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The St Helena Regiment

‘The Old Saints’

War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.
John F. Kennedy

For well over twenty years St Helena was garrisoned by its own infantry regiment, Her Majesty’s St Helena Regiment of Foot; the most popular corps to serve the Island during colonial times.

The St Helena Regiment
Regiment uniform on display at the Museum of St Helena
Uniform Breast Badge
Uniform Breast Badge
Uniform Belt Buckle
Uniform Belt Buckle
Uniform Button
Uniform Button

Below: Background • Regiment History • Accommodation • Uniform • Not always best behaved… • Matthew Carter, soldier, 1842-1847 • Serving Soldiers • Richard Farrell • Other St Helena Military Corps • Read More

Background

From the day of its settlement by the English on 5th May 1659, and for the next 257 years until 1906, St Helena stood guard over one of the main ocean highways of the world. It was originally garrisoned by the St Helena Regiment of The East India Company, but on St Helena’s transfer to the Crown in 1836 the Company’s infantry and Artillery Corps were disbanded, and for the next seventy years the ‘Gibraltar of the South Atlantic’ was manned by detachments from Regiments of the Line, posted from Britain or the Cape every two or three years, supported by small units of Royal Artillery and a few Royal Engineers.

An important exception was made to this arrangement from 1842, however, when, for well over twenty years the Island was garrisoned by its own infantry regiment, Her Majesty’s St Helena Regiment of Foot. References in the St Helena Guardian and elsewhere show that it was the most popular corps to serve the Island during colonial times, now affectionately known as ‘The Old Saints’{1}. Moreover, it did so during the busiest and most productive period of St Helena’s history, when Jamestown was a base for New England whaling fleets, and shipping from the East via the Cape was at its height. One thousand ships a year called for fresh food, water and repairs, and the Royal Navy brought thousands of rescued slaves for recuperation at the Liberated Slave Depot in Ruperts Valley. Yet the guardians of this vital outpost of Empire have been virtually forgotten, and remain the only royal regiment to garrison the Island not to have a written history.

Regiment History

Her Majesty’s St Helena Regiment (SHR) was specially raised in Great Britain, with the objective of safeguarding St Helena as a strategic link in imperial communications. It was composed of one-third new recruits and two-thirds volunteers from other infantry regiments who were experienced soldiers of good conduct. With a strength of five companies (400-450 men), it was an important condition that all must be over 5ft 6ins in height and physically fit, as well as of good character, the reasons for which were to become clear in due course.

Things did not always go well…

Major O’Dell has taken the command of the St Helena regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Simmonds having been placed under arrest by the governor, Colonel Trelawny, of the Royal Artillery, on various charges.{a}{5}

The new Regiment was assembled on the Isle of Wight in early August 1842, to board the troopship George the Fourth (1438 tons). It arrived at Jamestown after a passage of 58 days on 4th October.

Officers and men soon became integrated into Island society. There were practical reasons for this. They were not ‘birds of passage’ like other regiments of the line, but men who had volunteered to serve at least five years in the Regiment, with inducements to remain longer, some indeed staying for over twenty years. Officers became involved in local government and many men of all ranks married into local families.

Unfortunately there was a downside to garrison service on St Helena on at least two counts. One related to the shortage of fresh food for the garrison at prices the Army could afford. To meet this problem the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Hill, ordered that the Regiment be allotted garden ground for the men to grow their own vegetables, but this was resented by local tradesmen, who were backed by the Governor. Consequently the land was withdrawn, creating bad feeling between the Regiment and The Castle, and misunderstandings in Whitehall between the War Office and the Colonial Office, to the detriment of the Regiment’s good name.

The other disadvantage to St Helena service affected the men more seriously. The Island suffered from a shortage of reliable labour and skilled craftsmen, making it difficult for the Royal Engineers, for example, to maintain the defences and Island infrastructure, such as roads. Enough labour could not even be hired at times to load or unload men-of-war and military transports, including naval colliers. No doubt the recently emancipated slaves, rejoicing in their freedom, had little relish to work for military taskmasters, and so the Army had only one source of ‘forced labour’ to call upon: the rank and file of the St Helena Regiment. The need for them to be tall and fit soon became apparent as the men had to endure heavy manual work as well as their regimental and guard duties, making it a demoralising experience of military service.

In 1847, according to ‘St Helena, The Historic Island, From Its Discovery To The Present Date’, by E. L. Jackson, published in 1905:

Distressing accounts of the destitution in Ireland and in the Highlands of Scotland came to the island, and we find that the non-commissioned officers and men of the St Helena regiment nobly came forward with a day’s pay each (which a soldier can ill afford in this colony) for the relief of their destitute countrymen. This offering, with the contributions of the officers, made the sum of £40, which was forwarded to London for the sufferers, and the receipt of it was acknowledged with warm and sincere thanks.

