Gwen the Librarian

By 1845, Eleuthera led the islands in the Bahamas in growth and export of pineapples. There the first canning factory was established in Governor’s Harbour in 1857. During the following decades, the pineapple industry boomed in the Bahamas. In 1885, over a million pineapples were exported to the United States and England. This tropical fruit wove itself into the fabric of Bahamian culture. Today it is featured in the popular conch salad, local tarts and jams, and it adorns the Bahamian nickel coin.

One of these pineapple plantation owners, Thomas William Griffin Jr. has Bahamian roots dating back to 1700s. Thomas and his Harbour Island bride, Mabel Louisa Hall, helped contribute to this pineapple boom. Mabel’s father, Benjamin Joseph Hall served as Magistrate and Customs Officer . His territory included the Exuma islands.

Thomas William Griffin (1860-1947)
Mabel Louisa Hall (1861-1951)

In 1895, Thomas and Mabel’s baby girl Gwendolyn Mae arrived. Joy now overshadowed grief from a prior child loss. Gwen grew up on the family’s plantation along with her older brother William Edwin ‘Willie” and younger sister Amy Adele – my maternal grandmother. These siblings rode horses and tended goats as the pineapple fields filled the landscape.

Gwendolyn Mae Griffin (1895-1985)

After the turn of the 20th century, the Griffin family moved to the colony capital Nassau. Mabel’s widowed sister, Mary Ann ‘Minnie’ Moore, offered accommodations on the family property located downtown Nassau on King and George Streets. Here, Minnie and widowed daughter Nellie Saunders lived in these picturesque Georgian dwellings where they operated boarding rooms for locals and tourists. Opposite, the majestic Christ Church Cathedral points the way up George Street to the Government House on top of the hill.

Here on these streets, siblings Willie Griffin and Amy Griffin met fellow migrants from Marsh Harbour, Abaco. William Jesse Lowe, his wife Mary Odiah Albury and family had also relocated to George Street. Two of their thirteen children, George Basil and Charlotte Marie fell in love with the Eleutherian siblings. Two marriages ensued. George Basil Lowe married Amy Adele Griffin and his sister Charlotte Marie Lowe married William Edwin Griffin.

Spinster Gwen fixed her fascination on the city’s public library just a few blocks away on Shirley Street. This converted jail structure offered Gwen convenient employment. For fifty years, she devoted her life service to the colony of the Bahamas. She shared her book passion with locals and foreign visitors.

Aunt Gwen (Right) at work in the the Nassau Public Library. Photo courtesy of Steffie Bethel

Gwen remained at the George Street residence with her parents until the devastating 1942 Bay Street fire. During the middle of that night, the family evacuated. Authorities made the decision to dynamite the residence in order to prevent the fire from spreading across King Street to Christ Church Cathedral.

George Street Aftermath – Photo courtesy of Ronald G. Lightbourn

The Griffin family, devout Methodists, joined the Trinity Methodist congregation on Frederick Street. The late Betty Carey Higgs recalled that Gwen’s mother Mabel ministered her organ musical talent to Trinity parishioners. At Trinity, Gwen developed lifelong friendships with May Johnson Higgs and Alma Saunders. These ladies often assisted in the communion preparation for Trinity.

Gwen and her parents resettled on Princess Street by Government House. Gwen never married. She remained caregiver for her aging parents. Later, Gwen moved to the home of her Trinity friend Alma Saunders on Montrose Avenue. I have fond memories of visits to that home on top of the hill where their white cat Fifi provided entertainment. The two ladies remained roommates until their deaths in the 1980s. Alma worked at the successful Nassau Shop on Bay Street. Her car provided transportation for Gwen who never learned to drive.

Aunt Gwen seated between her great nephews. Alma Saunders to the far left.

Mom Doreen Lowe always referred to her Aunt Gwen as her favorite aunt. When teenager Mom worked on Bay Street, she would visit Aunt Gwen at the library on her lunch break. Aunt Gwen loved to travel. She would visit relatives in Canada and the United States. She enjoyed stamp collecting and bought my sister her first stamp book.

Poise distinguished Aunt Gwen. Refined and tastefully dressed, she included her signature pearl necklace. Mom would provide transportation for Aunt Gwen to patronize the local hair salon. Her nieces and nephews became her children. Her generous heart seemed always open. At Christmastime, she guaranteed us a treat. Often a book to challenge our minds and a box of chocolates to satisfy our cravings.

Gwendolyn Mae Griffin (1895-1985)

Aunt Gwen passed away on New Year’s Eve in 1985 at the full age of 90.

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