Edith Crawford belonged to a unique breed of Bermudian educator—teaching was her calling. Unmarried and childless, she devoted virtually her whole life to education. Her career spanned 66 years.
Her family made its mark in education, business and public service. Two of her sisters, Mabel and Ella, became nurses. Teacher Matilda “Mattie” Crawford and Robert Crawford, who was a businessman, the first black member of the Legislative Council (the Upper House), and the first black Bermudian to be awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE), were her first cousins.
Their father, Charles, and Edith’s father, William, were brothers who emigrated to Bermuda from Barbados as young men.
Edith was one of five childrenfour daughters and a sonof William, a wheelwright, and Laura (Swan) Crawford. William was one of the founders of the Collegiate Institute, which the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) established in Hamilton in1892 as the first high school for black children as well as a teacher training school.
William Crawford travelled on behalf of the AME church. On one trip to London to raise funds for the Collegiate Institute, he complained to the British authorities that only menial jobs were available for black youth. He suffered financial repercussions on his return to Bermuda. He lost five properties after lenders called in his mortgages, with no advance warning.
It was a harsh lesson about the cost of speaking out in an undemocratic society. The experience left an indelible impression on Edith Crawford. She saw her teaching career as a way to continue her father’s dedication to the education of black Bermudian children.
Crawford’s education began at Jairus Swan’s primary school in Hamilton when she was four-years-old. She also attended the Collegiate Institute, which was in existence for about 10 years.
She was a voracious reader as a child. Her father tried to review the books she read in advance, but couldn’t keep up with her. She was also a sickly girl, who had to be cared for at home for a period of four years. In 1895, there were fears she would die, but her family’s prayers for “a miracle” were answered.
The long periods out of school left gaps in her education. She failed the Cambridge School Certificate examinations forerunner of today's GCSE on her first attempt and caught up by taking private lessons from George DaCosta.
DaCosta had come to Bermuda from Jamaica to be the first headmaster of the Collegiate Institute. He left after a disagreement with the administration and was on his way back to Jamaica when the founders of Berkeley Institute recruited him to be that school’s first headmaster in 1897.
Crawford passed her Cambridge exams on her second attempt, and in January 1900, when she was 18, she began teaching at Jairus Swan’s school. As she explained in an interview in The Royal Gazette in December 16, 1975: “You just passed out of school and went out to teach. Nobody stopped you. I don’t think I wanted to do anything else. But then there wasn’t anything else unless you wanted to serve in somebody’s kitchen.”
Her comments, in a nutshell, illustrated what few career choices there were for black Bermudian women around the turn of the 20th century. Teaching was by far their best option if they wanted to work in one of the professions.
Crawford remained at Swan’s school for three years. and then moved to Elliott School, where she taught for five years. In 1908, she applied to the Board of Education for permission to teach in a room at Alaska Hall on Court Street, where the Progressive Labour Party is now located. She called it Central School, and opened with 12 students.
People like Edith, her cousin Mattie and Jairus Swan set up schoolhouses all over Bermuda. What they lacked in formal teacher training, they made up for with their thorough knowledge of the basic subjects, English and mathematics, and their passion for sharing it with young people.
Word got around about her school. Soon Crawford was teaching all seven standards of primary school to students who came from all over the island. As enrolment grew, she applied to the Board of Education for permission to run two schools in one buildingclasses for younger students were held from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and for older ones from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
She headed a staff of seven, and also taught herself. But as student numbers climbed from 200 to a high of 400, with children grouped in different classes, but with everyone in one large room, the school was bursting at the seams. Things were no different at Mattie Crawford’s Till’s Hill School, a stone’s throw away.
With only a small percentage of Bermuda’s populationthose who owned propertyhaving the right to vote, there was little incentive for Government to invest funds on the education of its citizens.
Government chipped in, but student fees paid for a large portion of the schools’ operating costs. But overcrowding at the Crawford cousins’ schools and two others in Pembroke reached such a level that Government was forced to loosen its purse strings.
In 1925, Government purchased more than five acres of land on Glebe Road, Pembroke, and over the next six years, a brand-new school was constructed in phases. By May 1928, the first wing was completed, and Edith and Mattie Crawford moved their students into the new building.
Edith Crawford was put in charge of the school, responsible to the Board of Education for student records. But according to a short history in the school’s archives, so “harmonious” was their relationship, Edith and Mattie worked and planned “everything together in perfect unison.” By 1929, work had progressed enough to accommodate another school, Rev. Rufus Stovell’s from North Village.
