Jamaican Family Search Genealogy Research Library


by Frederick J. DuQuesnay

(Article written in 1964)

On Jamaica's North Coast, in St. James, between the towns of Falmouth and Montego Bay, stand the once fabulous Rose Hall estate and Greathouse.

The house, a pathetic ruin, still dominates the landscape for miles around and can be clearly seen from the mainroad, resting on a rocky slope with the low hills for a background. Even today, it still has power to conjure in the mind, its former magnificence, and as if loath to part its old dreams, stubbornly stands confronting sun, rain, earthquake, hurricane, and Winter 'Northers' those bleak north winds to which over so many years it has grown accustomed.

Only now, the gaping door and window apertures can no longer shut out the harsh caress as it foes unhindered, whistling new tales through the empty rooms and halls of the Greathouse, laden with the salt from the sea.

Now let us turn back the pages of time and dream awhile of the days when the house stood proud--boasting the reputation as the most magnificent of its kind in the British West Indies. Let us go back even further to the men who were responsible for its coming into being.

The year is 1746, the month January. Enter Henry Fanning, an Englishman, styled of the parish of St. Catherine. He is contemplating marriage and seeks a suitable situation to take his bride. She, an Irish girl of twenty-four, named Rosa, the daughter of the Reverend John Kelly, an immigrant living in St. Elizabeth.

Henry Fanning finally settled for 290 acres of caneland in the parish of St. James, the property of Richard Lawrence for the sum of £3,000, called True Friendship. It was bounded on the East by Samuel Barrett, on the West by Benjamin Lawrence, North by the sea, and South by Benjamin and Lawrence Lawrence.

Henry married his Rosa on July 16th, 1746, but before many months had passed she was to be widow.

In his will of January, 1747, he leaves all to Rosa including the benefit of an agreement entered into by him with Lawrence Lawrence, concerning a certain parcel of land, and one small bequest of £150 to Priscilla Metcalf in England, a lady who had shown him kindness years before.

His friend John Boyd who might have been a lawyer, was to assist his wife in the settlement of the said will. The parcel of land he speaks of in his will was the hill towards the south on which he had intended to build a magnificent home for his wife.

Rose, still young, and be report charming and beautiful, did not long remain a widow. She married George Ash, a St. James landowner in 1750. He it was who carried forth the plans of Henry Fanning and built the lovely mansion for his bride on the site chosen long before for the purpose.

One can imagine its grandeur when we realize that it cost £30,000 to build. Its floors and wonderful hand carved staircase of mahogany, its spacious piazzas above and below, its sweeping double flight of stone steps which led to the portico, and its massive four-inch thick mahogany doors ornamented by chiselled carvings. But George Ash was not destined to enjoy this newly finished mansion long. In those days Jamaica was a tangle of disease and death; he fell a victim before 1752 had passed.

No doubt lonely in this large sad house haunted by memories of former love and happiness, Rosa impulsively made an unhappy alliance in the person of the Hon. Norwood Witter. He was a widower from Westmoreland. This gallant came courting in the croptime of 1753, and won the sad and gentle heart of Rose Hall's mistress. They were married in May of the same year. From all appearances it was not a happy alliance. It seems this gentleman was more interested in what his wife could bestow materially than the interests of her heart and much demand was made upon her purse to keep him satisfied.

He died circa 1765-6.* In his will which was proved in February 1766, he leaves £50 to his two sons William and John (issue from his first marriage) to buy mourning rings. The rest he leaves to Rosa in compensation of several large sums of money that he received sundry times from her. He leaves her sole executrix.

John Kelly (Rosa's brother, a physician), is witness of the will. Rosa refused her appointment as executrix and William Witter became testator's administrator.

Rosa's heartache was not yet over, however, for in the year following Witter's death her father, the rector for St. Elizabeth, died. John Boyd her old friend had died in 1764-5, but not before he had created Rosa Witter guardian for his daughter Rosa Kelly Boyd. Rosa was also the girl's godmother. Childless and unhappy she had evidently adopted this girl from her dear friend who would not be childless, for we know he had another daughter called Ann.

In 1765 John Boyd's will was proved. He leaves a mourning ring to Rosa, and one to her brother John Kelly. To his wife Mary Jane, he leaves a property "Dunluce," near Montego Bay. The residue of his estate, to his two daughters. John Kelly and John Palmer are the executors of the will.

It must have been with some misgivings, after so much sorrow, that Rosa entered into marriage with the Hon. John Palmer in May 1767. He was Custos for St. James and owned Palmyra an adjoining property to Rose Hall. He was a widower with two sons in England.

Finally Rosa found happiness--maybe not the sweeping romantic love affair of a young girl for a first husband, but something more solid and permanent. In Palmer, she found a mate who brought her peace, companionship and devotion. It was fortunate that it was so, for we now come to the last ten years of her life. She died on the first of May, 1790.

At the end of her will dated 1777, she states 'in perfect health, mind and memory, thanks be to God for the same--I give, devise and bequeath all the residue of my estate real and personal unto my dearly beloved husband John Palmer, who is most deserving thereof'

This will was proved in June, 1790. In this gratitude and love John Palmer had a wonderful monument sculptured by Bacon, probably the best of this famous man's work in the island, in memory of Rosa, which can be seen today in the St. James Parish Church in Montego Bay.

In 1797 John Palmer married for the third time. His choice a maiden twenty years old from Trelawny called Rebecca Ann James. By March 1797 he was dead. In his will Rose Hall and Palmyra were placed in trust for his sons and their heirs. On his widow he settled £2,800 per annum for the duration of her life, the money for which settlement was to come from the estates.

After her husband's death Rebecca left Jamaica and went to reside in England.

John and James Palmer (sons of the Hon. John Palmer by his first wife), were both dead by 1818. They had never visited Jamaica and had died childless. By the terms of their father's will therefore, Rose Hall and Palmyra reverted to the Hon. John Palmer's grand nephew, John Rose Palmer.

This gentleman took possession almost immediately, and with his coming an era of mystery fell like a shroud over the properties of Rose Hall and Palmyra.

John Rose repaired both greathouses on these estates, and in 1820 his marriage with Annee [Annie] Mary Patterson is recorded in St. James.

Of the details of this marriage almost all real evidence has been obscured, as we are now led into a whirl of gossip, legend, and unsubstantiated tales--tales of murder and violent passion, of witchcraft, cruelty, stranglings, death and unknown graves.

It has become seemingly impossible to separate the real from the jumbled and sometimes improbable so called facts, that surround and make up the mystery in which the greathouse was plunged during those early years of the 19th century.


*Note from Jamaican Family Search: the Hon. Norwood Witter died on May 20, 1765.

For more on the story of Rose Hall, please go to:

Rose Hall, Death of a Legend
Ruins of Rose Hall Great House.

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