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The Castle

Most important of the Public Buildings

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.{f}

The seat of Government for years‍‍

Situated on Grand Parade in Jamestown, The Castle is one of the oldest structures on St Helena and is the Seat of Government for the island, as a result of which the term The Castle is often used as a synonym for the Government of St Helena.

It does not have the appearance of a typical castle.

Just about every important visitor gets an official visit to The Castle, though these days they are entertained (and, if important enough, reside) at Plantation House.


Below: Fort of St. John / York Fort / James’ Fort / United CastleSubstantial re-engineering and a new name19th Century extension and reconstruction

The Fort of St. John / York Fort / James’ Fort / United Castle

on 5th May 1659 John Dutton and his band of settlers arrived to colonise St Helena for The East India Company. The first thing they did was build a fort so that they could defend their new possession{5}.

The structure was known by many names. First it was the ‘Fort of St. John’; then York Fort; then from 1660 James’ Fort; and for a brief period after the uniting of the two rival East India Companies, the ‘United Castle’ (which may be the origin of the current name). During the Dutch occupation it was renamed ‘Good Fortune’{6}. It is illustrated in the following map:

Dutton memorial stone, in the Castle wall
Dutton memorial stone, in the Castle wall

A memorial stone, originally part of the Fort, is preserved in the present Castle wall (see right). It says:

I John Dutton, Governor of this Isle, first erected this fortification for the English East India Company, 4th June 1659. [The] works bear witness to me.

A month to erect a substantial fortification with the minimal tools and limited labour they brought with them is quite an impressive achievement, but perhaps the stone was dated before all the work was complete.

Another stone exists from the mason actually doing the construction, which is built into the seaward wall of the Castle Terrace (along with others by members of the party), and reads:

MAY ye 4 1659.

Sellers’ 1675 map (extract)
Sellers’ 1675 map (extract)
1705 painting
1705 painting{g}

What shape was the fort, and where exactly was it?

Fort at Jamestown, Virginia, 1608
Fort at Jamestown, Virginia, 1608

It is generally stated that the fort had a triangular shape: a wall facing the sea with towers at either end and one further tower inland, located roughly in the centre of the valley. However the evidence to support this is shaky. It is shown thus in contemporary illustrations (e.g. the Thornton map, 1711, above, and the Seller map, 1675, right), but some current historians say that none of these illustrators actually came to the island - they worked on descriptions received. Colonial forts were usually triangular - this gave good defence from all directions with no blind spots. It is thought that the shape of St Helena’s fort might simply have been assumed by the illustrators. Or maybe they just simply confused the fort at Jamestown, Virginia (illustrated right) with ours.

A fort situated in Chapel Valley did not need 360° defences. Because there was thought to be only the one practicable landing place, the only expected direction of attack was from the bay. So might Dutton have instead built a simpler curtain wall? This would certainly have been much quicker to build and would have required fewer materials and less labour, the latter in limited supply.

This suggestion is supported by what happened later - the fort was re-engineered into the current structure. If there had been a third rear-facing tower, some evidence of it should have been found, but has not been. A curtain wall could much more easily have been re-worked into the current structure.

If this is so, then the joke was on the English. When the Dutch attacked in 1672 they failed to gain a landing from the sea so instead landed further along the coast and came at the fort from behind, the poorly-defended direction. This may explain why the English surrendered so quickly to the Dutch… they had no defence against an attack from the rear.

And if all of this wasn’t enough, its location is also unclear. It is usually claimed that the current Castle was built on the same site as the old one, but if this is precicely true then surely during construction the valley would have been poorly or not-at-all defended? In 1708 Britain was allied with The Netherlands, but at war with France - the War of the Spanish Succession - so attack was not unlikely. Surely it would have been built close to the old one, so the old fort still functioned if there were an attack during the construction of the new one.

Lastly, if the 1705 painting (right) is accurate and correctly-dated it shows a square building, with no evidence of a triangular one.

History is a far-from static subject!

Substantial re-engineering and a new name

Following a Council resolution dated 26th August 1708 the original Fort structure was largely demolished by Governor John Roberts and the remains incorporated into the current building{7}. The structure took on the current rectangular shape with the familiar gateway and central courtyard. In the Records for 1734 the structure is described thus:

‍Jamestown Main Fort‍: Within the Line the Main Fort is defended by two large curtains and two half Bastions. On the East half Bastion there are 23 small guns called Falcons, Falconets, and Rabinets, which guns being small are kept only for salutes to save expense of powder. ‘On the Mount’ or front of the Main Fort are six very good demi-Culverins.

The Castle continued to be the Governor’s House, Plantation House not being built until 1792 (and then only used as the Governor’s summer residence). The ‘Government Garden’ (Castle Gardens) remained adjacent and was planted to supply the needs of the Governor’s table. Two wings were added and what we now know as The Terrace was built in 1714.