The Regiment, with its band, was well liked among Island society which had, until 1836, always been used to a permanent garrison resident among them. And thus when in 1863 military policy changed in Whitehall and the decision was made to disband the Regiment and return to the system of manning the Island with Regiments of the Line every two or three years, the announcement was greeted first with disbelief, then dismay and even anger on the Island, as letters and articles in the St Helena Guardian demonstrate.

In fact two years passed before the last of the Regiment left, as many of the officers and men were engaged in a scheme to recruit and train ‘liberated Africans’ from the Depot in Ruperts Valley, for the 5th West India Regiment, between 1863 and 1865.

During the Regiment’s 23 years’ service on the Island many of its members married locally. Their marriages can be found reported in the St Helena Almanacs of the time. Many of the St Helenian brides, and their children, later went to Britain; some of their children stayed on the Island, the most notable being Benjamin Grant of the St Helena Guardian; while some of the men settled with their families to become part of the Island society.

Of soldier-settlers there is definite proof of at least three: Sergeant Charles Judd; Sergeant Major Noble; and Private Ward. But all the descendents can be proud to recall the words of the Officer Commanding the Garrison, Lt. Col. William Stace of the Royal Engineers, when bidding farewell to ‘The Old Saints’ on 26th November 1863:

During 37 years’ service I have been in many garrisons at home and abroad, and I may say I never met a better or finer body of officers and men… Whatever Corps may relieve the St Helena Regiment I do not expect it will be succeeded by a finer or better one.

Accommodation

Jamestown Barracks (and Theatre, right)
Jamestown Barracks (and Theatre, right){b}

The St Helena Regiment soldiers lived in barracks in Jamestown that are now used to house Pilling Primary School. Officers lived in houses nearby, now known as Barracks Square.

Uniform

The Regiment wore ordinary infantry uniform. This included a red jacket with collar and cuffs in the regimental facing colour (buff for the St Helena Regiment), white trousers (which were worn by all soldiers aboard, and in the summer by British regiments at home) and pipe-clayed leather belts to support the equipment. A reconstruction of the uniform appears in the Museum of St Helena (photograph above).

Not always best behaved…

The Records show:

21st February 1861: Richard Farrell of the St Helena Regiment is convicted for shooting at a sergeant ‘with intent’ and sentenced to be transported to Western Australia.

Read more about him. Another miscreant was Thomas Knox, a private in the St Helena Regiment No. 274. Again from the Records:

2nd December 1862: Thomas Knox, a Private in The St Helena Regiment is convicted of ‘violence to a superior officer’ and sentenced to 14 years penal servitude in Western Australia.

Matthew Carter, soldier, 1842-1847

The following features a soldier in The St Helena Regiment, one Matthew Carter. It is abridged from an article submitted by his Great Great Great Grandson Ray Durnall and originally published in The Bugle in January 2014{2}.

Matthew Carter, soldier, 1842-1847
Matthew Carter, soldier, 1842-1847

About this time [1841] it was decided by the British government that instead of garrison troops, some previously supplied by the Honourable East Indies Company, Saint Helena island would have its own British Army regiment. All volunteers, the men would have to be of good character to fit into island life and be physically fit as they were also used as stevedores (in 1845 about 1,500 ships called at St Helena).

Henry Simmonds, formally a Major of the 61st was appointed commanding officer with the rank Lieut. Colonel on the 7th January 1842. Matthew transferred to this regiment on the 1st February 1842, being given the distinction of Regimental Number 1, and they arrived on Saint Helena in October that year. He completed his 5 year term and retired from the army in 1847. In 1850 he was recalled to a parade and given a gratuity and a good conduct medal.

Both his sons joined the regiment, John at 14 and Matthew junior was under 12. In the 1860s the regiment was disbanded and, having been in existence for less than 25 years, no official history was completed. A Saint Helena islander Dave Marr is attempting to correct this omission and I have supplied him with the Military histories of the 3 men plus photos. The Museum of St Helena is placing the histories in a showcase containing a uniformed model of the British Army Saint Helena regiment which is being renamed No. 1 Matthew Carter. There is a view of the soldier on a YouTube clip uploaded by the Saint Helena Tourist Board.

Both sons returned to England in the 1860s. Together with his 2 boys, John bought with him his wife Ann Bertha who was born on the island in 1839. Her father, through his association with the 66th regiment, had been one of Napoleon’s bodyguards during his incarceration and death on the island. Grenadiers of the 66th carried the Emperor’s coffin to his original grave; later his remains were exhumed and returned to France.

