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Memories of St Helena

‘Well, back in the day…’

Memory is the storehouse in which the substance of our knowledge is treasured up.{c}

Short stories about St Helena supplied by people who visited here in the past

Stories are presented most-recent first…

If you made a visit to St Helena at least twenty years ago and would like to contribute a few paragraphs (and maybe some photos) for this page, please contact us. We welcome contributions from anybody{1}.

Please note: we have illustrated some of the stories with contemporary photographs, though these were not necessarily taken by the author of the story. Please also note that some of the terms used, particularly when describing the local population, would not be acceptable today, but we’ve left them unaltered as they represent the views of the authors who would not have thought them unacceptable at the time.

Late 20th Century

Below: 1970s: ‘Geodetics’ at High Knoll Fort1968: DWS Posting1966/7: VSO teacher1967: DWS posting1962: Jean Johnston’s Diary1961: Sailor aboard HMS Puma1956: An Unexpected Storm

1970s: ‘Geodetics’ at High Knoll Fort

By Steve Brown

The first team on the island that carried out satellite tracking [at High Knoll Fort] were American civilians working for the US Defence Mapping Agency (DMA) based in Washington DC. This team I believe upset the Governor at the time by cutting down the flagpole that was interfering with signal reception, and the Governor decreed that no further American teams were to be allowed on the island to carry out satellite tracking work. This I believe was around 1973 or 4.

After that the station was manned by members of 512 Specialist Team, Royal Engineers (512 STRE) known by the islanders as "Geodetics".

Geodetics ‘office’ before restoration
Geodetics ‘office’ before restoration{d}
1976 with satellite antenna
1976 with satellite antenna{e}

512 STRE was a UK forces tri-service unit commanded by a Royal Engineer (RE) Major and made up of officers from the REs, Senior NCO Field Survey Technicians from the REs, Instrument technicians from both the REME and RAF and Navy. Later on some Navy hydrographic surveyors were also attached. 512 STRE were based with DMA in Washington DC. Those on the teams were on a one year unaccompanied tour as they could be sent anywhere in the world. I arrived on the island in May 1975, I believe that we were the first complete 512 STRE team to carry out satellite tracking on the island, although there may have been one or two RE surveyors attached to the American team. We started with our equipment down in what I believe was an ammunition storage chamber, at the bottom of the old gun positions. This proved to be too damp for the paper tape system that we were using to record the data on and our team leader Captain Ross Wilson got permission for us to renovate the old observers hut next to the gun positions on the top. This is now used by Sure and others for their equipment.

I bricked up the windows and doors that we did not require, put the large stones in to reduce the original observation gap down so that two windows could be put in and put the roof on the whole building. The doors, windows and the interior work benches were made by a local carpenter. The electrical supply was put in and powered by a generator that we kept down in the storage chamber. The station remained open for at least 18 months, the longest that it was open for I believe.

The station was part of the US TRANET satellite navigation system, which used 5 satellites and the Doppler effect to fix the position of the satellites in space. Once the satellites positions were known then a reverse calculation could be carried out to fix positions on the Earth, the process could take months. No quick positioning available then as there is today with modern GPS.

I left in early July and went up to Ascension until November then Anguilla in the Caribbean followed by a spell in Cyprus. I returned to St Helena in January 1976, married a St Helenian girl in February 1976 (still married after 42 years) and we left for the UK on the Good Hope Castle in April 1976 when my tour with 512 had been completed.

The next team in built a shed for the generator up next to the ‘office’ on the top. A couple of other 512 members also married St Helenian girls they met on their time on the island. 512 STRE had nothing to do with the other RE team that went to St Helena to build the swimming pool and carry out other work.

The building shown in the photographs is now used by Sure to house transmission equipment.

1968: DWS Posting

Sent to us in October 2017 by Lem Morgan

As a young man in 1968, I was posted to DWS St Helena for one year and lived in a bungalow with two other single colleagues on the Piccolo Hill compound in Longwood. It was my first ‘posting’.

