1931 Hurricane - Sep 10th
The 1931 Hurricane devastated St George's Caye, and also Belize City, on Sep 10, the 141st anniversary of the Battle of St. George's Caye. The hurricane passed over on a Thursday around 2pm in the afternoon, in the middle of the scheduled 10th of September Celebrations held in Belize City. No announcements were made on the radio to warn the public of the impending storm. On St George's Caye all homes were destroyed and many lives were lost. An estimated 2500 people lost their lives in the 135 mph hurricane, 24 deaths were reported from St George's Caye.
The 1931 hurricane was the deadliest hurricane in the history of Belize, killing an estimated 2,500 people. The hurricane was first detected as a tropical wave off the west coast of Africa on 29 August. Moving westward, the disturbance remained relatively weak until 6 September, when it was first classified as a tropical cyclone just west of the Windward Islands. The depression gradually intensified, reaching tropical storm intensity within the first six hours. The storm intensified further to hurricane intensity by 8 September. Strengthening and organisation remained gradual until the storm reached the Bay of Honduras, when it began to rapidly intensify, and reached Category 4 hurricane intensity on 10 September. The hurricane subsequently made landfall in Belize City with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 km/h). No announcements of the approaching storm were made and the public was particpating in the annual St George's Caye Day celebrations. It is uncertain why no announcements of the impending storm were made.
St George's Caye
by T. T. Lovelace (a survivor)
A poem published in the Trumpet Press*, date unknown.
St. George's Caye, now sacred soil
Where countless people tried
To stem the mighty Hurricane
But alas: twenty-four of them died.
Almighty God why hast thou sent
Destruction to this Isle
Where beautiful homes and trees and Crawls
Lay heaped in many piles?
Have we defied the Laws of God?
The "Book" we failed to read?
Have we been faithless to our vows?
And here, sown worthless seed?
If so, we pray to God tonight
To set us in the path
That leads to Righteousness and Truth
And spare us of thy wrath.
Who were the dead that perished here?
On that September day?
And like balloons were carried out
Far out into the spray?
The Ushers, Woods, Harvies, Stevenson, Fuller, McLarens, Baber, Bull, Koop, Turton, Schmidt, Mackay, and Mason
They met their fate as God had planned
And faded out of sight,
Almighty God is waiting now
For us, to put things right.
Among the people who have died
An Angel sped, and has arrived
In Heaven now, she sits alone
And beckons us to our Heavenly Home.
Who was this Angel? God bless this child
Who battled heroically, in this World defiled
To save her life beneath the tank!
"Tell Father and Mother good-bye"
Before she sank!
Jim Mason, God bless her, we love her, we, all.
*The Belize Independent, (The Trumpet Press) was a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 1,000 copies, and was established in 1914 and lasted until 1945. It was edited by George S. Banham and Mr. H. Cain, as sort of continuation of the Belize Advertiser and British Honduras Gazette. This paper was one of the more successful newspapers as it continued publication until near the end of World War 11. (Courtesy Belize Music World)
According to Mrs Margret Pearce, the wife of Wilbur Pearce who was a young boy on the caye and survived the hurricane, the only families to survive on St George's Caye were the Van Bibbers, Mr. Love (a handyman staying with them), the Jimmy Murphy family, some families down in Fisherman's Town and the Cuthbert and Pearce families. Fifteen year old "Jim" Masson was pinned under an iron water vat, along with Margret's husband, Wilbur Pearce. Wilbur survived, badly injured, but Jim Masson did not survive. The survival of Wilbur Pearce and the passing of Heloise "Jim" Mason, is an important part of the history of St George's Caye. Here we present the stories of survivors of this tragic storm.
Reports from Amy Jane and Sydney Cuthbert
The following reports were shared by one of the 1931 Hurricane survivors, Mr Ian Pearce. Mr Pearce was 95 when he passed away in 2021. Mr Pearce loved St George's Caye and visited often and stayed on his parents property where the Lodge currently stands.
