George Town's History

George Town's History & Sites of Historical Interest

Historical overview of George Town including sites such as the National Museum, Fort George, Seaman's Memorial, Elmslie Church, the library and law courts.

James Sedgley image
Last updated 22 December, 2023
Looking south west down Shedden Road to the oceanfront in George Town

George Town became the capital of the Cayman Islands because its natural harbour offers relatively deep water close to shore, and the lee shore location typically provides a safe anchorage and calm seas for vessels.

For many centuries, ships depended on wind as their source of propulsion. Prevailing wind and currents meant that most ships coming from Jamaica, Europe or even other Islands in the Eastern Caribbean would pass the Cayman Islands and specifically George Town on their starboard side as they travelled up through the Yucatan Channel. Once through the channel between Mexico and Cuba the ships would swing round to the East and make for ports in Havana, the United States or in Europe. George Town was a landmark and a suitable place for the ships to stop and victual, which meant the vessels might load up on turtle, hogs, ground provisions (vegetables) and water.

In the early days the town was known as the ‘Hogsties’ - presumably because there were enclosures for pigs, and to this day the waterfront area by the harbour carries the name Hog Sty Bay. Old fresh water wells (step wells) have been uncovered by archaeologists, so presumably the ships would fill their water casks as well. It was therefore natural that commerce would spring up around the harbour front location where goods were imported and exports were shipped out. Over time Caymanian exports have changed. Turtle, Logwood, cotton, shark leather, red mangrove bark, sponges, coconuts, guano and rope (made out of the indigenous Silver Thatch Palm) have all have all had their place in Cayman’s economic history. Nowadays there are few exports but a thriving financial services and tourism based economy has subsequently grown up in the capital and the Port and Cruise Ship landing areas are hives of activity.

The building that houses the Museum has had a long and varied history. During the post-Hurricane Ivan restoration work ancient graffiti was found hidden under the plaster that covered the walls. The graffiti appears to be the work of prisoners who were held in the building hundreds of years ago when it was the “Old Gaol.” The design and thickness of the walls has led conservation experts to conclude that the structure was also once used for storing armaments and other military supplies in the 18th Century, perhaps for warding off pirates and Spanish interlopers. Certainly the building was once used as the Old Court House. “Walking the twelve steps” was a prominent local expression relating to being taken to see the Judge; 12 being the number of steps on the stairs leading up to the second floor of the old Court House. In addition to the critical functions of adjudication and lawmaking we also know that the building was once used to house the police, library, customs, a school and the offices of the first Commissioners, the forerunners of today’s Governors. The Museum now houses an interesting collection of local artifacts, artwork and information about Cayman flora and fauna.

Schooner Launch Sites

Caymanians were historically very fine boat builders. There are no schooners being built today but you can still see the old launching ramp sites which were cut into the ironshore (coastal rock) in and around George Town. The shipbuilders worked under thatched sheds and built the schooners out of local hardwoods such as mahogany. The Cayman schooners were renowned for their speed and beautiful lines. When a vessel was ready to be launched the whole town would gather to watch as it was rolled into the water on logs.

Fish market
A local fisherman guts and descales his catch ready for a sale

Fish Market by Red Spot Bay

The sea side area next to Cayman Cabana on North Church is where the fishermen come in to clean and sell their catch. The fishermen are colourful characters and they are generally welcoming to tourists. The fish they land come in great varieties and colour. Caymanians have their own traditional names for the different species of fish i.e. Parrot fish = Squab. This is an excellent opportunity to try a freshly caught species of local fish. It is also a good photo opportunity and a fun place to listen to conversations of the fisher folk with their tales of ‘the one that got away’ and other sea yarns.

Step Well

An historic step well discovered in 2003, is believed to be one of four documented in the maps of British Admiralty Surveyor, George Gauld, in the early 1700s. The well has been preserved in a joint initiative by the National Museum and the Kirkconnell family, on whose property the ancient water source is located. The water was probably used to fill the casks of ships, as it is located close to Grand Cayman’s commercial harbour. The Cayman Islands Water Authority tested the water and rated it still good enough to drink today. Visitors to Bayshore Mall can now view the step well safely through a framed pane of glass set in the floor of one of the shops.

