It is most probable that there were burials in the churchyard soon after the first church building was erected in 1612. It is also possible that some of the first groups of settlers were buried here but so far no 17th century grave has been identified.
The early settlers were poor folk with few amenities. They probably used odd bits of cedar or stone to mark the graves. After they opened quarries to build houses and burial vaults, they also used the local stone for headstones but as this was very porous the inscriptions on the oldest graves have completely worn away and no records of burials in the early days of the colony exist.
Those wealthy enough to be able to afford to do so brought headstones in from many different places, including Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, Rhode Island in the States and London, England. It is thought that when the construction of the Royal Naval Dockyard at the western end of the Island began in 1809, some of the construction materials found their way into local graveyards. As a result, there are is a great variety of grave markers and memorials in the churchyard.
A large white marble headstone marks the grave of Anne Willing Bingham of Philadelphia. The French writer Andre Maurois called her the “queen of the city” because of the lavish hospitality of her salon which attracted political figures who helped to shape the course of the new American republic. She was also said to be the most beautiful woman of her time and to have been the model for the famous Lady Liberty Draped Bust portrait on the new American coinage minted between 1796 and 1804, one coin of which is on display in St Peter’s Vestry. In 1800 Anne contracted a serious illness, probably tuberculosis. She set sail for Madeira in search of a more favorable climate in which to recuperate, but died in Bermuda on 11 May 1801, aged 37 years.
The graveyard contains many layers of graves and today the ground is significantly higher than in days gone by because of the high mortality rate from repeated yellow fever epidemics. These put tremendous pressure on local graveyards and after the epidemic of 1853, in which 7% of the population died, this churchyard was closed permanently. The last burial was that of a sail maker, another yellow fever victim.
Land for a new cemetery was acquired on the North Shore about a mile from the church, necessitating the use of a horse drawn hearse. The Hearse House is still standing in Church Lane is currently the Church’s Thrift Shop.
Assassinated Governor Laid to Rest in 1973
The churchyard was, in fact, used once more after its closure in 1854. At midnight on 10 March 1973 the 56 year old Governor of Bermuda Sir Richard Sharples and his aide-de-camp, 26 year old Captain Hugh Sayers, Welsh Guards, British Army, were killed, together with the Governor’s Great Dane, Horsa. They were ambushed outside Bermuda’s Government House while taking the dog for a walk following a dinner party. Captain Sayers was reportedly killed instantly, falling with his hands in his pocket reaching for his gun.
In the 1970s, the political and racial tensions had started to grow in Bermuda and in his confession the killer wrote: “The motive for killing the Governor was to seek to make the people, black people in particular, become aware of the evilness and wickedness of the colonialist system in this island….”
The Governor and Captain Sayers were buried here at the express wish of their families, because Sir Richard Sharples had a great fondness for St Peter’s.
The Black Cemetery
Within four years, Bermuda became the first English colony to import indentured black people. Mostly of African origin, some were American Indians and some were Caribbean Indians from the West Indies. They were brought in mostly as slaves and segregation was practiced from the very earliest days of the settlement.
By 1698 almost a third of the 1,124 inhabitants of St George’s Parish were black, many having been brought as slaves to be servants. As the slaves and their descendants became Christians, they were entitled to Christian burial in the church graveyard. The western extension to the original graveyard, probably added in the latter half of the 1600s, was set apart for the burial of blacks, free or enslaved.
African Diaspora Heritage Trail
The historic churchyard, with its separate section for blacks – indeed one of the last graveyards for blacks still remaining in Bermuda – is a vivid reminder of the reality of racial segregation in Bermuda, including in the churches. Not only were slaves and free blacks buried there in the 17th and 18th centuries, blacks continued to be buried in this separate section right up to the closing of the graveyard in 1854 i.e. 20 years after the British Emancipation of all slaves. The church, together with its churchyard, is part of The Town of St George UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the key sites in Bermuda’s African Diaspora Heritage Trail.
A steeple and bell tower added to the west of the church in 1815 house a clock purchased in Portsmouth, England and shipped to the island by John Till (Mayor and later Church Warden of the Parish) “on his own responsibility and knowing the great need of such an addition to the Church Tower”. The steeple was removed in 1826 and the tower has had a flat roof since then.
After the settlers had built their simple church in 1612, lacking a tower or steeple, they hung their bell on a nearby cedar tree. The big tree died of old age many years ago, toppled over by a hurricane, fortunately causing very little damage to the graves underneath. But it has been left as an example of the massive cedar trees the first settlers found foresting the island.
Atop the church tower below the weathervane is a yellow (we prefer to call it golden) rooster which came from the wheel-house of the tug boat “Gladisfen” working in Bermuda waters during World War I. The cock on church steeples was adopted at an early period of Church history as an emblem of clerical vigilance, in commemoration of the cock that crowed after Saint Peter denied Jesus.