Matthew the father, according to parish records for births, had further children on Saint Helena with his wife Eliza Watson: 2 girls in 1856 and 1858. On both records his occupation was prison officer at Ruperts Bay military and civilian gaol, which was burned down in 1 hour by a military prisoner in 1867. His death record in 1881 states he was a pensioner and groom, the informant being Eliza. She may well have been a freed slave as a family named Watson had belonged to a prominent family on the island named Melliss and an Eliza of about the correct age was amongst them.

From 1840 to 1872 Saint Helena played a pivotal role in Britain’s efforts to suppress the slave trade. Over this period it received over 25,000 ‘liberated Africans’ taken from slave ships by Royal Navy patrols. Many thousands did not survive, their last resting place being Ruperts Valley graveyard, the Army and prisoners probably assisting in the burials.

Serving Soldiers

You can download a list of soldiers recorded as serving in the St Helena Regiment. It is not guaranteed to be complete.

In addition we have been notified of another who served, but for some reason does not appear in the above list:

WILLIAM DOWNER Born Isle of Wight, Colour Sergeant{3}

Regiment discharge papers
Regiment discharge papers, 1846

Richard Farrell

From the Records:

21st February 1861: Richard Farrell of the St Helena Regiment is convicted for shooting at a sergeant ‘with intent’ and sentenced to be transported to Western Australia.

We have actually managed to trace{c} what happened to Richard after he left St Helena.

He was 22 at the time of his trial, married with one son and by profession a Horse Breaker. Upon conviction he was held in our Prison and then despatched back to England to be held in Pentonville Prison pending transportation. On 25th September 1863 he set sail on the convict ship Lord Dalhouse with other felons who had committed heinous crimes such as setting fire to a haystack, stealing a sheep and kicking a superior officer (though there were murderers and rapists too) - 270 people in total, none of them women. The ship arrived at the Swan River Colony in Western Australia, just south of Perth (today called Fremantle).

He appears to have had a real attitude problem when he arrived in Australia, making threats, assaulting another prisoner and refusing to obey orders, but despite this he qualified to receive a ‘ticket of leave’ in 1869, just 6 years after his arrival. Once a convict had his or her ticket of leave they were allowed to work for themselves, marry, or to bring their families to Australia. Apparently Richard’s attitude changed dramatically once he was ‘free’. He worked hard at several jobs and eventually became self-employed at his old trade as a horse breaker. Australian horses were very highly prized in Asia and he traded them with Singapore.

He wanted his wife, Mary, and his 10 year old son, Robert, to join him and he petitioned the Government to reunite his family. Sadly for him the Government’s letter to his wife was Returned, Not Known.

In 1874, Richard received a Conditional Pardon - this meant that he was free as long as he stayed within the colony or ‘Government Limits’. He was still not allowed to return to England or Ireland (or, presumably, St Helena) - only an Absolute Pardon would permit this. In 1889 (aged 50) he was working in Dandaragan, 170Km north of Perth.

We do not know when he died, or where he was buried.

Other St Helena Military Corps

In addition to the St Helena Regiment (above) and the various UK regiments posted here from time-to-time, local men were enrolled in ‘voluntary’ military service units (not always entirely voluntarily, it seems!). From the Records:

3rd March 1681: Sixty-six free Planters, who were ordered by The East India Company to help with island defence works, claim payment for the work done. Governor John Blackmore states their claims are unreasonable but eventually pays 30% of the amount they claimed.

Arming Planters proved to be a problem during the Dennison Mutiny of 1684.

The St Helena Volunteers appear to have been formed in 1836, with ‘all the male inhabitants’, suggesting ‘Volunteers’ might have been a bit of a misnomer. The St Helena Volunteer Rifle Corps was formed in 1845.

Nothing more is heard until the outbreak of World War 1 when Martial Law is proclaimed and in the following weeks 165 St Helenians enlisted in the Volunteer Corps. They were renamed at the end of the war as the St Helena Rifles.

The St Helena Rifles was apparently dissolved because the Records show it was re-formed for World War 2:

7th September 1939: The St Helena Rifles is reformed as part of the island’s war defences.

A Home Guard was also established on 14th May 1940. Something called the ‘St Helena Regiment’ was raised in November 1941, with a further 61 recruits as at 30th March 1942, but there did not seem to be any relationship with the 19th Century Regiment that is the subject of this page.

With the war moving towards its conclusion the St Helena Rifles was reduced in strength by 38 men to 159 as at 5th May 1944. The Home Guard was stood down on 4th February 1945 and the 20th Century ‘St Helena Regiment’ was shipped overseas starting on 13th June the same year.

