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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 20 minutes late? Read on…


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

Below: Official Time • Effective Time • Telling the time • Historical Timekeeping • ‘noonday gun’? • Daylight Saving Time • 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{2}. 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 - about 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:


But why bother?

Saint Memes 06

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

The Time Ball

The images below show the old time ball. This would have been raised to the top of the pole around five minutes before the designated time, and then at the exact hour 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{6}. The ball was dropped twice every day; at 12 midday local time (12:22:50 GMT) and again at 1pm GMT, corresponding to 12:37:10h St Helena Mean Time. In earlier days it was accompanied by the firing of a cannon, as illustrated by the sketch, also below.

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





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 12:37:10h local time. Ball dropped at Ladder Hill Telegraph at 1pm St Helena time.

Hong Kong’s Noonday Gun
Hong Kong

Edinburgh’s 1pm Gun

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{7}.

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. Smilie, 15px

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.

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

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.

Laugh at funny Time humour - LOL

{a} Saint Memes{b} South Atlantic Media Services Ltd (SAMS){8}

{1} Location of Jamestown according to latest GPS data.{2} 13:00:00 GMT, corresponded to 12:37:10 St Helena Mean Time.{3} The clock wasn’t originally in the church tower. Until 1843 it was in the Court building across the road.{4} Which would be assumed to be not time-dependent; unless you count Damn! I told my wife I’d be home at ten…{5} But note that this is calculated from your computer’s clock, so is only as accurate as you make it…{6} 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.{7} The Scotland in the UK, not the Scotland in St Helena.{8} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

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