blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]


Everything on St Helena starts 20 minutes late

blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]

Time is rarely of the essence of any undertaking in St Helena.
Governor Charles Henry Harper (1925-1932)

Ever wondered why everything on St Helena starts 20 minutes late? Read on…

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island Detail

Time [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]
The old ‘Time Ball’

Bridge Memorial Clock [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]
Bridge Memorial Clock
St. James’ Church clock [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]
St. James’ Church clock
Winding St. James’ Church clock [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]
Winding St. James’ Church clock
New Customs building with clock [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]
New Customs building with clock

Go to: Official TimeEffective TimeTelling the timeDaylight Saving TimeThe Time BallA ‘noonday gun’?Read More

Official Time

Officially, St Helena is on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), also known as UTC±00:00, with no daylight saving time observed.

Historically, St Helena operated on Solar Time, which was determined by the island’s lattitude (5°45’00”W, 15°58’49”S) and hence approximately 23 minutes behind GMT{1}. This changed in August 1941, to make it easier to synchronise time with London.

Effective Time

In practice, on St Helena time is somewhat relative. If something is announced as starting at 3pm, it will probably get underway somewhere between 3:15 and 3:30.

An explanation for this, it has been suggested, relates to the shift in 1941 from Solar Time to GMT. This resulted in the clocks being advanced by just over 20 minutes. It is proposed that everybody ignores this and just turns up according to the old Solar Time - 20 minutes later.

Telling the time

Telling the time on St Helena is also not particularly accurate. Your sources of ‘the right time’ each have their issues:

  • You could not use the clock on St. James’ Church. Possibly because of it being over 200 years old (it was imported into the Island in 1787), it is not reliable (though in recent years it has improved a bit). This website’s editor has a personal recollection from 2007 of hearing it strike thirteen; it was, at the time, twenty past five….{2}

  • Jamestown’s Bridge Memorial Clock was, for many years, the island’s official time standard. But it is an old mechanical clock and somewhat prone to drifting. And, in any case, it can only be heard in lower Jamestown.

  • There is a clock on the new Customs Building, on the Wharf. This seems to keep relatively accurate time. It is lit at night, though why is not clear - it is primarily visible from the Swimming Pool (closed at night) and the Wharf area, which is only used at night for ‘romantic’ purposes{3}.

  • Saint FM Community Radio could be used, but firstly its time reference is the computer in the main studio, which like all computer clocks is apt to drift and which resists all attempts to connect it to the Internet for automatic time synchronisation. Then there is the fact that most of the presenters are themselves not overly obsessed with timekeeping; hence the 7pm news may be played any time up to thirty minutes late, and maybe not at all. (S.A.M.S. Radio 1 is much more reliable.)

  • You could use an Internet source from your computer, but it should be noted that our Internet is delivered via a satellite link, and the signal takes a little time to travel the approx. 35,000Km up to the satellite and back down again, so even this will not give you global accuracy, though it should be fairly reliably late.

  • If you’re really determined to know the exact time bring a GPS device with you. It will probably give you the most accurate result.

But why bother?

Nothing on St Helena ever starts on time, even assuming there might be some agreement on what the time actually is. The RMS always departs “on completion of passenger and cargo operations” which can take between an hour and three. Maybe the Aircraft will be more accurate, but somehow we doubt it.

Daylight Saving Time

St Helena does not use Daylight Saving Time so the clocks remain on GMT all year round. It is argued that St Helena is too close to the equator to benefit from Daylight Saving Time, though it has been tried…

‘LIGHT’ coalition logo [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]

A Daylight Saving Time experiment was started in St Helena in 1981. On 18th October the clocks were advanced by 1 hour, to be reset to GMT on 28th February 1982. However the experiment met with considerable opposition and was abandoned at the intended end date. In 2007 the St Helena Tourist Association and others also proposed a move to Daylight Saving Time, arguing the lighter evenings would benefit tourism and save money on fuel, but this time the proposal did not get beyond the discussion stage. You can read their paper (265.5Kb) published in the local newspapers.

The Time Ball

The image at the top shows the old time ball, from an 1860s photograph. This would have been raised to the top of the pole around five minutes before the designated time; then at the exact hour (1pm GMT, corresponding to 12:37:10h St Helena Mean Time) it would have been dropped. Its main purpose was to allow visiting ships to synchronise their clocks - timing being then very important for navigation at sea{4}. In earlier days it was accompanied by the firing of a cannon, as illustrated by the sketch below:

Time signal in Jamestown, 1789 [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]
Time signal in Jamestown, 1789

Time ball, c1911 [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]
Time ball, c1911

Exactly how St Helena maintained an accurate time to control dropping of the ball is not clear, but it was probably achieved using solar observations.

Other time signals

The Records{5} for 18th September 1874 refer to two other time-signalling devices:

  • a ‘Time Flag’ at Ladder Hill, which is to be displayed from 8am to 9am and again from 12am to 2pm (presumably St Helena Time); and

  • another time ball at the Ladder Hill Telegraph, to be dropped at 1pm St Helena Time.

Hong Kong’s Noonday Gun [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]
Hong Kong

Edinburgh’s 1pm Gun [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]

A ‘noonday gun’?

