➥ Loading Saint Helena Island Info

*

Shopping on St Helena

An unusual experience

New car, caviar, four star daydream, Think I’ll buy me a football team{a}

*

How to shop on St Helena - it’s not what you might expect

SEE ALSO: If you’re looking for souvenirs, see our page What to buy. There are also usually informal markets set up in Grand Parade on Cruise Ship Days.

A different experience…

Thorpe s Emporium
Thorpes Emporium

Saul Solomon ’s first shop
Saul Solomon’s first shop{1}

The first thing to note about shopping on St Helena is that the big ‘Malls’ and ‘Hypermarkets’ just don’t exist here - we don’t have the population to support them. Think small English village - except that the nearby ‘big town’ is in continental Africa!.

Also, shopping here is not the 24/7 experience you’re probably used to where you live. Shops tend to open from 9am to 5pm on Weekdays (most close at 1pm on Wednesdays), and from 9am-1pm and 6:30pm-8 or 9pm on Saturdays. Few main shops open on Sundays. They are also mostly closed on Public Holidays.

I came across some very irate ‘yachties’ who had carried barrels into town to buy diesel, only to discover that fuel sales (and everything else) are closed on Wednesday afternoons.{b}

Finally, if you think you’d rather just sit at home, order online and have everything delivered to your door, you can think again. That system just doesn’t exist here. Some shops will deliver heavier items (for a fee) but you still have to go to the shop to make the purchase. The good news is that a study recently concluded that carrying home heavy bags of shopping is good for your health and can prologue your life. The bad news is that it means you have to carry home heavy bags of shopping for longer…

In 2010 it was estimated that there might be as many as 250 shops on St Helena, though many of these are part-time, operated within a dwelling for friends, family and neighbours only. This contrasts with the situation in 1883 when ‘A Few Notes on St Helena and Descriptive Guide’ by Benjamin Grant reported There are in Jamestown 29 shops, most of which are of fair size, and very respectable, in fact a credit to the place. In the Country there are only five, at Half-tree-hollow, Half Way House, Red Hill, Sandy Bay, and Hutts Gate.

As mentioned above, if you’re used to shopping in vast ‘Malls’ filled with food courts and flashy modern shops (and exactly the same range of shops as the Mall in the next town) then shopping in St Helena will be quite an experience for you. For a start, each shop is in a distinct building and you have to go outside to get from one shop to another! Yes, we have some relatively-modern shops, but we also have remaining a few of the old traditional ones. Here you don’t wander around with a basket or trolley selecting items to take to the checkout; you ask for what you want and it is fetched and presented to you with loving care for your inspection! Have a bit of an explore and you may find something interesting{2}.

Every Saturday us use to go to Town from Levelwood with the donkeys laden with fruit, veg and meat and collect dry goods from Eva Benjamin’s shop, bread from Aunty Rosie John and fish from Aunty Renie in the Market.{c}

This map shows the principal shops in lower Jamestown{3}.

The Market contains a number of small boutique shops as well as the Growers Association shop and a café.

Eclectic shops

In recent memory the layout of goods in shops sometimes seemed strange to anyone coming from outside. Why was motor oil next to shampoo? The answer was simple - that was where there was space on the shelf. Everybody knew that if you wanted shampoo you looked next to the motor oil (and vice-versa), so it didn’t matter.

More recently, to make life easier for tourists most shops have reorganised, but the eclectic nature of retailing on St Helena goes back a long way - at least to the early 20th Century and probably a long way beyond that. In 1905 Tom Jackson, island chemist and photographer, produced a book ‘A Souvenir of St Helena’, featuring photographic plates of his own creation. He also included the following advert for his shop:

Jackson’s also sold locally-made soda water from a machine illustrated below (see the testimonial from him, bottom left):

Here are a few images of some older-style shops:

Prices

This was written towards the end of the 19th Century…

The cost of provisions does not differ much from the prices in England.{d}

It is certainly not true today. In the shops you may find products imported from the UK with a price flash saying Only £3, on sale here for more than double that. The difference is attributable to the cost of shipping, combined with the quantities bought by our importers being too small to attract volume discounts.

Shortages

Sorry, no potatoes

Shortages, especially of food, can be an issue. You go into a shop and they say they don’t have any potatoes. Neither do any of the other shops. There may be a few in tins, if you can ferret them out. And if you get agitated about it the shop assistants look puzzled, or even pitying.

