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Forts and Batteries

Defensive military installations

Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
Winston Churchill

St Helena was always defended, ever since the Dutch invaded the island in the 17th century

Buttermilk Point Battery
Buttermilk Point Battery

Below: History • Gallery •  Cockburn’s Battery  •  Banks Battery  collapse, 2010 • Read More • Read More

St Helena was always defended, ever since the Dutch invaded the island in the 17th century. But when it was decided to exile Napoleon here in 1815 the island’s defences were strengthened in case the French came to rescue him, with a garrison of 820 men stationed here. Most of the island’s historic forts however date from an earlier era.

Other military installations are reported on our Other Military Sites page. The guns themselves have their own page.

History

When The East India Company settled the island in 1659 the tiny Fort of St. John was thought sufficient to defend St Helena. The island’s best defences were seen as the coast itself with its high cliffs and lack of safe landing places. But after the Dutch invasion of 1673, opinion changed. It was decided to build batteries all around the island. An memo from The East India Company from 1701 reads:

We are very desirous that St Helena may be made as strong as possible to be defended against an Enemy. Take the advice and assistance of all the commanders, whether men of warr or Merchant Shipps, for fortifying the island. We would have you, if you find it practicable, to roll some of the Rocks with which you are stored into the Sea along the Beach to prevent boats landing.

Forts were built mostly using labour provided by convicts and Slaves. Materials were primarily local stone, but Portland and Purbeck stone brought out from England as ballast in sailing ships was often used in selective positions.

Most of batteries now seen were built during the 18th Century and improved in the 19th. Few of them were actually built in Napoleon’s time. Cockburn’s Battery on Egg Island was one such, and is also the only one built on an offshore island.

More interesting batteries lie between Banks Valley and the Sugar Loaf. Known as the ‘Banks Lines’or ‘Banks Battery they were built here because the South-Easterly Trade Winds forced sailing ships to come close inshore as they rounded the Sugar Loaf and headed towards the anchorage in James Bay. This brought them in easy range of the 44-gun Banks Lines. Originally this defence was known as King William’s Fort.

 Mundens Battery  first existed as two guns in 1673, but was greatly expanded by Governor Roberts in 1708, works being completed on 19th December 1710.

Lemon Valley was an obvious landing place, so was initially fortified in the 1670s and heavily fortified by the 1750s, supported by Half Moon Battery{2}, 48m above sea level on a projecting ledge along the western side of Lemon Valley Bay in the early 1800s.

Walled-up Old Woman’s Valley
Walled-up Old Woman’s Valley
High Knoll Fort
High Knoll Fort{a}

In addition to forts and batteries, four valleys were walled-up to prevent landing, though no defensive fort was built. These were:

 Powell’s Valley  wasn’t fortified until the early 1800s. One day while out riding, Napoleon escaped from his escort and headed off in the direction of Powell’s Valley. Governor Lowe realised that the valley was unguarded and might provide an avenue for a rescue attempt, so it was promptly fortified.

Water supply to Ladder Hill Fort, Read’s map, 1817
Water supply to Ladder Hill Fort, Read’s map, 1817

High Knoll Fort was designed as a redoubt fort, originally built in 1799 as a circular tower. The tower was incorporated into the present structure when it was expanded by the Royal Engineers in 1874. For more detail see our High Knoll Fort page.

Ladder Hill Fort sign

 Ladder Hill Fort  is located where, for 100 years, The East India Company used to hang criminals, so the executions could be clearly seen from Jamestown. Governor Robert Brooke built the first fortification here in 1790, extending it in 1797. The fort had its own water supply carried from what is now the Redhill Treatment Works, below High Knoll Fort, in a channel, probably of stone (see excerpt from Read’s map, 1817, left). The strategic value of Ladder Hill Fort for commanding the approaches to Jamestown Harbour had become recognised by the time Napoleon arrived on St Helena and additional guns were sited there during the period of his captivity. It was further extended in the 19th Century and was described in 1883 by Benjamin Grant as the principal Fort on the island. Most of the buildings are now used as Government housing. In 2013 a South African hotel chain expressed interest in converting the fort into a hotel but negotiations broke down, largely due to the cost of re-locating the residents.

Most of the fortifications are readily accessible, though perhaps with a bit of a walk. Ladder Hill Fort, at the top of Jacob’s Ladder, is open in parts to the public. Mundens Battery is a short walk up from Jamestown, and an extension of this route leads to Banks Battery.

