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The Missing Fountain Mystery

Where did it go?

The challenge of securing safe and plentiful water for all is one of the most daunting challenges faced by the world today…Too often, where we need water we find guns.{c}

A monument that disappeared mysteriously in the 1940s

The Rockfall Memorial Fountain

Jamestown sits in a steep-sided rocky valley. In 2010/11 the sides of the valley were extensively netted to catch falling rocks, but prior to then rockfalls, mostly minor and doing little damage, were a regular occurrence. But in history there were a few larger falls, including the one on 17th April 1890, in which 1,500 tons of rock killed nine people and demolished 14 houses valued at £2,250, described by the St Helena Guardian newspaper of Friday, 18th April 1890 as A dreadful Calamity. You can read an article about the rockfall{d}. The place on the hillside from which the rocks fell is known as ‘Pierie’s Revenge’.

As a memorial to those killed, a drinking fountain was erected in the middle of Main Street, between The Consulate Hotel (formerly the Royal Hotel) and what is now the Post Office, known as the Rockfall Memorial Fountain.

Macfarlane of Glasgow designed and built the fountain. Half the cost was raised from public donations and Macfarlane donated the balance. It was unveiled, with much ceremony, on 12th September 1891.

Several contemporary and later photographs show the fountain:

Please Note We believe the lamp on the top was not part of the original design - it was fitted locally. We assume it to have been oil powered.

The fountain appears on photographs up until the early 1940s, but thereafter it is simply not there. The image below shows the parade in February 1945 to stand-down the St Helena Home Guard, and close scrutinisation shows the fountain to be missing.

The clearer picture below, from 1947, shows the centre of Main Street marked out with parking bays, as it remains today. There are cars where the fountain was.

Why was the Fountain removed?

Plaque, now located outside the Library
Plaque, now located outside the Library

Nobody seems to know!

It is clear that, with the arrival of motor cars in 1927 and their growing number in the 1940s, parking would have been becoming a problem in Jamestown. But why was the fountain removed? Could not the car parks have been marked around it? Or could it not have been relocated elsewhere?{7}

One possibility suggested for the removal of the fountain was that the standards for drinking water were being raised and that a public drinking fountain was considered a possible cause of disease. But drinking fountains exist in many other places with climates similar to Jamestown, and are considered perfectly healthy, so this explanation seems unlikely.

Could commercial interest have played a part? Were local merchants keen to remove a source of free drinks to improve their sales of bottled alternatives? This too seems unlikely. Free water was provided in Jamestown until 2012, through strategically placed taps.

Clearly the removal was organised and planned, because the plaque was removed from the structure and mounted on the wall of the Library (right).

In recent decades several of the island’s newspapers have published letters asking why the Rockfall Memorial Fountain was removed but no explanation has been forthcoming. Only one suggested that the fountain might have been sadly neglected and allowed to rust, and thus was removed because it was becoming an eyesore, though this suggestion has not been verified.

The truth is probably buried in the Archives and until something comes to light the removal of the Fountain must remain a mystery.

What happened to it?

Again, nobody seems to know!

It was apparently dumped for a while in the old stables in the Castle Gardens (which is now Ann’s Place) and has been reported as seen there in the early 1980s. But after that it disappeared.

Some say people helped themselves to parts and that components of the fountain are now features in gardens across the island. Others say it was dumped in the sea{2}.

Either way it is almost certainly no longer intact, hidden in some dark corner of the island.


Replica fountain (test siting, August 2019)
Replica fountain
(test siting, August 2019)

For most of the late 2010s Enterprise St Helena (ESH) was ‘doing up’ Jamestown, sometimes attracting negative comment from the island’s preservationists due to the use of modern materials that were claimed to be not in keeping with Jamestown’s Georgian past. And Enterprise St Helena (ESH) also had a plan to install a replica of the Rockfall Memorial Fountain - just the fountain itself, minus the gantry, drinking cups, water supply and oil lamp (see photograph, right).

In October 2015 it was announced:

A newly-built fountain will also be put in place there [the mini-roundabout]. This will be a replica of the one which was put up to remember the people who died in the 1890 rock fall.

The following week this letter was published in reply:

I am sure that everyone would like to see a replica of the Fountain replaced in its original position (not in the middle of the roundabout), since this was in fact a memorial to the nine people who died in the 1890 rockfall. Half the cost was raised from public donations and Macfarlane of Glasgow, who made it, donated the balance, but it disappeared sometime in the late 1940s and only the plaque remains outside the library.

