Miss Gwen: Matriarch of Cayman seafarers

Behind every great man is a great woman.

The phrase was never so true as in the case of Miss Gwendolyn Lily Bush, who in fact was the great woman behind thousands of great Caymanian seamen.

Bush was assistant to A. Colin Panton, owner of Pan Carib Agencies. Panton had adopted his late father’s company in 1956 and was agent for National Bulk Carriers in New York; Papachristidis, based in Montreal; Esso of Canada; and Bernuth Lembcke, helping provide berths with these companies for Caymanian seamen.

The personnel department of National Bulk Carriers, owned by Daniel K. Ludwig, would telegraph their requirements to the Government Telegraph Office in Cayman that would be delivered to Panton’s office.

“Ludwig, like so many others, had learned of the excellent reputation of the Cayman Islands seamen,” Panton told the Cayman Compass.

“Gwen would study the names of who was ‘called’. She invariably knew them and where they lived. It was very easy to get the word to them,” he explained.

This clip from the 20 Oct. 1965 Caymanian Weekly highlights one of the many ‘calls’ to sea. Click to enlarge.

There were usually one or two men sitting around expecting to get their call and the names of those called travelled like wildfire to every district. Capt. Keith Tibbetts was the agent in Cayman Brac and, when necessary, his men were overnighted in a guest house in George Town arranged by Bush.

“Gwen made sure that passports and all necessary documents were in order,” Panton said.

“She was a fast and accurate typist.”

Seafaring was an industry that allowed Cayman to grow economically, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. The earnings from seafaring jobs fed families, built houses and started businesses, and Bush was the humble facilitator of much of this success.

A single mother, raising two children on her own, she never owned a passport, or left Cayman’s fair shores. She did not own a car, cycled to work and also did not have a college education; far from it, in fact.

“My mother, like most Caymanians [at the time], went to school for three years and studied everything from three books, aptly named Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3. After that, if your family could afford it, you might be sent to Jamaica for further education, otherwise you made your way as best you could with three years of education behind you,” explained Bush’s son John Bodden.

“My mother had a thirst for knowledge and would read anything that she could lay her hands on. She always encouraged everyone to take every opportunity to get more education, often citing it as one of the few things that nobody would ever be able to take away from you.”

A. Colin Panton, age 18

Despite her lack of formal education and travel experience, it was due to the work of Panton and Bush that Caymanian seafarers reached ports in the far corners of the world.

“She was a kind and loving person,” said Panton, who noted that she never missed a single day at work. “Regrettably, there were occasions when we had to deliver the sad news to the family of the death of a loved one while at sea. I could not do this alone and she was my rock … I do not hesitate to repeat again that I loved her as a sister.”

Family links to the sea

While not a seafarer herself, the profession, and fortitude that accompanies it, was in her blood.

“She came from a long line of sea captains, which instilled a certain resilience and survival instinct that was handed down from one generation to the next. Gwen’s grandfather built the house which is now called Lassie’s Minds Eye at the junction of Walkers Road and South Church Street, which is where her father was born, and that area was where the family built and sailed schooners from for many generations,” explained Bodden.

“In 1932 when Gwen was 12 years old, a hurricane destroyed all of the family’s schooners and the storm surge washed away the house that she was living in in Red Bay. She was able to escape in the middle of the night with the rest of her family to safety down towards Crewe Road, but it wasn’t until the 1960s before anyone ever considered building in Red Bay again,” Bodden said. “She came from a time when everyone’s life was inextricably linked to the sea, and I suppose she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, but everyone knew the sea as a good servant but bad master.”

Miss Gwen and Garlon Jackson

Miss Gwen’s ‘boys’

At any given time, there were hundreds of Caymanians at sea, and to Miss Gwen they were all ‘her boys’.

“She called them her ‘boys’ because most of them were mere boys of around 16 years of age going to sea on oil tankers as their first job,” Bodden said. “In the early days, i.e. 1950s, many of them were seasoned sailors, having gone to work on Cayman schooners in the turtling industry, sometimes as young as 11 or 12 years old, depending on their size.”

Miss Gwen would see off groups of her boys from the airport as they departed for Miami or further.

“LACSA, a Costa Rican airline, was used in those days,” Panton recalled. “Gwen never failed to see her ‘boys’ off, whether one or 20, as I recall was the number on one occasion.”

Darwin Ebanks, who first went to sea in the 60s when he was a teenager, remembers Bush as “very open, but also very private” woman. “It is my opinion, and the opinion of just about all other seafarers, that Miss Gwen deserves to be made a national hero.”

Miss Gwen’s boys did their best to take care of her, often sending her contributions and building her two homes. Their final act of thanks for her hard work was when the Cayman Islands Seafarers Association pulled together to purchase a marble slab and headstone for her grave with the inscription, “She was a Seafarer at Heart.”

Her impact will surely be felt by generations of future maritime workers, as the Ministry of Education, along with the Cayman Islands Seafarers Association and Cayman Maritime Heritage Foundation created the Gwen Bush Memorial Scholarship to promote careers in the boat-building trade and other maritime careers.

The Southwell Years

The book ‘The Southwell Years: Recollections of Caymanian Seamen and Those Who Served at Home’ is filled with mentions of this great woman. Linford A Pierson referred to her as the “mother of all the boys who sailed with National Bulk Carriers during those Southwell days”, and Will Jackson said she was the “sweetheart of the seaman”.

‘The Southwell Years’ details her ability to get men ready to board a ship within six hours of an appeal for seamen to head out – an impressive feat in a time with no telephones, and when families would need to pack the man’s belongings for a long journey at sea. Miss Gwen would type up letters of introduction, complete immigration forms and even sign names, as many seamen could not read or write.

“I will do all that I possibly can to make it as easy as I can for them to get to the ship. Once on the ship, I know that I don’t have to worry about them,” she is quoted in the book as saying.

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  1. Whilst not born here, I remember meeting Miss Gwen when she worked for Mr Colin. I think their office was in the old Anchorage Centre that adjoined the Elmslie Church. Arising from my friendship with Colin, I met many Caymanians but always admired Miss Gwen and I recall when her house needed renovation going to her house in South Sound to assist the many people that turned out. She was held in very high regard by all and I thank Laura Durston, the writer of this article, for going to great lengths to pay homage to a person who was an icon in the marine history of the Cayman Islands.