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Characters of St Helena

Eccentric? Colourful? Mad? You decide…

Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric.{a}

Some of the island’s residents have been somewhat outside the normal…

Characters of St Helena
Fr. Daine, the island’s Catholic Priest (1891-1906).

How do you qualify to be mentioned on this page?

There are no fixed criteria, but broadly:

  1. you have to have done something curious while here; and

  2. you have to have died or permanently (as far as we know) left St Helena{3}.

(We were going to exclude Governors but that would have robbed us of some of our more promising material!)

Apart from the foregoing it is only necessary that you have come to our attention. If you think someone should be included please contact us. People are presented in chronological order of their time here.


Below: Capt. Benjamin BoucherRev. Richard BoysCatherine YounghusbandCaptain Robert Wright and Lieutenant Stephen YoungLouden’s BenFr. DaineJames Francis Homagee‘Matty’ JohnG A D ThorntonAuntie Lou

Capt. Benjamin Boucher

Capt. Benjamin Boucher was not one of our better Governors.

Capt. Benjamin Boucher became Governor of St Helena on 7th August 1711. He did some good for St Helena (building, for example, the first Lime Kiln in Sandy Bay), but he is best remembered for his passion for riding Donkeys, which he did during much of the time he was supposed to be governing St Helena. A memo from The East India Company of March 1714 says we can’t find that our Governor Boucher gave any tolerable heed to our instructions or so much as read them with attention.

To allow him to continue his passion, even during periods of bad weather, he had a 400 foot long shed built in the grounds of Plantation House so that he could continue riding without getting wet. The cost, paid by The East India Company, was £181.

As if this wasn’t enough, when he left the island on 28th June 1714 on completion of his term as Governor, he stripped Plantation House of all that was portable which might have been of service to him including the locks and keys.

Quite a few of The East India Company Governors did curious things while in charge on St Helena, including capricious use of the ‘justice’ system to further personal vendettas, peculiar building proposals and financial irregularities. Learn more about them on our page The Governor of St Helena. And some more recent Governors had a few mishaps and misjudgements which we also document on our page The Governor of St Helena.

Rev. Richard Boys

Rev. Richard Boys
Rev. Richard Boys

Rev. Richard Boys would seem to have been what Henry II would have described as a ‘turbulent priest’.

Rev. Boys was born in 1785, the fourth son of John Boys and Mary (née Harvey). He was educated at The King’s School, Canterbury, afterward joining the Royal Engineers but later renewed his studies, going on to get an MA at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He was appointed chaplain to The East India Company and made junior chaplain at St Helena in 1811.

He started well. In 1808 it is recorded that The indefatigable labours of the Rev. Richard Boys, in superintending the education and religious instruction of the blacks and lower orders, are producing incalculable benefits to the community. And on 23rd August 1811 he was given supervision of the contents of the St Helena Register newspaper, after Governor Beatson had complained of objectionable remarks printed by it under Saul Solomon the previous year. At that time, most of the attention was being given to his the Senior Chaplain, Rev. Samuel Jones, whose sermons were considered insulting to the inhabitants.

But it was not to last. He next appears in the Records in 1815 where it seems the dispute between him and Rev. Jones had got out of hand and Governor Wilks orders them both to desist, on pain of suspension. Rev. Jones was forced to retire in 1815 and Rev. Boys seems to have adopted his mantle as the island’s troublemaker.

Described as an honest, but rigid and uncompromising divine, on 15th April 1815 it is reported that Rev. Boys refused to admit into church the body of an inhabitant for a funeral, claiming that the funeral attendees were pagans who were disrespecting the church. In 1821 the Records report an incident when the Reverend publicly accused a shopkeeper of being a liar and a spy, calling after him in the street Blenkens, when is the green bag to be given out? (green bag at the time being a term describing a bag containing the fabricated evidence of paid informers). On this occasion Rev. Boys received an official reprimand.

He also took umbrage at the behaviour of Rear Admiral Plampin, one of Governor Lowe’s strongest supporters, who was ‘living in sin’ with a lady, and further aggravated the island’s military by his insistence on completing the record of the births of illegitimate children{4} fathered on enslaved women with the names of the fathers in bold characters, including the titles and positions of the sires, some of whom were the highest and most trusted of Governor Lowe’s lieutenants.

His own reputation was, however, brought into question in April 1815 when a widow, Mrs Lowden, then suing her brother-in-law who had called her a whore, was seen to spend the night at his house, leaving early in the morning. Whether anything improper actually happened nobody knows, but tongues wagged…

On 11th June 1821 we hear from him again, when he is said to be the author or dictator of many indecorous letters towards the Government, reflecting in an insulting and irritating manner on individuals. And just a month later, the acting Governor makes note of Rev. Boys’ sermon, preaching from the text Publicans and harlots shall go into the Kingdom of Heaven before you, taken as insulting by the upper classes of society. The acting Governor demands a copy of the sermon text. Rev. Boys refuses to supply it. The following week he proclaims from the pulpit that he is being persecuted for righteousness sake, implying that his persecutors were the Government.

Things then go quiet. Perhaps upon the departure of Governor Lowe his fire burned out? He takes a period of absence starting in June 1828 and we don’t hear from him again. He continued in charge in St Helena until 1830, when he retired on a pension.

Catherine Younghusband

Catherine Younghusband (2nd from left)
Catherine Younghusband (2nd from left)

Catherine Younghusband features here both because Napoleon described her as une femme d’ésprit and because historians conclude she was a source of great trouble to her husband.

The information presented below is abridged from an account in ‘St Helena Britannica ’ by Trevor Hearl and Dr. Alexander Schulenburg. You can read the relevant chaper{5}.