In The Sentinel on 14th February 2019 it was reported that the replacement had been manufactured in the UK, based on the original designs, and The Sentinel for 23rd May 2019 reported that it had arrived on St Helena (cost-to-date £18,000), but that planning permission for siteing it had still not yet been obtained.

On 19th August 2019 workmen under the supervision of Enterprise St Helena (ESH) unpacked the new fountain and tried it in various locations close to the position of the original. As a result it was decided that the original fountain position was impracticable for the new one - it would require the loss of at least two car parking spaces; if put outside The Cannister (Tourist Information Office) it was lost in the trees; and if put by the lamppost at the top (Southern) end of the parking area it might be hit by vehicles using the roundabout and would be lost in the various signs and lamppost. The only remaining option was locating it on the mini-roundabout centre, but this too posed problems:

Further investigation was agreed upon. On 20th March 2020 The Sentinel reported the lack of progress under the headline ‘Rockfall Memorial Fountain still awaiting erection’..

Enterprise St Helena (ESH) closed on 31st March 2021 leaving it initially unclear who owned the fountain they had (expensively) procured and imported. For a long time it sat in the Government of St Helena works yard but on 24th February 2022 it was finally installed, just outside The Cannister; see the images (below). The replica isn’t really a fountain - it doesn’t actually fountain water{3}. At the time of writing we are still waiting for somebody to arrange for a sign explaining what it is and why it’s there. Unexpectedly, it does not seem to be filling up with leaves and cigarette ends - somebody must be cleaning it…

Read More

Below: Article: Letter to The EditorArticle: Report of the unveiling

Article: Letter to The Editor

Published in the St Helena Herald 3rd August 2001{4}

Dear Editor,

I recently received my Island papers and in the issue of 18th May Mr Julian Cairns-Wicks mentioned the fountain that once stood in Main Street opposite the Post Office.

It appears in old photographs taken early in the last century but its fate seems unknown. Is it possible that it commemorated the people killed in the rock fall of 17th April 1890 and its plaque was later removed and affixed to the Library wall?

From the Macfarlane catalogue
From the Macfarlane catalogue

The wording should be visible in the original photo. As soon as I read Mr Cairns-Wicks letter I went to one of my most valued books, the massive illustrated catalogue of Macfarlane of Glasgow a famous iron foundry and there it was - Pattern number 8 pictured in all its Victorian splendour. A note states that a shield, with a suitable inscription could be ordered. Macfarlanes were the leading manufacturer of ornamental cast iron that decorated a good deal of Victorian England and the Colonies.

Drinking fountains were a speciality, which could be ordered from the catalogue and assembled on site. They always included brass cups attached by chains as people in those days had no qualms about sharing drinking utensils.

Number 8’s centrepiece was a cormorant-like bird and a street lamp, not visible in your picture, would have topped the structure. I know of three Macfarlane fountains in South Africa: one on the Durban Esplanade; one in Rondebosch, Cape Town and one in Simon’s Town. What a shame St Helena’s has been lost.

Jamestown has quite a lot of structural cast iron incorporated in its buildings such as the handsome Castle staircase and the entire Market, doubtless as a complete answer to the White Ants. Most of this is the work of Gwynnes of Chiswick, London. I agree with Mr Cairns-Wicks that the iron lamp brackets at the much-photographed entrance to the Castle should be repaired and fitted with lamps. These are easily obtainable in England or perhaps made by the gentleman who makes the traditional Island bottle lanterns.


Article: Report of the unveiling

From a St Helena National Trust Education Pack on the Fountain{4}

Although the morning of Saturday opened in a manner consistently St Helenian, the ceremony of unveiling the Fountain which now adorns the Main Street of Jamestown, was gone through with every demonstration of restrained pomp - as befitted the occasion; under decidedly favourable climatic auspices. Although flags, gay uniforms, and all the panoplies of une grande ceremonie were present; still the crowd were, comparatively speaking, quiet acuciadamente templado indeed, and the civic guardians’ duties were, for the nonce, sinecures. At an early hour the country folk commenced to flock in, for, badly as the function of the day had been advertised, still quite a moiety of the island folk had heard through one source or another that the hideous barrier, that had so long fouled the vision of perambulators along our principal thoroughfare, was to at last, à la Faust as it were, change at the magic touch of the hands of His Excellency. So about a quarter of those came who, had it been either properly known, or if the absentees had dreamed that the ceremony would have been half as impressive as it was would, otherwise, have graced the occasion by their presence.

Rain held off throughout the proceedings which were conspicuous for the admirable punctuality of the Governor, and, for the speech prior to unveiling which, we can frankly state was the essence of rhetorique, being very short, but comprehensively to the point.

The Island Bandsmen began to attract attention at 11:30am, the effects of their united efforts being slightly marred by the absence of a grosses caisse, but Mr. Congdon deserves credit for the happy unison otherwise existing. At a quarter before noon a guard of honour of the 84th Regiment, under Captain Howe, Lieutenants Brady and Thurnall marched down, and took ground with their rear to The Consulate. Of course the black eyes of the attendant maids, which hitherto had been occupied by criticising the arrivals, now lit up, for were not their beaux on the spot, and did not the presence of the ‘Soljers’ emphasise the importance of the occasion? ‘Fix bayonets!’ was the word of command after the men had been ‘dressed:’ ‘Open-order-(steady) march,’ then, after the rear rank had dressed properly (‘eyes front’) ‘stand at ease’ - ‘stand easy,’ and for ten minutes the redcoats were the cynosure of all eyes, and very different to the slovenly turned out men one so often meets ‘on detachment’ now-a-days.

At three minutes before the advertised time, a sort of electric thrill ran through the multitude, for the plumes of His Excellency’s A.D.C. Capt. Seymour, D.A.C.G., were caught sight of in the distance, and then were seen the Governor himself in full uniform, and all his Suite. The Lord Bishop, in full canonicals, attended by the Reverends Mr. Hands and Mushet also in priestly garb, joined His Excellency, and together they advanced to the fountain, now draped in a horridly dirty-coloured flag, and before which stood a very ancient half flag-post, from which hung a Union Jack that had evidently seen a lot of service.

By the time nearly everybody of not upon the Island had taken their places; the balconies of the disused officers’ quarters, Mr Jackson’s house, and the Consulate were full of people, and the benches in front of the objet were pretty well occupied. Among those present were noticed Mrs. Welby, senior, Mrs. (Dr.) Welby, Colonel and Mrs. Maclean, The Hon. Mr. George Moss, Miss Moss, and Miss Helena Moss, Mrs. Howe, The American Consul and Mrs. Coffin; Mr. Magistrate Homagee and family, Mrs. Hands, Miss Hands, The Rev. Mr. and Mrs. Baker, Miss Baker, Mrs. Lockwood Fowler, Miss Laura Pritchard, Mrs. Marquand, Mrs Potter, Mrs. Childs, Miss Deason, Captain Marquand (the Lottie Beard,) Captains Potter, Childs, Moulton and Enos, of the Whale Fleet, Mr. Bovell, Mr. L. Knipe, Mrs. Jackson{5} with a party of friends, Lieut. Hooper, R E, and, if we remember rightly, the Misses Short, Miss Warren, Miss Knipe, Mr. Muir, A.S.C.

Precisely at noon, His Excellency arrived at the dais, and was, of course, received by a General Salute and flourish of bugles, after which he called upon the Lord Bishop to open the proceedings by a short prayer. This we give in extenso, in the hope that its beautiful words may not only ornament the bedsides of everyone, great and simple, in St Helena, but in the hope that their meaning shall be digested by all. Then followed His Excellency, who spoke with great clearness, and in a language calculated to impress his listeners. Perhaps, commenced the speaker, it is hardly necessary for me to dwell upon the circumstances, more than for a moment, which surround the cause of this fountain’s erection. I need not refer fully to the terrible catastrophe, the catastrophe of the 17th April last; how it occurred during the dead of night. We all know the terrible circumstances how 9 persons were killed in their beds, and many others, more or less, seriously injured. Need I revert to the great destruction not only to life, but to property? Nor is it necessary for me to refer to the awful surroundings of the scene that followed - of the devotion displayed by the sailors from on board of one of Her Majesty’s ships then in harbour, who gallantly rushed to the rescue in spite of the dangers that existed; the darkness, the noise, the commotion, the uncertainty of when and where more masses of rock might fall, to fight against the sad results of this sad catastrophe.

