Time

Everything starts 20 minutes late

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

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

Saint Helena Island Info will not work fully because Javascript is not enabled in your browser.

Time

Island Clocks
Bridge Memorial Clock
Bridge Memorial Clock
Clock on St. James’ Church
Clock on St. James’ Church
New Customs building with clocks
New Customs building with clocks
Plantation House sundial
Plantation House sundial

Below: Official TimeEffective TimeTelling the timeHistorical TimekeepingDaylight Saving Time‘Tick Tock Day’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 longitude (15°55’24.3”S; 5°43’3.5”W{1}) and hence approximately 23 minutes behind GMT. 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 twenty minutes. It is proposed that everybody ignores this and just turns up according to the old Solar Time - about twenty 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:

{3}

But why bother?

Saint Memes 06
{a}

On St Helena, there is no reason to hurry.
Bradt Guide to St Helena

Nothing on St Helena ever starts on time, even assuming there might be some agreement on what the time actually is. The RMS St Helena, for example, always departed on completion of passenger and cargo operations which could take between an hour and three.

Are the flights on time?

What do you think…? Initial experience since the Flights started is that they are about as on-time as flights the world over.

Historical Timekeeping

Below: Solar TimeTime BallOther time signals‘noonday gun’?

St Helena Solar Time

St Helena Solar Time, which was determined by the island’s longitude (15°55’24.3”S; 5°43’3.5”W{1}), was used until August 1941 and was 22 Minutes and 52.23331176 Seconds behind GMT (to be precise, though we suspect that local time was not set quite that accurately!) So 13:00:00h GMT corresponded to 12:37:08h St Helena Solar Time and 13:00:00h St Helena Solar Time corresponded to 13:22:52h GMT.

The Time Ball

The images below show the old time ball repeater mechanism on the Terrace. This was a relay from the island’s main time ball, positioned at the Ladder Hill Observatory, for the convenience of ships in bay who did not have a clear line-of-sight to the Observatory. Positioned as it was, the relay did have a clear line-of-sight to the Observatory and the relay operator simply copied the Observatory ball.

The operation of the main and relay time balls is interesting. The main ball was raised to the middle of the pole five minutes before the designated time, to the top of the pole two minutes before the designated time and then at the exact hour it was dropped. The relay follows perhaps a second later - an immaterial delay. The main ball is described in a contemporary document as a globe of white canvas, 22lbs. weight and 2ft. 8in. diameter and we assume the relay ball was identical or very similar.

The purpose of the time balls was twofold: 1) to help the people of the island synchronise their clocks (clocks at the time needed frequent adjustment); and 2) to allow visiting ships to synchronise their clocks, timing being then very important for navigation at sea{4}.

The balls were dropped twice every day; at 12:00:00h St Helena Solar Time local time (12:22:52h GMT) for local use and again at 13:00:00h GMT (12:37:08h St Helena Solar Time) for shipping. In earlier days it was accompanied by the firing of a cannon, as illustrated by the sketch, also below. There was also a protocol whereby a ship arriving after 13:00:00h GMT and departing before 13:00:00h GMT the following day could signal a request for the ball to be dropped at any other hour (though the potential for confusion in this is obvious).

Of course, St Helena had to maintain an accurate time to control dropping of the balls. At first this was probably achieved using solar observations. Later it was assisted by superior clocks, though like all mechanical devices these must have had their limitations, especially if not properly maintained.

Incidentally, these clocks were rescued from the abandoned Ladder Hill Observatory when it closed and were set up in a new Time Office in Jamestown. When the last of these clocks failed in 1907 Governor Gallwey wrote to London requesting a replacement and was told that none would be provided and that instead he should use a sundial. The Time Office closed soon afterwards. The last clock has since been restored and can be seen in the Museum of St Helena.

The Time Ball was actually invented by a Royal Navy officer, Robert Wauchope, in 1818 while he was stationed on St Helena! He visited St Helena again on 20th December 1834 where he was delighted to see his time ball at work.

Other time signals

From the Records:

18th September 1875: Notification that from this date Time Signals will be: Time Flag at Ladder Hill from 8am to 9am and 12am to 2pm. Time Ball dropped at 1pm GMT corresponding to 12:37:08h local time. Ball dropped at Ladder Hill Telegraph at 1pm St Helena time.

We also found a note in a visitor’s log from 1830 of the explosion of rockets fired at eight o‘clock every evening, about which we would like to know more! Please contact us if you can help.

A ‘noonday gun’?

Edinburgh’s 1pm Gun
Edinburgh

Hong Kong’s Noonday Gun
Hong Kong

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{5}.

Apparently, however, this can’t be done because it might upset the Red Billed Tropic Birds (‘Trophy Birds’) that nest near Ladder Hill Fort…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.

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

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 21st March 1982. However the experiment met with considerable opposition and was abandoned on 28th February. 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 published in the local newspapers.

‘Tick Tock Day’

Tick Tock Day is, apparently, celebrated on 29th December, to mark the passing of time. Nobody bothers on St Helena because it’s too soon after the Christmas celebrations to make any effort, and in any case everyone is on Block Leave so there’s nobody around to celebrate it anyway.

Read More

Article: Still Ticking After All These Years

Published in the St Helena Sentinel 9th February 2017{b}

Still Ticking After All These Years

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 www.theclockclinic.co.uk. 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.

Solomons 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.

Credits:
{a} Saint Memes{b} South Atlantic Media Services Ltd (SAMS){6}

⋅ Click the highlighted marker (if any) to return to where you were before.

Footnotes:
{1} Location of Jamestown according to latest GPS data.{2} Which would be assumed to be not time-dependent; unless you count Damn! I told my wife I’d be home at ten…{3} But note that this is calculated from your device’s clock, so is only as accurate as you make it…{4} Longitude was calculated based on the difference between observed solar midday and that of a reference clock, kept set to London time, a process developed by John Harrison.{5} The Scotland in the UK, not the Scotland in St Helena.{6} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

⋅ Click the highlighted marker (if any) to return to where you were before.

HISTORY: History pages index

INFORMATION: Information pages index

Time | Copyright © John Turner

[an error occurred while processing this directive]