and for the better preserving of the public records and for the reception of small arms”. The actual building was probably not started until about 1749-50, for it was in 1749 that the Commissioners appointed by the above Act were empowered to “pull down the old chapel, and as much of the guard house, in the town of St. Jago de la Vega, as may be necessary to erect the public building”, and to “purchase a certain piece or parcel of land in the said town, from Francis Henderson, for the use of the public buildings”. By November 1752, the Commissioners had spent Â£7,510.1.6 on construction work.
The House of Assembly first met in this edifice when Henry Moore was Lieutenant Governor in 1759, and one of its acts was to vote one thousand pounds towards the completion of the Assembly building. The historian long estimates that the actual completion of the Assembly building took thirteen yeas, and was finally finished in 1762, about the same time as King’s House in Spanish Town.
The upper storey, reached by a wide, branching staircase, was occupied on the south end by the Assembly Chamber eighty feet long and forty feet wide, and the Speaker’s Room; the other end by the Court House and Jury Room. On the ground floor were offices of the Island Secretary, Provost Marshal, Register in Chancery and Clerks of Crown and Court.
The House of Assembly always met (with slight diversion in favor of Kingston, under Admiral Knowles in 1755) in Spanish Town. Up until about 1759, the Assembly had no house of its own and met in the court which probably stood where the present court house now stands, at the south side of the square.
In 1755 the Assembly sat in Kingston. Again there is no clear indication of the places it met, except that Cundall records – “In November 1755, when the Assembly was sitting in Kingston, it on the 12th adjourned to the dwelling house of Thomas Hibbert, Esquire a member of this House where he and Colonel Lawrence another member of this House are indisposed, there to proceed on business”. From whence they adjourned it is not certain but it seems that it could be from either the Court House, Wolmer’s School (at that time in South Parade) or a certain Dr. Clarke’s house.
Hibbert House was bought by the War Office in 1814 as headquarters for the Office commanding the area and thus came to be known as Headquarters House. In 1872 it was bought by the Government for Â£5,000 and became the seat of the Legislature. Hibbert House or Headquarters House, as it later became known, has had an interesting background. The story goes that this house was built as the result of a bet between four rich merchants as to whom could build the finest residence. Three of the merchants that participated in the bet are known – Jasper Hall, John Bull and Thomas Hibbert. The name of the fourth merchant is not recorded. The houses were Jasper Hall which was on Highholborn Street, Bull house on North Street and Hibbert House or Headquarters House at the corner of Duke and Beeston Street. The fourth house was on Hanover Street. It is thought that Jasper Hall may have won the bet, but only Hibbert House remains today as an outstanding example of Jamaican eighteenth century architecture.
Headquarters House remained the seat of the Legislature until 1960 when a new building was provided. This building was called George William Gordon House to commemorate the Jamaican patriot, an Assembly-man who was accused of instigating the 1865 Rebellion and who was condemned to death and hanged at Morant Bay.