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Jamestown History

The city where it all happened

The valley of Jamestown resembled an entrance to the infernal regions… nothing was to be seen but rows of guns and black cliffs, built as if by a demon’s hand to bind together the rocky peaks.{x}

If something happened in St Helena, it’s likely it happened in Jamestown‍‍

This page discusses the history of Jamestown (city). For the city today see our page Jamestown. For the District see our page Districts of St Helena.

SEE ALSO: For some of jamestown’s historic buildings see Historic Buildings, Jamestown.

The history of Jamestown

Jamestown, 1794
Jamestown, 1794

French map, 1690s
French map, 1690s{4}

James Bay is the most practicable anchorage on St Helena, and so what is now Jamestown is where all the earliest explorers landed. The history of Jamestown is therefore inextricably linked with the history of St Helena itself. Fernão Lopez, the island’s first exile almost certainly lived in James Valley.

Most of the island’s more notable events also took place in Jamestown. To read about these please see the overview on our page A Brief History or use the Island History index page.

If you’re interested in Jamestown’s history you might try The Jamestown Walking History Tour.

The following images show the development of Jamestown’s fortifications over the years:

The following picture, taken by John Isaac Lilley in 1862, illustrates some interesting points which are shown in the detail images below:

The last image (above), also by John Isaac Lilley from 1862, again shows work being done re-building the Lines. It also shows the old drawbridge, built when Governor Dallas moved the entrance to town to its current position in 1832, at which time this became the main entrance to Jamestown (and, indeed, to the island) and the route shown in the 1850s image above as ‘Access to Town’ fell into disuse{5}. The drawbridge was replaced by a permanent bridge in 1935, using stone recovered from the demolished Ladder Hill Observatory. The ‘Main Bastion’ is now The Mule Yard, to the left of which is the Swimming Pool. The West Bastion is now the Leisure Park, including The Coffee Shop.


Unsurprisingly, given the amount of history it has experienced, many parts of Jamestown are said to be haunted, particularly The Wharf, The Castle and the area around Pilling School (the former military barracks).

History Images

The images below illustrate many aspects of Jamestown’s history:

The following image{y} apparently shows Jamestown at the time Napoleon was here. Really? Either the (unknown) artist had never actually visited St Helena, or he’d been smoking rather a lot of something… (More fantastic representations on our page Do they mean us?.)

Then and now

We show below pairs of photographs, taken from the same spot many years apart. The cars are newer but not much else has changed. Such as has is noted with each pair.

Below: Main StreetLower Market StreetNapoleon StreetWider date-range

Main Street

Apart from the shorter spire on St. James’ Church, very little is different.

Lower Market Street

The shabby brown building (centre-left) was demolished soon after and replaced by a ‘modern’ supermarket, which later closed and was re-developed as a Department Store. The white line was removed because the road is too narrow for modern cars to pass.

Napoleon Street

At the time of writing the building at the top (‘ Col. Gilpin’s House’) is being renovated, after being derelict for more than a decade, while the one on the immediate left was in use but is now boarded up{6}. The Banyan tree growing in the Community Centre (formerly the School) was pared back to almost a stump in August 2009.

Wider date-range

Here’s a comparison over a much wider date-range, from 1866{z} and today:

Read More

Below: First EnglishmanFrom the RecordsHistoric Buildings

First Englishman

On 8th June 1588 Thomas Cavendish became the first Englishman to actually land on St Helena, during the return leg of his first attempt to circumnavigate the world (1586-1588). Arriving aboard The Desire but no longer accompanied by The Content and The Hugh Gallant (both apparently lost during the voyage) he stayed for 12 days and described the valley where Jamestown is now situated (then called Chapel Valley) as:

A marvellous fair and pleasant valley, wherein divers handsome buildings and houses were set up, and especially one which was a church, which was tiled, and whitened on the outside very fair, and made with a porch, and within the church at the upper end was set an alter. This valley is the fairest and largest low plot in all the island, and it is marvellous sweet and pleasant, and planted in every place with fruit trees or with herbs. There are on this island thousands of goats, which the Spaniards call cabritos, which are very wild: you shall sometimes see one or two hundred of them together, and sometimes you may behold them going in a flock almost a mile long.{7}

From the Records

From the Records, as reported in ‘Extracts from the records’, by Hudson Ralph Janisch, 1885{8}

‍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.

Historic Buildings


{a} ‘An Island Fortress’, by Ken Denholm, published in 2006{b} John Isaac Lilley, 1861-1866{c} Vue de la baie de Jamestown, 1705, by A. Callendar{d} UK National Archives MPH 1/251{8}{9}{10}{e} Arthur Bowes Smyth, 18th May 1789{f} Ozias Humphreys{g} William John Burchell{h} J. Graham of the St Helena Artillery.{i} By Augustus Earle (1793-1838){j} Jean-Baptiste-Henri Durand-Brager{k} From ‘Views of St Helena’, by G.W. Melliss{11}, published in 1857{l} Dr. Richard Cresswell; for a time a doctor in Jamestown, 1881{m} Domaines Français de Sainte Hélène{n} The Graphic{o} Thomas Jackson, Island Chemist{p} ‘St Helena, The Historic Island, From Its Discovery To The Present Date’, by E. L. Jackson, published in 1905{q} St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (‘SHATPS’){r} Neil Fantom{s} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{t} Paul McCartney, Hobart, Australia{12}{u} Sheila Cook{v} Hugh Crallan{w} UK National Archives MPH 1/251{8}{13}{14}{x} Count de Montholon{y} Napoleon on Saint Helena Website{8}{z} John Isaac Lilley, 1861-1866


{1} Note: no moat, which was not created until 1706.{2} Note: the new (current) entrance into town, created by Governor Dallas in 1832.{3} A higher resolution but monochrome version of this map exists.{4} We have seen this map attributed to Bellin, 1764, but we cannot accept this attribution because the Lines were established in 1706 and the Castle was rebuilt in 1708 but neither of these is shown. If this map were drawn in 1764 it was around 60 years out-of-date. It has also been attributed to Bellin with a different date - 1704 - which seems more likely.{5} Though it is still accessible, via steps from behind the new Customs Building.{6} At the time of writing it is currently understood to be for sale - quite a renovation project!{7} For his complete description see our page Famous Visitors.{8} @@RepDis@@{9} Not to be confused with the St Helena Archives.{10} Download the full map.{11} Father of John Melliss.{12} Paul’s father was the island’s doctor in the 1960s and Paul accompanied him here. Paul visited St Helena in June 2018 and kindly gave us permission to use these family photographs.{13} Not to be confused with the St Helena Archives.{14} Download the full map.


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