It has been suggested that the firing of a cannon at midday (or 1pm) should be re-instated, as a tourist attraction. The example given is Hong Kong’s Noonday Gun, as famously mentioned in Noël Coward’s humorous song ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’.

A 12:00 gun is also fired from Signal Hill, Cape Town, South Africa, and a 1pm gun is fired from Edinburgh Castle in Scotland{6}.

Apparently, however, this can’t be done because it might upset the Red Billed Tropic Birds (‘Trophy Birds’) that nest near Ladder Hill…though it was apparently OK for Basil Read to make enormous explosions for many months on Prosperous Bay Plain, where Wirebirds nest, as part of the airport construction project. Smilie, 15px [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]

Read More

Article: “Still Ticking After All These Years

By Ferdie Gunnell, published in the St Helena Sentinel 9th February 2017{a}

Still Ticking After All These Years [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]

Still Ticking After All These Years [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]

Recently I was wondering what may have happened to old clocks that used to be seen in various government offices and public areas. I was told the one from the Post Office in Jamestown had been placed in storage but they kindly allowed me to take a picture. Many of the clocks had large white faces with wood surrounds and were kept polished - they all seemed to have an air of authority about them. Many private homes on the island had them also. Some were of the imposing ‘grandfather’ design and there were the kind that showed the intricate workings through glass cases. There is a grandfather clock at Plantation House which is admired by visitors. Michael Benjamin winds this every 4-5 days and Peter Williams gives it a check over occasionally. Many of the Island’s clocks will be antique and hopefully are still in good working order. Then there is the Thwaites clock manufactured in the 1780s and installed on St. James’ Church, Jamestown - which Roddy Yon keeps wound up every 4 days - and, the Bridge Square clock that Peter Williams winds once a week. The Bridge clock was unveiled in memory of those who fell in the great war of 1914-1918. This is a two-week clock and is wound more frequently so it keeps running. Both are working perfectly now but along the way some maintenance was required.

I suppose the interest in old clocks started when I visited the Museum of St Helena and understood what had been done to rescue some historic ones for generations to marvel at.

Perhaps the oldest clock on the island is from the General Hospital which the Island of St Helena transferred from the East India Company to His Majesty’s Government on 27th April 1834. The clock no doubt told good time then and it is in working order now - though it required some maintenance in recent years. This relic from the past still chimes although sometimes - when the hour hand is on a particular number - it strikes 12 times instead of what it is supposed to. But it is marvellous to see the clock still working and probably an adjustment to the chime mechanism is all that is needed.

Another clock of great interest in the Museum is said to have been salvaged from the SS Papanui. It was made by Elliot Ltd in England and restored by Phil Orton who owns The steamer Papanui was a single-screw vessel of 6,582 tonnes, built in 1899 by William Denny and Brothers for the New Zealand Shipping Company. She sailed from London in late August 1911 with a cargo rumoured to consist of cars and other valuable materials, 364 passengers and crew of 108. She was bound for Freemantle via Las Palmas and Cape Town. SS Papanui reputedly left without a Bill of Health and her voyage was fraught with confusion ending in disaster. The vessel arrived to St Helena - burning on 11th September 1911 - coming to anchor in James Bay at 3.30pm. The blaze could not be extinguished and the ship eventually perished. The Eastern Telegraph Company’s cable ship Britannia was at anchor nearby and offered assistance in disembarking the passengers. What is left of SS Papanui stands in approximately 40ft of water in James Bay.

Peter Williams of Napoleon Street is self taught at repairing watches and clocks - he also fixes spectacles. Watches and clocks were a hobby of Peter’s from a young age - he took apart his mother’s clock to see how the parts worked. Once retired from his mechanical career Peter had more time to devote to the service he often provides. The St Helena Heritage Society called upon Peter’s skills to fix the East India Company clock that had been left standing for many years in the nurse’s day room at the hospital, and also the clock salvaged from SS Papanui. Peter was up to the task - at times having to find or make parts. Both clocks are on display at the Museum linking the past with the present day.

Solomon’s offices in Jamestown display three large wind-up clocks. These also are in good working order and are also maintained by Peter. But no doubt there are other clocks of historic interest around the island and hopefully they are still in good working order too. In many cases the old clocks have been replaced by modern electronic or battery operated versions.

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]

Laugh at funny time humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Time]


{a} This article is reproduced{7} with permission from South Atlantic Media Services Ltd (SAMS)


{1} 1pm GMT, corresponded to 12:37:10h St Helena Mean Time

{2} The clock was serviced in January 2017 by the St Helena Heritage Society, using a donation from the Community Grant Fund.

{3} Which would be assumed to be not time-dependent; unless you count “Damn! I told my wife I’d be home at ten…

{4} Longitude was calculated based on the difference beween observed solar midday and that of a reference clock, kept set to London time, a process developed by John Harrison.

{5} The St Helena Records is a collection of documents dating back to the earliest days of St Helena, held in the Government of St Helena Archives. The Archives can be accessed in person or via email - see our Family And Friends page for more. You can search our events database, extracted from the Records, on our Chronology page.

{6} The Scotland in the UK, not the Scotland in St Helena.

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


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