Lemon Valley is a short boat ride from Jamestown (or quite a long walk from the centre of the island). The fortification of Lemon Valley started soon after the recapture of St Helena from the Dutch in 1673. The site was also used for quarantine purposes for slaves from Madagascar infected with Smallpox.

 Cox’s Battery  is sited on a precipice divided from Turks Cap by a ravine, and is accessible by a rough track along the ridge from Gregory’s Battery. Probably built by Governor Beatson, it was positioned for its guns to bear on Prosperous Bay, serving as a support for  Prosperous Bay Battery . Today Cox’s Battery is a ruin, but the loose stones to the breastwork indicate that it was a semicircular shape. Nobody seem to know who was ‘Cox’ - he doesn’t seem to appear in any records.

Some of the decay to forts following their disuse can be attributed to people seeking building materials, despite a widely-known local superstition.

Gallery

Here are pictures of some of our historic fortifications:

Banks Battery
Banks Battery{b}

Banks Battery
Banks Battery

Entrance to Banks Battery
Entrance to Banks Battery

Ladder Hill Fort gate
Ladder Hill Fort gate

Mundens Battery
Mundens Battery

Mundens Battery
Mundens Battery{b}

Mundens Hill West Battery
Mundens Hill West Battery{c}

Lemon Valley Wall and Guardhouse
Lemon Valley Wall and Guardhouse

Lemon Valley fortifications
Lemon Valley fortifications

Half Moon Battery, Lemon Valley
Half Moon Battery, Lemon Valley

Half Moon Battery, Lemon Valley
Half Moon Battery, Lemon Valley

Repulse Point Battery
Repulse Point Battery

Saddle Battery, overlooking Ruperts
Saddle Battery, overlooking Ruperts

Chubb’s Lower Battery
Chubb’s Lower Battery{c}

Martello Tower, Prosperous Bay
Martello Tower, Prosperous Bay{d}

Martello Tower, Prosperous Bay
Martello Tower, Prosperous Bay{c}

Sandy Bay lines
Sandy Bay lines

Bunker’s Hill Battery
Bunker’s Hill Battery{c}

Remains, Sandy Bay
Remains, Sandy Bay

 

Here are some older pictures:

Parade, Ladder Hill Fort, 1903 {1}
Parade, Ladder Hill Fort, 1903{1}

Ladder Hill Fort, 1860
Ladder Hill Fort, 1860

Ladder Hill Fort, early 1900s
Ladder Hill Fort, early 1900s

Ladder Hill Fort, 1903
Ladder Hill Fort, 1903

Sandy Bay lines, 1862
Sandy Bay lines, 1862

Undated but maybe 1800s
Undated but maybe 1800s

Mundens Fort, 1809
Mundens Fort, 1809{e}

 

 Cockburn’s Battery 

Cockburn’s Battery is worthy of particular mention because it is our only offshore defensive installation, located on Egg Island.

Rear Admiral Cockburn, Commander of the Northumberland, brought Napoleon to the island and remained here as Supreme Commander of the Garrison until the arrival of Governor Hudson Lowe in April 1816. In view of the anticipated attack by the French with the aim of liberating their former Emperor, Cockburn reviewed the island’s defences and concluded that the existing wall at the mouth of Old Woman’s Valley would be insufficient to defend the valley. He therefore decided it would be advisable build a battery on Egg Island; a pinnacle of rock 76m high outside the entrance to the valley.

The main battery gun position was circular in shape and mounted three 24-pdr SB guns on stone platforms. There was also a 10 inch mortar on a wooden platform and a single 24-pdr carronade, the latter mounted above the landing place for its defence. Behind the main gun position there was a building to accommodate the gunners, a powder magazine and a shot furnace.

This would have been quite a challenging posting because Egg Island is much favoured by sea birds as a nesting site. Dolphin watching trips from Jamestown often visit the island but remain distant and upwind, as the smell caused by centuries of accumulated guano is quite striking! Notice the birds in the photographs (below):

From above
From above

Discarded cannon
Discarded cannon

Shot Kiln
Shot Kiln

 

 Banks Battery  collapse, 2010

In March 2010, after a period of heavy seas (not unusual for the time of year) a large chunk of the wall at Banks Battery collapsed into the sea. The Banks fortifications - comprising a platform and five separate batteries - are one of the most impressive and significant military sites on the island.

Since Banks was last used in the 1870s it has been slowly decaying. As recently as the 1960s most of the Banks platform and wall was still standing but more recently only about a quarter of the original curtain wall remained, with the rest having been smashed down and washed away by the sea.