St George's Caye Destroyed by Hurricane:
24 Lives Persihed, Every Building Completley Demoslished: Famous Pleasure Resort now Desolate
Terrible Experience of a Survivor
(From The Belize Independent, Oct.4, 1931)
Dear Mr. Editor,
You asked me for an account of our experience at St. George’s Caye during the hurricane. I fear I am unable to do more than give a very short record. It is all too recent in my mind for me too recall without feelings of terror and confusion of thought.
The morning of the 10th. Sept. was dull and rainy and we were thinking the celebrations at Belize would all be spoiled and the children get wet and so on, My husband went along the Caye to inspect Mr Hulse’s property; he meet Mr. Eric Woods and they both regretted the unpromising day. On his way home he took shelter for a little at Mr. Turton’s house, he was the last to see those poor people.
Later it got very stormy and Dr. Pearce went to see about his boat shaking. He found the little skiff bumping the motor and took it out with great difficulty, but the wind was too high for him to do more. Cocoanut trees were falling and nuts all over the yard. Wilbur Pearce was playing at Irish Bay and we decided we could not get him across for his dinner without danger. While we were at dinner the North windows blew in and we all went to try and shut them. Dr. Pearce remembered the baby was at the table and rushed for her and urged us to leave the house and shelter at the vat (10,000 gals and full). He feared the steps giving way in which case we would all have been killed. When we got down I found my husband was not with us but it was impossible for me to return and see what had happened. He soon joined us and said a partition had fallen on him! Soon after he came, the whole house fell toward the S.W. Some of the wreckage knocked us down but we were scramble out with only small cuts and bruises. Our two servants had run out before us and were nowhere to be seen and we feared for their safety. The rain was coming down in torrent and the sea rapidly rising. The wind changed to the East and we crept down to the other side of the vat. Dr. Pearce had Ian in his arms, and Mrs. Pearce the baby, and Michael and we two standing beside. Suddenly the huge building began to float and I got caught in the lumber and could not extract my leg. My daughter caught my hand and I got my husband’s or we should have been drowned but once more we went beside the vat. We stood there for 4 long hours, as the water seethed round us. The vat was beginning to sway and we saw a crack, but the wind was then abating , and we decided to go and see how our neighbors the Van Bibbers were faring.
Stumbling over fallen trees, and wading through water we came on the tragic group round a small iron tank, crowded together, Mr. and Mrs. Van Bibber and their two boys, two sailors who had run for shelter and our two servants. I saw Jim Masson’s hand floating and to my horror saw that she was dead. Little Wilbur had a fractured leg, both children had been caught by the legs when the tank had turned over, Mr. and Mrs. Van Bibber and Mr. Lovelace had done their utmost to extricate them, diving under the water to try to scrape under the sand, but Jim was caught at the knee and it was impossible to save her, She fainted with the pain and succumbed. The water had risen and Wilbur was nearly drowned before they managed to get the leg free. Mr. Bertie Van Bibber was nowhere to be seen and his mother dreaded the tank had entombed him. After a long time he swam out from the debris of the home. The next move was to find some shelter for the night and the men persuaded us to go into the Jex iron tank which was standing on its side. It seemed risky, if the wind rose again, but we all went in. 16 people in a space 7 x 6, with a little lad in agony and crying all night for water, all chilled to the bone and pitch darkness. Mr. Lovelace returned as the water subsided and dug out Jim’s leg and brought her body close to where we were, wrapped in a cloth. He also risked going out to our vat for water for Wilbur and when there was enough light, Dr. Pearce found some cocoanuts and gave him water. I do not know what would have happened to us without the Van Bibbers, Mr. Lovelace and my husband couldn’t move for rheumatism and Dr. Pearce had cramps with the cold. We saw a boat passing but they did not hear our cries for help.
When morning dawned we saw no houses on the Caye. Mr. Van Bibber and Mrs. Lovelace went along and reported only Mr. and Mrs. Murphy with their children and Alice Sempill, their cook, and a man and Mrs. Stevenson’s cook, all that had survived. Mrs A. R. Hulse, Mr. and Mrs Eric Woods, their children, Mrs.Hadie Usher and grandchildren of Mrs. Usher. Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson and Alec Baber, and their guest Mrs. Harvey and Helen Gardiner, Miss Bull (?), Miss Koop (?), Miss Carrie Schn…(?) and Olga Turton all had disappeared. I believe none of these poor people left their houses. Out of 47 visitors to the Caye, 24 had perished and 23 were saved.
