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Historic Buildings

A standing reminder

Architects and engineers are among the most fortunate of men since they build their own monuments with public consent, public approval and often public money.{b}

St Helena has an abundance of interesting historic buildings to explore



In Jamestown alone, excluding The Wharf, there are 18 Grade I Listed buildings, 51 Grade II and 61 Grade III. Across the island there are many more. St Helena has so many historic buildings - mostly Georgian but many from later periods - buildings that have featured in the history of the island and the British Empire - there are just too many to include on this page. So below is an introduction and some common information about historic buildings in general. Individual buildings are described on two separate pages:

The map (below) shows most of our historic buildings{c}:

When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for.{d}

The Listing System

Reference is made above to buildings being ‘Grade I Listed’. Some island buildings are afforded a form of statutory protection because of their historic and architectural importance. This is known as Listing. The system is similar to that used in the UK, but (as always) with some local variations.

Most of the Listed buildings on St Helena were identified by the Crallan Report in 1974. The full list appears in Appendix 7. Three Grades of Listing are applied: I, II and III. Broadly, the Grade indicates how important the building is to St Helena’s heritage, with Grade I being the most important. Grade I Listed buildings include The Castle, St. James’ Church, Jacob’s Ladder, Plantation House and High Knoll Fort.

It is a common misconception that the Grade of a listed building controls what alterations are automatically permitted and what require grant of Planning Permission. Actually, technically, any alteration to a Listed building, irrespective of its Grade, requires Planning Permission, though in practice this is only applied to building and engineering operations (including demolition) or the making of a material change in use of land. This would usually exclude the general cosmetic upkeep of the building. Hence it is not necessary to seek Planning Permission to repaint a door, but it would be necessary before adding an extra room or demolishing a garden wall. The Grade of the building does not affect this; it is merely a guideline for the Planning Authority to use when considering whether to grant consent.

The criteria adopted for listing are broadly that a building should display one or more of the following features:

How buildings change

Jamestown, in particular, has always been a working town, and its buildings have been adapted over the years for various uses. Presented below are a few examples:

Below: ‍Jackson’s Chemists‍Malabar

‍Jackson’s Chemists‍

Thomas Jackson, Island Chemist arrived in St Helena c.1864. At some point he set up a Chemist’s shop in Jamestown, as illustrated by the first two photographs below. He also pulled teeth, cut hair and was a photographer producing postcards of St Helena. We don’t know when the chemist’s closed but by the 1950s it was advertising itself as a Garage (photo 3). Later the building became owned by Solomons and became the Hardware Store. In 1963 Solomons decided to block in the elegant Georgian balcony{3}, presumably to create more work-space upstairs. The fourth photograph shows this work nearly completed. The fifth photo, from c.1980 shows it as the Solomon’ Hardware Store. Following major extensions at the back it became Solomon’ DIY Store in 2001, as it remains today (photo 6).

Mr Jackson was the husband of historian Emily L. Jackson.

The Malabar

The Malabar building in Jamestown, a Grade II listed building named after a ship whose cargo was stored there, was a house in 1787, owned by one John Pritchard. At some point it was purchased by Solomons. In the 1980s it was used as a Solomon’s wholesale groceries outlet, supplying retailers, and later it became a warehouse. In 2015/16 Solomons undertook restoration of the Malabar, which had been boarded up for many years and was, until 2015, still used for storage. The pre-and post-restoration photos are shown below:

Restoration problems

Essex House un-rendered
Essex House un-rendered

Essex House, 1974
Essex House, 1974

Essex House underwent restoration in 2009. Things did not go totally to plan. The following appeared in the local newspapers on 20th November 2009:

The Heritage Construction Project is progressing well but one problem has occurred. For several weeks, work has been undertaken to put the façade on Essex House, the home of the Legal, Lands and Planning Department, into its original state. It is possible to chip and plaster the bottom part of the wall, but higher up it has been disclosed that the wall is completely hollow and further works could lead to the wall crumbling and falling down. It is anticipated that the upper part of the wall has to be taken down and rebuilt next year. Further details are to be released shortly.{4}

In the end a way was found to re-fill the walls without major dismantling and rebuilding, but there was much humourous comment at the time about Essex House, a Government building, being a proxy for Government as a whole - a nice façade with nothing inside. And after all that work, in 2019 it was decided that the façade should actually be re-rendered, as it is today.