One of my colleagues, Gary Price and me presented a weekly radio programme ‘Records Round the Island’. The programme intro was Chris Barber’s ‘Whistlin’ Rufus’. What fun it was with many weekly requests. And now greetings from Mavis Thomas in Longwood to her friend Betty Williams in Hutts Gate. The requests multiplied and they all usually chose the most popular song on St Helena in 1968 - Cliff Richard’s ‘Congratulations’. Jim Reeves was another popular requested artist. Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone was the first line of a big hit of his, but on the Island, we could only dream - because we didn’t have phones.

Any visit to ‘town’ involved coming down the winding road from Longwood passing Hutts Gate and down Side Path into what was then the centre of the universe - Jamestown. The ‘Consulate’ was our watering hole and the arrival of ‘the boat’ with its mail was a massive celebratory event every month.

In our spare time we did a lot of trekking down to Ruperts, Sandy Bay and other places which were almost inaccessible, where quite often with our Saints friends, we would camp out overnight and night-fish with lines. One early morning I got back to our bungalow very early in the morning and put a small shark into the kitchen sink for our maid to attend to on her arrival at 8am. However, we had a 24-hour shift at the Radio Station and my other colleague got up for his early morning shift at 6am to turn on the tap and top up the kettle only to be greeted by a thrashing shark in the sink!

The Thomas family of Longwood Avenue have remained constant friends over all these years. Maisie’s wonderful husband Maurice passed away some years ago but their friendship and kindness has always been an absolute integral part of the ‘Saints’ make up.

Since those days I have been posted to more than 12 Embassies and High Commissions world-wide and retired after my last posting in Bangkok. Forty years later, St Helena is still fondly remembered, friendships remain after all this time and who knows, one day with the new airport now up and running I may be able to re-visit…

If you remember Lem and want to make contact please contact us - we’ll happily pass on an email.

1966/7: VSO teacher

Sent to us in February 2021 by Oliver Swingler

It’s currently snowing outside my Newcastle England flat, and I remember with nostalgia my stay on St Helena in 1966/67 as a student teacher with VSO - each term-time day at the local secondary school, then down to the wharf for a quick swim, careful to avoid the sea urchins, then often teaching evening classes, some in subjects I’d given up years before - with supper at Essex House prepared by Mrs Duncan, usually corned beef or barracuda which luckily I loved! Unfortunately, I’ve a slightly upturned nose which became a sun-trap and was constantly peeling - but otherwise the weather was a delight, the scenery beautiful, the welcome from islanders a joy!

I taught at Piling School, and I think my most memorable time was when a pupil brought a fish he’d caught that morning for a first-year biology lesson (a subject I’d never been taught!) - I dissected the fish, got half the internal organs wrong, had to keep on referring to the text-book - much to the delight of the children, that I knew even less than many of them!

One bug-bear was that text-books were from a bygone era, in particularly the history ones proclaiming how marvellous the British Empire was - so I was expected to teach about the virtues of a colonial system, built on and funded by slavery, to the descendants of slaves! Throughout my stay, I was very conscience of the racist undertones pervading much of St Helena society - including the ridiculous notion that the lighter the skin, the better the person, an idea initiated by slave-traders to justify their evil profiteering, a fiction which I suspect, despite valiant efforts to counter with such truths as Black is Beautiful, still corrodes the self-esteem of millions of children world-wide. I recall only lip-service given to a council whose members were well aware that if they ever disagreed with the Colonial Administration, the Governor’s edict was law - and a whole variety of sanctions could be used to punish any rebellious spirit.

