Often called the architect of modern Bermuda, Sir Henry Tucker, is considered—with Dr. E.F. Gordon—one of the island’s two most important leaders of the 20th Century. He became Bermuda’s first government leader on May 22, 1968 in the first election held under a new Constitution and a two-party system.
Tucker, a founder of the United Bermuda Party, was a dominant figure in business and politics for three decades before that. He piloted the bill in Parliament that gave women the right to vote. As the number two, then the number one man at the Bank of Bermuda, he oversaw its transformation from local bank to international financial institution. He also helped lay the foundation for international business.
A man of discipline, considerable leadership ability, imposing physical statureat 6-feet, 2.5 inches talland a reputation for being ruthless, he was opposed to women having the vote early in his political career, and also argued forcefully against voting rights for all (universal adult suffrage), racial integration and party politics.
As black Bermudians became more insistent in their demands for equality, and amid concerns that political instability would ruin the private trust and international business he had crisscrossed the world to establish, Tucker became a convert to the gospel of racial equality and convinced many of his Front Street cohorts to follow his lead.
Born in Flatts
The elder of two sons, he was born to Henry “Harry” Tucker and Nella Louise Trott in Flatts. The Bermuda roots of both families stretched back to the 17th century. Harry Tucker was a man of some means, but Nella Tucker was the daughter of one of Bermuda’s wealthiest men.
As was typical of the era, the family wealth was passed on to sons. Her only brother, Sir Howard Trott, became a leading businessman. After her marriage Nella Tucker worked at the Bermuda High School for Girls as a bookkeeper.
Tucker attended Whitney Institute, but switched to Saltus Grammar School after the family moved to Hamilton, where his father, who was known for his cricket prowess, ran a sporting goods shop. In 1920, at age 17, he was sent off to boarding school in England.
At Sherborne School in Dorset, his classmates were a future poet laureate of England, Cecil Day Lewis (father of actor Daniel Day Lewis), and a future U.K. Colonial Secretary, Lord Lennox Boyd. Tucker held his own among such academic high fliers.
He won an English prize and was a member of the school’s debating societydeveloping a skill that would serve him well in Parliamentplayed cricket and was introduced to rugby. But unlike his cousin William Tucker, who attended Sherborne as well, continued his education at Cambridge University and became a distinguished orthopaedic surgeon in the United Kingdom, Tucker’s formal educational ended at Sherborne because his parents lacked the means to send him to university.
On his return to Bermuda in 1922, he found work in the freight department of shipping firm Watlington and Conyers, but the following year, he and close friend Clarence Cooper left the Island to work as labourers in the oilfields of Oklahoma. When their dreams of making a fortune failed to materialise, Tucker returned home broke and taught for a time at Saltus Grammar School.
Moves to Manhattan
In 1924, he met an American nurse, Catherine “Kay” Newbold Barstow of Philadelphia, who was vacationing in Bermuda. That fall he followed her to Manhattan, where he found employment more to his liking. He worked for a trust company while taking night courses at the American Institute of Banking.
In 1926, he joined a brokerage firm, but he lost all his savings in the 1929 stock market crash and the firm went belly-up. Several lean years followed. In 1930, he founded a brokerage company with two other partners, but it failed to take off. It was a time, he said, in a Bermuda Sun interview, “when it became common place to see people committing suicide by jumping off skyscrapers because they had lost everything in the stock market crash.”
Bank of Bermuda
He had re-established his career at Standard Statistics Company, managing investment accounts, when the Bank of Bermuda came calling. In January 1934, he took up the number two post of secretary. He returned home with Catherine, whom he married on August 17, 1925.
During the first years of their marriage, the couple lived in New York, where Catherine out-earned her husband as a private duty nurse. A son Henry James was born in 1927. Their second child Robert was born two years later. A daughter, Judith, was born in Bermuda in 1942.
Elected to Parliament
The family first set up house in Smith’s, but in 1936 Tucker built a house, The Lagoon, in Paget. The property was part of the Camden Estate, which Tucker’s father inherited from a first cousin. The property was later subdivided, and part of it became the Botanical Gardens.
Shortly after he returned to Bermuda, Tucker became a founding member of the Forty Club. Members, who were drawn primarily from the group of merchants whose shops lined Front Street and were known as the Forty Thieves, met each month to discuss current affairs.
In 1938, the same year he was promoted to the post of general manager, he was elected to Parliament, as a representative in Paget. Neither he nor his fellow parliamentarians had to do much campaigning beyond giving a few speeches.
Only property owners had the right to vote, the powerful white merchants ran the show and only a handful of blacks had seats in Parliament. During the lead-up to the election, Tucker said he was opposed to giving women voting rights because it would lead to universal adult suffrage to the detriment of Bermuda.
By then, the first exempt company Elbon Ltd, a subsidiary of candy company Life Savers had been set up in Bermuda, on July 8, 1935 largely because of the contacts Tucker had established in New York.