You can read about some significant restoration failures on our page Lost and almost-lost Buildings. The ones that were thought lost but were restored are described on our page Saved Buildings.

Purposed Buildings

From 1874 until 1966 St Helena’s economy was dominated by New Zealand Flax, which was grown across the island and used to make string, mostly for the UK Royal Mail. In 1917 175 men and 42 women were employed in the flax industry. There were ‍Flax Mills‍ across the island where the flax was processed. Many of these are in disrepair, but some can be seen. There are plans to open a flax museum. For more see our page on the Flax Industry. Our fascinating collection of historic and modern churches is described on our page Churches of St Helena{5}. Our many forts and batteries have a page of their own, as do the other military installations.

The ‍Model Cottage‍ Mystery

Model Cottage sign

At the top of Sapper Way, on the edge of Plantation, is a house called Model Cottage. There is nothing extraordinary about this building except one thing - an inscription above the window featuring three Chinese characters.

Many theories have been advanced to explain this. It is known that a barracks for The Chinese Labourers had existed somewhere in the area, but Model Cottage is clearly not that building. It has been suggested that the structure was once a Chinese temple, but the layout of the building is all wrong for that explanation.

The translation of the characters only a little more helpful. Pronounced ‘Shieh-Tian-Gon’, they literally translate as ‘assist-god(sky)-Lord’. ‘Shieh-Tian’ (assisting god) is one of the many Taoism titles of a historical figure called Guan-Yu, a brave military general in the late 2nd Century and one of the best-known Chinese historical figures. People respect him so much they worship him as one of the highest gods in Taoism. So the temples for Guan-Yu are sometimes called ‘Shieh-Tian Temple’ or ‘Shieh-Tian something’.

But, as previously mentioned, the building is not structured as a temple and a temple would have the inscription over the main door, not over a window. It is also unlikely that The East India Company would have allowed lowly Chinese labourers - who were treated only slightly better than the enslaved - to use such a substantial building as a temple. And anyway, a different expert claims the inscription reads ‘This is the Mess House of the Master Craftsmen’.

A more credible explanation is that the building was never a temple, and may not even have been used by the Chinese. The inscription stone (whatever it says) could have come from a demolished temple, or might even have been fabricated as a tribute to the Chinese who used to live in the area, possibly using random Chinese characters never intended to carry any meaning.

So what is the true history of Model Cottage? If anyone can provide an answer please contact us.

Read More

Below: Other SourcesArticle: Jamestown is specialArticle: Conservation - Not Preservation

Other Sources

Many other sites discuss the historic buildings of St Helena. Here are a few of the more useful ones:

Article: Jamestown is special

Published in the St Helena Herald 14th July 2006{7}

Association Hall and 1-3 Main Street, all Grade 1 Listed Buildings
Association Hall and 1-3 Main Street, all Grade 1 Listed Buildings{1}

It occurred to me recently that most people do not know why our old buildings are important, and need to be valued. I have been interested in researching for some time on this subject and would like to share some thoughts on this with you. We hear a lot about preserving our Natural Environment - the Wirebird and the endemic insects and plants, and our Marine Environment - but not so much about our Built Environment. So we will look at why Jamestown buildings are so special that Martin Drury, retired Director of the National Trust of England, Northern Ireland and Wales, said of Jamestown:

I cannot think of a town in the UK whose 18th and early 19th century character is so well preserved.

This is why Hugh Crallan, an architect, came to the island in 1974, commissioned by the Government of St Helena to grade our historic buildings, and give us guidelines for protecting them. He left the Crallan Report, which is readily available for all to see in the Records, Library, National Trust Office, Lands Office etc (you can download a copy on our page Historians of St Helena).

