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What ‘goods’ do we exchange when we send messages to one another?
Colin Cherry

St Helena has many other mulitary-related structures that are not forts…

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

Prosperous Bay Signal Station from the Airport Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Prosperous Bay Signal Station from the Airport

Below: Lookout Posts and Signal StationsAnd more…Read More

Forts and batteries are covered on our Forts and Batteries page. This page covers anything else built for military purposes.

The island has many structures built for military purposes that are not forts; mostly lookout posts that later became signal stations.

Lookout Posts and Signal Stations

Sugar Loaf Hill is a good example. Originally just a lookout post - from the top of this cliff an observer could see 65Km on a clear day, with a view from Flagstaff to Jamestown as well as to Buttermilk (1770s) and Half Moon{3} (1680s) batteries - a military telegraph was installed here in the early 19th Century making it possible to communicate quickly with Ladder Hill and Jamestown.

Prosperous Bay Signal Station was built c.1770, the first lookout post to be built on the island (‘Prosperous’ was the name of one of the ships under Captain Keigwin that helped re-capture the Island from the Dutch in 1673{4}). The station was the site of the infamous murder in 1904 that led to the island’s last hanging. After the station was abandoned it was used for a while as a family home, but is now a ruin.

There used to be a lookout post at the top of Flagstaff (formerly ‘Flagge Staff’ and also known as ‘Matt’s Mount’), but this was abandoned in the 17th Century because the top was frequently shrouded in cloud. The post was moved to Prosperous Bay, which was lower so had a more consistent view.

Other former stations exist at the top of High Hill, West Point, South West Point, Casons Gate, Horse Head and of course High Knoll Fort and Ladder Hill, the final links in the chain to the Government in Jamestown. Man & Horse Signal Station, set up at the beginning of the 18th Century and most in use during Napoleon’s exile but apparently abandoned by 1850, had good visual links to High Hill, High Peak and White Hill, from where a message could be relayed to Jamestown. Of course all the forts and batteries also served as lookout points too.

It is known that a temporary signal station was set up in Longwood during the time of Napoleon’s residence so that the prisoner’s activities could readily be reported to the Government in Jamestown, but no trace of this can now be found.

All the signal stations except that at Ladder Hill Fort were abandoned after the garrison was withdrawn in 1906.

Message Transport

With lookout posts positioned in the farthest reaches of the island, the question arose as to how their observations would be reported to the military command in Jamestown. Sending a messenger on horseback over uncertain roads would take too long - by the time an alert of a suspicious vessel had reached The Castle the ship would already be in James’ Bay!

The posts initially communicated with Jamestown by firing cannons, relayed via High Knoll Fort. The number of cannon shots indicated the message. This was not 100% reliable; a cannon might misfire or the listener might miscount or mishear due to wind or other distractions - this could lead to the wrong message being relayed by a form of Chinese Whispers{5}.

A much improved method was introduced in 1803 by Governor Patton; a telegraph system consisting of wooden frames on posts with balls that could be raised or lowered (similar to the Time Ball in Jamestown). This was replaced only 13 years later by a more rapid system using flags, which continued until the electric telegraph was rolled out across the island, starting in 1866. This was replaced in 1898 by Telephones.

Pictures

Prosperous Bay Signal Station 1903 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Prosperous Bay Signal Station, 1903

Prosperous Bay Signal Station as a house 1900s Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Prosperous Bay Signal Station as a house, 1900s

Prosperous Bay Signal Station 2008 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Prosperous Bay Signal Station, 2008

Prosperous Bay Signal Station 2010 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Prosperous Bay Signal Station, 2010

South West Point telegraph post c.1903 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
South West Point telegraph post, c.1903

Longwood House showing flag system (undated) Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Longwood House, showing flag system (undated)

Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites

Ladder Hill Signal Station 1940s Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Ladder Hill Signal Station, 1940s

High Knoll Fort World War 2 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
High Knoll Fort World War 2

And more…

Below: Military HospitalCenotaphJamestown BarracksOthers

Military Hospital World War 1 (‘The Great War’) Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Military Hospital World War 1 (‘The Great War’) Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites

Military Hospital

It is known that there was at least one military hospital; in Jamestown on the site of the current general hospital. It still existed during World War 1 (‘The Great War’), as the second photograph shows:

Cenotaph

Cenotaph Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites

The Cenotaph, on the seaside in Jamestown was erected after World War 1 (‘The Great War’). It lists the dead from St Helena for World War 1 (‘The Great War’) and World War 2, and a seperate plaque lists the names of the sailors who died when the RFA Darkdale was sunk during World War 2.

Jamestown Barracks

The main barracks was in middle-Jamestown, in the area now ranging from Pilling Primary School (the officers’ quarters; now Grade III Listed) to Barracks Square (accommodation for ‘the men’). The 1903 photograph (below) shows most of the area, from the parade ground (left), main barracks (middle), officers’ quarters and other buildings (right). The area is said to be haunted. The other main barracks was at Ladder Hill Fort, built in 1873.

 

Barracks 1809 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Barracks, 1809{1}{a}

Parade Ground probably 1850s Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Parade Ground, probably 1850s

Barracks Square 1866 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Barracks Square, 1866{b}

Barracks 1903 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Barracks, 1903

Barracks Parade 1903 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Barracks Parade, 1903

Pilling School Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Pilling School{c}

The officers’ quarters was used from 1900-1902 as a hospital for the Boer Prisoners. After the garrison left in 1906/7 it was used to house government staff{6}. Exile Sayyid Khalid bin Barghash Al-Busaid was housed there from 1917-1921 and it was then again used for housing government staff until 1941 when it became a school, named after Governor Pilling who brought all the schools under Government contril in that year. The veranda was added in the late 1970s.