In 1936, Parliament passed a law that allowed the Bank of Bermuda to establish trusts for wealthy overseas clients. With the incorporation of International Match Realization Company the following year, international business was born.
Tucker and lawyer Reginald Conyers came up with the idea of exempting offshore companies from the 60/40 rule that required local business to be majority owned by Bermudians.
Working in tandem with the Bank of Butterfield and law firms Appleby Spurling and Kempe and Conyers Dill and Pearman, Tucker began travelling the world to attract international business as part of his goal to make Bermuda “the Switzerland of the Atlantic.”
Second World War
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 brought new challenges and Tucker was at the forefront of all of them. He was appointed to a parliamentary committee that was established to recommend ways of raising additional revenue after tourism had dropped off. The committee recommended income tax.
In April 1940, Tucker took an income tax bill to Parliament. It was eventually passed by the House in July, but was rejected by the Legislative Council (now the Senate). There were numerous attempts over the next five years to get the controversial measure on the booksat one point, an exasperated Tucker resigned from the committeebut it was never approved.
Years later, Tucker explained that Government had foreseen difficulties in raising revenues. But he conceded that for a country trying to attract capital from overseas, not introducing income tax was “a sensible approach.” He added in an interview with The Royal Gazette in 1969: “However, this doesn’t mean that this will always be true and won’t be changed some time in the future.”
In 1940, Bermudians learned that a US base would be established in Bermuda as part of the war effort, but the Americans were eyeing land in Warwick and Southampton that would have split the island in two. Tucker was a member of a three-man delegation the others were fellow Members of Colonial Parliament (MCPs), his uncle Sir Howard Trott and John Coxthat was dispatched to Washington DC to present the Americans with an alternative proposal.
On October 27, 1940, the US agreed to build the main base in St. David’s as well as on islands off Castle Harbour. The alternative proposal meant the loss of less land and the displacement of fewer people.
On January 21, 1941, Tucker, Sir Howard Trott and Sir John Cox flew to Londonon board the flying boat Atlantic Clipperto take part in talks about the Bermuda bases. They were in London for two months. On April 7, 1941, land for the two bases in Southampton (Morgan’s Point) and St. David’s was formally transferred to the US.
In 1942, Tucker was appointed chairman of the Board of Health, the Wartime Supplies Commission and became a member of the Broadcasting Board. In November 1942, he was appointed to the Executive Council, the forerunner to Cabinet, which the Governor chaired.
In 1943, after having an apparent change on heart on voting rights for women, he piloted a Women’s Suffrage Bill in Parliament. It failed to pass the House, but he was successful on his second attempt in 1944. The about-face established a pattern that would typify his post-war political career. Two decades later, he would reverse his position on such major issues as universal adult suffrage, racial integration and party politics.
Motor Car Bill
The following year, the Second World War now over, Tucker, Sir Howard Trott and Sir Bayard Dill, went to Washington to discuss proposals to convert Kindley Field, the base airfield, into a commercial airport. The deal was sealed, and the arrangement, which continued until the bases closed in 1995, proved to be a boon for post-war tourism.
The 1946 bill that allowed the introduction of motor cars was, like his failed income tax bill, a major defeat for Tucker. That same year, the first buses appeared on Bermuda’s roads.
Much of the groundwork had been laid by Tucker, who chaired a transportation commission and had argued that an efficient public transportation system rather than cars was the way to go.
One year later, it was revealed that Tucker had become one of the first Bermudians to own a car.
Efforts to bring international business to the island were stepped up in the post war years. In 1950, Parliament passed a law that had Tucker’s stamp all over itthe Exempt Companies Act. Other key figures were lawyers David Graham and William Kempe.
Bermuda Workers Association
In the post-war years, Tucker was forced to confront Bermuda’s racial problems and the push by black MCPs, who were then a minority in Parliament, for all adults to have the right to votenot just property owners.
In 1946, Dr. E.F. Gordon, a fellow parliamentarian and president of the Bermuda Workers Association, laid the island’s undemocratic structure bare in a petition, which he took to London in person. Tucker said it contained “some truths, some half-truths and some lies.”
Break from politics
In 1947, Tucker chaired an all-white parliamentary committee that was established in response to pressure from London for Bermuda’s white leaders to address matters raised in the petition. The only tangible result was free primary school education segregation would remain intact. Gordon said it was an insult to the majority of the country.
Between 1948 and 1953, Tucker took a break from politics to devote his attention to the rapidly expanding Bank of Bermuda.
In 1953, he was re-elected to a Parliament that had the largest number of black MCPs to date, nine out of total of 36. Weeks after the House convened, a nine-member Inter-racial committeeproposed by black MCP Russell Levi Pearmanwas set up. Tucker chaired it and Gordon was one of four black members.
The two men, who were at opposite ends of the political divide, found themselves for the first time on the same team in Parliament. But when it reported the following year, the black newspaper the Bermuda Recorder said black Bermudians “feel they came off with the short end of the stick.”