This report is not out of date as someone said to me some years ago when I cited it. Our buildings date from the 1700s, so although the report is 32 years old, its recommendations do not change, and as tourism becomes our future, we need to preserve what we have even more. Developers often argue for change on grounds of progress, but we don’t want to kill what people come to see, and our buildings and forts are a part of that.

Because restoring a building to its former glory is more expensive than replacing things with more modern materials, it was suggested by Crallan that, like the UK, there should be a Grants system put in place to help private owners with the extra expense. Consequently, SHG commissioned a Report in 1996 on a Grants System. Unfortunately this has never been implemented{8}. However this should not mean that people do not understand the importance of the building they own in the great plan of things, and should be proud to be a part of this history. Crallan reports that, in England, owners of Listed Buildings are told of the Listing and what this entails. This would be good practice here, giving owners a list of the restrictions on alterations, and the legal requirements, and helping them to understand how important it is to preserve what they have or intend to buy.

Crallan gave the buildings Grades. There are 18 Grade 1 Listed Buildings in Jamestown, excluding The Wharf, 51 Grade 11 and 61 Grade 111.

The built environment is our collective heritage, whether the buildings are privately owned or owned by SHG.

Article: Conservation - Not Preservation

Published in The Independent 31st August 2007{7}

Ian Serjeant

Last Friday, SaintFM and the Independent had a visit from Ian Serjeant, who is on the Island working with the National Trust for a few weeks as a volunteer. Ian had some time off work and had read about St Helena and about how interesting it was so he thought he would volunteer his services to work as a specialist on the conservation of historic buildings so he has come out to help and develop a database of the historic buildings, but also to update what’s been done in this area before. He would also like to do some training for the staff in Legal Land Planning to help them understand about the historic environment.

St Helena has a wonderful heritage, says Ian, because you’ve got some buildings that go back to the 1600s. Jamestown is an absolute gem, there’s just nothing quite like it or anything as good as it anywhere in the world, in my view, it is a unique and very special place and it needs to be looked after, he said.

I think there is a two-fold effort needed to look after this unique heritage. I think Government needs to help. I think it would be good if there was some sort of grant system to help private owners, but equally, on the other hand, private owners need to recognise that they have responsibilities as well. I think it is a shared responsibility to maintain and repair the buildings, but it is important that they are kept in use. It is also important that they are allowed to develop uses, particularly when we are thinking about the changes that will happen on the Island with the growth of tourism and there will be a demand for more tourist facilities and people will want to see tourism destinations like old buildings. In the UK, for instance, the National Trust has three million members. It is a hard number to contemplate. We are on an Island with maybe four thousand people at the moment, but three million members and what they do is they spend their time looking at old buildings, so there is a huge market for people to look at old buildings, but you cannot just fossilise them; they have to be allowed to change to some degree, with changes internally or extensions, but it is about keeping the best of what we have. We are talking about conservation, not preservation. The buildings have an importance, not just locally, but internationally. You have got something here that is unique.

Rear of Essex House
Rear of Essex House

It is expensive for a private person to own a listed building because you are going to spend more on materials, you have got to work to a higher standard and I understand that that can be a hard thing for private owners. It is the same in the UK, but we have some advantages in the UK in terms of allowances that Government give in terms of taxes and also in the UK people are eligible to apply for grants from for example the lottery funds, which we cannot get here. I think is a shame, but the lottery funds have said that they might be able to give grants for training so that is another thing to investigate. Grants are available in UK and I think something of that order could be looked at here. This would certainly encourage private owners to maybe invest more themselves so I would like to see some sort of partnership developing which is the way forward.