Fort George

On the corner of Harbour Drive and Fort Street are the ruins of an 18th century fort, one of the oldest structures in Cayman. The Fort once stood overlooking the harbour, but development has landlocked the site. The origins and early history of the structure are uncertain, but it is believed that it dates to about 1790. There were eight embrasures for cannon around the sides and a mahogany gate on the landward side. The oval base of the Fort measured approximately 57 feet by 38 feet. The walls ranged in thickness from two feet on the landward side to five feet on the seaward side, with coral rock facings surrounding a limestone rubble core. The purpose of the Fort was to defend Grand Cayman from attacks by Spanish marauders and piracy. In 2014 a restoration of the fort was completed adding a replica look out post that was used by the Home Guard in World War II to watch for German submarines. A three piece mural painted by artist John Broad was also added. The murals depicts different scenes throughout Fort George’s lifetime.

Seaman’s Memorial

This site located near the ruins of Fort George was originally a navigational beacon for ships coming into the harbour, but it was later made into a memorial for Caymanians lost at sea. The names of 153 Caymanians are inscribed on tablets around the base.

Elmslie Church today

Elmslie Church

Elmslie Church is named after Presbyterian Missionary the Rev. James Elmslie who preached in the Cayman Islands in the 1840s. At the time of his arrival there was no organised church on the Island and he travelled all over Grand Cayman on horseback, in boats and on foot ministering to the people and planting churches, including the one in George Town that eventually became known as Elmslie Memoral. The present building was constructed during the 1920’s by Capt. Rayal Bodden. Capt. Bodden was a naval architect and he designed the roof in the form of a ship’s hull turned upside down. Just in front of the church is a large white Celtic cross. This is the War Memorial and it was erected in memory of those lost in the two World Wars.

The George Town Library

This is another building that was constructed by Capt. Rayal Bodden. The structure was built on Edward Street in 1939 and sits across from Hero’s Square in the heart of George Town. It boasts another of Capt. Rayal’s elaborate ceilings. The library was recently extended and enlarged. In addition to the general collection of books and periodicals there is a good selection of books about the Cayman Islands.

Law Courts Building and Hero’s Square

The Cayman Islands judicial system arrived with the first English settlers and has, as its basis, a foundation of English statutes and English common law. If you are properly dressed you can head to the public gallery and watch lawyers wearing white wigs as they argue their cases before elaborately dressed Judges in scarlet robes.

Around the Courts building is the Celebration Park and Quincentennial Square which features various sculptures; one of them honouring women, there is a Mariner’s Memorial to reflect Cayman’s long seafaring heritage, and a statue of Jim Bodden, one of Cayman’s national heroes. There is also a wall of history which sets out some of the chronological milestones in the development of the Cayman Islands and there is a Wall of Honour, which lists the names of 500 Caymanians who have, at various different times, contributed to the betterment of the Cayman Islands.

Post office old
The Post Office in George Town

Post Office - George Town

Another one of Capt. Rayal Bodden’s structures, the George Town Post Office was built in 1939. The attractive curved building features a vaulted ceiling which many people regard as Capt. Bodden’s most spectacular ship’s timber work. At one time stamps were single most important source of revenue for the Cayman Islands Government and to this day Cayman stamps are known internationally for their beauty and their appealing themes, some of which reflect Caymanians’ way of life and cultural heritage.

The Peace Memorial Town Hall

The Town Hall on Fort Street was built in 1923 by Capt. Rayal Bodden. It was initially built to serve a number of purposes including as a Court House, Assembly Room and Town Hall. For many years this was the centre of community life in George Town.

Clock tower old
The Clock Tower in George Town

Clock Tower - George Town

The clock tower was built in 1937 in memory of Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather King George V.

Mission House

National Trust Historic Site

If you are interested in Cayman's rich cultural heritage, why not visit Mission House in the original capital of the Cayman Islands, Bodden Town? Explore the lush grounds, discovering artifacts and stories that showcase the intersection of European and Caribbean influences.


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