The same year, Tucker was re-appointed chairman of the Board of Health. Under his watch, parish dumps were closed down and the Pembroke Dump became the repository for the whole island. In 1955, Gordon died. Tucker was the only white MCP who paid tribute to him in Parliament.
In 1957, black lawyer and MCP E.T. Richards made the surprise announcement in Parliament he would launch an appeal to the Governor to abolish the Innkeepers Act, which allowed hotels to have a whites-only policy. Tucker strong-armed Richards into putting his proposal into the hands of a parliamentary committee.
The Theatre Boycott of 1959, launched by a group of college-educated black Bermudians, turned up the heat on Tucker. He termed it “a curious affair”.
Its effect was dramaticwithin two weeks, segregation in hotels, and cinemas came to an end. The deliberations of the Inter-racial Committee were exposed for what they werefoot-dragging.
In 1958, a parliamentary committee was set up to examine an extension of voting rights, and Wesley LeRoy Tucker, the first black man appointed to the Executive Council, was appointed chair.
Its report, presented to Parliament on April 29, 1960, recommended changes, but fell short of universal franchise. In September 1960, activist Roosevelt Brown organized a series of public meetings that mobilized black Bermudians to campaign for the end of the property vote. A Committee for Universal Adult Suffrage evolved from that.
In Parliament, W.L. Tucker and Henry Tucker were often at loggerheads. W.L. Tucker was incensed that Henry Tucker had been negotiating behind the scenes as a member of an unofficial committee.
At one point, Tucker even proposed in Parliament that any change to the voting laws be approved by two-thirds of the House in order to become law. Battles were fierce as white MCPs attempted to delay, with their endless committees, the inevitable. The compromise bill that eventually passed in December 1962 gave voting rights to adults aged 25 and over, but property owners had an extra “plus vote”.
In 1963, the first election under the new set-up was heldit represented the first major change to the voting system in 300 years.
That year saw the formation of the Progressive Labour Party (PLP), which put forward nine candidates to contest the election. Six were successful.
Tucker formed the United Bermuda Party (UBP) the following year. He managed to win support from most MCPs which gave the UBP an unofficial majority in the House. He set about recruiting black members including E. T. Richards. Tucker resisted calls from the PLP to call an election.
In 1966, Bermuda moved closer to responsible government. At a constitutional conference in London in 1966, Tucker led the delegation for the UBP and emerged with dual-seat constituents in a 40-seat Parliamentan arrangement that his critics said benefited the UBP.
Tucker was instrumental in ensuring some of the new constituencies, including his in Paget East, were drawn up with an eye on bolstering the political strength of Bermuda’s white minority.
By the time of the 1968 electionthe first under full universal adult suffragethe UBP had adopted many initiatives from the PLP political platform, from free high school education to the establishment of old-age pensions. The UBP won 30 seats to the PLP’s 10. It was the start of the UBP’s unbroken 30-year tenure as the ruling party.
During his tenure as Government Leader, Tucker presided over the dismantling of segregated schooling, although Saltus and Bermuda High School opted out of Government’s plan to amalgamate black and white schools in 1971 and became private.
As Government Leader, Tucker made no secret of his belief that the PLP was incapable of running Bermuda. He was only two years off in his prediction that the PLP would not assume power until 2000.
Tucker was knighted in 1961 and again in 1972. His tenure as general manager of the Bank of Bermuda came to an end 1969, one month after its $5 million headquarters opened on Front Street.
He was Government leader for nearly four years. When he resigned in late December 1971, he sent a strong message to the white minority, with the men who he had lined up to replace himE.T. Richards, who became the first black person to head the Government and John Swan, who took over his seat in the predominantly white UBP stronghold, Paget East.
On the personal level, he and his wife raised four grandchildren, the children of his eldest son. Their mother, Frances, who had received custody on her divorce from Henry Jr, returned to Bermuda after a Christmas holiday with her children in the UK to find she had lost custody in her absence.
Unaware of the custody proceedings, and powerless to fight the order, she left Bermuda and would not see two of her children for seven years. Her ex-husband died in a car accident in the Cayman Islands in 1972.
Tucker met powerful world leaders during his lifetime including Winston Churchill, who visited Bermuda and addressed Parliament on January 15, 1942. He was also an avid stamp collector.
The sale of his collection in 1978 in London for $1 million made international headlines. When he died at home, a wealthy man, with numerous company directorships, he had been in failing health for some time and was being cared for by private nurses.
His wife Catherine Tucker had died nine years earlier, on March 18, 1977. In 1973, the Bank of Bermuda awarded the first Sir Henry Tucker Scholarship.
Tucker was a power broker who, under pressure by demands that were being made by black Bermudians, oversaw Bermuda’s transition to a modern democracy. Those who hold him in high esteem say he was a visionary because he had the courage to change course and work towards a new racially integrated Bermuda. Critics argue he was motivated solely by his interest in preserving the economic dominance of Bermuda’s white minority, not by any desire to bring black Bermudians into the economic mainstream.
In 2011, Tucker was declared a National Hero.