The powers-that-be had been told about me - that I had a left-wing background and was a non-believer (I remember one boy telling me they’d been warned I was an atheist and asking what it was and telling me they’d never met one before, an alien species!), and throughout my stay the C of E vicar ostracised me, crossing over if ever we were about to meet in the street, avoiding even exchanging a polite Good morning. Partly as a response, me and my fellow VSOs (who were both church going Christians) started up a Sunday discussion group after church - and walked a careful line, interjecting views which I knew would be considered heretical in an attempt to inspire questioning minds, but trying not to go too far and be sent home on the next boat (a punishment we’d been warned of if we’d dared start up a relationship with any Saints!).

At Christmas the group put on a play written by fellow VSO Tony Watson - my main memory of which is me as the villainous pirate captain being skewered by the prince (Peter Yon I think?) three nights in a row, massively over-acting my death scene, which so frightened some young children in the front rows, they hid behind their mother’s skirts when we next met in the street. Tony’s casting specifically made sure two of us Englanders were baddies, the third John Lucas a purposely very ineffectual king, and Saints the goodies - which I don’t think went down so well with some administrators and ex-pats.

I really do miss our outings up-country, or to the neighbouring bay, playing rounders in the playground, and the Saturday evening dances (after we’d gotten over the embarrassment of the inevitable 50 year old matron making a bee-line for our teenage selves at Ladies Choice) - all of which greatly outweighed the inevitable mosquito arriving just as I was drifting off to sleep, the tetanus injection when I’d rather too enthusiastically joined a football game, and composing letters home - my parents having set up a round-robin to obscure cousins, so they had to be good - written the night before the Castle line ship came (I’m sorry to admit, usually buying a crate of beer to help give me inspiration!).

Our return home was via South Africa, where I became fully aware of the horrors of racist apartheid - while hitch-hiking I was dumped out of a car for daring to criticise the then all white southern Rhodesian regime - and the dangers of Saints having to take that route, sometimes members of the same family racially classified differently and being treated as with disdain and degradation. Racism is still a big issue in the UK, especially after the rise of Black Lives Matter; I’m not sure what the difference is between being a Colony and Overseas Territory, and I do hope St Helena has a more enlightened administration where all racist and subjugating colonial ideas are a thing of the past.

1967: DWS posting

Valerie Carne remembers her first posting in 1967 to St Helena with her husband Alan, a member of the Diplomatic Wireless Service (DWS), and their two young sons.

After an anxious year in the Service including a temporary posting to Bechuanaland, Alan finally come home and said Well I’ve got my posting. Where? I asked. My heart was in my mouth while I waited for the name. St Helena Island, he said. The atlas was out in a second. A dot in the middle of a page. My mind was full of questions. When, how long for, how do we yet there? So many, many questions.

It was certainly going to be a different sort of life. We were told that the widest part of the Island was only about five miles. The population was about 5,000 and there were about 5,000 donkeys. There was no airport because there was almost no flat land. Just large enough for one football pitch. So no airmail. Ships came about once every six weeks. Some fresh food was produced locally but was not always available. This remote British island was where Napoleon had been imprisoned. How on earth were we going to manage with our two young sons?

On board the Capetown Castle
The Johnson’s representative donating boxes of nappy liners to Valerie and her son, Adrian on board the Capetown Castle

First of all we thought about supplies to take with us. I contacted Bachelors who offered us boxes of ‘Expedition Packs’ containing a variety of fruits and vegetables. We ordered several of these. Then we bought commercial size containers of tea bags, coffee, dried milk, even dried eggs. I contacted Johnson’s and asked if I could purchase a large quantity of nappy liners (as it was long before the days of disposable nappies). They sent me six boxes of six packs, free of charge provided we agreed to have a photo in the trade magazine (we had to obtain Foreign Office permission for this.) We bought clothes, pharmaceuticals, toiletries, cosmetics and an enormous quantity of stationary and writing materials. We purchased a large wooden kennel so that our Boxer could travel with us.