The Murphy party soon came along to us. We had seen the Seahawk in the bush and signaled to her. There were no bridges (piers) but we had a dorey with the skiff. Mr. Lovelace improvised a stretcher and the boy was safely put aboard the boat and we all followed. Mr. Lovelace put the darling girl’s body in the skiff and sat at the stern, with the flag half mast we left for Belize.
We all felt Belize must have had the same disaster, or boats would have been sent our way by relatives to our assistance. We dreaded coming in sight of the town and were shocked to see the ruins of well known buildings.
The first man to come alongside was Mr. Masson and no one dared look at him, but he soon saw who was missing and our hearts bled for him. Poor Ailie then heard of her father’s death.
Wilbur was hurried off to have his leg seen to. Mr. Gibbs very Kindly took us to Mr. C. I. Browne’s home where we had a welcome cup of coffee and a little tea.
We heard we had all been given up for lost. Of our beautiful Caye house (40x60) not a splinter remains and quite a deep creek has been cut by the sea on the site of the old dockyard adjoining our fence to the south, as this was rapidly forming we feared the foundation of the vat would be undermined.
Our experiences were terrible but no worse than many in Belize. The night before we had our annual bonfire and lots of those making a merry party lost their lives the next day.
St. George’s Caye’s place of happy memories is a waste land, no trees or houses standing. We are all more than thankful for our miraculous escape. Wilbur is now in Quirigua hospital and there is hope of saving his leg.
My family party join me in deepest sympathy with those who have lost their dear ones.
Sincerely yours, AMY JANE CUTHBERT
Extracts from a letter
by the Honourable Sydney Cuthbert, O.B.E., J.P.
Commenced on Monday, 14th. September, 1931:
On Friday, 9th. September, Mamma, Wilbur and I left for the Caye to spend the St. George’s Caye Anniversary holiday there. We arrived a little after 5 o’clock. After supper I lit the bonfire and it made a noble blaze. Among others, “Jim” Masson, Ailie Sempill and four Murphies were present, as well as ourselves, the servants and 4 VanBibbers. We listened for a time to Wilbur’s radio which he had brought up and had a look at the fireworks from the top of the tower quite plainly and then went to bed.
Next morning we were up early and Mamma and I had the finest bathe of any we ever had, warm yet with plenty of motion in the water and very deep. We thoroughly enjoyed it and remained in for a long time, little thinking that it was our farewell to our lovely kraal.
It was rather a blowy morning with showers of rain but nothing out of the ordinary’. I had to make an inspection of a lot at the other end of the caye and thought I had better get it over, though I found it hard work battling against the wind and the rain. As I was returning a very heavy squall got me and I stopped for shelter and to rest as I found fighting the elements pretty hard work. After a few minutes the rain slackened and I went on saying we shall next meet in Belize. Little did I think within two hours they would all be drowned. I got back to the house and a little after one o’clock. We sat down to a sumptuous dinner but never finished it for the wind rose fiercely and the rain came down in torrents. Then the sea, too, rose and swept over the whole caye with incredible force. Wilbur suggested our all leaving the house and taking refuge behind our splendid water tank under the house. I anticipated no danger and remained behind. I heard a window banging and went to shut it but the windows were then being blown in and I went down again. I tried to get into our room and as I reached the door the whole partition, backed by our fine old cedar wardrobe, fell on top of me but I got out from under and thought it was then time to leave the house. The shutters were being torn off, followed by sheets of iron and I had joined the rest by a few minutes only when the whole house collapsed on top of us but the tank saved us. The upper storey was standing upright and intact on the top of the ruins of the lower storey and we thought of climbing into it when, after a lull, the hurricane started with doubled force and the sea swept the whole wreckage into the sea. We stood there with the sea up to our knees for hours, Wilbur holding Ian in his arms, Frances Baby in hers. Michael between us and Mamma and myself as guards, The force of the rain was such that it nearly blinded us. After some time the raging torrent tore out a channel three feet deep into the shipyard adjoining our house and many of the trees came down and we feared the current would undermine the tank and if that had collapsed it would have crushed us all.