The upper storey was added in 1766 along with some much-needed repairs - it is reported that Governor Jenkins found the fortifications to be in such a bad shape that when the guns were fired from the Castle, part of the walls fell down. The resulting version of The Castle remained largely unchanged until the 19th Century. At some point in the 19th Century{8} the name changed - James’ Fort became The Castle, its current name.

19th Century extension and reconstruction

1734 Map
1734 Map{h}
Old entrance
Old entrance

Initially the entrance into Town from the landing place was behind The Castle to the east (left of the map). This continued even after the defensive moat was built in the early 1700s, across a drawbridge and through a tunnel underneath the wall (the leftmost ‘entry’ on the 1734 map, right). The changing rooms at the Swimming Pool are entered through The Seaside-end of this tunnel (image, right). The primary entrance into Town was moved by Governor Dallas in 1832 to where it is today and probably at that time the enclosure of The Castle was extended to include what is now known as the PW&SD Yard{9} (see plan, below). The second gate into The Castle, to the right of the main entrance, would have been constructed at about this time - it bears the big red ‘V R’, being ‘Victoria Regina’ (i.e. Queen Victoria). Many of the buildings in the PW&SD Yard pre-date this construction and were simply incorporated into the structure.

A second stone in the front wall, placed below the Dutton stone, reads:

The above stone alludes to a Fort built in 1659, taken down and the present Castle built by Governor Roberts in 1708;
The Hon’ble Brigadeer General Dallas, the last Governor of the Hon’ble United East India Company in clearing away found it upside down in part of the foundation of the Castle and restored it as now placed
AD 1834.

The 1834 crest over the main entrance replaces an earlier crest from The East India Company, carved by one Corporal Gallwey in 1828 who also carved the ‘Head School’ plaque. The apartments in the upper storey were converted into offices in 1837.

A little later disaster struck! When the Royal Navy was intercepting Slavers in the 1840s the vessels they captured were brought to St Helena for their surviving ‘cargo’ to be unloaded and liberated. The ships themselves were, if seaworthy, sold off. The remainder were broken up on our shores, and it seems one or more of these was carrying White Ants. Liking our warm climate these pests began ravaging Jamestown, and eventually most of the island. The Castle was not spared and in the 1860s almost all the woodwork had to be replaced to prevent the building from falling down (as many fine country houses actually did). In ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island{10}’ we read:

In the year 1860, when His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh visited St Helena, the reception room at the castle was in sufficiently good order for him to hold a levée, and for a Governor’s ball on the same evening. Six years afterwards it was a complete ruin!

According to local legend, when a cupboard in The Castle was opened just after World War 2 it was found to be stuffed full of unopened letters, discovered to be urgent instructions from Whitehall regarding the war. Their being ignored didn’t seem to have made any difference…

The 1974 Crallan Report has the following entry for The Castle:

JT 3/9 The Castle Consists of early fortified walls to South & West, a later block on the North containing the principal Reception Rooms at first floor level, and further blocks added on the East and South sides. The P.W.D. occupies the large East Block. All reconstructed 1860s. Grade 1 OGV Notes: (i) Teale 11.2.169 quotes ‘130ft square in 1708’. Existing dimensions (excl. P.W.D. Block but incl. the Terrace) appear to conform. Main Block recons. 1766. The whole recons. post termites 1863 onwards. (ii) Cast iron main staircase (iii) 15ft thick fort wall survives on part S. & W.

JT 3/9 Castle Yard, P.W.D. Early III Workshops & retaining C.19? G.V. walls excluding added ‘Sleeping Quarters’ Elliptical ended chamber Early II part of Castle Yard C.18 G.V. Note: An interesting survival. Purpose?

Pretty much every rebellion or protest focussed on The Castle…

The Castle Today

The Castle is the most important of the Public Buildings. Its use for all sorts of purposes at present inhibits the degree of conservation it deserves.{i}

Today, as it has been since its construction, The Castle is the seat of the Government of St Helena and its main administrative centre. Legislative Council meets in the Council Chamber (upstairs in the main building) and the structure also house the offices of The Governor, Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary, etc. So despite its history - it is designated as a Grade I Listed building - it is very much a working building, hence the quote by Hugh Crallan (above) that this inhibits the degree of conservation it deserves. The building has, for example, running water, electrical sockets and lighting, telephones, computer network cabling… all, hopefully, as sympathetically installed as possible.

Entry is open to the public during office hours, as far as the foyer but because ‘Government’ is being carried out, there are only tours for very important visitors{11}. The Archives are open to visitors in normal office hours.