Considerable emotion was here displayed by some of his hearers. His Excellency then mentioned how the sum of about £290 was raised, a deal being subscribed here, some in England, and some in South Africa. How it was decided that a portion of this money should go to recompense those who had lost their all, some to the poor, and how a sum of £10 at least, it was stipulated, should be set aside for the erection of a permanent monument. It was a credit to South Africa and St Helena which the speaker included with it, to whom the erection of the fountain was due.

Having alluded to Mr Antrobus and his share in getting up the subscription list, His Excellency eulogised the following firms:- Messers. MacFarlane of Glasgow who made the fountain for little more than half cost; Messrs. Ockenden and Maypee for bringing out the fountain free of cost; and Messrs. Solomon, Moss, Gideon & Co. for landing and transporting it to this site.

Then, having urged all to remember, when drawing water from the fountain, as the Lord Bishop has so beautifully put it in his prayer, the circumstances attending the erection thereof, which should never be forgotten, the Governor turned more immediately to that side of the square which was filled with the townspeople.

With emphatic severity His Excellency said he regretted to find that there was not a sufficient regard shown, nor sufficiency of sincere feeling of thankfulness for the escape by the survivors, and there was, too, a great lack of principle displayed by parents for not instilling in their children a proper respect for the memory of the dead. He alluded in marked terms to the disgraceful state of the cemetery in Town If, said the speaker, if parents did instil an affection for memory of the dead into their children, God’s Acre would not be such a distressing sign of absolute neglect as it is to-day, a veritable ashpit of the Town! It is to be hoped that God’s Acre will be respectfully looked after. Remember this, that if we fail to inculcate and teach the love and reverence due to God’s Acre, it must recoil upon you. Be assured that those who have lost and never felt a tender affection for the memory of their dead are little likely to bestow upon the living that affection and respect which are the very life blood not only of the domestic hearth, but also of the general community.

He again in conclusion urged upon his hearers to let him impress upon them, each, to do his best to preserve God’s Acre. Then, having referred to the fountain, the annual reminder of the dread catastrophe, the Governor at 13 minutes after 12, ‘unveiled.’

Whereupon a murmur of admiration ran round the crowd which was quickly drowned by the band playing a cheerful stanza. His Excellency and the Lord Bishop then formally set running the waters which ran among the hills, and from which is filled this fountain, and tasted thereof, their example being followed by Mrs. Webly, Mrs MacLean and Mrs. Howe, and the robed priests. For fully an hour after the Governor had returned to the Castle, the square was filled by a curious and, mostly speaking, an admiring crowd. The following was the prayer offered up by the Lord Bishop:-

O Almighty GOD! grant, we beseech thee that this memorial of those who in darkness and terror were suddenly overwhelmed by falling rocks, and cut off by the hand of death, may continually remind us how frail and uncertain our own condition is, and move us to apply our hearts to that holy and heavenly wisdom, which in the end shall bring us to everlasting life. Grant, O Lord, that the remembrance of thy mercy, which spared us, thy Providence, which preserved us from far wider and more terrible destruction, may fill our hearts with thankfulness, and our lips with praise. Oh God, the glorious Creator of all things, sendest the springs into the streams which run among the hills, and from which is filled this fountain make us more continually sensible of thy goodness in thy daily benefits poured down upon us!

Lead all those, we pray thee, who come to draw water at this fountain to that which has been opened for sin and uncleanliness. Lead them forth beside the waters of comfort. Give them to drink of the waters of life through Christ our Saviour. Amen!

The Governor referred to would have been Governor William Grey-Wilson.


{a} Thomas Jackson, Island Chemist{b} Rev. Tom Aitken, Baptist Minister on St Helena from 1897-1905 and also a keen amateur photographer{6}{c} Ban Ki-moon{d} Published in the St Helena Herald, 13th September 2002{4}


{1} See other debunked myths.{2} Possibly these are the ones who used pieces in their gardens, protecting themselves in case anyone should ask for the bits back.{3} It can’t - it has no internal plumbing and it is not connected to a water supply.{4} @@RepDis@@{5} We suspect that Mrs Jackson was the historian E. L. Jackson.{6} Apparently the man holding the cup is one Joe McDade, about whom we know only that he was at the time one of the coxswains for Solomons.{7} Local legend is that it was relocated to become the one in Castle Gardens, but this is not correct. The fountain in Castle Gardens was certainly in place in 1902, contemporaneously with the Rockfall Memorial Fountain{1}.