Sarah Ann Catherine Younghusband - always known as Catherine - came here as the wife of Major Robert Younghusband of the 53rd Regiment, who was part of the guard for Napoleon. The Younghusbands arrived at St Helena with the Regiment in October 1815, a fortnight after Napoleon, who was still living in The Briars Pavilion while Longwood House was being made ready. Catherine, determined to meet the ex-Emperor, made contact with William Balcombe, owner of The Briars Pavilion, and soon came to the attention of her target. Napoleon, seeing an elegant lady in the garden, came out demanding Qui est cette Dame?. Soon he was inviting her to dinner - a rare occurrence - where she entertained him with songs and played on his grand piano, which she described as much better than the Governor’s at Plantation House. Soon after she went out for a morning ride with him in his carriage, sitting beside him as he drove. One of Napoleon’s entourage, The Marquis de Las Cases, confided to her, he has paid you more attention than he has paid to many Queens. Proudly she wrote to her aunt in March 1816: few know so much about the Court at Longwood as myself. Although there is no suggestion that anything improper took place, all of this caused a lot of disquiet in the Garrison.

Trouble soon came when Governor Wilks was replaced by Governor Hudson Lowe, who took a much stricter line on ‘fraternisation’. Lowe all but banned social contact with Napoleon and his entourage and Catherine had to be pressured into maintaining a distance. But this was not the only conflict in which she was involved.

Members of the Regiment were posted into whatever accommodation could be found (much like today’s TCs), and with so many here and so few spare properties, not all got quality accommodation. Catherine, tired of living in what she described as tents persuaded her husband to build them a home. This he did, but its construction diverted scarce labour and materials from urgently needed public works, provoking official displeasure, subsequently exacerbated when Younghusband, prompted by his wife, claimed compensation from the authorities for having to provide his own accommodation, which the government refused with a reprimand for impertinence.

Having got her home she proceeded to court further controversy by her way of entertaing there. At the maiden meeting of the newly-formed St Helena Turf Club in April 1817 she invited members of the Regiment and also members of Napoleon’s entourage, thus breaking the ban on social contact imposed by Governor Lowe. Then in November 1816 Napoleon’s Secretary, Las Cases, was arrested and later deported for maintaining forbidden correspondence with Napoleonists overseas, and a search of his rooms revealed that he had also been carrying on a clandestine correspondence with Mrs Younghusband. The Attorney General advised Lowe to turn her off the island forthwith. His decision not to may have been one Lowe later regretted.

As we have seen, Catherine loved to entertain, and at her parties she enjoyed being the centre of attention, including happily spreading gossip and rumour to entertain her guests. One of her spicy speculations almost forced her husband into a duel with a fellow-officer Captain Charles Harrison, and led to an action at law, brought by the wife of another of his subordinate officers, Lt Michael Nagle, against Catherine for having aspersed her character. This brought public humiliation on the Regiment and her husband bore the brunt, being held responsible for the damages awarded to Mrs Nagle - £250.

The Younghusbands left St Helena in the reduction of the Regiment in July 1817, no doubt to the great relief of the whole of the British establishment.

Captain Robert Wright and Lieutenant Stephen Young

Soldiers in World War 2 pretending to fight a duel
Soldiers in World War 2 pretending to fight a duel

Captain Robert Wright (1765-1845) and Lieutenant Stephen Young (?-1809) get a shared entry on this page because they are (as far as we can tell) the only people to have actually fought a duel on St Helena.

Captain Robert Wright is listed as marrying Eliza Lamb at St. James’ Church on 5th June 1812 and his age is then given as 47, making his year of birth 1765. He has the distinction of having introduced to St Helena a plant{6} which he obtained from Argentina while serving there. It is recorded that he died from the Measles in 1843; that would have made him 80 years old, which was a great age in those days (but would have made him very susceptible to the Measles).

About Lieutenant Stephen Young we know much less. Like Captain Wright he would appear to have been a soldier in the service of The East India Company, but the record of the duel only lists him as Young. It is only from the burial records we can propose that he was Lieutenant Stephen Young, who is recorded as having been buried in St. James’ Church very shortly after the date of the duel. We do not know if he was born here or just posted here around the time of the duel.

What makes them of interest to this page is the duel. The event occurred at Chubb’s Spring on 20th March 1809. According to the account in ‘The Dovetons of St Helena, a family history’ by Edward Carter (1973), quoting from the diary of William Burchell{7}:

One Robert Wright fought a duel with a certain Young, the seconds being Onesipherus Beale and Francis Seale respectively. Young was killed. Wright seemed unmoved, went up to his opponent and said, Young, are you dying? and then, Young, you must die. The seconds on the other hand were running up and down half distracted. Such was the evidence of a constable, who saw the incident from above and scrambled down the hill to reach the dead man. It appears that Burchell was a member of the Inquest jury, and he adds that, when the law was explained, we saw that we could give no other verdict than Wilful Murder against Wright, and abetting and assisting in the same as against Beale and Seale. Thus was the inquest. It seems that they were confined to their quarters. Beale and Seale escaped, but were advised to return. Later they were removed from their own houses to the jail which had been a little prepared for their reception, as no persons of their description had ever been put there before. Here the story tantalisingly ends in Burchell’s diary, but Historian Rachel Tatham, curious to know the end of the story, ran it to earth with some difficulty. The trial took place on 12th April. Two justices had to withdraw as being related to one or other of the accused. They were William Webber Doveton and Robert Leech; and some of the jurors had to be withdrawn for the same reasons. The arraignment stated that Wright on 20th March being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil. Beale and Seale feloniously, wilfully, and of their malice aforethought were present aiding and abetting comforting and assisting, maintaining the said Robert Wright. John Barnes acted as counsel for the defence. It turned out that the reason for the duel was that Young had twice promised to take Wright’s duty for him and failed to carry out his promise. The Court pointed out that duelling was illegal but that the law said that for various technical reasons it was not a case of murder. The jury gave their verdict of Not Guilty in seven minutes.

