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High Knoll Fort

Important, in the past and today

Defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies
maréchal de Villars

One of the Seven Wonders of St Helena Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort

As the largest military installation on the island High Knoll Fort is certainly important; and it’s also interestng…

This page is in indexes: Island Structures, Island History, Island Place, Island Activity, Island Detail

The largest most prominent and most complete of the island’s forts Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
The largest, most prominent and most complete of the island’s forts{a}

Below: HistoryRough PlanEarly 21st CenturyUse TodayOther Photos7 Wonders of St Helena votingRead More


High Knoll Fort stands 584 metres above sea level and is the largest, most prominent and most complete of the forts and military installations on the island. It is located to the south west of, and overlooking Jamestown. It is designated as a Grade I Listed building and is one of the Seven Wonders of St Helena.

The current fort was built by the Royal Engineers in 1874, but this structure incorporated an earlier fort on the site built in around 1790 by Governor Brooke. This earlier fort comprised a high, square structure with two outer towers and stone ramparts. On Read’s 1817 map this fort was named ‘High Knoll Citadel’.

High Knoll Citadel Read 1817 Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort

The old fort depicted in 1821 Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
The old fort, depicted in 1821
Satellite view Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
Satellite view
Entrance in 2010 Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
Entrance in 2015 Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
Entrance in 2015

In 1816 Governor Lowe, as part of a general programme of improving the island’s fortifications, recommended High Knoll be made into a ‘Covering Fort’ for Ladder Hill, providing a second line of defence if an enemy made a successful landing in James’ Bay and securing the high ground to the rear. Whether significant improvements were made is unknown. In John Melliss’ ‘List of Guns’ for 1825-36 High Knoll is listed as having two 14 pounder iron guns and eight 18 pounder carronades.

High Knoll Fort in World War 2 Saint Helena Island Info
In World War 2

In the 1860s and 1870s Britain went through a period often referred to as ‘fortification mania’. In this period it was decided that High Knoll should be substantially improved. The current structure is the result. The new fort had two purposes: It had many more guns trained on James Valley, to defend against an attack from that direction; and it was a redoubt fort, where the population of the island could shelter in case of an invasion (hence the size of the large central area).

Site clearance began at the beginning of the 1870s{1} and construction work began in 1874, as marked by the plaque over the gate, but were not completed until around 1894.

The fort has four water wells, each of approx. 60cm diameter, one within the tower area and the others in the main arena. The ‘Quarters’ area is divided into rooms, many with small fireplaces. It is thought some were later used as stables.

Magnificent though the new fort clearly was, it never had the opportunity to fulfil its purpose. No enemies attempted a landing on St Helena in its lifetime. It was briefly useful in the early 20th Century, to house some of the more difficult Boer Prisoners, but apart from this, and as the military presence on St Helena gradually reduced, High Knoll Fort slowly became a disused monument; a place to visit to get a good view of the island. As the picture (right) shows, the fort’s only military use was as a location for photographs.

The current iron gates are not original, and examination of the gate area shows the remains of a mechanism that would probably have operated a drawbridge.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the RAF had a satellite tracking station (‘Geodetics’) there, busily engaged in the tracking of satellites, rabbits and anything else that moves, but they are being very secretive about their success rate on all items{b}{2}. It closed in April 1984. More recently it was used to quarantine animals until a purpose-built quarantine station was opened by Governor Smallman in Rupert’s in November 1998. A music festival was held there on 15th June 1990, to raise money for hospital equipment. Currently Sure South Atlantic Limited have TV transmission equipment located there{3}.

The fort is said to be haunted.

High Knoll Fort has a key, and at some time in the 1950s it was lost. It was entrusted by the island’s police sergeant to a marine serving on the island, who inadvertently took it away with him when he left the island. It was returned by his widow in April 1991 and is now in the museum. Nobody knows when High Knoll Fort was actually last locked - probably when some of the Boer Prisoners were held there in 1901/2.

Rough Plan 

Approximate plan Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort

Early 21st Century 

The Fort in 2007 Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort

In 2006 a plan was announced to invite Country singer Mick Flavin to perform at High Knoll Fort in December, as part of the island’s Festival of Arts and Culture. As interest grew it became necessary to relocate the project to Frances Plain, partly due to the numbers of people and also because there is limited car parking at the Fort{4}.