Wilbur Junior had been spending the morning with the VanBibbers and we did not know how they had fared. When it appeared as if the tank could protect us no longer I left the rest and started towards Irish Bay when Leah, Aileen and Emmaline appeared from where they had been sheltering behind fallen trees and they made a shelter out of leaves and sheets of zinc but this would have been no protection for the night. I then saw a large hexagonal cast iron tank which had been blown off its foundation and was lying on one of its six sides, settled in the sand and proposed we should spend the night there. Mr VanBibber and Mr. Lovelace constructed a platform inside the tank which accommodated the 16 of us but I am going too fast, for as I passed through Irish Bay yard, I found the 4 VanBebbers , Mr. Lovelace, Wilbur Junior and the dead body of dear “Jim” Masson, a most delightful girl, behind their iron tank. We did not know that Wilbur’s left leg was broken, a compound comminuted fracture. The tank had turned over with the force of the waves and it had fallen on Wilbur Junior. By scraping with their hands they got Wilbur out with this serious injury but it was impossible to free “Jim” and she drowned. The whole of that night we stood, lay or sat in that empty tank in pitch darkness and with no water. Little Wilbur was very brave but in extreme pain, with his foot hanging helpless; as we had nothing to make a splint and no disinfectant. It was pitiful to hear his appeals for water. Mr Lovelace made three attempts and finally succeeded in getting some water from our tank. No one slept except the children and it was the longest night I ever spent. About mid-day (…here a page is missing)… .
We have been discussing various plans and at last decided that Wilbur and Frances will go down this evening to Puerto Barrios with little Wilbur to the Quirigua Hospital where he could have proper attention. His mother will remain with him and Wilbur will return to Belize for the other three children and take them to Punta Gorda to his brother’s house there. We shall remain on here with Morton and Kate. We are thankful that last night and today are dry is that we can get about and get some things dried. Mr. Adamson came in to ask for us and to say the he had been on duty for four days and nights. He has been put in charge of a kitchen to supply 300 men working for the government. He gives them 3 good cooked meals a day—a great deal more than we have—and he sent us a ration of his soup today and it was excellent.
Later—-Wilbur had a stretcher made for Wilbur Junior and they left at 4 o’clock. Lying beside Wilbur was a boy from St. John’s College who had been found crushed in the wreckage of the College on Sunday—three days after the disaster just before they were going to burn the ruins on account of the dead bodies which could not be recovered.
17th. September—one week after the disaster
Last night was again a night of fierce rain and strong wind and poor baby awoke terrified. We heard galvanized sheets flying about but the men had made a good job of this roof a there were no leaks. I was talking to some of the sailors and they told me that they had been sent to aid after the hurricane last year at San Domingo and though 3000 lives were lost the destruction
there was not nearly so bad as here. The rain last night had settled into a steady downpour. I have instructed them to nail up all openings at the Palms to try and prevent looting which is rampant and to put our goods and chattels now sadly soaked with three nights’ rain. I fear Mamma will not have much time for writing as she is now in charge here, and Baby and Ian need constant attention. St. George’s Caye was a paradise in your days and greatly improved since—now it is a horror to all who have suffered as we have done, When we came down in the Sea Hawk we could take no luggage and left everything under our savior tank. When we went back for the things everything had been stolen, for looting is general and there is no effective force to stop it. We hope the presence of the R.N. may improve matters. We have been through deep waters. Our losses are unestimated but our lives have been spared. You have a wonderful mother—without her I had never been able to bear up and her courage is far greater than mine for I never felt any fear and she frequently thought the end had come. Michael several times asked me if I was frightened and I always said “I was not”. He told me afterwards that so long as “Gagoo” said he was not frightened he felt it was all right.
Little Wilbur has been a hero all through and Frances is beyond praise. Mamma and I had to do our best to point out to Wilbur that it would be beyond her strength after all she has gone through to go down to Quirigua along with her crippled son and he consented to go with her, and to return for the other three to take them to Punta Gorda. This was settled at the last moment and we were so relieved.