In a letter to his daughter, John Robert Torbett{8} gives a different explanation as to why the duel took place, but otherwise confirms the essential details:

My father’s wife’s father was Captain Wright, who called out his brother officer, my aunt’s husband, for insulting his sister and shot him at Chubb’s Spring. He was tried, acquitted and got his pension as Captain.

You can also read a brief paper by Barbara George{5} which describes the incident and provides additional detail.

So, as we see from his life history above, Captain Wright survived the duel, escaped the noose, and went on to live to the ripe old age of 80. Lieutenant Young was not so lucky…

As far as we can find, this is the only actual duel fought on St Helena. Some duels were proposed - particularly in Napoleon’s time, for some reason - but the protagonists it seems were always talked out of it. There was also (evidently) at least one pretend duel during World War 2 (image, right)… If you know of another actual duel fought on St Helena please contact us with the details.

Louden’s Ben

Louden’s Ben’s cave
Louden’s Ben’s cave in 2011

Louden’s Ben was a hermit whose home was not found until years after his death but whose body never has been.

Longwood in the mid-19th Century was a thriving community with a windmill, farmland, cattle and Napoleon still part of living memory. One of the residents was Benjamin Yon. He became known as Louden’s Ben, though it is not known why. Maybe ‘Louden’s’ was a corruption of ‘London’s’, though any connection with London is a mystery.

Ben sometimes had a loose grip on sanity. He was never formally diagnosed but might have been suffering from schizophrenia, or could have been bipolar. In these times he would say that the ‘White Goat of the Barn’ was calling him. Wanting to avoid people he would take himself away across the treacherous paths over to the seaward side of the Barn, away from prying eyes, where he made himself a shallow cave in the cliffs, walled up with roughly placed stones and furnished with a stone bed. Here he lived until his sanity returned.

He was known for small-scale vegetable theft from the farms in the area, which was tolerated out of sympathy for his condition, and was sometimes seen as a ghostly lantern drifting back and forth across the slopes of the Barn.

Then one day it was noted that he hadn’t been seen for a while; he had mysteriously disappeared. He hadn’t been seen for more than twenty years when his hidden home was discovered, clearly abandoned, in 1897 by a hunting party chasing goats. They found his few possessions, still lying where he had left them; a few clothes, some salt meat, water in bottles, sacks, a cooking pot, some salted goat meat and other small scraps. Despite his hermit existence, he had clearly cared about his appearance - a razor was found amongst his meagre worldly goods. Of Louden’s Ben himself they found nothing; no body was ever found and it is surmised that he had lost his footing in the dark and fell to his death.

After the first discovery, the cave’s location was forgotten. It was likely too remote even for the goat hunters. It remained lost until the 1970s, when Larry Francis’ father was collecting Guano from the cliffs and stumbled upon the cave. The exact location is kept a secret to protect the cave from interference.

Fr. Daine

Fr. Daine

References always describe Fr. Daine as ‘eccentric’, though none specifies exactly what form this eccentricity took.

Fr. Daine was the island’s Roman Catholic Priest from 1891 to 1906 and chaplain to the troops and prisoners during the Boer war period. It is worthy of note that, while E. L. Jackson{9} and others refers to him as ‘Rev. J. H. Daine’, later in the UK he got into some trouble and in court gave his full name as ‘Ferdinand Louis Maria John Henry Daine de Saxe and Braganza’, claiming himself (without any foundation) to be the uncle of King Manuel of Portugal. This may be an indication of his character.

Being the island’s priest was either a well-remunerated position, or Fr. Daine had wealth of his own because E. L. Jackson{9} reports him as owning Friars Lodge, and nearby Cleughs Plain. A stone set in the wall at Friars Lodge gives his name with the date 1901.

Early in his appointment he seems to have tried to address the island’s economic woes; a hands-on approach unusual in the island’s clergy who usually confined themselves to more ‘spiritual’ matters such as drunkenness and the number of children ‘born out of wedlock’. This too may explain his label as an eccentric. In May 1892 he is reported to have initiated a project to produce silk, presumably a continuation of the 1824 project. He also tried growing cotton. His experiments got a positive review in The ‘Blue Book’ for 1891, Governor Grey-Wilson reporting:

I am somewhat more hopeful that a profitable industry might be established, if it be entirely supported by the labour of women and children{10}. The results so far obtained have been very encouraging; but, until the many thousand mulberry trees which have been planted reach a leaf yielding age, it will not be possible to determine satisfactorily the result of the venture.

However the following year’s report is less enthusiastic, noting that the project yielded no decisively satisfactory results during the year and it is not mentioned in any further year. Incidentally, The ‘Blue Book’ for 1891 contains a status report on the experiment by Fr. Daine himself, which he signs ‘John H. Daine’, with no mention of his ordination or claimed royal lineage!

He travelled the island in a small horse-drawn trap, which is caricatured in the image for this page (also below). He is seen below in conversation with two ladies across the same conveyance, here transporting a what appears to be a chest-of-drawers for some unknown purpose. The second shows him in conversation with what appears to be Governor Gallwey.

You can read a fuller biography of Fr. Daine in the book ‘A Secret Between Gentlemen’.

James Francis Homagee

Homagee welcomes the Duke of Connaught, 1910
Homagee welcomes the Duke of Connaught, 1910

James Francis Homagee rose to prominence in St Helena society but died disgraced, in prison.

James Francis Homagee was born on St Helena in 1846, the eldest child of John Ristaffee Homagee{11} and his wife Jane (née Murphy). However Homagee himself often told a rather different story of his origins, claiming that he had been convicted of an (unspecified) crime in India for which he was to be executed, but was given the option instead to serve as Hangman for the island of St Helena, and hence his presence here. This tale typifies James Francis Homagee.

In 1859 aged only 13 Homagee secured a job at The Castle, most probably serving as a messenger. But only three years later, in April 1862, he was appointed Clerk of the Summary Court, a remarkable achievement for a boy of 16. His subsequent career was similarly astounding. By September 1864 he was Manager of the newly-established Government Saving Bank{12} at a salary of £36 per-annum - not bad for a man of only eighteen.