Running out of things is part of life here. Much of what is needed for everyday life is imported and, with limited cash flow, keeping enough stock to meet an unexpected jump in demand is just not possible. This is especially the case in February and early March; the retailers spend all their money in September/October buying Christmas stock, but until this is sold (in December) they have no funds for ordering food until January, so once the Christmas food runs out there is a shortage of just-about everything.

It’s not always the retailer’s fault - they may have ordered something but it was out of stock the day the order was made up so it was omitted, which is not so bad if your order gets delivered the next day but pretty disastrous if you don’t find out about it until the container arrives two or three months later.

So shortages will occur, and there is no point in getting excited about it because there is nothing you can do. Your request will be declined politely, maybe even with a fatalistic smile, but that’s it - it isn’t on the island so you can’t have it until the next ship arrives - or maybe the one after that. Here you don’t find a recipe then set out to buy the ingredients; you see what you can buy and then look up (or make up) a recipe to use them.

One thing is interesting in all this, however: there never seem to be shortages of beer or cigarettes. And on the plus side, once you get integrated into the local culture people will pass on tips about what’s available where.

Also, be aware that:

Incidentally, it’s probably far from a deal-breaker, but you will find Sparkling Water only intermittently available here. Still Water is almost always obtainable, in bottles up to 5l, but not Sparkling. But it’s better than it used to be; prior to the last few years Sparkling Water was never available…

You don’t even have to land here…

In February 2016 this website was contacted by the Vessel Superintendent of the tug Skandi Admiral with an unusual request. The message said the tug and payload would be passing St Helena at the end of February and could we put them in touch with an island merchant who could provide them with some essential supplies?

Naturally we were keen to help. We emailed the likely local merchants and Thorpes responded. Negotiations then proceeded between Thorpes and the Skandi Admiral, as a result of which a sizeable bag of supplies was taken out to the tug as it passed and winched aboard. You can see images of the process below.

We’re glad to have helped!

Advertising

Newspaper advert, June 1988
‘Bee Team’ advert, June 1988

When the St Helena News was introduced in July 1986, for the first time the island’s newspaper was laid out using a computer. This made it possible to introduce (relatively) good-quality graphics. The St Helena News also, for the first time, started accepting advertising copy.

‘The Hive’ shop in Market Street (where ‘The Hive’ is today, but with different management - Belfred George) began producing rather inventive adverts, based on the idea that the staff in the shop were ‘The Bee Team’ (well what else would you find in a hive?)

An example from June 1988 appears (left).

The one below, from 1987, is rather less inspiring but may amuse because of the vehicles listed (and remember this was 1987, not 1967):

Solomon's engineering store 1987

Government Foodstocks

Until November 1996 retailers did not import basic foodstuffs themselves. The Government of St Helena imported these, maintaining the ‘Government Foodstocks’ which supplied the retailers at regulated (and subsidised) prices. This began during World War 2 when the disruption to ship calls brought about a real fear that the island might run out of food (though why the Government of St Helena believed it could manage this better than the retailers is not clear).

With effect from 1st February 1966 the Government of St Helena abolished subsidies on bread, flour, rice, corned beef and cheese, but continued subsidising milk powder, carnation milk, cheese, margarine, rice and flour.

The ending of the system in 1996 inevitably led to increases in prices, at a time when incomes were depressed and work in the UK severely restricted (due to the withdrawal of Citizenship). Earlier in the year there had been the ‘Riot’ and public unrest remained.

Foreign Currency

Read More

Below: Article: No luck in London? Try Jamestown…Article: ‘Shopping’ - the memories of Anthony Hopkins from the 1960s.

Article: No luck in London? Try Jamestown…

Published in the St Helena Herald, 21st August 2009{6}

We all know that St Helena is a world leader when it comes to shopping. There can be few, if any places on the planet with quite so many shops for the size of population. Perhaps someone should check with the Guinness Book of Records. Maybe it is something to do with Napoleon, who once dismissed England as a nation of shopkeepers… then got sent to Longwood, to wait his turn at the great checkout of life.

But do all those establishments actually sell anything that the discerning customer cannot buy in the world’s major commercial centres? The answer is… yes!