Others

Soldiers & Sailors Inst. Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Soldiers & Sailors Inst.{2}

Parade in Grand Parade 19th c Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Parade in Grand Parade, 19thc

Wireless station Deadwood World War 2 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Wireless station, Deadwood, World War 2

Sentry post outside The Castle 19th c Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Sentry post outside The Castle, 19thc

Deadwood station (distant) World War 2 Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Deadwood station (distant), World War 2

Read More

Below: Historic Environment RecordArticle: Sounding the Alarm - From Signal Guns to Mobile Phones

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 Other Military Sites

Article: Sounding the Alarm - From Signal Guns to Mobile Phones

Published in the St Helena Sentinel 19th March 2015{d}

Imagine you are at the Prosperous Bay Signal Station, which exists today as a ruin, and with your telescope you can see a sailing ship approaching the Island. It is too far away to see if it is an enemy ship or one that is bringing supplies for the island, mail, or personnel from London for the Castle. With a mobile phone you would be able to immediately sound the alarm and officials at the Castle could investigate what sailing ships are due in.

Now imagine yourself as an out guard at that lookout or any of the others around the island, and your communication with Fort James was cannon for raising the alarm. As primitive a system as it may seem today cannon was the most efficient means of communication. A record on 27th June 1678 in the Consultations of the East India Company stated that: Out guards formerly kept in five places are to be continued at Rupert’s, Bank’s, Flagstaff, Prosperous Bay and Sprague’s[Lemon Valley], and from High Peak down the ridge to Old Woman’s Valley where the Dutch landed when they took the island in 1672. These are guarded by a rotation system day and night. The ‘ridge’ was a spur ridge running in a northerly direction from the lower slopes of the Great Central Ridge to what is now called Alarm Forest where two alarm guns had been set up to fire the required volley that would signify the alarm to Jamestown.

In Ken Denholm’s book ‘From Signal Gun to Satellite, 1994’, Denholm imagined the out guard who hurried overland from Flagstaff to Jamestown had to cover about three miles, assuming he took some short cuts, whereas the one who hurried from Prosperous Bay to the alarm guns had as at least five miles to cover. Although this was not a very efficient system of communications it was at least a start, but it must have been a nightmare to traverse the terrain during the early years of the settlement.

In the Company’s record of consultations dated 12th September 1692 it shows that an endeavour had been made to improve the aforementioned laborious method of communications: When the alarm of two guns is fired at ProsperousBay it is to be repeated by two guns on the Main Ridge. This is for one ship. If more than one ship, three guns are to be fired, and then the Planters{7} and their blacks must attend.

It is worth reflecting on the importance of the signal stations themselves. For this article and especially in light of the airport project where there could be difficulty with accessing the Prosperous Bay Signal Station, I would draw particular attention to the state that this historic building is currently in. The disused building, existing today in ruin, is a relic from the past and of enormous significance in St Helena’s history of communications. As the first ‘Lookout House’ to be built on the Island, it graduated to become a key component of the audible alarm system.

From the book ‘Signal Guns to Satellite’ a plan of the building shows there were two rooms approximately 13ft x 13ft, one room approximately 10ft x 10ft, a porch, chimney, outdoor chimney, observation platform, flagstaff and safety wall.

Incidentally, Prosperous was the name of one of the ships under Captain Keigwin that helped capture the Island from the Dutch in 1673. Philip Gosse, in ‘St Helena 1502-1938’, does not mention that there was a ship under Captain Munden or Keigwin in his book. One of the ships named was called ‘Assistance’. Quite possibly Prosperous Bay Plain could have been called Assistance Bay Plain; who knows?

Mobile phones, compared with cannon for sounding the alarm is momentous, but important relics from the past are also important and deserving of protection for posterity.

Walkers at the ruins of Prosperous Bay Signal Station Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites
Walkers at the ruins of Prosperous Bay Signal Station

Closing Humour Saint Helena Island Info Other Military Sites

Laugh at funny Other Military Sites humour LOL Saint Helena Island Info


Credits:

{a} by William John Burchell

{b} John Isaac Lilley, our first photographer?, 1861-1866.

{c} Walter Barshai

{d} This item is reproduced{8} with permission from South Atlantic Media Services Ltd (SAMS)



Footnotes:

{1} Now Pilling Primary School. Also shows the Upper Theatre (right).

{2} Now the Post Office.

{3} There are two Half Moon Batteries, at Lemon Valley and as part of the Banks Lines.

{4} The other ship was ‘Assistance’ so Prosperous Bay could easily have been Assistance Bay.

{5} A once popular parlour game. The players sit in a circle. A message is whispered to one, then conveyed by whispers around the circle and the result compared to the original. It is said that a World War 1 (‘The Great War’) message Send reinforcemnts, we are going to advance was received as Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance.

{6} Ian Bruce’s grandfather and family lived there before he became postmaster and moved to the Post Office.

{7} The original term for the Settlers, from 1659 onwards and still in use in the 19th Century. When slaves were emancipated they were given the status of Planters (but no financial means to acquire any land to plant).

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



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