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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Somerset

Hurricane devastation

Sheila, one of our archive volunteers, has recently been repacking some of the photograph collection to ensure their preservation. She came across two fascinating photographs taken of St John’s College, Belize, in what was then known as British Honduras, taken just before and immediately after a severe hurricane in 1931 in which many lives were lost. The annotations on the back of the photographs made us want to find out more. The photographs are posted here with their respective inscriptions.

Three storey building with verandas on all the visible fronts
St John’s College Belize A.M. Sept.10-1931 viewed from south’
Ground with rubble on it. Bit of window frame standing in middle.
‘Hurricanes at Belize, BH, P.M-Sept.10-1931 Ruins of St John’s Jesuit College Viewed from south end of grounds Faculty dead-10 (one at church-11) Student “18’.

An article in Letters and Notices 1932 supplied us with more information about the destruction of the college as documented in the photographs. From this, we learnt that within three hours on 10 September 1931 two hurricanes caused much destruction and the loss of nearly 2,000 lives in British Honduras and in particular in Belize, its capital city, which had been preparing to mark the 133rd anniversary of the 'Battle of St George's Caye'. A consequence of the hurricane was the complete destruction of St John's College and 11 Jesuits, 18 students and 4 servants were among those who lost their lives that day. An extract from the account supplied in Letters and Notices (p37-39) is given here:

'About noon the Fathers got word of the predicted hurricane. They warned the boys to be on their guard and take no chances singly. The holiday took on a very serious cast, as all eyed the dark clouds settling lower and sweeping in from the north-west. The lads were advised to get to the safest place, about the middle of the large college building where egress was offered in four directions. The first fury of the blast unroofed the gymnasium playing area, and threw the chapel building slightly to the south, but did not overturn it. The smaller buildings at the rear were thrown down, as were nearly all the big water-vats. The big structure then began to shiver and rock from rear to front....Others, Fathers and boys, moved closer to the front verandha, or into the long corridor-and suddenly with an awful roar and crash, down straight collapsed the big college building, the stories folding upon one another....The horror-stricken survivors could offer no resistance. The tidal wave came up and they had to flee for their own lives...It was the tidal wave which was responsible for the majority of the deaths at the College, as elsewhere in Belize. Twenty persons had been caught in the wreckage near the front door and the steps. Four of these had been killed instantaneously; the remaining sixteen perished in the wave, which also swept off twelve others into the swamp, where they were drowned....'

An outline of the history of St John's College by Fr Cassian Gillett SJ (1850-1904) was printed in Letters and Notices in January 1897. The College grew from Fr Gillett taking on the teaching of two boys in the summer of 1886. Then on 17 January 1887 a Catholic Select School was opened. In 1917, the college moved to a more spacious area and served as a boarding school until it was destroyed in the hurricane of 1931. The College then returned to the cathedral grounds until 1952 when it moved to a spacious campus northwest of town.


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