President David Granger: Thank you, please be seated. Thank you Madam Chairperson, herself a Former Mayor; Honourable Keith Scott, Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection; Mr. Hamilton Greene, Former Mayor; Mr. Sherod Duncan, Deputy Mayor of the City of Georgetown; Justice Oslyn Small; Justice Courtney Abel and of course Reverend Noel Holder of the Guyana Congregation Union; children of Claude Alphonso Merriman; other relatives; special invitees; ladies and gentlemen; members of the media and of course, the great Guyana Police Force Band MS, which gives us that beautiful music.
We’re assembled here today to pay tribute to the life and labours of Claude Alphonso Merriman, Former Minister of Labour and Social Security, Mayor of Georgetown and popular mortician. We are unveiling a bust of a man so that the present and future generations would remember him – not only why this mall is named Merriman’s Mall, but remember the times in which he lived and the objectives he set himself in public life.
I cannot add to what Courtney and Hamilton have said and I wouldn’t try. I would simply like to use this opportunity to put Claude Alphonso Merriman in a historical context. I don’t agree with Mavis that I am a historian. I have never claimed to be a historian actually; I’m just a retired army officer.
I’ve never claimed to be a historian; so please don’t call me a historian – because sometimes historians get vex and they react in a very hostile manner – but I have never been a historian. I’ve done a few history courses but let me try to put the life of Claude Alphonso Merriman in historical perspective.
I do this too because of course everything that I planned to say has already been said, but what people may not understand is what Georgetown was like in 1912. Only Hammy could remember. I don’t see what’s funny – age is just a number, but let me try; sometimes you know, you look at Bourda Market, Stabroek Market, why do these places have clocks?
They have clocks because people didn’t have watches and didn’t have clocks at home and the only way you could tell the time is if you went out on the street and look at one of the markets. It was rare to have a watch, it was rare to own a clock and the bulk of the population had to depend on public clocks. What of the markets? People didn’t have refrigerators, maybe till the 1950s or 1960s. You used to buy ice, a cent a pound or a penny a pound, but most people ate fresh food every day and had to go to market. Up to quite recently there were persons who had to go to market every day to buy fresh food because they couldn’t afford to keep food at home; it would spoil.
People didn’t have telephones. If you wanted to call outside of Georgetown you had to book what is called a trunk call. When you go by the Albertown Police Station you’ll see a little yellow building; that was an exchange and those people who even in the 1960s could have afforded to have telephones would probably end up with what was called a party line.
If you tell people about a party line they would think that you belong to the PPP or PNC and have to stick to the party line. But a party line meant that the phone in your house would ring in another house and several persons or parties shared one line. So sometimes you would answer the phone and then you discover that it was not your call or if you want to eavesdrop you could pretend you didn’t pick it up, but phones were rare. Now everybody got a phone. You raise the flag at D’urban Park there, you see a thousand phones.
You want a photograph taken you had to dress up on a Sunday afternoon and go to Acme [Photo Studio]. Few people could afford to have photographs taken and that’s why most of the photographs you see of Claude Merriman would be in black and white, but most of all what was Georgetown like? Georgetown was a unique place, a pretty place … a clean place. You could take a photograph of any street- in the cemetery, in Albouystown and put it on a postcard.
No grass cutters, no lawnmowers, but Georgetown was a clean and pretty place and Claude Merriman went into a profession; and sometimes if you come from the country like me and you saw a funeral you’d almost pray to die. You’d say that is the way to go. Bastiani had horse drawn hearses and the footmen were dressed with top hats and black coats. You were carried away in style, drawn by horses. It was a great to die in those days, and when the hearse passed, gentlemen would take off their hats and bow, paying respect even if they didn’t know the dead. But there was the other side of Georgetown, and you heard Justice Abel – the yards.
Most of the poor people lived in yards, and the yards were serviced by a standpipe. Man, woman and child had to use the standpipe and those who still live outside of the old Georgetown would know that you didn’t have flush toilets; later on people got septic tanks. Even in central Georgetown people had outdoor toilets which were made up of a concrete slab, galvanized walls and roof but the yards themselves were a mess.
In rainy weather, it would be slush. The ranges were insanitary. I say these things because you must understand the situation in which Claude Merriman found himself, and that is why our party paid so much attention in the mid-1960s to humanizing the lives and the circumstances under which poor people lived. A simple thing like housing meant that a mother and father could get their children together and live in privacy without the neighbour next door knowing that they were planning to increase the family.
This is important and that is why we have these schemes at Tucville and South Ruimveldt. Before 1964 these things didn’t exist. A few people were able to get lots or apartments in Laing Avenue but the majority of poor people lived in ranges. Housing was always a big problem. Sanitation too was a big problem.
People were poorly paid. Most ordinary people were poor. Even a civil servant with a senior Cambridge would probably start at a salary of about seventy dollars a month. When you went to the market you didn’t have to carry currency notes, you carry coins. Most people probably wouldn’t see a currency note until they were adults because everything you needed could have been acquired by coins.
We had about twelve coins. Starting from a cent, to a ‘jil’, right up to 60 cent coins, but in those days people were so poor that they could not afford to have decent meals. Maybe a small loaf of bread will cost a cent or a penny, two cents, and they’d probably have that with some coffee or cocoa, probably without milk. Get milk on Sunday.
So Claude Merriman did not come into a city with tarmac roads, with light, with good housing; and this is what propelled him to give people a better life. This is what propelled the party which he joined fifty-nine years ago, the People’s National Congress, to improve the quality of life. Not only of the citizens of Georgetown but there were places where people lived in worse conditions than Georgetown in rural Guyana as Justice Small could tell you.
Mayor, on a Saturday afternoon, or a Sunday night, the whole village would gather around a radio to hear death announcements because in any village there were only about two or three people who could have afforded to own a radio.
So it was in order to change these conditions, the conditions that he found when he was born in 1912 and in the 1920s and 1930s that Claude Alphonso Merriman dedicated his life and it is significant that much of his life was spent in the field of public health. That’s one of the reasons why I changed the name of the ministry from just the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Public Health to put the focus where it belongs, on ensuring the healthy lives of the population.
So ladies and gentlemen, I wouldn’t add to what Justice Abel and Hamilton Greene have already said. I would just like to invite you to see the life of Claude Alphonso Merriman in the context of the time in which he was growing up, and sometimes I wish there were still people, (nothing to do with you Shared), like Claude Merriman around, people who would not stand for untidiness or insanitary conditions, people who would scrupulously make sure that the lives of the people that he was responsible for, his constituency, were improved – that those lives, if you look now, still the poorest parts of Georgetown, North La Penitence, Werk-en-Rust, Wortmanville, but he committed himself and his Party committed its energies towards improving those conditions.
I commend the family for taking this initiative to remind the citizens of Georgetown about the life and labours of Claude Alphonso Merriman and I would agree with both Justice Abel and Hamilton Greene that as we go around Guyana we need to remember the persons who built Guyana and built the type of country we have now; and that is one of the reasons why I declared the 7th of November National Day for Villages, and there will be other declarations which you will hear about soon to remind our population that we weren’t born in 1992; our nation wasn’t founded ten or twenty years ago; that we are what we are because of the struggles of people who were born a hundred and four years ago like Claude Alphonso Merriman.
Thank you very much.