May 14, 2023 – By Stanley Greaves


Today was payday. Waterfront workers received wages from the pay office of companies. My Father’s was Sandbach Parker Ltd. Sometimes when he was working elsewhere I had to take his tag, a piece of round copper stamped with a number to receive his pay. Men in the line would ask questions about my identity then send me to the head of it.

Women consorts and common- in- law wives would be waiting outside to secure the household money. Most men usually went to rumshops to celebrate the end of a work week. Huston’s Rum Shop and Bar was conveniently situated in Robb Street between Main and Water Streets near Sandbach Parker. When my Father came home I would examine his pocket. If the rounded end of a big can of sardines or salmon in tomato sauce revealed itself I knew that he had earned twelve dollars, a good week. I eagerly awaited Sunday morning.

SATURDAY Saturday was for shopping at Stabroek and Bourda Markets and Chinese Groceries in our area. The nearest to us was at the corner of King and Robb streets. Conversations between housewives and the grocers were highly entertaining. On being vociferously accused of giving short weight house wives were told to go elsewhere, but everyone knew it was a game. Greens, fish and meats had to be bought each day. Grownup children were often sent on such adventures. I was told to buy certain items from specific vendors if sent to Stabroek Market. The British Guyana Museum, a place of great interest (it had a stuffed lion), meant I had to stop, then run to the Market buying items from one vendor. I always wondered how my Mother always knew. Museum visits were allowed to take place after shopping. Some Saturdays I was sent to the Demerara Meat Company to buy ham and bacon scraps. This was a popular item and I had to attract attention by waving my list. Being a child I did not have to wait long.

A popular main meal on Saturdays was cook- up rice…split peas or blackeye with rice, accompanied either by codfish cakes and a “tomatee”, onions, garlic and fine leaf thyme sauce or stew made from one of the following  – fish, chicken, or meat.  Another revered dish was metagee -root vegetables cooked in coconut “milk” (probably of Pacific origins) with imported pig tails and salt beef (while salt beef was sold in the UK, pig tails were for export to colonies). Dry Food had the same ingredients “ingreasements” according to my Aunt Iris, but without coconut “milk” being used. Meals were sometimes washed down with “swank” made with limes, brown sugar, and nutmeg.


Meals prepared on this day were special. At this point the names of our mealtimes have to be explained. British Breakfast was “Tea” for us, Lunch was “Breakfuss” (Breakfast) and Dinner was also “Tea”.  Lunch for us could be a snack between”Brekfuss” and “Tea”.

Tea really referred to tea imported from the UK but became a  generic term as in Cocoa Tea, Coffee Tea, Ginger Tea or Bush Tea made from a variety of leaves like congo pump (my favourite), lemon grass, blacksage, mint or sweetbroom (it logically should be sweepbroom.) which was actually bitter and often blended  with another bush. I am left to wonder if “bush tea” meant it was the only kind of tea available for workers in the “bush”. These leaves were bought from specialist vendors outside Bourda Market, still there to this day. Homemade bread or fried bakes could be accompanied by a codfish stew or one of the following codfish cakes, shrimp cakes, tinned sardines or salmon in tomato sauce, cheap white cheese or “Dutchman Head” – Dutch Edam cheese which had a wax covering dyed red with annatto they collected from Indigenous peoples in Guyana in exchange for glass beads, steel hooks and knives. At this point I interrupt the narrative to relate a funny story. First time I bought Edam cheese in London I said it was not right because it was a bit soft whereas in Guyana it has a very firm texture not realising at the time that the texture changed during refrigeration on ships on the way to Guyana. Bread as well as cassava bread could be toasted on the coal pot and buttered with bright yellow salted cooking butter. When I first encountered table butter I did not like it but salted table butter was acceptable later on.


Was the major event. Soup was the traditional choice and to be really good had to include marrow bones and beef. My job was to go to Stabroek to a specific popular butcher Mr. Snagg, a name straight from a Dickens novel. Stuck between shouting women my voice was not loud enough but being  a regular customer he would always point to me. I would name what I wanted – soup bones and meat. After meat  was removed from large marrow bones, the latter would sawn into small pieces with what looked like a giant hacksaw and often split with a hatchet. Chunks of brisket and bones were wrapped in white newsprint.

To split peas, blackeye or red bean (soaked overnight and drained) was added to root crops selected from, green plantain, eddoe, tannias, hard yam (African origins), the softer Chinese yam know as “bell yam” which puzzled me until I did French Saint’s and realised “belle” means beautiful…a linguistic heritage from the French occupation. “Balanjay” is another such word from “boulanger” a baker. The vegetable looks a bit like the traditional French baguette or long bread. Pounded plantains know as “Fu-fu” was also popular. It is a West African Word meaning pounded hard Yams. During the days of slavery in Guyana, plantation owners later had to provide food by law and this led to the cultivation of breadfruit and plantain trees, in the back dam. Several villages refer to such areas as “plantain walk”.  The walk I suspected, referred to the dam that separated fields. Crab, callaloo and ochro soup, minus marrow bones, was also a favourite dish. Ochro (ochroe) is really the anglicised work for “okra” which, related to the hibiscus plant, is native to Ghana. It is always interesting to examine the derivation and history of particular words used in any creole language.