By 1931, construction was complete. Mary Louise Williams’ Pond Road school, moved in, completing the amalgamation of the four schools.
The Central School was formally opened with a blaze of publicity by Governor Sir Astley Cubitt on May 18, 1931. The Royal Gazette’s front-page report of the event said the school, with 900 students, 20 classrooms and an assembly hall, ushered in a new era for education for Bermuda.
C.A. Isaac-Henry, head teacher at West End School, and originally from Jamaica, was appointed Central’s head teacher, and the four heads of the smaller schools became assistant heads or deputy principals. In 1934, Victor F. Scott, after whom Central School is now named, replaced Isaac-Henry as headmaster.
Crawford remained teaching at Central School under Victor Scott until December 1949, the year she turned 68. The Board of Education had agreed to Scott’s request for her to remain on staff beyond the normal retirement age of 65.
Crawford was so formidable, she inspired fear in many of her students, although she told a newspaper interviewer the fear often turned to respect.
Retired teacher Ruth Talbot, who was a student at Central in 1931, said Crawford would patrol the school corridors, cane in hand. She taught the sixth and seventh standard students together in the same classroom, while Mattie Crawford had the fifth standard.
Fees were sixpence a week for younger students, and a shilling a week for students from the fourth standard and were handed in on Mondays, she recalled.
Grammar and mathematics were Crawford’s favourite subjects. Students received a thorough grounding in the three Rsreading, writing and arithmetic.
Crawford continued to teach when the regular school day was over, tutoring both highfliers and slow learners.
For most of her life, Crawford lived on Berkeley Road, Pembroke, near its junction with North Shore.
Berkeley Institute was located at the other end, the school having moved there from its original location in Hamilton in 1902. In 1921, Crawford rode on her pedal cycle to welcome new Berkeley teacher Millicent Neverson, who had recently arrived from the Caribbean.
That led to a life-long association. In 1931, Neverson, who had by then left Berkeley and formed Excelsior Secondary School, achieved her dream of starting a Girl Guide company.
Neverson became captain of Bermuda’s first black Girl Guide company, First Excelsior, and Crawford was its first lieutenant. After a period of training, the girls were formally enrolled as Guides in 1932.
At the annual Girl Guide camp at Fort Victoria, St. George’s, Crawford was quartermaster and in charge of preparing meals for the whole company. When Neverson left Bermuda for two years around 1935, Crawford took over as captain. She later served on the executive of the Girl Guide Association and worked with the blind at their Beacon House headquarters.
In January 1950, a month after her retirement from Central, Crawford began teaching with Neverson at Haven High School on Berkeley Road, where Neverson had opened an orphanage in 1948. Crawford taught at the Haven High School until it closed in 1966, bringing her 66-year teaching career to an end.
Crawford made her mark in another area. She along with Mattie, Rev. Stovell and Adele Tucker founded the Bermuda Union of Teachers (BUT) in the graveyard of St. John’s Church in 1919 at a teacher’s funeral.
All four founders were active members of the union, serving on its executive at least until the 1930s. Edith Crawford was librarian at one point.
The BUT eked out an existence for years, but subsequent generations of teachers worked to put it on a firmer footing. It is Bermuda’s oldest union, represents Government schoolteachers in its wage negotiations and has largely achieved its founders’ goal.
In 1953, Crawford was awarded a Member of the British Empire (MBE) for her contribution to education and the Girl Guides. In April 1959, she and Adele Tucker were honoured as surviving founders of the BUT at the union’s 40th anniversary banquet at Leopard’s Club.
Teachers like Crawford no longer exist. Teachers of her day went beyond the call of duty, earning a pittance for their contribution, with student feesup until the 1950s when primary school education became freeforming a sizeable chunk of their salary. In 1931, for instance, student fees contributed to 60 per cent of her salary.
She lived to age 96 and was buried at St. John’s Church, Pembroke, after a service at St. Paul AME Church, Hamilton.
Crawford tended to downplay her accomplishments. “My life has not been spectacular, “ she said in a Bermuda Sun interview. “It’s just the common round, the weary task.”
On February 15, 2007, the Bermuda Post Office launched a ‘Pioneers of Progress’ stamp issue to recognise Edith Crawford, and five fellow teachers, including Millie Neverson and Mattie Crawford. An image of Edith and Mattie Crawford now graces a 35-cent stamp.