Generally, the historic buildings I have seen around Jamestown are not in bad order. I have been to places and seen far worse buildings, although some buildings are not brilliant. I have been looking at the report that was produced by Hugh Crallan back in 1974 where he produced this register of the listed buildings, which Government has adopted here and I have been looking at all of those, making notes and taking photographs. I find that, comparing what he recorded and what I now see, there is not a lot of difference. There has been some change, but it has been very limited. There are some houses which are in poor condition that need work, but equally, there are a many houses which people have spent a lot of money on. Many take great pride in these buildings and I think that is commendable and it is good to see well maintained buildings and I hope that sets an example for other people to follow. I have great hopes that the quality of buildings here will be maintained, but there are always going to be casualties. Looking at some of the houses, or the buildings rather, behind Ann’s Place, were actually old store buildings, because you had the house at the front and behind that you had the slave or servant quarters and then behind that there would be a garden, but at the very back there would be a huge warehouse, where all the goods was brought in. This was two, three hundred years ago, and these were huge warehouses and all that is left now is some of the walls basically. Now those things will probably go, but it is important to record them so we know what was there and what their function was. When a building is too far gone you have to say - okay, well let it go, but let us make a record of it so we know what it was like so we have got some record for the future so people will know how the place developed and how it functioned.

To mention some of the buildings in Jamestown, I think the whole Castle complex is amazing, wonderful, and I think a lot of the, what seems to be straightforward buildings coming up to The Cannister are excellent. Wellington House/Yon’s Café, a lovely building. Essex House interests me with that colonnade at the back that is all held up with old railway lines, I think that is wonderful and where I am working, out of Broadway House. Inside there are original doors that are like two hundred and sixty years old with original door locks on. In the UK, these would be museum pieces, here they are literally part of the furniture - taken for granted almost, so there are real little gems around. I think the Castle complex is the most exciting, because we have got the remnants of a Castle and then built on to. There are now all the Government offices and buildings and trying to unravel how all this developed is quite an exercise, beyond me, but my colleagues Ben and Jeff are having a good go at it.

What Ian is trying to achieve in his time on the Island is to have the register of listed buildings updated. I hope to have it complete so that there is a decent basis for examining plans for alterations so that people know what they are looking at. Also, I have promised to do some guidance notes about signs and I want to try to do some guidance for owners of listed buildings to help explain to them what their role is and what their responsibilities are. I have been here four weeks already and I have got three weeks to go so I can have only a limited impact. I think if local people get enthusiastic about their heritage a sort of opinion will, I hope, build up to say, -well we do need to keep our heritage, it is important to all of us, no matter what our background is. The Island’s heritage is important, not just the grand buildings. I was out at Harford School the other week doing a lesson for some eight year olds, which I found very scary, I don’t mind talking to professionals - that is easy. I can stand up and lecture to a hundred people, but not eight year olds. I showed a picture of Wellington House and a little one-storey cottage in Upper Jamestown and I said - which is the most important? They said the big building. I said, well, you are quite right in a way, but the little building is just as important, because that tells a different story, that tells a story of the ordinary people. The grand house is where the merchant lived perhaps, and that tells one story, but the little house is just as important. So, it’s trying to get this in perspective that it’s not just the big buildings that matter, the little, humble cottages out in the country can be just as important as the major ones, because they tell a different story, but it’s all of the Island’s history is wrapped up in these buildings.

Photos: Ian Serjeant


{a} Neil Fantom{b} John Prebble{c} ‘Land Use on Saint Helena Island’ CNTR 04 6588{d} John Ruskin


{1} Since this photograph was taken 1, 2 & 3 Main St. have been converted into the Mantis Hotel.{2} Which used to flow down the east side of the valley. It was diverted to its present course at some unknown date.{3} A crime, by modern heritage standards!{4} Leading to many jokes about Government in St Helena being merely a façade with no core!{5} {6} See more blogs.{7} @@RepDis@@{8} And still hasn’t.{9} Interestingly it seems that, originally this building was constructed as a water cistern, storing water from ‘The Run{2} for collection by ships. Past uses, apart from for Customs, include as a studio by artist F. Oswell Jones. In the late 20th Century local kids referred to it as the Pirate’s Den.