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The Castle of Otranto

A puzzling name

You see things, and you say “Why?” but I dream things that never were and I say “Why not?”.{a}

Read’s 19th Century map shows ‘The Castle of Otranto’. Where is it and why is it so named?‍‍

What and where?

The map in question is Read’s 1817 map, an extract from which appears above. As far as we know this is the only map that marks ‘The Castle of Otranto’.

Read’s map is not particularly accurate by modern standards. The island is misshapen and the internal distances are not correct, so judging exactly where The Castle of Otranto is located can only be an estimate but it is generally agreed that the appellation refers to the building we know as Wranghams (see modern location map, right). The fact that it is marked as owned by one ‘Major W Seale’ helps - he is listed as owning Wranghams at that time, though he also owned other properties.

Why the name?

This is where the fun begins! For those not familiar with 18th Century literature, The Castle of Otranto is a 1764 novel by Horace Walpole and is generally regarded as the first gothic novel. So why would a country house on St Helena be named after an 18th Century gothic novel?

It seems unlikely to have been a simple error; how could one possibly get from ‘Wranghams’ to ‘The Castle of Otranto’?

G. C. Kitching wrote the following in his Gazetteer:

The Castle of Otranto. This name is to be found in Read’s Map as the name of the present Wranghams. A close search of all documents fails to reveal any authority for its use, which is unknown to the oldest inhabitants. The place is described as ‘Wranghams’ in the earliest deeds.

Percy Teale writing in 1974 adds:

This appears to be another Italian name and could have a relationship with Arno’s Vale (q.v.). The Dovetons owned the latter and lived alongside.

None of these help us very much in our quest for a definitive explanation. We have, however, heard some theories:

Below: SuggestionAnother suggestionAnd another…Private joke?Do you have a suggestion?

A suggestion

Wranghams today
Wranghams today{b}

In its present form (right) it’s not as if Wranghams looks even vaguely like a Castle, but close examination of the building by the owners suggests that the roof-line has been changed over the years:

Though Wranghams isn’t castle-like now, I’ve seen speculation that the original roof design was a parapet, and the overhanging roof today is more recent. It has an unusually high ceiling upstairs now. There are some old paint markings that seem to indicate the original ceilings were below wall height. That would make the original appearance more castle-like with gutters inside the walls, though if that theory is right it must mean the changes were done before photography. In the late 18th/early 19th Century Wranghams would have stood alone on the top of the hill so it might have been a bit more castle like in 1800, especially compared to the other two-story country houses of the time, most of which were just one room deep.{c}

Historians confirm that many of St Helena’s historic buildings originally had a lower roof behind a parapet, with concealed gutters. There is, apparently, evidence of this in the former PWD stores, Association Hall and other buildings in Jamestown. So it is possible that when Read saw Wranghams in the early 19th Century{1} it may have looked more castle-like, though sadly none of the contemporary artists (William John Burchell,G H Bellasis, Denzil Ibbetson, etc.) seems to have drawn it.

But why ‘Otranto’? Was the book a personal favourite, either of Read or Major Seale? The simple answer is we just don’t know.

Another suggestion

Another theory advanced to us is that maybe some of Napoleon’s entourage stayed there during his exile and so-named it after their outpost on the Adriatic Sea. Sadly none of the relevant Records make any mention of any French being based at Wranghams - only Major Seale who was from an established island family{2}.

And another…

One of the characters in the Napoleon story is Joseph Fouche, (French) Minister of Police, who held the title Duke of Otranto. Fouche was involved in persuading Napoleon to abdicate and leave France after the Battle of Waterloo{6}. Was the house named based on Fouche’s aristocratic title? It seems a bit tenuous, but…

A private joke?

Another theory is that it was some kind of private joke, either purely on behalf or Read or one he shared with Major W Seale. If so they don’t seem to have written down anywhere what the joke was.

Do you have a suggestion?

If you want to speculate an answer to this puzzle please contact us. If you absolutely know the answer, definitely please contact us!

et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium{d}

The name stuck

The photograph below was taken in the rear courtyard of Wranghams in 2013, before the building was restored. We do not know the exact date of the drawing but it is believed to have been created during an earlier renovation in the 1970s (as were, apparently, images of little yachts and a crazy paving motif!) - it certainly does not date from the early 19th Century. This tells us that the name The Castle of Otranto was still a known appellation for Wranghams even as late as the 1970s, 150 years after Read’s map.

Sadly the design cannot now be inspected - the concrete was badly decayed and had to be replaced during the 2016 renovations.


{a} George Bernard Shaw{b} Neil Fantom{c} Neil Fantom, January 2019{5}{d} Edward Coke


{1} Always assuming he did, of course. Maps in those days were not always the result of rigorous personal inspection and many ‘map-makers’ simply copied information from each other.{2} Seale, Major R. F. Assistant Storekeeper in St Helena. Seale published, in 1834, ‘The Geognosy of St. Helena’, and also made a model of the Island, which was accepted by Addiscombe College, and there exhibited. It is said that Seale received £1,000 for this work.{3} See other debunked myths.{4} And also the lyrics of the ABBA song ‘Waterloo’.{5} @@RepDis@@{6} Contrary to common belief{3}{4} Napoleon neither surrendered nor was captured at the Battle of Waterloo. He returned to France after the battle but discovered that the people were no longer behind him. He abdicated on 22nd June 1815 and left Paris. As the battle-victorious Coalition troops advanced across France he fled to Rochefort and considered an escape to the United States, but instead sought asylum from the British aboard HMS Bellerophon on 15th July 1815.