Homagee remained at the bank for the next 53 years, but he also took on many other responsibilities including that of Crown Prosecutor and Clerk of the Peace (November 1867, £225 per-annum); Magistrate and Registrar of the Vice-Admiralty Court; Collector of Customs (1883) and Superintendent of Customs (1903). Also in 1903 Governor Gallwey appointed him President of a Board set up to recommend improvements to the island’s fishing industry. King Edward VIII made Homagee a Companion of the Imperial Service Order in 1906 at the age of 60.

Naturally, his standing in St Helena society was similarly grand. In 1871 his horse, ‘Glarus’, won the Deadwood Challenge Cup, the island’s most prestigious sporting event. His home, St. John’s Villa in upper Jamestown (now part of the General Hospital) was recorded in Grant’s guidebook, described as a pretty house with an extensive garden. He married Ann Smith in 1876 and they had seven daughters, one of whom, Eva Hassell, would go on the be the wife of Edwin Thorpe after one of the period’s grandest and most lavish weddings.

In 1899 he got to realise a life-long ambition - to own one of St Helena’s prominent ‘Country Houses’ when Oakbank came up for sale. He paid only £750 for what had by then become a partial ruin, due to the activities of White Ants, and lovingly restored it to its former glory, greatly helped by much cheap labour from the Boer PoWs. And when the Duke of Connaught and family visited St Helena in 1910, the welcoming address was delivered by none other than James Francis Homagee.

So why does he feature on this page?

In September 1917, at the age of 71, Homagee fell ill and by December he had resigned from all his numerous positions. The Government Savings Bank was taken over by one Stephen Cullan, and very shortly afterwards Mr Cullan reported difficulties balancing the bank’s books, finding a deficit of some £5,000. An investigation ensued where it was found that Homagee had helped himself to almost all of the missing money - £4,828 13s. Disgrace quickly followed and on 18th February 1919 James Francis Homagee was sentenced to five years imprisonment, which became irrelevant when he died some six months later on 26th August 1919.

Why did Homagee choose to live the high life, well outside his otherwise adequate means, to his ultimate cost? Nobody knows. Did he have a plan for paying back what he had ‘borrowed’ from the Bank? Again, nobody knows. His thinking remains a mystery to this day.

‘Matty’ John

Matty John is probably St Helena’s best remembered entertainer.

Matty John’s 2nd Wedding, 1960
Matty John’s 2nd Wedding, 1960
Matty & Elizabeth, 1970s
Matty & Elizabeth, 1970s{1}{b}

Born on 13th October 1875 to Thomas and Agnes John, he was baptised Matthew William John at St. Paul’s Cathedral on 15th June 1879. His father’s occupation is given as Labourer and they lived in Half Tree Hollow.

Somewhere around 1890, when he was aged 15, he learned to play the ‘accordion’ - actually a Melodeon (see the article (below)). Whoever taught him this did St Helena an immense service, but we’ll come to that…

Details of his education and first employment are unknown although in an interview just before his death he recalled taking supplies up to the Broad Bottom Boer PoW Camp by mule-cart. In 1902 he was following in his father’s footsteps - he is listed as a Labourer when on 10th March 1902{13} he married Sarah Louisa Augustus (28), a widow, also at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Apparently Sarah Louisa was already pregnant because three months later she gave birth to their first child, a boy christened Sydney Lockwood. Four other children followed in the next 14 years, two girls and two more boys.

Other jobs he recalled in a 1973 interview were as a wharf-man for Solomons, and digging holes for the Government of St Helena. At some point he took himself off to South Africa, working as a miner in the Copper Mines of South Africa{14}. He was also for a time the Half Tree Hollowwaterman’ - water was not supplied to individual houses so his job was to ensure the communal tanks were full and any drowned animals were removed{15}.

Everybody on St Helena has a nickname, but there doesn’t seem to be agreements as to what his was, with people variously remembering ‘Mattie Boon’, ‘Mattie Bottom’ and ‘Mattie Bonnie’.

There many stories about him. It’s possible he encouraged these. It is sometimes said he was a whaleman. He does not list this in his interview and we think this might be an assumption based on one of his most popular songs, the ‘Mighty Sperm Whale’. We suspect he got this song from American whaleman he met either on St Helena or in South Africa but was not one of them himself. Or maybe he was. Similarly it is said that he once owned a piece of land in South Africa called Mattie’s Bay, but lost it to a friend in a card game, but a tale of this kind is not uncommon and he might have appropriated it, or it might be true. Much is uncertain about Matty John and that perhaps is part of his appeal.


There is even a story that he once owned a piece of land in Friars Valley but lost it in a card game to a Mr Williams (one of the 100 men) - a familiar story for many characters, but the family insist it to be true. The land was known by many names - ‘Mattie’s Bay’ (but it isn’t on the coast) and ‘Mattie’s Plain’ (but it’s in a valley) being the most commonly referenced. While we cannot confirm the accuracy of the story, there is a house well down in Friars Valley - recently built - carrying the name ‘Matties’…

What is certain, however, is that by the 1950s he was retired and entertaining regularly - one eye closed so the smoke from his pipe did not irritate it - at dances, festivals and in particular at the White Horse Bar behind the Bridge Memorial Clock in Jamestown, singing and playing his Melodeon. This is where the 1962 Film team found him in 1961. They recorded seven of his songs and a musical interlude and we reproduce all of them below. His music was featured in the film.

Kingshurst, 1970s

Also at about this time - 1960, aged 84 - he remarried (photo, left). His first wife Sarah Louisa had died in 1949. She is described as rather ‘proper’ - very much Matty’s opposite, but his second wife - Elizabeth Herne - was much more like him. He taught her to play the Melodeon and they performed together for many years and in many venues, collecting payment in bottles of Guinness which he carried home and ‘disposed of’ in the conventional manner.