We went to Mr. Adamson’s canteen to see whether he could help us with men to work on the house and to clean up the store and garage and then went on to the Palms. I had been prepared for a good deal but not for such utter destruction. Not a particle of the roof remains so that the four nights’ rain have descended on the contents without any protection whatsoever. Two large trees had crashed down and smashed the kitchen whilst the elevated vat was hurled down and scattered stave from stave. Then the two trees knocked the house off the pillars and it came down to the ground minus the front. Verandah and the roof. The house itself is quite solid and I believe it can be raised and repaired at a considerable expense. We have first to clear away all the wreckage of trees, the vat and kitchen so the house can be dragged off Palm Lane which it now completely blocks. Dr. Morrow has been in to dress Morton’s leg again and says he will not be able to move for six weeks. I am dead tired and so must knock off until tomorrow. We hear the next hurricane—there have been three—touched Corozal but did no damage—wonderful.
We have not yet heard from Quirigua but Magruder Pearce has arrived from Punt Gorda offering help and he will take the 3 children tomorrow, if we do not hear from Wilbur to the contrary. I have 10 men cleaning the mud and filth out of the store and garage and 2 men leaning out Wilbur’s surgery. It is impossible to do anything in all the mud. There was no rain last night but it much warmer. ….(cannot decipher)…20 years younger, for I feel the difference where hard work and strain are concerned.
My Experience in the Hurricane at St George's Caye
10th September 1931
By Alice MacDonald Douglas Sempill, 13 yrs
Letter to Editor at Amandala from Nov 1991
In September 1931, I was staying out at St George’s Caye with Mr & Mrs J Murphy, Betty and Jimmy.
The 10th of September was the anniversary of the defeat of the Spaniards by the Bayman. It was called St George’s Caye Day. On this day all of the different clubs, schools, etc., march through the town. They start about 6 in the morning an. They proceed through different streets finishing up at Government House where the Governor gives an address after which they process back through the streets to their own lodges and churches until later in the day when they meet for sports.
As usual on the eve of St George’s Caye Day, the S. Cuthbert and the Pearces had a bonfire at their end of the Caye. Mr & Mrs Murphy, Betty, Jimmy and myself all went up to watch it. One or two people were remarking on the wind because up till then the wind had died down in the evenings and then started up in the morning again.
All that night the wind kept up and also the rain. The next day (10th September) it was just the same and just as we were going to have our breakfast Betty and I saw Jim Masson, Wilbur Pearce and Micky Van Bibber - they asked us if we would care to go for a walk but we were just having our breakfast. (That was the last time I saw Jim).
Mr. Murphy had just come out to the Caye the day before. (Betty had not been allowed to bathe so far as she had a cold). So she was going to be allowed to bathe for the first time with her father.
I was at the back door watching the coconuts trees falling. It was about 1:45 pm the house was shaking pretty badly and the wind was terrific and rising all the time. It was also raining. Mr Murphy decided that we had better make a dash and go to the kitchen which was on the ground and a good bit from the house.
Betty and I ran to get our hats and coats as as I was running past my bed I wondered if there was anything I would particular like to keep in case anything should happen to the house. No my bed was lying my autograph book, my fountain pen, two or three letters I had written that morning and a letter which had just come up from Rita Burton the day before.
We all ran to the kitchen and were there for some time until suddenly the maid’s quarters, which were pretty high off the ground, toppled over and knocked the kitchen along the ground with us in it. By this time on of Mrs Stevenson’s maids had arrived. She said that when she felt the hoopoes falling she ran out but the other people stayed in it. The next thing we did was to get out of the kitchen. Mr Murphy picked Jimmy up and (expecting us to follow him) ran over to Mr Biddle’s own house. Mrs Murphy tried to call him back but he did not hear. Ossey (the boatman) had followed Mr Murphy. Mrs. Murphy, Betty, Mrs. Stevenson’s maid and myself ran down to the bottom of the garden and sheltered behind a fallen coconut tree.. The water had now began to rise and very shortly it was quite deep. I suggested to Mrs. Murphy that we should stand on some of the coconut branches, which we did. This raised us up a little bit. I was holding on to a branch or something when another branch of tree came right up and caught my arm between them. Betty, who has been looking after Dick (the dog), now let him goo to try to get me out. In trying to get out my shoulders got caught as well which made my head go under the water. In a few seconds, thank goodness, the thing moved and I was free again. “Oh, Mrs. Murphy, I said, “I am sure I shall never be able to use my arm again”. (But as it happened it was only bruised and scratched).