The Government of St Helena has no budget for the maintenance of the island’s built heritage. Such maintenance as is done is undertaken by voluntary organisations such as the St Helena National Trust.

Banks Battery, 1860s
Banks Battery, 1860s{f}

Banks Battery, 1990s
Banks Battery, 1990s

Banks Battery, 2010
Banks Battery, 2010

Remains
Remains{g}

Close-up
Close-up

Landward view
Landward view{h}

 

We understand the person in charge of building the battery went by the name of Banks, so strictly it should be ‘Banks’ Battery’, but ‘Banks Battery’ is more commonly used so we have gone with that.

Read More

For more about the weaponry in these batteries see our Guns page. You may also be interested in:

Forts Map, Bill Clements, 2007#
{i}

Read More

Below: Historic Environment Record • Article: Bicentenary of  Bunker’s Hill Battery . • Defences Report, 1st May 1734

HER image

Historic Environment Record

For more about our historic buildings consult The Historic Environment Record.

Article: Bicentenary of  Bunker’s Hill Battery .

By Ken Denholm, published in the St Helena Herald 6th February 2004{3}

Bunker’s Hill Battery, overlooking Ruperts Valley
{c}

Although not a very significant battery of the Island’s fortifications, Bunker’s Hill Battery is perched on a very prominent eminence in Ruperts Valley, and I am submitting this article to record the bicentenary year since it was built in 1804 during rule by the East India Company under the Governor Robert Patton. Fortunately I was able to locate in the Castle Archives the exact record of when Governor Patton authorised its building during the perilous period on the Island in 1804 when Napoleonic wars with France were resumed. After placing the Island’s garrison and all its inhabitants in a state of total alertness, on the 29th August the Governor announced his plans to the Council for preparing the Island’s defences, as recorded from Consultations of that date:

Why attention in carrying on our present operations is in the first place directed to resist a group de main which has repeatedly been threatened, and is the mode of attack most likely to be attempted. When Ruperts and Ladder Hill are secured by the works now carrying on, something should be done in aid of our natural defences which would render the Valleys adjacent to James still more inaccessible by blowing away part of the Rocks and by super-adding at some places, particularly Breakneck Valley, a wall and Fraise a Battery on the central Eminence called Bunker’s Hill to enfilade Ruperts Valley is a necessary appendage to the works carrying on there, because it will cover the Island Guns on the left. It may be proper also to secure that the Battery on Bunker’s Hill, which will enfilade Ruperts valley, is commanded by the Guns of High Knoll, and would be completely defended by a Block house on the summit of Ruperts Hill. This chain of defence on both sides appears to be very complete and I don’t think it will be difficult of execution. I have thus laid my ideas upon these important subjects before you with two views, either to derive confidence from your concurrence, or to be further enlightened by your suggestions.
Signed by Governor Robert Patton and totally approved by the Board of the E.I.C Council on St Helena.

Certainly, when Cocks’ map of St Helena was published in 1804, Bunker’s Hill Battery was shown on it, and just as certainly it was manned by soldiers of the St Helena Artillery Regiment which together with the St Helena Infantry Regiment were both raised on the Island by the East India Company. The name of Bunker’s Hill is believed to have been bestowed on the Battery out of defence to the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, which was fought during the American war of Independence in 1775. Bunker’s Hill Battery could well have been manned by the St Helena Artillery Regiment during Napoleon’s period of captivity on the Island during 1815 to 1821. In 1824/25 it was listed as still amounting a 24 pounder cannon, and in 1850 it was shown on the St Helena Military Map by Captain Palmer as a Battery with a reference number. Thereafter it appears to have faded into obscurity.

And what of Bunker’s Hill Battery today? I decided in its Bicentenary year to carry out a survey. Firstly it’s lower reaches can be reached from the road that passes by the Power station, but there are no defined tracks whatsoever and one simply has to choose any step upward route that seems best, although as all the slopes and summit of this Hill are densely clad with prickly pear, these cannot be avoided. It seems that the western slopes of this Hill are slightly more accessible to reach the summit which includes four rocky Knolls on one of which the very reduced ruins of the old Battery can be found. Very little of its circular breastwork remain and there is no pairing to its platform. There must also have been a magazine nearby and a big heap of stones probably was the guard house. There is no gun there now, but it certainly had a good bearing straight down Ruperts Valley, which it was intended to defend. On the western side of the summit there is a long walled terrace where guns may have been mounted. Splendid viewing from the summit includes Ruperts Bay, the Ocean to its far horizon, and in a westerly direction High Knoll is visible as commented on by Governor Patton.