Cooking utensils – pots and frying pans made of heavy cast iron were discarded if dropped and cracks appeared. Fuel for coal pots was wood, wallaba best of all because it was resinous and caught fire easily. Not so greenheart which gave off smoke and had to be fanned to get flames started. Coals from wallaba were reserved for heating the irons for “pressing” clothes because they created glowing heat and not flames. I learnt how to use the axe, hatchet and cutlass for cutting wood. Always use a diagonal stroke and not ninety degrees when cutting across a long piece of wood. Two reasons were that the diagonal slices the grain easily, quickly and efficiently. The use of the left and right hook in boxing, the knockout  punches, prove the same thing. Cutting small pieces of at right angles was not only inefficient but could cause pieces to fly upwards to hit you.

Sunday is also the time the shout “Enamel wares…solder” could be heard in the yard from the itinerant repairman (tinker in the UK), because he knew everyone would be at home, families as well as single men or women. His worn felt hat, jacket and denim (“dutty powder”) trousers were standard wear for the working man. “Dutty powder” was actually derived from the French “poudre bleu” (blue powder) the name of the rough blue cloth used by workers and peasants. The repairman carried the tools of his trade. There was a tin can with coals used to heat the soldering iron, an iron rod with the soldering head, a piece of solid copper shaped to a point which is easily heated. A small tin of soldering paste and short lengths of solder completed his equipment. It was exciting to watch him working. Enamelled pots were light and if dropped the enamel would flake off.  Any small hole or crack appearing in a pot or cup would be mended. Cracks after being cleaned on the exterior with sandpaper were easily filled with solder. Treating larger holes in pots was a totally different matter. Using a file, holes were widened so that a small nut and bolt could be fitted with washers both inside and out. When completed he would test the pot with water and use solder to fill any gap between the exterior washer and the pot.

Hardly anyone attended church on Sundays but could listen to broadcasts from Mr. Cumming’s radio which he would turn up loud.  The exceptions were Miss Aulder, Matriarch of the Yard, a Catholic, attended Sacred Heart church and John Rankin, the last son of the landlord. He was an altar boy at St. George’s Cathedral. I used to observe the lengthy ritual of cleaning and polishing his black and white two toned shoes. Propert’s White and Nugget Black polish did the job. I would watch him use a bit of pointer from a broom to carefully place Propert’s White into the designed holes of the sides of the shoes. All my  Mother’s entreaties and encouragement to wear such shoes fell deaf ears. I had to clean and polish my Father’s brown shoes worn only on special occasions, my black shoes and yachting shoes -canvas top and non-slip rubber soles.  These were inexpensive daily wear for working people who knew nothing about yachts.


If ever it appeared, depended on the size of the budget and would occur during any mid week afternoon for children and on Sundays for adults. This was usually a homemade drink with, cassava or cornflour pumpkin pone, or cakes bought from the shop, such as white eye, coconut buns, anise seed biscuits (my favourite when taken with milk).  Tennis roll and cheese was a top of the line choice. That ‘tennis” referred to the shape and colour of the roll is my conjecture because I could not see middle class and expatriates eating such rolls after games.

On Sundays in particular we all listened for two sounds from the street. The whistle of the ice cart man, Mr. Sampson. Ice was needed for homemade drinks. A large block of ice      from Weiting and Richter’s Ice House was in a donkey cart covered in sawdust and with a wet jute sugar bag that inhibited melting. The smallest amount that could be bought was “a cent ice” chopped from the block with an ice pick that looked like a tomahawk with a pick at one end, and weighted in a hand held scale. Another welcomed sound was the bell of the shave-ice man. You had visions of the compressed block of shaved ice covered in a syrup based on fruits in season. As his business improved he became known as the snow cone man selling his product in ice cream cones. You previously provided your own container or the paper cone he provided.

The greatest delight on a Sunday would be homemade ice cream, where the debate preceding the making involved choosing between coconut and soursop ice cream. The latter usually won. I had to buy ice from the Ice House to be used in the hand operated churn. This was the one job willingly undertaken.

“Tea” was lighter than the morning meal. It was served with either bread or biscuits along with butter and cheese. Another funny story is that in the US the first time I ordered biscuits I was surprised to see what looked like what I knew as a bake. I should have asked for crackers, a name obviously derived from the sound they make.

The day’s events sometimes ended with games, described in detail in a previous article. Girls skipped and boys played “bat an’ ball” cricket which was fun. The bat was homemade and the tennis ball came from those who were ball boys at the Bishop High School tennis courts. Balls were sometimes “lost” in hibiscus hedges bordering the courts. The ball was delivered underhand and produced a satisfying sound when hit squarely. If we could see from its trajectory that it was heading into an open window, players disappeared like the wind. If, as it sometimes happened, an adult played with us he would “beg”  pardon which would allow us to continue. The end of the day was signalled by calls from Mothers, “Go wash your face and hands”. I could never understand why “face “ and not “foot” when it was the latter that accumulated dust. Adults could be funny people sometimes..