In the 19th Century there was also an organisation called the St Helena Militia, but we don't know any more about it - maybe it was another name for one of the above.

None of these entities exist today, but we do not know when they were officially disbanded. If you can help please contact us.

Read More

Below: Sources • Article: Historian searches for missing links in Island’s history

Sources

The St Helena Regiment Ordinance, dating from 1942, was repealed in December 2000.

Article: Historian searches for missing links in Island’s history

By Nick Hewes, published in the St Helena Independent 10th March 2006{2}

Dave Marr

Dave Marr, a plumber from Scarborough, Yorkshire{4}, has become probably the world’s leading authority on the St Helena Regiment. Dave, who departed yesterday after a brief visit to the Island, comes here regularly in order to research the Regiment. He believes that the period during which the St Helena Regiment (SHR) was garrisoned here was one of the most successful in the Island’s history.

The SHR came into existence in 1842, and was disbanded in 1865. During those years St Helena was at its busiest, with the Island exporting 100 tons of potatoes to the Cape in one year alone, and over 1,000 ships each year dropping anchor here.

You have to remember, says Dave, that there was no Suez Canal in those days. Ships would have been pulling into Jamestown by the hundred, especially whalers. Every ship in the vicinity would have needed fresh supplies of food and water. Solomons had a big warehouse stocked with barrels of water, ready to be sold to mariners. You’d have had people of all nationalities coming ashore: Dutch, French, Italian, …

Dave has made it his personal mission to fill in the gaps in the Regiment’s history. He believes that this forgotten chapter of St Helena’s past deserves to be examined especially carefully, because the soldiers of the regiment formed such an integral part of the community. He continues, During their time here, one in six of the Island’s inhabitants were soldiers of the Regiment. They weren’t just birds of passage, they were here for the duration. If you imagine a group of strong, fit men, numbering between 400 and 450 men - that is, one in six of the Island’s population - garrisoned here for up to 23 years, it’s clear that they would have had a major impact on the Island. You see this particularly clearly in the marriage records: almost every family would have had at least one member who married a soldier. To give you an example, I was going through the Records the other day, and I found that 138 girls were married to soldiers of the Regiment over a six-year period. And that was in Jamestown alone! You can tell at a glance they were soldiers because it actually says SHR (St Helena Regiment) beside the groom’s name. The Records tell us they were marrying local girls by the hundred! For many people today who are looking for their family histories, their family’s presence on the Island will date back to those years of the SHR [at least on the male side]. That is often as far back as you need to go.

Dave was examining his own family history a few years ago, when he found that one of his ancestors served in the Tenth Foot Lincolnshire Regiment, (the regiment which took over from the SHR when the latter was disbanded in 1865). Having never previously heard of the St Helena Regiment, he took it upon himself to become its principal military historian.

Nobody’s really covered this period of St Helena’s military history properly, he says, When the SHR finished in 1865 it simply didn’t have a military history. I’d never even heard of this regiment prior to coming across it by chance. Now however, I regularly get military officers contacting me for information on the SHR.

One of Dave’s most interesting discoveries concerns the ethnic composition of the Regiment. It turns out that many of the soldiers (at least a third) were of Irish extraction. At that time, Dave says, Ireland was on its knees due to the ravages of the Potato Famine. (Ireland’s population dropped from twelve million to three million as a direct result of the Famine, and many men sought refuge in the British Army.) It was due to the high proportion of Irish soldiers of the SHR, that Jamestown has a Catholic Church: the church was actually built by the Irishmen of the SHR. Another obvious implication of the strong Irish presence during this period is that many Saint families are bound to have some Irish ancestry.

There are curious present-day echoes of the long lost days of the St Helena Regiment. For in a way, it reminds us of how dependent the Island has always been - for its well being, if not its actual survival - on outside investment coming here from overseas. As Dave says, Whilst the garrison was here, there was good money to be made. One year the Island even broke even! When they went though, there was great poverty.

Perhaps, with the airport coming, St Helena can look forward once again to a new influx of both people and prosperity.

Laugh at funny The St Helena Regiment humour - LOL

Credits:
{a} Freeman’s Journal, 10th May 1844{2}{b} William John Burchell{c} members.iinet.net.au/~perthdps/convicts/con-wa34.html.

Footnotes:
{1} This seems to be the first instance of the term ‘Saint’ applied to locals.{2} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{3} William Downer’s marriage certificate, 2nd February 1852, showing his status and rank as a member of the regiment. [Image, right]

William Downer’s marriage certificate, 2nd February 1852
William Downer’s marriage certificate, 2nd February 1852

{4} Nowadays resident on St Helena.{5} Taken from ‘Timeline for the island of St Helena, and the Royal St Helena Regiment, 1840-1849{2}.

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