The journey to our new home

The voyage was magical. Being waited on, luxurious food, a pool a crèche and a pet deck were all new experiences for us. We met Islanders on the ship and I had trouble understanding their special old-world English accent. I wondered how we could possibly cope if we had to converse with them. The ship took us directly to St Helena but because of the low-lying harbour at Jamestown we had to get a long boat to take us from the ship to the landing place. This last part of the journey was very tough because of the Cape rollers (high waves) and our son, Adam was very seasick.

Home was in Longwood, near to where Napoleon had been incarcerated. It was a fenced-off compound with an anti-donkey grid at the entrance. Inside were about a dozen rather nice bungalows built from a sort of kit, rather like a prefab. Our bungalow had a well-stocked fridge and freezer thanks to the thoughtfulness and generosity of our predecessors the late Alan Stoneham and his wife Joyce. The accommodation had all the usual rooms and a balcony, a carport and a small garden Eventually we realised that the balcony faced the wrong direction and was always in the shade and exposed to the winds. The houses appeared to have been built the wrong way round!


The first thing I missed was the daily newspapers. The ship had brought with it at least the previous week’s (if not month’s) papers, all supplied by the Office, but as Alan was one of the most junior members of staff and latest arrival on post, we were last on the list. I decided it was just too slow for me and in my first letter home I asked my mother to send me as many newspapers as she could. Imagine the shock when the next ship arrived to find that we, personally, had about 50 newspapers. My mother had sent them every day! We looked at this massive pile of papers and lost interest. I asked my mother never to send them again.

Communication with home was quite a problem until the Office allowed a telegram every fortnight. One week we could write to Alan’s mother and a fortnight later we could write to my parents. They were not long letters - just a few sentences to let our families know how we were.

Within days of arriving we started to meet the local people. Everyone was very friendly and wanting to get to know us. We were soon ‘adopted’ by Duggie Crowie, and from that moment on we never went short of anything. Whether it was eggs, vegetables, meat, or non-food items, Duggie would always help us obtain them.

Dancing and fishing

St Helena wives
St Helena wives

Most of the wives did something to help the local community. I decided to help out with the Guides and Brownies because I had done it before in England. The enthusiasm was incredible. Six-year-olds, knitted their own Brownie hats seemingly without a pattern. Fund-raising was a bit of a problem, so the children suggested having a dance. Dances were extremely popular on the Island. We managed to find a suitable date and venue and were discussing the music when several of the little girls asked if their brothers could play for it. I asked how old they were and was told anything from seven upwards. I hated to disappoint them but said we really needed an adult band. The girls made it clear that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Eventually everything was organised. On the night the girls were allowed to come along for an hour or so. Imagine my surprise when the band turned up with several boys not much older than the Brownies and all family members. They always play at dances Miss!

Fishing was one of the main hobbies. It could be spear fishing or rod and line. It was always another excuse for a party. We usually took out a boat early in the morning and would join about 20 other enthusiasts. We often took the children with us. When we arrived at the chosen spot, the younger men would go off with their spear guns while the more mature and the women would sit on the rocks, sometimes with just a piece of string and a hook. The women would always bring some large cooking pots and lots of rice, curry powder, bacon, and herbs, spices and anything else they happened to fancy. When the fish were cleaned they were cooked with all these other ingredients into what was called ‘plo’ I don’t know how they spelt it but it was a form of pillau. It was quite delicious.

All in all it was definitely a unique experience with its highs and its lows. It is over 40 years since we were posted there. Last year one of the communicators on post with us, Dick Young, died. His widow Cynthia held a reception/wake after the funeral service. Alan and I sat down at a table and so many ex-St Helena people joined to, in the end another table had to be brought to accommodate us all. Whatever the island did to and for us all we shared this strange isolation with each other and became lifelong friends, almost like a family. On this occasion, we had lost a member of that family. Despite another 30 years of postings there has never been another quite like The Island and the relationships we formed there.

