The union of John and Ellie Wade was not a typical story of high school sweethearts who married in their 20s and started a family. When the two exchanged vows, both were in their early 40s. John, a retired cricketer, was in the midst of a long tenure at Royal Bank of Canada and a member of the Montserrat Defense Force. Ellie had spent two decades in Canada and New York and was now back on her home island.
Traditionally, the bride is always last to arrive at a wedding ceremony. On her wedding day in 1949, Ellie Wade showed up extra early to St. Anthony’s Anglican Church in Plymouth. “I didn’t want to take any chance,” she once said laughing as she recounted how blissful she was about marrying John Wade.
For the next quarter century “Miss Ellie” and “John May” would become a power couple in business, social circles and their beloved Anglican church. They complemented – and complimented – each other. She addressed him as “Papa” and he called her “Ground Dove” because of her short stature and shapely figure. They were an endearing duo that made history as successful, dark-skinned merchants at a time when colonial-entrenched Montserrat was dominated by business families that were white or light-skinned.
“Their story is one of the most interesting in Montserrat history,” says Tony Maloney, who lived in Plymouth and knew the couple well. “He broke down barriers at Royal Bank and she was very dynamic and used her connections in American fashion to help their business.”
ZION HILL TO TOWN HILL
Catherine Elizabeth “Ellie” Riley was born July 4, 1908 in Zion Hill, St. Peter’s. She attended St. Peter’s Primary School until age 8, then moved to Wall Street in Town Hill to live with her aunt, Rose Duberry.
After finishing school, she taught at Kinsale Primary for a year, then worked about four years for D. Hope Ross Ltd., a variety store in Plymouth that sold apparel, furniture and premium items such as bicycles. Ross, a native of St. Kitts, closed the Montserrat branch in 1934 after an earthquake damaged the premises. The building was later bought by O.R. Kelsick, but for many years folks still referred to it as the Hope Ross Building.
Around 1928, Ellie migrated to Canada for about six years, then spent more than a decade in New York. She worked as a domestic and picked up culinary and fashion ideas that she would bring back to Montserrat. She returned for vacation in the late 1940s and met Wade during a visit to Royal Bank of Canada. The two began a courtship, Wade proposed, and Miss Ellie moved back to Montserrat permanently.
THE STORY OF ‘JOHN MAY’
John Edward Wade was born January 21, 1908. His mother, Julia “Mary” Grace Ponde (nee’ Allers) moved to Panama when John was a boy. It was a time when many flocked to the Central American nation for employment during the building of the Panama Canal.
One of John’s early interests was cricket. He joined the Montserrat national team in 1927 and was a member of the 1934 squad that won the Leeward Islands championship. His best score was 64 against St. Kitts in 1939. His final year playing for Montserrat was 1947. After retiring from cricket, Wade became an administrator and managed the Montserrat cricket team during the 1950s and ’60s. He also served as an umpire and president of the Leeward Islands Cricket Association.
Wade’s time at Royal Bank of Canada was historic in some respects. He started as a messenger, was promoted to clerk, and eventually reached management level and the Board of Directors. In the 1940s and ’50s, most bank employees were white, and banks were highly prestigious places to work . . . and to visit. Locals would dress up for a trip to the bank, even for a simple transaction.
A relative said Wade’s nickname – “John May” – came about because of his mother. It possibly started as “John for Mary” then morphed to “John May.”
‘MARY G. PONDE’
When John and Ellie got married, he wanted her to be a housewife, but she quickly nixed that idea. She took charge of a floundering shop that Wade had purchased at “Grandstand” – the corner of George and Parliament streets. The shop was originally a pharmacy owned by the Rock family. When H.G. Rock died around 1942, his wife Nellie ran the business. A few years later, Wade bought the place and named it the “Mary G. Ponde” shop in honor of his mother. When Miss Ellie took over, many thought she was Mary G. Ponde, and some even addressed her by that name. Miss Ellie sold clothing, fabric and her specialty – women’s hats, especially church hats. She was a skilled salesperson who could disarm even the most discerning customer. In short time, the business was flourishing.