Home, by the way, was in Half Tree Hollow. You got to HTH from the White Horse in the 1960s by the direct route - climb Jacob’s Ladder and then walk up to his house. He did this regularly into his eighties, probably never once sober - his preferred tipple was brandy & wine. One night while climbing the ladder he fell near the top. Tumbling down to almost certain death he was spared when his braces became entangled in the railings, and unable to right himself he spent the night there until he was spotted next morning by an inmate in the prison at the bottom of the Ladder, out for early exercise. This was not his only misadventure. Interviewed in the late 1990s his son recalled having to retrieve Matty from a prickly pear bush and remove the thousands of tiny spines from his father. Matty, however, was so drunk he was unable to register pain and just laughed at his mishap.

As mentioned above Matty was interviewed for Radio St Helena in December 1973 by Tony Leo. Health failing, he was still bright and cheerful and happy to make music on his Melodeon for the tape. He died soon after on 3rd January 1974 and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral Churchyard. His tombstone simply reads Matthew W. JOHN / R.I.P.

He is fondly remembered. It seems the phrase ‘everybody loved him’ is true in this case. Comments we received while researching him include that he and Lizzie were probably the two merriest people I have ever known. Mr John was always singing and playing the accordion, and Mrs John also played the accordion. She was always wearing beautiful makeup and looked very elegant, and Mr John had so many beautiful pipes. The last photo taken of him - at Kingshurst in the early 1970s (right) - shows him as everybody remembers him - laughing at a joke.

Here is some of his repertoire (if you want to understand the words our page Speak Saint may help):


We offer our thanks to the many people who enthusiastically supplied material from which the above is composed, all keen to ensure that Matty John gains his place in St Helena’s history. He clearly deserves it.

G A D (‘Tony’) Thornton

Almost everything Tony Thornton did on St Helena stirred up controversy.

Tony & family, 1972
Tony & family, 1972
Willowbank, 1970s
Willowbank, 1970s{16}
Protest march 9th October 1968
Protest march 9th October 1968{d}
Tony Thornton
Tony in 2010

Tony Thornton presented in the 70s the most comprehensive and ambitious development plan ever for St Helena. The mainstay of Mr Thornton’s idea was an irrigation canal round the Island on a level 300 meters above sea. The purpose of this canal, which was supposed to be connected with water storage reservoirs, was to collect all precipitation from the higher regions of St Helena for huge irrigation schemes for the development of agriculture, especially the cultivation of grapes for local wine production. Grapes have been commercially grown on the Island for hundreds of years but not any longer. It has been said that we even had a brandy distillery somewhere between Plantation House and New Ground. Wine could undoubtedly contribute to the wealth of the Island. A ‘Chateau Hutts Gate’ or a ‘Sandy Bay Sparkling Select’ would go down well on the export market. Mr Thornton spent an endless amount of time on a complete land use plan for the entire Island. The maps were produced in great detail. His concept was that St Helena has enough water to sustain financial prosperity through artificially irrigated agricultural production and that the local labour force was able to construct the canal and the other components without any substantial input from overseas experts and construction companies. Many elements other than the canal were incorporated in the scheme; roads, wharf improvement and even a detailed plan of an airport on Prosperous Bay Plain. The drawing of the airport is still available in the Prince Andrew School Library. Political problems stopped the future development in this direction and Mr Thornton received an Exclusion Order by the Governor of St Helena in 1976 and no further serious ideas in this direction have been aired since.{e}

Some might argue that Tony Thornton would qualify as an important person. While we have sympathy with this view in our opinion his views and proposals were so radical and controversial he qualifies for this page instead.

Tony Thornton arrived on St Helena in 1967 and remained until Governor Thomas Oates made an Exclusion Order against him in September 1975. In that time many would argue that he worked tirelessly to benefit the people of St Helena through improving agriculture, standards of living and life generally. Others claim he was only seeking personal gain. Certainly the Government of St Helena seems to have opposed his every move. The Exclusion Order claimed Thornton was a Communist, though there was no real evidence to support this claim{17} (and one could argue that being a Communist was not a crime, even if he were). When he and others took over Solomons the Government of St Helena quickly nationalised it (with a lot of public support) on the grounds that it was unwise to have a company on which the island depended for so much in foreign hands{18} and also that he was not managing the company properly.

Whatever else he may have been, Tony Thornton was definitely controversial.

Tony Thornton was a South African (though born in Yorkshire, England), who made his money as a property developer in South Africa. He first came to St Helena as a Tourist in 1967. Realising that the island had great but unexploited economic potential he returned soon after with two off-shore fishing boats (The Brothers and The Jan Snyman) and established the nucleus of a fishing industry at Ruperts (‘FRASHI’).

We hear of him again when in August 1968 he and M J Metelercamp, also a South Africa, trading as the South Atlantic Trading & Investment Company (SATIC), purchased the majority of shares in Solomons, an important part of St Helena’s economy. This caused considerable concern, both amongst the islanders and the Government of St Helena. It could have been fear that a major component of St Helena’s limited Private Sector had fallen into foreign hands. It may have been relevant that both Thornton and Metelercamp were white South Africans, at a time when the Government of South Africa was pursuing a vigorous ‘Apartheid’ policy of suppressing the country’s majority black and mixed-race population (Saints then living in South Africa were classed as ‘Mixed Race’ and hence subjected to discrimination). And yet SATIC/Thornton actually made many improvements through Solomons that benefitted the ordinary people of St Helena. He renovated The Consulate Hotel (then owned by Solomons) making it not just an attractive place to stay but also a popular entertainment venue for Saints including the Ballroom, a vast venue for local events. He created the original ‘Greenlands’, the island’s first supermarket, introduced earth-moving machinery to the island making it much easier to undertake large-scale development projects, introduced artificial insemination for livestock, built the island’s first reservoir and built a swimming pool and park, open to the public, in his home at Willow Bank. One of his more far-sighted proposals was the creation of an irrigation canal around the whole island at 300m above sea level, linked to water storage reservoirs, thus collecting all the rainfall from the higher parts of the island to assist with agriculture{19}. He also proposed re-starting St Helena’s wine industry. He donated some land in Levelwood to the Anglican Church so they could build a church (which they never did) and he also organised construction of St. Martin’s-in-the-Hills (at High Point, St Pauls).