The elusive batteries

A visitor reports that he brought an unusual electrical item to the island, assuming he would be able to pick up the required batteries on his journey through three countries. He was wrong. The swanky duty-free shopping centre at Heathrow Airport, famed for its vastness, had nothing to offer in stores that boasted all the latest high-tech wonders. It was the same at Frankfurt Airport, and in Namibia’s most sophisticated tourist resort (no, not Walvis Bay… though no one sold the elusive batteries there either).

But soon after arriving on the island, our visitor had a chance encounter with Tara Thomas, who runs the Rose & Crown shop in downtown Jamestown, the offshore shopping Mecca of the South Atlantic. Tara owned exactly the same extremely obscure electrical item. That’s amazing, said our visitor. I’ve got the same thing - but I can’t get any batteries.

No problem, replied Tara. We sell them in our shop. It took a lot of rummaging around in a drawer, but the said batteries were indeed produced. Our man went away glowing… just like his electrical equipment.

What was this precious item? Well, it was a pair of plastic spheres that now glow in the dark and change colour as they are swung through the air. I won’t say they were indispensible, says our visitor, but finding the batteries in Jamestown, after failing in London and Frankfurt, was an absolute joy.

Article: ‘Shopping’ - the memories of Anthony Hopkins from the 1960s.

Published in the book Speaking Saint by Creative Saint Helena, February 2015{6}{7}

Eva Benjamin’s Shop, Jamestown, 1970s
Eva Benjamin’s Shop, Jamestown, 1970s

There wasn’t a lot of shops in Jamestown like it is today, we bought all the rations from Beatie and Herbie George. The shop use to open early in the morning up until eight o’clock mainly for the lovely fresh baked bread, and then it would open again at nine o’clock till half past five. Everybody trust the rations until the Saturday. Lard, margarine, peanut butter and jam were sold loose, you would take a saucer to put this in, they would weigh the saucer first and then put the margarine, or whatever you were buying, into the saucer after and a piece of grease proof paper was slap on top, and then there were separate cloth bags tied with a string for flour, sugar and rice. People couldn’t afford to buy the whole packet of biscuits so it was cut in half, and you bought a half packet and black sauce, Worcestershire, was sold so much per tot. We could never afford the whole bottle. I use to drink the sauce from the tot as I leave the shop to go back to the barracks and then fill it with water from the tap outside of Blanchie’s house, but you could never fool Muma and so often I had the lashin for doing so. The black sauce indicated that we were having porpoise curry for dinner.

We all use to pick the flesh out the bread as we were coming from the shop and then if there was a little piece of cheese or chop pork etc. on top of the big piece, that would also be eaten before going home. Rosie John use to make lovely bread sticks and ammonia cakes. If for any reason there was no bread Muma would make salt fritters plastered with jam for tea.

I use to collect all the peelings for Beatie George’s goats and she would give me a bag of sweets on a Saturday night, most of which were rancid but we shared them out and ate them, don’t ever recall getting sick. These sweets were Sunrise toffees, Cape heather marshmallows, Murray mints, reading sweets saying I love you etc.

I remember when Muma bought her first spring mattress. We were so excited it was for her and Dada’s bed, and I jump on the bed lovely and springy and having a pen in my hand it stuck up in the roof of my mouth, I had to go to the hospital. I couldn’t eat properly for a few days so was lucky to buy ice cream from Lena Marnsa. All the other children said they wish the pen would go up in their jaw then they would get ice cream too.

LOL

Credits:
{a} Pink Floyd, from ‘Money’{b} From a letter in a local newspaper{c} Social Media{d} W. Straker, in ‘Nature’s Neglected Citadel’, W. Straker, 1891

@@FNCRRETADV@@

Footnotes:
{1} But now the headquarters of the Rose &Crown Group.{2} And don’t be afraid to go down little alley ways - there are no dangerous places on St Helena.{3} Not all shops are shown. The inclusion or exclusion of a shop should not be taken as implying anything about the quality of the shop or the products sold there.{4} Local bananas are delicious! Smaller than the standard world banana, they seem to have a concentrated flavour.{5} Thorpes does not currently import fresh fruit.{6} @@RepDis@@{7} Speaking Saint is available from local shops and for Kindle™ via Amazon.co.uk.

@@FNCRRETADV@@

Double-click to select: