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Titbits from the records

A snapshot

I would like to say a few words, and here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!{b}

Here are some interesting items from the Records

Titbits from the records

SEE ALSO: Some of the incidents reported here are the basis for ghost stories.

The long arm of the law

The long arm of the law

Here are some items related to the somewhat capricious legal system in the ‘before days’, particularly under Governors from the East India Company.

Interested in our current laws? They can be read and downloaded from www.sainthelena.gov.sh/‌legislation-of-st-helena-ascension-tristan-da-cunha.

Below: Capital CrimesUncivil ActionsLeaky ShipIngenious DefenceAvoiding the death penaltyDesertionGovernor’s PowersSchrubbJust Punishment?Masters & The enslaved‘…on the strongest presumption of his guilt’‘Riding the Wooden Horse’Other

Capital Crimes

In the laws governing St Helena from 1672 we read (#8):

Anyone found guilty of murder, burglary, buggery or any other capital crime is to be shipped to England for trial and sentencing.

Note that burglary was a Capital Crime (i.e. you could be executed if found guilty). Incidentally, homesexuality remained illegal on St Helena until 2000, though the maximum penalty had by then been reduced to imprisonment.

Uncivil Actions

This seems to be the first mention in the Records of the punishment of Riding the Wooden Horse.

Leaky Ship

The ingenuity of the punishment impresses. Pumping a leaky ship was a very long way from being a popular occupation!

An Ingenious Defence

The Records do not show the verdict in this interesting case. It reminds us of a store in the UK in the 1980s which, attempting to circumvent the (then) Sunday-trading restrictions, claimed it was selling customers an Orange - for £1,000, with a free three-piece suite.

Avoiding the death penalty

Given that many enslaved people were actually executed (often for relatively trivial offences), presumably many of them also not Christians, so we have no idea why this one was spared.


It’s not as if he fled the island…

Governor’s Powers

This item illustrates the almost unlimited power of The East India Company’s Governors to exact their revenge on anyone that displeased them. The Governor’s power was, however, slightly curtailed in 1754:

A Schrubb

An Internet search revealed nothing useful so ‘Schrubb’ was either a very serious accusation or Lieut. George Hay was a close friend of Governor Dunbar.

Just Punishment?

The punishment seems rather harsh, though nowhere near as severe as others mentioned here.

The charge of ‘Highway Robbery’ seems to have been laid with the aim of maximising the available penalty. Whaley could not have been hanged if convicted only of theft.

Hanging seems an excessive punishment for stealing a swig of (probably) Arrack, but then enslaved people were routinely subjected to extraordinary penalties for very minor offences.

Masters & The enslaved

Initially the word of an enslaved person could not be taken against that of a Master:

The following incident resulted in a change to the law:

‘…on the strongest presumption of his guilt’

In the Records for November 1810 we read of Nancy May, a ‘free Black’ who was found guilty of stealing fowls. She was sentenced to receive 200 lashes in total, administered in four groups of 50 in different parts of the Town, and to be transported between the areas of punishment tied to and walking behind a cart while wearing a paper with Fowl Stealer on it in large letters. She had evidently managed to acquire some land since her emancipation because her lease was taken from her and sold, she being deemed unworthy of being a tenant of The East India Company.

Apart from how precise and complicated this punishment was, and how to modern eyes it seems rather excessive, it is intriguing to note that her husband - probably also formerly enslaved - was sentenced the same punishment, not based on any evidence but on the strongest presumption of his guilt.

‘Riding the Wooden Horse’

Wooden Horse

The Records make many references to ‘Riding the Wooden Horse’. As far as we can tell this was a variation of a form of torture popular in Medieval times.

WARNING: the following explanation is not for the squeamish!

The ’Horse’ was a wooden block, raised on legs to rather more than waist height. The block had a triangular cross-section, with the sharp end pointed upwards. The victim was placed straddling the block. The sharp end thus hurt the victim’s groin area. Because the block was high, the victim’s legs could not reach the ground, so the sharp edge was forced into the groin by the victim’s weight. In the original torture, weights were added to the victim’s legs… More here: WARNING: Explicit Content.

The aim of the original torture was to inflict extreme pain and even physical damage. We assume the punishment version to have been less extreme. Maybe the block was not as sharp. Maybe less weight was added. The Records refer to the punishment, but do not actually describe the details, assuming the reader would be entirely familiar with how it was administered.

Incidentally the Records show that women were sentended to ‘Ride the Wooden Horse’ as well as men, though there is no evidence of it being used on children.

If you’re coming here to visit you may be interested to explore other darker parts of our history.


Whipping as a punishment was not abolished until 1950, and the Flogging Ordinance remained on the statute book until 1966.

The last execution on St Helena was on 2nd February 1905, but the punishment wasn’t abolished until it was discontinued in the UK.

Women were first allowed to serve on juries by the Juries (Amendment) Ordinance, 1965.

Until as late as 2019 all motoring offences on St Helena were criminal offences - there were no civil offences{1} As a result you got a criminal record for minor vehicular transgressions - 35mph in a 30mph limit, for example - and the Police were unable to prosecute people for contraventions like illegal parking because a criminal record would have been a disproportionate punishment (and hence contrary to the person’s Human Rights).

This was corrected in the 26th July 2019 Legislative Council when a motion by Cllr. Brian Isaac to decriminalise certain minor offences was unanimously approved.

It was also decided that the change would be retrospective, meaning people’s past criminal records for these offences would be expunged.


More about health in St Helena on our page Health Issues.


An idea of the medical care available at the time is given by these items:

Below: Medicinal SwigArrackCaring?Until recently…

A Medicinal Swig

At the beginning of the 18th Century Brandy was being consumed in great volume:


This contrasts with:

Many 18th Century Governors attempted to control Arrack, and the Punch Houses in which it was sold. Some of these attempts led to mutinies.


Until recently…

Racial discrimination in healthcare lasted until at least the 1960s. Dr. Ian Shine arrived in 1960 and in his book ‘Upon This Rock’ he noted:

There were two clinics in Jamestown. The Saints lined up to be examined on a wooden table in a hut behind the General Hospital (which doubled as a mortuary); ex-pats and the privileged came to the front of the hospital to be examined on a comfortable examination couch inside the hospital. Once the senior medical officer left St. Helena, I combined the clinics, requiring everyone to join a single queue for the comfortable couch. A single line was more efficient, and it apparently did wonders for ex-pat health - after this change they hardly ever attended the clinic.

Many mostly-older Saints still make use of the ‘traditional remedies’ that they relied on in the ‘before days’. Some of these are documented on our page Edible Wild Plants.

Equality & Human Rights

Fundamental rights belong to the human being just because you are a human being.{c}

Equality & Human Rights

The early Records show scant regard for either of these!

Below: Freedom of movementValue of a lifeFreedom of ExpressionFair JusticeValue of WomenFreedom of AssociationEquality in HealthcareFreedom from Discrimination

Freedom of movement

20th March 1680: Two freemen having sold their land in order to return to England are allowed to goe but none in future who have received land or cattle from the Company are to sell until they know whether they will be allowed to leave.

The idea that ‘freemen’ needed the Company’s permission to leave the island gives a clue to exactly how ‘free’ a freeman was in 1680.

The value of a life

Council might have expressed more concern if she had killed a dog.

Freedom of Expression

Fair Justice

Totty was duly executed. Nobody seemed to notice or care that the jury were also plaintiffs.

Value of Women

Governor Poirier clearly had a firm view on the value of women.

Freedom of Association

The sentence in this case was clearly aimed at preventing the soldiers from inter-breeding with the enslaved. It would be nice to think this was to protect the enslaved women from sexual harassment by soldiers but sadly we suspect that was not the reason.

We deduce that Mary Gurling was white and a married woman, and that she had claimed during her pregnancy that her husband was the father. Then, after a month in prison (an impressive feat in itself!):

The castration of an enslaved man for the ‘crime’ of having sex with a white woman was considered normal at the time.

Equality in Healthcare

The burial records (held by the Church, which dealt with all official burials) for May 1807 are reported thus:

So even in death the enslaved were not afforded the same respect as their masters.

Freedom from Discrimination

The Church often celebrates its role in the ending of slavery, but it is interesting to note that only a few years earlier it was complicit in blatant racial discrimination.

The Environment


As elsewhere at the time, ecology was unknown and immediate economic need was the primary driver in environmental decisions.

Goats and the environment

In response:

Life on St Helena

Life on St Helena

These excerpts give an idea of what life was like on St Helena in the ‘before days’:

Below: Contentious personsLoose womenBad ButcheryRestorative JusticeScandalous KissingMad as a March hareGovernment FirstEntrepreneurship

Contentious persons

Loose women

It is not entirely clear if the plan was to stop prostitution or, by charging for the ‘lycence’, make money from it! These ‘loose women’ feature frequently in the Records (loose men don’t seem to be mentioned). For example:

Bad Butchery

Restorative Justice

Scandalous Kissing

For an explanation of the ‘Kissing Dance’ see our Glossary.

Mad as a March hare

The Governor in question would have been Governor Robert Patton who, in the opinion of the editor of this website, was probably more sane than average for a Governor of The East India Company.

Government First

The dominant role the Government of St Helena plays in St Helena is still a topic of debate, where something like 30%{7} of the island’s population depend directly (and some estimates say up to 80% indirectly) on Government Employment.


In our view this is taking entrepreneurship a little too far!

Men of the cloth

Men of the cloth

These excerpts demonstrate that the island’s early clergy did not always set such a good example:

Below: Mr HumphreysDr. John KerrParson ThomlinsonParson JonesParson GilesMr WhiteRev Boys & Fr. DaineRev. BarracloughRev. J. C. Lambert

Mr Humphreys

Mr Humphreys seems to have been the first cleric to get into trouble, only 28 years after the first Chaplain, William Noakes, arrived:

Dr. John Kerr

His successor, Dr. John Kerr, was no better:

Parson Thomlinson

Parson Jones

Parson Jones arrived in mid-1719 to replace Parson Thomlinson and was very soon (as they say) on a roll:

Parson Giles

Parson Jones’ successor, Parson Giles, was clearly not much better:

Mr White

Rev Boys & Fr. Daine

Rev. Richard Boys was so spectacularly difficult he gets an entry on our page Characters of St Helena. So too does Fr. Daine, though for rather different reasons.

Rev. Barraclough

Edwin Arthur Barraclough became Vicar of St. Paul’s Cathedral in July 1894 and, after exemplary service, was made Canon by Bishop Welby in November 1895. However it soon transpired that he was not, as he had portrayed himself, a single man. In fact he had been married, and had been divorced after committing adultery and fathering a child ‘out-of-wedlock’ - an unthinkable thing for a Cleric in the 19th Century{3}. The full story is featured in Ian Bruce’s article ‘Deceiving Bishop Welby’. Barraclough was, of course, stripped of his post, despite having the complete support of Bishop Welby until the latter’s death in 1899, though apparently he continued to use the title Canon Barraclough for the rest of his life.

Rev. J. C. Lambert

If you read his stated qualifications, Rev. J. C. Lambert was an extraordinary accomplished man for a priest. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society; Doctor of Music from St. John’s, Cambridge; schoolmaster; gifted musician and artist. It is not surprising that Bishop Welby appointed him Vicar of Jamestown. Except that few of these qualifications were real. He was not even a qualified Vicar, having progressed only to the first stage of ordination as a Deacon while in India in the 1870s. He did not qualify as Doctor of Music at St. John’s, Cambridge; in fact he only attended there for 13 days, leaving in October 1874, next registering at Oxford University where he also only attended a few days before leaving and sailing to India. He was genuinely a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, but it seems likely that this appointment was entirely based on his other fake qualifications.

rev Lambert missing advert

None of this came to light until after his mysterious disappearance from St Helena in May 1886. He boarded the Aphrodita and upon arrival in Liverpool, vanished, never to be heard from again. The advertisement (right) appeared in the London Evening Standard on 8th December 1902. He was never traced and exactly why he disappeared has never been established, though it is thought that his marriage had failed, his wife Johanna giving birth to an illegitimate child with a year of his disappearance. Perhaps he simply realised that his fabricated qualifications were about to be exposed.

He was apparently a capable musician, and at least one of his artistic achievement survives - the sketch of Empress Eugénie arriving in 1880. The full story is featured in Ian Bruce’s article ‘Deceiving Bishop Welby’.

Read More

Article: Archive To Archive

By Johnny Drummond, published in the St Helena News 9th March 2001{4}

Archives door plaque
Archives door plaque

The Archives, as most people know, are situated in the Castle. There is no sign outside{5} and anyone passing the door might think that it is some kind of storeroom, which of course is exactly what it is. But the Archive is more than a storeroom full of dusty books; it is the most important complex of rooms on the Island outside of the museum.

The St Helena Archives contain records of the history of the Island going back to 1673. The records are a meticulously hand-written account of transactions and instructions between the East India Company in London and the Governors of the Island at the time. Almost every important document relating to the history of St Helena is held in this rather confined space{6}. Narrowly spaced steel shelves support an incredible wealth of information including copies of the St Helena Guardian, 1851- 1923, The Diocesan Magazine, 1899-1947, The Wirebird, 1955-1966, St Helena News Review, 1958-1986 and the St Helena News to the present day. All Government documents, Gazettes, Ordinances and Legislation from the 1800s onwards as well as a tremendous number of other papers.

There are two members of staff, Maureen Stevens, the Custodian of Records and Barry Williams, the Assistant Custodian of Records. Apart from maintaining this Island treasure the main function of the Archive staff is to conserve these priceless historical records for posterity and for future generations. Barry explained that restoration must be done with the minimum damage or alteration to the original book or document, which in most cases are in a very fragile state and need to be handled extremely carefully indeed. The job of restoration is a precise and painstaking procedure requiring time and a lot of patience. In the case of a book, the pages must first be collated to make sure that they are in the correct order. Any fragments of pages must also be carefully stored so that they can be replaced as the work progresses. The book must first be ‘pulled’ or stripped down then each folio is separated into pages, which are then individually restored and any holes filled using special parchment. The pages are then covered with sheets of transparent tissue, which are ironed on to hold the pieces in place. Large documents are put through a specialised laminating machine. The pages are then put into folios, which are stitched together by hand and bound into a volume. Covers are added to protect the pages; these can be covered with a variety of cloths or leathers. The final job is to put the title of the book on the spine or cover; this is done with a special letterpress, which prints the letters through gold foil and onto the book. Any other tooling is done by hand. Unfortunately Barry doesn’t have a wide range of embossing tools to further embellish his work.

A tremendous amount of restoration has already been done but there is still a lot to do. Barry said that the Archive receives a great many enquiries from overseas by post but this has increased greatly since the introduction of e-mail. Maureen does the major part of the research and answers correspondence and enquiries as well as dealing with visitors with specific requests.

The Archive is open to members of the public who wish to do their own research. The Archives will form part of the new museum complex when it is eventually opened, Barry expressed some concern about the proximity of the Run, which goes directly beneath the building. If by some chance the Run were to overflow the consequences for the Island’s Archive and Heritage could be disastrous.


At the time of writing The Archives have still not become part of the new museum complex and remain in The Castle. The staff have changed but the rest of the article is still applicable.


{a} Michel Dancoisne-Martineau{b} ‘Albus Dumbledore’, in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’{c} Desmond Tutu{d} William John Burchell


{1} In American terminology, everything was a felony - there were no misdemeanours.{2} So excluding Bank of St Helena, Connect Saint Helena Ltd. and parastatals like (the former) Enterprise St Helena (ESH).{3} And apparently still so today in the Anglican Church, if the circumstances of a former Vicar of Jamestown in the 2010s are representative.{4} @@RepDis@@{5} Now, there is - see picture.{6} Sadly the ‘almost’ includes church records, which have largely not been added to the collection; military records, which were returned to London; and company records (e.g. for Solomons or Thorpes), which are held in the relevant company’s archives (not always accessible).{7} This figure comes from The Sentinel 6th August 2020, page 5, showing full-time workers directly employed by the Government of St Helena{2} only. Many people have multiple jobs - a ‘day job’ with SHG and other paid work done in the evening or at weekends. In addition it depends on whether the people working for Connect Saint Helena Ltd. and Bank of St Helena are included as Government or Private Sector.