For the past 150 years, every little if anything is known about Bunker’s Hill Battery. When the Battery was built in 1804 there would not have been anything like the mass of prickly pears that now exist on Bunker’s Hill, as that aggressive plant was only introduced to St Helena in the late 18th century, and just as surely at the same time there would have been tracks to provide access for personnel and supplies. Hopefully during the course of time it may be possible to restore this old Battery and its appurtenances so that future generation may see the kind of defence that was then felt necessary to resist an invasion of St Helena in 1804, but at present the only way to reach it is by a climb that is almost a nightmare.

Yours sincerely
Ken Denholm.

Defences Report, 1st May 1734

From the Records, as reported in ‘Extracts from the records’, by Hudson Ralph Janisch, 1885{3}

 Sandy Bay Lines : The old Battery in Sandy Bay was built so near the water that in bad weather it was washed away and the four guns and their carriages. Some of the guns in calm weather are still to be seen under water but we think that as they have lain in the sea 25 years among rocks it is not worth the charge of getting them up.

 Prosperous Bay : There hath never been any guns here and the ascent of the hills is so difficult that Jonathan Highan who is now living among us who was one of the men that formerly retook this country from the Dutch and was then a soldier has often affirmed that though they landed 200 men there yet if 20 men with fire arms had opposed them they should not have been able to have got up the Hills and there are many people of this country that cannot go up or down in that place now.

 King William’s Fort  (but in the draft of the Island called Bankses Platform): The Platform was first built there and retained the Builders’ name. But at Bankses Platform they could not call to any ship and the Men of War that came here in King William’s war contrived the Fort upon the Hill above Bankses which they called King Williams Fort and it is this place that all ships that intend for the Island go as near as they can so that we usually hale them from this Place and they hear well what is said to them, but the wind there coming always off the shore we can not so well hear what they answer - but if they are heard a messenger is always despatched thence to the Governor and they run along the side of the Hill in a dangerous path which all strangers usually admire to see.

 Ruperts : Here Prince Rupert, son of the King of Bohemia and nephew to King Charles the First, on his return from India came to an anchor and stayed here to refresh his ships company which gave to this place the name of Ruperts Valley.

 Chubbs Rock : Called because a man of that name fell from the mountain above it and broke his neck here.

 Jamestown Main Fort : Within the Line the Main Fort is defended by two large curtains and two half Bastions. On the East half Bastion there are 23 small guns called Falcons, Falconets, and Rabinets, which guns being small are kept only for salutes to save expense of powder. ‘On the Mount’ or front of the Main Fort are six very good demi-Culverins.

 Breakneck Valley : Difficult of access. For instance: This summer one of Capt. Lyalls sailors in the ship Wyndham having been in the country and lost his companions thought to go down to the seaside a nearer way than he came up. He straggled down in the night time to some of these Rocks next the sea and when daylight came on could get no further neither dared he by Daylight go back where he had wandered in the Dark. In the forenoon he called to a Shipping Boat and begged of them to show him the way down. None of our people knew how to get at him but at length being directed by a Boat they lowered down a Rope which the man made himself fast to and he was hauled up to the top of the mountain by it. He lost a china bowl there and a catty of tea which none of our people not even the Blacks have ventured to go there and fetch it.

 Lemon Valley Lines : Some of the Dutch landed here formerly but by throwing large stones down the Hill they were beat off again. The guns much flamed and honey-combed. Wee have taken them away thence as useless and placed them on the West Rocks as shoar fasts for any ship that has occasion to warp in there. Wee have placed an anchor and several guns there for that purpose yet nobody has made any use of them.

 Old Woman’s Valley : Here the Dutch did land, and the party from hence found their way into the country and did take the Island.

Laugh at funny Forts and Batteries humour - LOL

Credits:
{a} Marc Lavaud/Tourist Office{b} Tourist Office{c} ‘An Island Fortress’, by Ken Denholm, published in 2006{d} James Fantom{e} W. Innes Pocock, RN{f} John Isaac Lilley, 1861-1866{g} sthelenablog.wordpress.com{h} Chris and Sheila Hillman{i} St Helena: South Atlantic Fortress, by Bill Clements (2007)

Footnotes:
{1} The strange perspective is because the photo is a Panorama. The camera rotates while the film is being exposed, and so captures a 180° view. To get proper perspective you need to download and print the photo, then wrap it around your head in a semi-circle!{2} There are two Half Moon Batteries, at Lemon Valley and as part of the Banks Lines.{3} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

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