There is likely no Jamaican, at home or in the wider diaspora, who is not familiar with the name of J. Wray and Nephew, distillers of Appleton Rum. But have you ever stopped to wonder who the Nephew was? Well for those who don’t know, Mr. Wray’s nephew was Col. Charles James Ward CMG, one time Custos of Kingston and an exceptional businessman. John Wray had built his Shakespeare Tavern right next to the world famous Theatre Royal at Parade in the heart of Kingston. Touring companies from all over the world played at the Royal and drew full houses and Mr. Wray wanted their business. By 1860 Mr Wray was a wealthy rum merchant and brought his 22 year old nephew, Charles, into the business. In 1870 when his uncle died, Charles took over full control of the business and started the expansion of the tavern and dealership on its way to becoming the Wray and Nephew that we know today.
A hundred years ago Kingston was rising from the ruins of the Great Earthquake of 1907. Col. Wray was now a middle-aged businessman himself but wealthier than his uncle could ever have imagined. He was also mindful of where his wealth started and made an offer to the city of Kingston to rebuild the Theatre Royal at his expense. This was a great relief to the Council as one can imagine the public purse would have been thinly stretched with rebuilding numerous public buildings. A competition was held for the design of the new structure and this was won by Mr Rudolph Henriques of Henriques and Sons. Ground was broken and, by the end of 1912, the new Ward Theatre, completed at a cost of 12,000 pounds, was handed over to the Mayor (coincidentally my Great Grandfather) and Council of the City of Kingston. It’s very first production, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance took to the stage from December 19th to 21st with tickets costing between 2 and 4 shillings.
This splendid Neo-Classical building was constructed of concrete and steel, the newest method of building after the Great Earthquake. It boasts a stage of more than 2000 square feet and seating for over 800 patrons and was designed to rival the great theatres of Europe but ventilated to suit our tropical climate. The Ward also boasts perfect acoustics and every word spoken and sung on stage carries throughout the theatre without the need for microphones.
My family attended events at the Ward for four generations for, as children, my sister and I were taken to Pantomime every year as well as occasional ballets. I recall watching the very First National Pantomime at the Ward. The theatre attracted international performances from all over the world: Italian opera, Russian ballet and the latest Broadway play. Many events in Jamaica’s history also unfolded there. It was at the Ward that the People’s National Party was launched in 1938 and the Jamaica Labour Party in 1943.
The Ward started its decline in the 1970s, theatre goers went downtown less often and, in a more modern time, there was the major problem of parking. Since 1982 the Ward, once the centre of the arts, has been almost permanently closed. In 1986 the Ward Theatre Foundation was formed and they have been valiantly fighting to raise funds to maintain and refurbish the structure. The Foundation and the Centennial Committee are now trying desperately to raise US$20,000,000 to bring this magnificent old lady back to her former glory in time for her Centennial less than three years away. It would be a wonderful thing indeed if our children could experience a performance on its stage and feel the grandeur that is part of a traditional theatre for the Ward is the only one of its kind in Jamaica and, indeed, the entire English speaking Caribbean.