Largely through negelect, in the early 21st Century parts of the fort crumbled away.

On Wednesday morning, it was discovered that a part of the eastern wall of High Knoll Fort had collapsed. A member of the public reported this to Public Works & Services Department and Officials from St Helena Government undertook a site visit, and it was confirmed that a vertical section of the wall, about 12 x 12 feet, had fallen down. The hole is situated not far from where Cable & Wireless has its broadcasting equipment. Alan Hudson, Chief Engineer, said on Wednesday afternoon that it appeared that the damage to the wall had gone all the way down to the foundations and that it appeared that the area of the wall had been repaired previously. He also said that the thickness of the wall would make it a major task to repair, especially as it has to be done in a manner suitable for an historic building such as High Knoll Fort.

A press release from the Castle late Wednesday afternoon said that:
The Legal, Lands and Planning Department has advised that High Knoll Fort has been closed until further notice. Head of Department, Gavin George, explained that this decision has been taken in the interest of public safety. The public will be advised when the Fort is re-opened but, until further notice, it will remain closed. The gates are now equipped with a lock. Further assessments of the damages will now be undertaken and the repair works will commence in due course.{d}

Public survey from 2009 Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
Public survey from 2009

In fact, High Knoll Fort remained effectively closed for almost eight years, though it was opened occasionally for special events. It was the subject of an expert survey in 2009 which concluded that restoration was indeed possible and that traditional building techniques would need to be used to effect a complete repair (See Article, below).

The St Helena National Trust responded to the challenge and took on the job of restoring High Knoll Fort. The fort re-opened to the public on Saturday 26th April 2015:

Last Saturday evening saw the opening of High Knoll fort to the public. The event was hosted by the St Helena National Trust and included speeches from Governor Mark Capes, Councillor Lawson Henry and St Helena National Trust President Ethel Yon. Food was provided by Mikes Munchies and the bar by Amphibians.

The fort was closed in 2007 when large sections of the walls collapsed causing it to be deemed structurally unsafe. In recent years the St Helena National Trust in conjunction with Enterprise St Helena have funded rebuilding efforts that have repaired the damages sections of the wall and repaired other structural weaknesses. The work was conducted by Brian Leo and his team using the traditional materials. Although there is more work to be done, the fort is now open for public use.{e}

St Helena National Trust information on the fort Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
St Helena National Trust information on the fort

Use Today 

November 2015 Creative St Helena Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort

Lit December 2016 Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
Lit, December 2016{f}

The fort can now be booked for larger events. In November 2015 Creative St Helena, a local arts & culture group, booked the fort for a Saturday evening show, to include an art exhibition, fashion show and live music.{5}.

It has been proposed that High Knoll Fort might be used for open-air theatre productions, but as at the time of writing this has not been attempted.

On 16th December 2016 High Knoll Fort was illuminated for the first time. Governor Lisa Phillips switched on the lights.

Other Photos 

The ‘Quarters’ area Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
The ‘Quarters’ area

The fort from the air Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
The fort from the air

Distant view Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
Distant view

Sunset Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort

7 Wonders of St Helena voting 

7 Wonders badge Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort

This appeal (right), by visiting archaeologist, Ben Jeffs, was broadcast on Radio St Helena prior to the Seven Wonders voting{g}:

Read More 

Below: Historic Environment RecordArticle: The ‘Oil Tanker’ is not ready for scuttling

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Historic Environment Record

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

HER image Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort

Article: The ‘Oil Tanker’ is not ready for scuttling

Original drawbridge lifting gear Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
Barracks and Kitchen Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort
The oldest part of the fort Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort

Published in the St Helena Independent 6th March 2009{6}

High Knoll Fort, thought by many to look like a stranded oil tanker, was given the prospect of a promising future when Ben Jeffs and Ed Simons told us of their investigations so far.

Ben and Ed are here to assess the conservation work required to bring the Fort to a reasonable standard of maintenance, undertake some archaeological work in and around the Fort, research its history and produce educational and tourist material about the Fort.