His opponents say that when SATIC took over Solomons his treatment of Hugh Kennedy and George Moss, who had run the company through hard times after the closure of the flax industry, was disgraceful, leading to the Moss family leaving the island after being here for two hundred years. There is also documented evidence, provided by the Government of St Helena, that Solomons was not properly run in his time, with claims of excessive borrowing, failure to hold annual general meetings and file accounts, and excessive remuneration paid to Directors.

People rebelled against his ownership of Solomons, though some claim they were persuaded by ‘The Establishment’ to do so. SATIC took control in August 1968 and by October the St Helena General Workers Union was protesting in the streets against Solomons shares being sold to foreigners. A delegation was even sent to London in December to seek Whitehall action against SATIC. The Government of St Helena took action on 8th March 1969, taking forcible ownership of more than half SATIC’s shares with an option to buy the remainder if it decided it was in the ‘interest of the island’ for it to do so. This it did in April 1974, shortly before the Exclusion Order was issued against Thornton.

Labour Party Manifesto, 1975

Defeated economically, Tony Thornton resorted to politics. In 1975 he formed the St Helena Labour Party with a manifesto of reform, aiming to contest the 1975 general election for Legislative Council. The 34-page Manifesto was a classic piece of Thornton-thinking. It outlined the Party’s stance on current government practises and laid out its own plan for the development of the Island for the next five years. The Manifesto was severely critical of government for further engineering the Island in to a culture of aid dependency from the UK and it’s virtual neglect of its 80% pasture landholding for the purposes of agricultural development. It also condemned government’s policy of actively encouraging and sponsoring the depopulation of the Island for work overseas. But the Exclusion Order had removed him from the island before the election took place.

After his departure many of the positive changes he brought about simply collapsed. The orchard and potato farm he had established in Little Broad Bottom became totally derelict. Nobody even maintained the park and pool at Willowbank and it fell into disrepair.

His unceremonious ejection from the island was based on fabricated charges and his 1981 appeal against same was rejected on the questionable grounds that it was ‘vexatious, frivolous and an abuse of the process of Law’. The Exclusion Order was not lifted until December 1998. And yet, despite all of this he retained a commitment to St Helena, helping in 1999 when a Saint, Danni Clifford, had to be emergency evacuated to South Africa for medical treatment, and writing to HM Government in the UK in April 2000 on behalf of the islanders complaining about the delays in progressing with Air Access. He even requested that, after his death, his ashes should be interred at Rose Cottage, which he bought during his time here and wanted to restore but did not get a chance, a wish that was granted on 8th June 2012.

Tony Thornton is often referred to by his nickname - The Man. He is much better remembered on St Helena than any of the Governors who interfered with his schemes.

Auntie Lou

In 1937 a London woman by the name of Louise Hawker, a lady of social standing and some beauty who had previously been a ballet dancer, decided she had had enough of ‘society’ and set off in a Ford V8 motor caravan, the ‘Suzie Wong’, to explore the world… and ended up on St Helena.

‘Auntie Lou’
‘Auntie Lou’{f}
With Salvation Army Officer Howard Sercombe
With Salvation Army Officer Howard Sercombe{2}{g}
Birthday Party at Prospect House, c.1980
Birthday Party at Prospect House, c.1980{h}

Suzie Wong, 1935{f}
Unloading ‘Suzie Wong’
Unloading ‘Suzie Wong’{i}

‘Suzie Wong’ was a customised V8 Mercury ‘Woody’ Station-wagon with the roof and wooden coach work and back wheel base widened during her time in India.

After travelling through 60 different countries in 30 continuous years, perhaps inevitably she and ‘Suzie Wong’ ended up onboard the ship to St Helena, arriving here on 27th August 1967. She initially parked ‘Suzie Wong’ alongside an old house belonging to Col. Gilpin, located at the top of The Run in Upper Jamestown (long since demolished). Here she set up home. ‘Auntie Lou’, as she soon came to be known, proceeded to construct a fabulous garden on the pure rock of the hillside, and dressed in a grubby apron decorated with genuine pearls she welcomed all visitors, offering tea and home-made biscuits to all and sundry. A 1977/78 visitor, the descendant of an island family, recalls:

While my parents were busy, my sister (9), brother (12), and I (11) slipped off to go explore Jamestown. It was while walking up the back alleys that we met Auntie Lou. This chance meeting led to our family ‘joining her for tea’ everyday for a week. She left a lasting impression on my young mind.

She also taught French to young children after school at her home, in return for which they watered her rock garden with water collected from the Run. Auntie Lou left her homestead only once a year, when she was invited to Plantation House to celebrate her birthday.

As always with any unusual person on St Helena rumours abounded about her. Some said that the flowers in her garden included some ‘funny weeds{20}’ and as she used to sit in her car in the evenings listening to the radio, for some reason the story spread that she was a Soviet Spy!

Her stories were endless, her charm was electric; an amazing lady who injected her energies into showing her deep and genuine love for nature and mankind. The garden she created surrounding her home, was fantastic!{j}
I use to collect and dig out broken willow pattern plates from the hill at China Lane and Auntie Lou would use them on the pave stone around her garden. I would receive a few sweets in return. Great memories.{k}
She was a very kind lady. I stopped by her home/car and she fixed me a cup of tea then pointed at one of her potted plants and told me this baby was just born today. I then looked closely and saw a tiny stem barely above the dirt. She mentioned she had received a letter from the local government office complaining about a lean to shed built next to her car. She also mentioned about wanting to be buried in her car at sea.{l}

Auntie Lou

This from the St Helena News Review 24th December 1980:

A very ‘woozy’ Auntie Lou, left hand cut, right hand bruised, head slightly concussed, wishes you all the best for Xmas and 1981. She thought it was an earthquake but it wasn’t. This explains why the gang are verbally coping with the situation.{21}

Her death, on 10th September 1981, was announced in the St Helena News Review on 18th September. The announcement appears below:

We regret to record the passing away on Thursday the 10th of September of Mrs Louise Hawker, familiarly known as "Auntie Lou", at the ripe old age of 91.

