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Shinbones, Barbers & Featherbeds: The Secrets of St. George’s Alleys

The quaint lanes of St. George's have big stories to tell. As you wander Bermuda's oldest town, you'll encounter streets with names like Petticoat Lane and Needle & Thread Alley. The former town mayor, E. Michael Jones, reveals the tales behind the street names.

UNESCO World Heritage Site, Town of St. George

UNESCO World Heritage Site, Town of St. George

With a history dating back some 400 years, the Town of St. George (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) has many tales to tell, including some scandalous ones. Learn the interesting backstories  from celebrations of freed former enslaved persons to escapades of drunken sailors  by wandering the town's cobblestoned (and unusually named) alleys and reading the signs. A guided walking tour of the town is a great way to gain more insight.

1 Shinbone Alley

In early Bermuda, this quaint, quiet residential street was much noisier than it is today as it housed many taverns, pubs and bars (plus some “ladies of ill-repute,” says Jones). Shinbone Alley attracted soldiers from the nearby British military garrison, all in search of good times. When these military men had a little too much rum, they'd crawl out into the lane on their hands and knees, battering their shinbones, hence the name. 

2 Printer’s Alley

Bermuda’s first Gutenberg printing press arrived in 1783, thanks to Joseph Stockdale, who made his home on this St. George’s street. A year later, Stockdale founded the island’s first printed newspaper, the Bermuda Gazette, which was published until 1816 (and morphed into the Royal Gazette, which is still around today). Take a trip to the St. George’s Historical Society Museum in Featherbed Alley (see below) to check out a replica of Stockdale’s press.

3 Silk Alley (aka Petticoat Lane)

On August 1, 1834, enslavement was abolished on Bermuda. To celebrate this momentous occasion, Jones says, former enslaved females put on their finest silk dresses and petticoats to proudly parade down this lane. As they walked, it was said that you could hear the swish of the fabric brushing up against the narrow alley’s wall.

To celebrate their freedom, former enslaved females put on their finest silk dresses and petticoats to proudly parade down this lane.

At the end of Silk Alley, pay a visit to Pilot Darrell’s Square, named for enslaved James Darrell, who expertly piloted the 74-gun HMS Resolution through the treacherous reefs off of Bermuda in 1795. The powers-that-be were so impressed with his superior navigation skills that Darrell was granted his freedom. He subsequently bought a house on the square that now bears his name, where his direct descendants still reside. 

4 Featherbed Alley

One of this alley’s early residents, Jones reports, liked to drink to excess at times. While he was on a particularly raucous bender, his long-suffering wife heaved their featherbed out the window to the street below. Upon returning home, our soused hero decided to sleep on the bed, regardless of its location. The neighbourhood gossiped about the scandal, and soon, his wife brought the bed back inside. But the name stuck. 

5 Barber’s Alley

This lane is named for a barber, Joseph Hayne Rainey, formerly enslaved in the American south who bought his freedom and sailed to Bermuda during the Civil War. “He didn’t want to be fighting for the wrong side,” Jones says. Rainey opened a barbershop in the kitchen of the Tucker House, staying on the island for several years. Cutting hair wasn’t his true calling, however: politics was. When the war ended, Rainey returned to Charleston, South Carolina, and in 1870, he became the first African-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was re-elected four times. 

6 Needle & Thread Alley

Over the course of four centuries, some stories get confused, forgotten or muddled. There are two possible explanations for Needle & Thread Alley's moniker, Jones says. The first is that seamstresses in Bermuda operated here in the 17th century. The second is that, since this alley is perhaps the narrowest in St. George's, walking down it is a bit like threading a needle.

7 Pound Alley

Bermuda was once a bit more agricultural than it is today, Jones says, with farm animals often escaping from city pens and stables. When too many of these animals started wandering into locals’ yards, residents herded them into a high-walled area here. In order to get your goat, chicken or sheep out, you had to pay a fine of one pound – hence the name.