Some time later the water, which had been vert rough, abated. We were all terrible cold and Betty kept asking her mother if we could not sit in the water as it was quite warm, but Mrs Murphy said “No”. Eventually, Betty did sit in the water, and she said it was lovely and warm. So then Mrs Murphy and I sat down, it was surprising how hot the water was. Some time after that we head a call and looked up to see Ossey and another man, I supp______ were looking for people.
We settled down again after that- one of us getting up now and again to see if there was any sign of Mr Murphy and Jimmy. It must have been about 6 p.m. that we heard a call and Mrs Murphy and Betty stood up to see Mr Murphy - wo said that he had Jimmy all night. In getting up, Betty in her haste stood on a nail. After that had been tended to Mr Murphy took us over to shelter beside Mr Biddle’s big tank where the remain’s of his house were. When we were getting settled down after trying several different places (eventually getting on top of the wreckage; Mr Murphy went off to see if he could find any rugs of something to put over us. He did find some fry things in a trunk, also a tin of Vita-Wheat. It was a terrible night for us. We had to shift our positions every now and then because we got too cramped. Betty. Jimmy and I all slept a little, I think, - I know I did. Next morning as a I woke it was just beginning to get light when we heard voices and it turned out to be some of the fishermen who lived at the other end of the Caye. Mr Murphy asked them what they were doing and they said “looking for people, Sir”. They told us that the Cuthbert and Van Bibber were all right, except Jim Masson, who they said she was dead.
Bibber arrived and he and Mr Murphy went off to see about two boats at the Caye which were said to be intact.
Mrs Murphy told the fishermen that if they would open the tin if Vita-Wheat she would give them some. When they were done with that Mrs Murphy, Ossey and some of the fishermen went to see what they could salvage from our house. They got the clock, a tin of Cuticura Ointment, which we needed badly, my suitcase - half full - and one or two bottles of lemonade. We then started off for Cuthbert end, where a boat was waiting. It was terrible as we went along to see if we could pick out where the different houses had been as there were no crabs - just a few sticks.
The journey to Belize was terrible…
List of Dead from
St George's Caye
Mrs Rebecca Usher, MBE (75 yrs)
Miss Haidee Usher (42 yrs)
Olga Marie, Roy & Elizabeth Usher (7, 5, 3 yrs)
Miss Elsa Fuller (12 yrs)
Mrs Marie McLaren (47 yrs) & Child
Hon Eric & Mrs Daisy Woods (33, 33 yrs)
[Erica & Sylvia age 3 and 2 yrs listed under above in Clarion; Eric's brother worked at Clarion]
Mr William & Mrs Rose Stevenson (66, 66 yrs)
Mr Alec Baber (5 yrs)
Mrs Matilda Harvey (55 yrs)
Miss Marion (Mary Ann) Bull (77 yrs)
Misses Annette (50 yrs) & Ethel Koop (48 yrs)
Haidee Olga Turton (8 yrs)
Miss Carrie Schmidt (27 yrs)
Miss Dolly Mackay (22 yrs)
Miss Heloise "Jim" Masson (14 yrs)
~Ages from the Clarion Oct 15, 1931~
Images from Belize City
No photos of the destruction caused by the 1931 Hurricane on St. George's Caye are available, but some do exist from Belize City. The flooding and winds caused major devastation in Belize Town in 1931.
HUNTLEY FILM ARCHIVES
The Huntley Film Archives compiled 9 minutes of footage showing the devastation in Belize after the 1931 hurricane. The quality is poor, but is the only known video, and shows the widespread destruction.