The stairs up to the main Council Chamber are very ornate cast-iron of presumably mid-19th Century date, and probably replaced earlier wooden stars eaten by White Ants when The Castle was refurbished in the 1860s. The Tercentenary plaque, on the gate above the left-hand gun, was placed in 1959 to mark 300 years since the arrival of the first English settlers under Governor John Dutton. Hinges can be seen inside the gateway for gates that have long since disappeared (they are not seen on even the earliest photographs). Above the memorial stones there is a cast-iron rainwater device that could date from the takeover by the Crown in 1834 (the images may be the young Queen Victoria), but sadly it is too worn to be certain.

Castle Images

Myths and Legends

It is sometimes claimed that a stain can be seen on one of the floors of The Castle, being the blood of Governor Joshua Johnston, shot there by mutineers in 1693. Sadly, quaint though this story may be, it cannot be true. The Castle was substantially re-built in 1708 and any surviving woodwork was lost to White Ants and replaced in the 1860s.

It has been said that the remains still exist of an escape tunnel leading from the Castle to The Wharf, whereby a Governor could make a discrete exit to a passing ship in times of trouble. Whether or not this still exists, and even if it ever did, we are not sure. (If it did Governor Smallman might have appreciated knowing of it in 1996 when he faced ‘the riot’!) Of course, since the start of the scheduled commercial air service a tunnel to The Wharf wouldn’t be of much use, and a tunnel to the Airport, around 9Km away, would be a remarkable feat of engineering!

Unsurprisingly The Castle is said to be haunted. This may explain why only a few are prepared to work there after dark{12}.

Read More

“The Castle, or The Castle of St. John, or Union Castle”

Sketch of The Castle

Extract from ‘A Handbook and Gazetteer of the Island of St Helena’, by G. C. Kitching, 1947{13}

For 250 years the offices of the Government of St Helena. As far as can be ascertained there are no dungeons, cellars, underground passages or any other mysteries. The original building was a fort constructed for Governor Dutton in 1659 by Thomas Coleman, who came in the Marmaduke. It was reconstructed by Roberts in 1708, by Lowe in 1816, by Dallas in 1832 and by Elliott in 1867 after it had been ravaged by white ants. The terrace was built in 1701, the two wings in 1714 and the upper storey in 1766. The Governor had accommodation in the fort from the earliest days, and after the defences were constructed at Ladder Hill the building became more of a residence than a fort. After the improvements to Plantation House the Governor still retained rooms in the Castle as a winter residence, and although one wing is now kept as residential quarters, the building has long ceased to be a Governor’s House, the remainder of the rooms being occupied as offices. In 1840, at the time of the exhumation, the whole place was so dilapidated that it was unfit to be used for the reception of Prince de Joinville. The coat of the Company’s Arms to be seen at the gate, as also those on other buildings, was cut by Corporal Galway of the Artillery who first brought his art to notice in 1824, by cutting the Company’s arms on the new Head School (now the Government Girls School).

We are aware that time has moved on from this 1947 description.


The St Helena Herald used the iconic Castle entrance for its ‘Bullseye’ cartoon, invariably satirising the Government of St Helena. Here is an example from October 2004:

Bullseye cartoon

{a} Copyright © South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (SAMS), used with permission.{b} Faron George{c} John Tyrrell{d} Equality & Human Rights Commission{e} Paul Goodwin{f} Henry David Thoreau{g} Vue de la baie de Jamestown, 1705, by A. Callendar{h} ‘An Island Fortress’, by Ken Denholm, published in 2006{i} Hugh Crallan


{1} We have no idea who, exactly when or why. If you can enlighten us please contact us.{2} Note the cars!{3} With Governor Hollamby, 2002.{4} A higher resolution but monochrome version of this map exists.{5} The Dutch had previously claimed St Helena as their own in 1633 and the Portuguese had discovered it originally so it was likely that somebody would forcibly dispute The East India Company claim - which the Dutch did, but not until 1672.{6} Not a very appropriate name, with hindsight - the Dutch only held the fort and island for about five months.{7} It is sometimes claimed that the footings of the old fort form the basement of the current building, but as the Crallan Report makes no mention of this we assume it to be untrue.{8} Before ‘A History of the Island of St Helena’, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1808, though Read’s map of 1817 uses the name James’ Fort.{9} So-named because it was the operational base of the former ‘Public Works & Services Department’. It still is but the Department has changed its name.{10} …including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology, by John Melliss, published in 1875.{11} Which is a shame, particularly because (from personal experience) the building is a veritable rabbit-warren of corridors that inter-connect in strange ways. It is sometimes suggested that your first week of working at The Castle is spent learning the best way from anywhere to anywhere else!{12} Or it could be because the Government of St Helena does not pay overtime. Who knows?{13} @@RepDis@@