Starting with the gun tower at the Half Tree Hollow end of the Fort, they explained the main work required was to sort out the damp problem and then return parts of the structure to the original. The damp is not a serious problem in that it should be relatively easy to fix. However, if it is not fixed it could do serious harm to the stone walls, ceilings and floors. Altering the structure mostly involves removing concrete blocks used to seal window and door openings and other similar work so the inside of the tower is once more as it was originally designed. The work required is not thought to be extensive or expensive. When completed it will be possible to explain to visitors why the inside of the tower is constructed the way it is and how it would have been used in defence of the Island.

The tower is constructed so that the guns on top of the tower have an unobstructed range of fire over a large section of the northern sector of the Island. The inside of the tower is mainly a munitions store for gunpowder and cannon balls. The inside is divided into four. Each of the four quarters is exactly the same and constructed so that gun powder can be stored in the top half of the tower and carried up steps and through doorways and openings up to the gun crews at the top by the army’s version of the navy’s ‘powder monkeys’. They were boys used on warships to carry gunpowder from the store to the guns. The top of the tower has been altered over time to house different types of guns. Remnants of the original designs can still be seen among the alterations.

The walls of the Fort are, overall, also in fairly good condition. The current estimate is that about 20% of the entire length of the walls will need conservation and maintenance. Different sections of wall will need different amounts of work to get them into an acceptable state of repair. This means some sections which are easier to get up to standard can be completed, if necessary, earlier than those parts of the walls which need more planning and a lot more work. Ben said the buildings at the Red Hill end of the Fort are thought to be barracks. More work is required on several aspects of the Fort’s construction and history but it seems details of the construction of the various rooms were decided as the work went along. The most westerly room was certainly a kitchen and one room towards the centre has definitely been altered in more recent times for a purpose which cannot be worked out. Most of the other rooms are slightly different from each other in the way they are finished. Another consideration is the presence of endemic plants in and on the Fort’s walls. Barn fern has already been spotted in some places as well as Island mosses.

There are many questions which need to be answered about High Knoll Fort. It’s Ben and Ed’s job to find the answers. The questions range from what state are the various parts of it in now? How much will repairs cost and how long will they take? What is the best way to explain why the Fort is located and designed the way it is? What is the Fort’s history and what is its future?

Ed Simons leaves the Island on Sunday. Ben Jeffs is here until April; at least that was the original departure date for Ben. When asked now when he is leaving he just looks at you with a puzzled expression. Both will continue working on what they have found here when they are back in the UK. The result of all this will be several reports with detailed descriptions, explanations and recommendations. The main part of the work will be the High Knoll Fort Conservation Plan.

Closing Humour Saint Helena Island Info High Knoll Fort

Laugh at funny High Knoll Fort humour LOL Saint Helena Island Info


{a} Marc Lavaud/Tourist Office

{b} St Helena News Review, 1st August 1980{6}

{c} Stewart Evans, 26thJanuary 2018{6}

{d} St Helena Independent, 7th August 2007{6}

{e} St Helena Independent, 1st May 2015{6}

{f} Tourist Office

{g} Manfred Rippich/Radio St Helena


{1} It is said that the spoil from the works was just pushed over the side of the valley, landing in upper Jamestown and blocking The Run and contributing to the extensive flooding in 1873.

{2} The satellite tracking teams were Royal Engineers, working with Royal Navy and RAF electronics engineers. Various teams rebuilt the room and the small storage shed on the round tower in order to relocate the tracking equipment from the damp cellar below the round tower. The project was to track specific satellites which were using gravity and radio telemetry to determine the shape of the earth. I was on one team from September 1976 to January 1977. The RE teams were seconded to the US Defence Mapping Agency as part of a world-wide effort. The end result was a geoidal model of the earth. St Helena was used because of its mid-ocean position{c}.

{3} Sure South Atlantic Limited’s antenna can clearly be seen in the view from the air. How planning permission was ever secured to erect such an eyesore in a prominent position on a historic monument remains a mystery.

{4} Later the project was cancelled.

{5} Unfortunately the event had to be cancelled at the last minute because the organisation that had agreed to provide the portable toilets for the event (there are no facilities at the fort) inexplicably pulled out.

{6} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.


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