1962: Jean Johnston’s Diary

At the beginning of 1962 a film crew, comprising Charles Frater, Bob Johnston and Esdon Frost, came to make a film about St Helena. Bob Johnson brought his wife, Jean who kept a diary during the visit. Extracts from this diary appear below. Many of the still photographs they took, sound recordings they made and some extracts from the film appear elsewhere on this website{f} and some more are shown here (right). The film, called ‘Island of Saint Helena’, is available on YouTube™ www.youtube.com/‌watch?v=YngeIbFUEVw.

THE JOURNEY, 28th [December 1961]: Due to leave at 2:00pm (Kenya Castle). Actually we leave at 9am the following day. Then promptly return to Cape Town with engine trouble. Supposed to leave Sunday 31st at 7am. Eventually leave at midday!

THE ARRIVAL: The shape looms on the horizon. Overcast and certainly grim. I imagine myself to be João da Nova and Napoleon. The Island takes shape. Is it a mistake to read about a place first? Mr Cross A.D.C. comes aboard to check us out before landing. Suspicious of our intent. We have been expected and are at pains to insist we do not plan to make a political statement film. Why should we want to? Going off is more perilous than one supposed. We have so much clobber including loose fruit in Charles’ hat. Sea gushes through ‘Needle’ The waves are rough. We try and try again. At last I am off with a jump and great assistance. The jump is fun.

FIRST VIEWS: We walk up to the town while waves crash lacy foam onto the road. Tree, moat, castle then town, all as expected. Tourists and sailors crowd town and hotel, the latter intent on getting drunk. Post Office, souvenir sellers, much confusion. We feel superior because we are staying. Hotel and surrounding buildings charming. Down to harbour to watch activity; accosted all the way but left alone when explaining we are not trippers. Drinks in courtyard, dinner, walk in town, delightful. Christmas decorations, neat houses, artificial flowers on steps.

GETTING ACQUAINTED: We soon fit into different lives so easily. Largest shorts in the world! Learn street names. Islanders very friendly - Good Evening - Good Night continually. White Ants attacking antique furniture. Large trees under which the enslaved were reputedly sold. Whitewashed cliffs (Hearty Welcome to Royal Family; God save the Queen; Welcome the Duke - 1957). The seasons are referred to by visiting ships’ names - ‘Warwick’ (Warwick Castle), ‘Kenya’ (Kenya Castle), ‘Durban’ (Durban Castle) & ‘Braemar’ (Braemar Castle). Bathrooms are at far end of rickety passage. Island of cats - Jack the hotel cat sleeps on a packing case. Fourteen shillings for jeans in the ‘Star’. Up the stairs and through locked doors to fitting room. A handsome gilt mirror. After lunch stroll up Napoleon Street and are offered lift by Mr Johns who is going to play golf. Longwood is small. Drinks at Bishop Beardmore’s. Cider and cheese straws. Quaint names: Nosegay Lane, Narra Backs. Noise, children playing. People sit on the pavement steps. War Memorial and Donkeys.

EVENING DANCE: We are the first to arrive. Dancing to unrecognisable National Anthem as Governor Alford and his Lady arrive. Island girls are pretty and smart. English Ladies are most unfriendly. Only four tunes played over and over. Clap and the same tune again. Take your partners for the Valeta.

SHOPPING: Market - mainly bananas on sale, otherwise pretty poor selection. Mr Stevens, the butcher, known as the tyrant Stevens. Notices in shop: Bring clean container; Do not crowd the meat shop; Examine meat carefully; Please eat Pork.