Born Louise Rosa Veuillmin Higgs in London on the 27th of March 1890, she married Peter Thomas Ryves Hawker on the 17th of October 1914. She and her husband travelled widely until his death in 1935. In 1937, Mrs Hawker resumed her travels in ‘Suzie Wong’, a Ford V8 Station Wagon, and after travelling some twelve times round the world, visiting something like 60 countries, she eventually arrived with Suzie Wong, in St Helena on the 27th of August 1967 and settled down to live in peace and contentment in Upper Jamestown alongside the Run.

Over the years, many, many visitors called to see this remarkable lady who lived in and around her beloved motor home and were captivated by her charm, cheerfulness and fascinating conversation. She was the subject of many articles around the world and was certainly one of the most colourful people ever to live on St Helena. Her final resting place is in St. Paul’s Cathedral Churchyard; she will be well remembered and much missed.

She asked in her will that she be buried at sea in ‘Suzie Wong’, but because of the evident difficulties in complying with this request, her body actually lies in St. Paul’s churchyard. ‘Suzie Wong’ was stored locally for a time but not used and allowed to deteriorate. In c.2001 she was reportedly seen in disrepair rotting with chickens living in her decaying hulk. She was later stripped down for useful parts and dumped. A sad end for a venerable vehicle.

Some Honourable Mentions

Although not really a Character as required for this page, we decided to give the following brief mentions…

Below: Governor GallweyEdward FentonCanon Walcott‘Iris Blackstockings’Nick Thorpe

Governor Gallwey

Governor Gallwey

Governor Gallwey gets his honourable mention because he clearly had a sense of humour and did not resist employing it, even in official Government documents. By way of an example, he wrote this in The ‘Blue Book’ for 1906:

There were 118 births during the period under review, of which 37 were illegitimate{4}. Now that the troops have been withdrawn the number of births under the latter category will undoubtedly be less in future.

Incidentally, in 1973 the ‘illegitimate’ births{4} were 51 from a total of 117 (44%), and today many couples no longer bother getting married, so his expectation was at variance with the trend.

Edward Fenton

Edward Fenton gets his honourable mention for sheer ambition.

The year was 1582 and after a growing naval career Edward Fenton was put in charge of an expedition which was to sail round the Cape of Good Hope to the Moluccas and China, his instructions being to obtain any knowledge of the northwest passage that was possible without hindrance to his trade. The expedition sailed in May 1582 and reached Sierra Leone on 10th August.

It soon became evident that Fenton intended to ignore his instructions, if not to abandon the voyage altogether. On 25th September he astonished his colleagues by informing them of his intention of seizing St Helena to possesse the same, and theire to be proclaimed kyng. His plan, apparently was to use the then-uninhabited island as a base to harass Dutch ships heading North, and live off the resulting plunder.

However he clearly changed his mind because he actually set off for Brazil, and although he succeeded in defeating a Spanish fleet at São Vicente he was unable to trade with the Portuguese residents there and gave up and returned to England.

Had he enacted his St Helena plan, and succeeded, maybe our history would have been very, very different…

Jonathan Lambert

Curiously, a remarkably similar story relates to Tristan da Cunha. In this case the would-be King was an American, Jonathan Lambert, and the events occurred in the 19th Century. And Lambert did actually take unopposed possession of the island, putting him ahead of Fenton. At that time American whalers frequented the neighbouring waters and on 27th December 1810 the Boston ship Baltic put Lambert ashore. Lambert declared himself sovereign and sole possessor of the island group grounding my right and claim on the rational and sure ground of absolute occupancy. He declared the main island renamed ‘Island of Refreshment’; Inaccessible Island he renamed ‘Pintard Island’ and Nightingale Island ’Lovel Island’. Five months later he and two companions drowned while fishing, thus ending his occupation. More at en.wikipedia.org/‌wiki/‌Islands‌_‌of‌_‌Refreshment.

Canon Walcott

Canon Walcott c.1911
Canon Walcott c.1911
Magazine banner

Canon Walcott gets mentioned on our page Important People but we feel some of his editorial contributions to the St Helena Magazine, which he edited from 1921 until shortly before his death in 1951, earn him a place here. Although it was theoretically a church publication, Canon Walcott was not afraid to challenge, and even make fun of the church and its leaders. Herewith some examples:

‘Iris Blackstockings’

Iris Blackstockings

Formerly a nurse before a period in the UK, apparently she returned with many pairs of black pantyhose, which had never before been seen on St Helena and hence her nickname. Iris was generally acknowledged to be a kind, friendly and helpful person, with just one eccentricity that made her remarkable - her unusual dress. Whenever she came into Town she dressed either in a white wedding dress, complete with veil, or sometimes as The Black widow. She made all of her remarkable attire herself and often carried a matching parasol, also home-made. The photograph shows her in Bride mode…

Apparently she also painted her home (just up from the Salvation Army Hall in Half Tree Hollow) in spectacular designs - people remember a Union Flag that covered the entire exterior and also many large flowers and/or animals (this was in the days before planning regulations!)

