In 2018, when it was announced that the wife of Prime Minister Hubert Minnis would have her own office, to structure social administration policies, in the public interest, there was considerable debate over the matter. The reception to the announcement was as expected. It was received with a decidedly mixed debate.
Elected or appointed public officials aren’t traditionally supposed to pave the way for their spouses to secure appointments. Every so often though, tradition gets tossed out the window, like it did, in 1903.
In 1902, Englishman Anton Bertram from Cardiff, Wales, was appointed Attorney General of the Bahamas. It was a highly coveted position which helped to put Bertram in line for other key high level overseas posts, and a prestigious knighthood by 1916.
(The Western Mail, Monday 3rd January 1916)
Shortly after arriving in the Bahamas, Anton Bertram negotiated with Bahamas Governor, Sir Gilbert Thomas Carter to have his, the new Attorney General’s wife, appointed to be one of three Commissioners of the New Providence Asylum. It was an unprecedented event in the islands.
In 1903, women of a certain social status, had yet to move out of the home to engage in paid employment. For women whose husbands were men of rank and position, children and the household were the primary occupiers of their time. In the Bahamas, in 1903, women could not vote or run for public office or be on government boards. Any interest women may have had in politics was quickly dismissed as pure folly.
The Poor Law Commission of the Bahamas was patterned after the Poor Law Act passed by Parliament in England in 1834. Poor Laws were legislation designed to reduce the cost of looking after the poor by creating institutions like the Workhouse to house the destitute. For the Bahamas, the cost of the local hospital, the New Providence Asylum and all other things related to the poor came under the Poor Law Commission for the Colony. By 1900, the New Providence Asylum housed some 141 people. Of this, 36 were in hospital, 10 were lepers, 29 were in the lunatic asylum and 66 lay sick in the infirmary. The Asylum sat on twenty acres of prime New Providence property.
The appointment for Mrs. Bertram was in effect a political board level appointment. The New Providence Asylum came under the Board of Poor Law Commissioners for the Colony.
Mrs. Anton Bertram, a woman, a foreigner, was to have a say in how the Asylum (poor house, public hospital, disease and lunatic asylum facilities ) were being run. Mrs. Bertram would have a say in how much money would be asked of the Assembly and how it was spent. To be sure, in 1903, it would not have happened in her native Cardiff in Wales. This was why it was so extraordinary for it to happen in The Bahamas.
It was a first for a woman, and undoubtedly did not sit well with the all male Bahamian Members of the Assembly, and their wives.
The announcement of the appointment had newspapers in London scrambling to verify tone crucial fact, “it is the first time such an appointment has been conferred upon a woman”.
Anton Bertram was Attorney General of the Bahamas from 1902 to 1907. Bertram administered the Bahamas government between September-October 1905.
It is unclear how long Mrs. Bertram sat as Commissioner of the New Providence Asylum.
“Mrs Anton Bertram, wife of the recently appointed Attorney General of the Bahamas, has just been appointed one of the three Poor Law Commissioners for the Bahamas. This (the “Westminster Gazette” believes) is the first time such an appointment has been conferred upon a woman. Mrs Bertram has had considerable experience of poor-law work.
Before her marriage, as Mrs Edith Rees Jones, she was for seven years a guardian at Cardiff (on three occasions heading the poll in her ward), whilst she was one of the speakers at the last annual meeting of the State Children’s Association.”