John Wilson, Wade’s nephew, witnessed Miss Ellie’s sales pitch and charm first-hand.
“If someone came in to buy a hat, Aunt Ellie would try on the hat,” Wilson explained. “She was so dapper and cute that any hat she put on her head, she would look good. So the customers would be watching and thinking that’s how they’re going to look as well.”
‘TRUE BUSINESS PERSON’
John and Ellie first lived just below the Evergreen Tree (Roundabout) in the building that later housed the Evergreen Restaurant, above Carib World Travel. During the 1950s, Miss Ellie developed it into a boarding house and prepared meals for civil servants, mostly expatriates. She also served tea to the general public. That marked the start of Ellie’s Cafe.
“She was a hard worker, a true business person,” Wilson says of Miss Ellie, who would still occasionally travel to New York for a few months, perform domestic work, then use the money to shop for the store in Montserrat.
“She knew how to turn her hand,” Wilson says.
Wade’s connections within the banking industry were surely pivotal to the couple’s business ventures, but Miss Ellie was the one who usually took the initiative. They purchased a plot of land just south of Roundabout on Parliament Street. That spot would become the new home of Ellie’s Cafe. Around 1965, the couple expanded and built a sprawling complex that included a 10-room guest house with a restaurant. After pondering several names for the mini-hotel, Miss Ellie settled on “Wade Inn” because she said it sounded like “wading” as in wading in water.
The property also became home to the Montserrat Building Society, plus a travel agency, the office of attorney Kenneth Allen, Q.C., and other businesses. Wade also sold homeowner’s insurance. The revenue from their businesses, plus the rent they collected from their tenants, proved lucrative. The couple built a home in Richmond Hill, which at the time featured the most affluent in Montserrat society and was nicknamed “Rich Man Hill.”
John and Ellie were lifelong members of the Anglican Church and John was once head of the Vestry, which granted him powers such as approving any incoming clergy. He was also a member of the Anglican Lodge.
In October of 1975, Wade was admitted to Glendon Hospital with respiratory issues that he had been battling for some time. Wilson, his nephew, says Wade had a respiratory attack in his room one evening. The lone oxygen tank in the hospital was located on the other side of the building. By the time nurses retrieved it and brought it to the room, it was too late. John Wade passed away October 20, 1975. He was 67 years old. Wilson says the family pondered filing a lawsuit but later decided against it.
After Wade’s passing, Miss Ellie continued the business with the help of a nephew. Wilson purchased the Mary G. Ponde shop in 1976, changed the name to Wilsons, and ran it up until the volcanic eruption in 1995. Under Wilson’s ownership, the shop was mostly a restaurant that became known for its signature ice cream and fried chicken.
The volcanic crisis affected Miss Ellie profoundly, shuttering Wade Inn and also displacing her from the home in Richmond Hill. She moved to the Dominican Republic with a relative for a while, then returned and lived in her family home in St. Peter’s.
Miss Ellie later went back to the Dominican Republic for medical treatment and died there on February 5, 2009. She was 100 years old. Her remains were repatriated to Montserrat for interment at the St. Peter’s Anglican Church cemetery.
KIND AND WITTY
More than a decade later, friends and family still share memories of the couple, who didn’t have any biological children but had a large extended family. Wade had several siblings who were born in Panama, and some ended up visiting Montserrat. Ellie sustained many family members and was particularly close to her aunts Lou and Beth.
“She treated her family so kindly,” Wilson says of Miss Ellie, who will also be remembered for her animated personality and sense of humor. Legendary Montserrat dressmaker and costume designer Jeweline Roberts Riley, whose late husband was Miss Ellie’s nephew, recalls her witty ways.
“Her birthday was July 4th, which is Independence Day in America,” Jeweline says. “Every year she would say, ‘Look how they’re celebrating my birthday with so many fireworks!’ She was such a fun lady to be around.”