I would like to present a list of dishes prepared by my Mother over a period of time which reflects the variety found in most working class homes which were not at the bottom of the poverty line. Bread, Bakes, Konkee – cornmeal, grated coconut and pumpkin boiled in banana leaf, Quinchiss- grated coconut baked between cassava flour kept in shape in metal hoop  between three to four inches in diameter on a tawa, Black cake, Sponge cake at Christmas, Metagee, Dry food -same as before without being boiled in coconut “milk”, Cook- up rice, Soups -beans and peas, crab and callaloo, macaroni and  Vermicelli (“vamazelli” ), Fried fish -the popular banga mary, red snapper, Different curries and stews, Salt fish cakes, Shrimp cakes, Swank -(limeade), Pine drink, Ginger beer and Sorrel drink..

It must be clearly stated that the meals for any day depended on the finances available. Really joyous times could be few and far apart during the course of weeks and months.  On occasion, thankfully few in number, “tea” could be plain bread or biscuits and “brekfuss” a plate of plain rice with a pat of cooking butter. Having recognised the signs, did not complain and hoped, prayed for better moments.

Remembering  – May 19, 2023

Life in this land of ours has changed so dramatically in the last 50-60 years or so that two, or possibly as many as three generations have grown up without any direct experience of what a tenement yard was like, or perhaps even a familiarity with the term at all.  What is especially notable about the Carmichael Street accounts is the fact that not only do we learn about daily life, household technology and the celebration of Christmas, but we are introduced to a whole cast of residents whom we could almost feel we were acquainted with personally. We know where they lived in the yard, their work, their foibles, and occasionally their crimes. The grand sweep of Mr Greaves’s recall and his capacity for detail richly illuminates a world long gone and men and women who are no more.

The trouble with this society is that it is still largely ahistorical. What history we are obsessed with is of the political variety dating from after the end of the Second World War, and those accounts are frequently anchored by oft repeated myths emanating from one party or the other. We learn, in school, of course, of the generalities of slavery and indentureship and potted narratives of the people who came, beginning with the indigenous first-comers, but how many of our children have any idea of what life was like in their great-grandparents’ time, or even perhaps that of their grandparents? Social history has little credibility here.

The tenement yards were an urban phenomenon, but an understanding of how people lived their lives in an earlier era in the countryside is probably no more pronounced than it is in the city. In times gone by there have been some local historians in the villages, and places like Victoria have been fortunate to have more than one publication covering their origins and development. There was a particularly good booklet first published in 2010 and reprinted in 2016, for instance, dealing with Plaisance. While these works always give an account of the people who contributed to the development of their community, or went on to distinguish themselves in one field or another in society at large, that sense of personal familiarity which is conveyed in Mr Greaves’s remembrances is generally absent.

There have been various other writings on social and cultural history of one kind or another from men like Allan Fenty and in more recent times Vibart Cambridge, among others. There was also the late Godfrey Chin who depended on his personal recall like Stanley Greaves, but who scanned an infinitely larger canvas over a longer time-frame. There have in addition been specialist pieces on street characters, to give one example, and an interesting interview in our village series done by our Berbice reporter of the time describing how Sandvoort so quickly lost its African cultural traditions of which it was a key exponent.

To replicate the more intimate understandings of how people lived requires folk researchers who preferably make recordings. Karna Singh, trained in India did some important work on folk history in the Indian community before he migrated, but undoubtedly the doyen of folk researchers here was the late Wordsworth McAndrew. The real tragedy of his unique work was that the radio station taped over so many of his remarkable audio-recordings because they were short of tapes to be used for infinitely more trivial purposes. Any more mature society would have regarded that as a criminal act: a wanton destruction of our cultural and social history.

In the absence of personal recollections committed to paper, what is needed to access ordinary people’s feelings and lifestyle from long ago, not to mention their account of events, is an organised programme of oral history. However, this has always depended on  individuals like McAndrew who was animated by his own interest in the field, although the radio station where he was employed could certainly have built on and expanded his work had they had any imagination. But it was too small-minded and politicised an institution to rise above its limitations.

Some decades ago a Ghanaian historian was here who spoke of the oral history programmes in the universities in her country where it was recognised that a lot of understanding of the past at a social and cultural level, and even a political level, was not committed to paper, but was locked in people’s memories. Despite our government’s obsession with science and technology, one hopes it is not too late for them to recognise that we need a link to what has gone before that is not tethered to the political, but allows insights into the everyday life, aspirations and challenges of some of the generations which preceded us. Even more recent generations in the villages can be a source of older traditions which have been passed down to them and if not grabbed now will be lost forever.

Developed societies, the UK being a case in point, have extensive oral history programmes, in the case of that country particularly where situations of conflict are concerned. The British Library, for example, has set out to “capture personal experiences … and create a permanent record for future generations.”  The Imperial War Museum has 33,000 recordings relating to conflict since 1914. And these are from ordinary civilians and soldiers, and not just members of hierarchies.

Mr Greaves’s recollections are fortunately on paper, but what they remind us of is how much we have forgotten as a society about our not so distant past. We need a programme of remembering.

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