Nick Thorpe

At home, 2018

Nick Thorpe is included on our page Important People for his tireless work in the community, but he also gets a brief mention here. As a prominent member of the local business community he was always invited to all the formal events - Monarch’s Birthday, Governor’s Inauguration, etc. And unlike all the other male guests he never turned up in a suit. He always arrived casually dressed - mostly but not exclusively, smart casual, but definitely casual. We don’t know whether this was some form of protest or just that he couldn’t be bothered to dress up, but the only conclusion we can draw is that he didn’t feel the need to show off.

You can also read about Dot Leo, proprietor of Dot’s Café

Some Dishonourable Mentions…

We have deliberately not taken a position on whether the people listed above were ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but the ones listed below are more easily categorised (or are they…?)


During much of the island’s early history England/Britain was intermittently at war with many other European nations, and because of its strategic military importance there were inevitably spies sent here to map out the island’s defences and establish how they might be circumvented. Here are two we know about:

  1. Louis-Francois-Gregoire Lafitte de Brassier, creator of the notable spy map containing arguably the most detailed map of lower Jamestown of its time.

  2. Paul Gasherie, who came here in 1734 claiming to hold the rank of Colonel and to have expertise in military defences but who, it transpired, both wasn’t and hadn’t{23}. Read all about him{m}.

Some we’d like to know more about…

Mary Tewsdale

All we know about her is based on two items from the Records:

There is mention of a Mr ‘Tuesdale’ in 1686, and given the fluidity of spellings in those days it may be supposed that Mary was a relative - wife/daughter/mother perhaps.

It would be nice to know whether the accusation of witchcraft had any foundation, or whether, as so often in those times, the term ‘witch’ was applied to any independent-minded woman who refused to conform to society’s rules.

Read More

Below: Article: Deceiving Bishop WelbyArticle: A Musical Mission

Article: Deceiving Bishop Welby

By Ian Bruce & Ed Longley, published in the ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{24}, October 2021{5}

An article about some characterful behaviour by members of the clergy at the end of the 19th / beginning of the 20th century.

Deceiving Bishop Welby

Article: A Musical Mission

Published in the St Helena Herald 21st August 2009{5}

Modern Melodeon
Modern Melodeon

Richard Farmer is a man with a musical mission - to find a squeeze box for a charity show in Jamestown next week.

Richard arrived on St Helena on the last sailing of the RMS St Helena (1990-2018), unaware his musical talents would be needed quite so soon.

He does have a squeezebox of his own, but it will not be arriving at the Island with the rest of his belongings until after next Friday’s performance.

It is hoped that Richard will be able to join a band that has been formed to play for some traditional English Barn Dances at Jamestown Community Centre.

The Dancing will round off a night of music and singing from the Ladies Orchestra and friends, and the Palm Villa Singers. There will also be a performance of Morris Dancing and a Broom Dance.

Richard, who has just begun a three year job on St Helena, has already found a Squeezebox, but it turned out to be a Concertina. Richard is actually looking for a Melodeon.

He said: The Melodeon is similar to a Concertina and an Accordion and that it is a square box with bellows but it works in a different way - each button plays a different note when the bellows are squeezed in and out. It’s the perfect instrument for dancing because the bellows are very rhythmic.

It is known that there have been Melodeons on the Island in the past. Matty John was a favourite musician at the White Horse in times gone by a was recorded playing one in the 1960s by a South African Film Crew.

Ann Sim in Jamestown remembers Matty playing at Rosemary Plain Picnics - but she says the instrument was known to Saints as a ‘Squashbox’.


{a} Howard Payne, character in the film Speed (1994){b} George P Reynolds{c} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{d} Lolly Young{e} St Helena News, 1st March 2002{5}{f} Lynette Stuart (nee Joshua){g} Elaine D Arms{h} Howard & Myra Sercombe{i} John Coyle{j} Joanna Crowie, 10th September 2018{5}{k} Sandra Henry, 4th December 2018{5}{l} Richard Surveyor, 4th December 2018{5}{m} A. J. Farrington, published in Army Historical Research, 1968


{1} In the White Horse Bar, of course!{2} We understand this photograph shows Howard collecting Auntie Lou to take her to the Birthday Party shown below at Prospect House, c.1980.{3} If we featured all the nut-cases currently at large on St Helena this page would never end…{4} Which in former times were known as Spares.{5} @@RepDis@@{6} Agave angustifolia. {7} We don’t have a copy of William Burchell’s diary. If you have one please send it to us{8} The Torbetts were another prominent family of the time.{9} In ‘St Helena, The Historic Island, From Its Discovery To The Present Date’, by E. L. Jackson, published in 1905.{10} These would, of course, have been Saint women and children. The wives of the colonial administrators did not work and their children received proper schooling.{11} It is thought his father was a Parsee, though how he came to be on St Helena is not known.{12} An institution that remained until it was replaced by the Bank of St Helena in 2004.{13} The wedding certificate gives his age as 24 but actually he would have been 27.{14} He describes the place as Mackie Land. It is not clear where he meant. The name Cancordia is mentioned and there is a Konkola Copper Mines in Zambia. We have also heard the location referred to as the Orange Free State, and this had an area known as Macawvlei, but as far as we can tell, no Copper Mines. Another Matty John mystery!{15} If you go up the main road through Half Tree Hollow you can see a block of taps on the turning by the Community Care Centre (see photo on our page Water). These would have been fed by a tank, which it was Matty’s job to keep clean and filled.{16} We do not have identities for the people shown.{17} It is said the ‘evidence’ was some pamphlets found in his family’s supposedly-private mailbox, actually addressed to his wife.{18} Contrast this with Governor Rushbrook’s apparent determination in 2020 to find foreign buyers for the island’s land and fishing industry…{19} A similar scheme, linking the reservoirs by pipes to allow water transfer in times of shortage, was finally implemented after the drought of 2016.{20} We assume this means Cannabis.{21} No, we have no idea what it means either!{22} If anyone can get us a copy of this remarkable ‘history’ we would, we feel, enjoy reading it.{23} Someone coming here to work claiming expertise they didn’t have? Well obviously that couldn’t happen now!{24} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.