VISITING: Meet E.A. Thorpe, 87 years, leading citizen with car and chauffeur. Lives at Oak Bank, an elegant old house. Dining room table stands in polish tins of paraffin to avoid white ants. Meet Edwin Thorpe. Beautiful drive: ferns, flax, flowers. House built by The East India Company, 250 years old. Grand but shabby. Addresses us: Madame, Miss, Sir, Squire. Biscuits, ham, sandwiches, ‘paste’ sandwiches, wonderful tea and cake. Thorpe knew woman who saw Napoleon. Call at Miss Pritchard to leave note. Narrow gate, bougainvillea, jacaranda, oleander. Miss Pritchard surprised at Governor’s snub. Pritchards came in 1666 - she is the last. Invited to see Salvation Army band at 7:00pm in Market Square on Saturday. Captain du Plessis, born in Brakpan. We pass Plantation House on the way back, very beautiful. Look down the Ladder at a cardboard little town. We are told that boys used to slide down the ladder with tureens of soup on their tummies for sentries below. Children’s Parade, Friendly Society band plays a waltz. Stand on step opposite and are offered cushions by friendly man. Salvation Army girls play trumpets - I join in the singing.

SUNDAY MORNING WALK: Up Ladder with Charles to investigate fort at top. 1902 on keystone. We are joined by 3 little girls. Ethel (‘Effel’) is the spokes lady, Gaye and Souree. Walk to rifle range and back through cactus. Ethel, barefoot, wanders along with us singing ‘I don’t know why I love you like I do’ and ‘Sailor when you cross the sea, promise you’ll come back to me’. Walls built of bottles. Flower-boxes built on gun emplacements. View forever out to sea.

SUNDAY EVENING: Rival priests go by. Many ardent church-goers. Inhabitants sit on the steps; so do we. Fr. Flint tells us the weather vane on the St. James’ Church spire was once a fish. We find its battered remains in the churchyard. Later we see him with cassock rolled up changing a tyre.

VISIT TO FLAX MILLS: flax mill (Thorpes); Fairyland; Bamboo Hedge. Spectacular scenery. Black tea, bread and margarine for lunch. Donkey train carries bundles of flax. All the peaks come into view; not a common sight. Girl gathering flax is called Daphne Fowler.

SUNDAY 14th: St. Matthew’s for the parade of Church Lads Brigade. Rain, wind and chilly. Beautiful scenery. Lads in blue with white sashes look fine coming along the road by Hutts Gate. Bishop arrives with a suitcase full of mumbo-jumbo and flunky. Samuels runs out to carry it. The S. African anglers spend their day lounging in the gloomy lounge, listening to the radio, drinking beer and telling dirty jokes, all except one nice young member who has started a torrid romance with pretty auburn-haired local girl. What about when he has to go home to SA, I wonder? Excited to see a ship sail by, but apparently it is a pretty common experience; just wants to see the island.

MONDAY 15th: Met Anthony, with a donkey called Girlie, pronounced ‘Gollie’. Walk up to The Heart Shaped Waterfall, beautiful valley, patches of cultivation, terns fly past, light rain or spray. Car breaks down but is fixed with screwdriver and beer tin. Magnificent garden with grove of moonflower. Another wonderful tea, St Helena tomato paste, pancakes, home-made butter and plum jam plus fruit cake.

WEDS. 17th: High Knoll is impressive, so ghostly and forbidding. Car breaks down but is fixed again (overheating). A glorious day, the first and Jamestown looks charming in the sunshine. In the blue, blue sea the shape of the SS Papanui wreck shows clearly in the bay. Statice and everlasting grow amongst the ruins of High Knoll. Two small girls follow us about. Back down again we swim, delightful but deep water. At night Charles and Bob rig up a floodlight and blow the town’s electricity. We sit on steps opposite.

FRIDAY 19th: Walk along coastal path to Ruperts Bay, taking Anthony and his donkey ‘Gollie’ to carry the equipment. Mundens Fort, the place where the Bahraini prisoners stayed, is spectacularly situated above the glassy green and brilliantly blue sea. It is very hot along the cliffs. A wonderful swim after lunch. Prepare for the Young Farmers’ dance. Dance held at Guinea Grass, big crowd in small hall decorated with Union Jacks and geraniums. We recorded the band, sounds mainly of accordion and fiddle. The Paul Jones is the favourite dance. Difficult to dance with islanders who do most peculiar steps. Seems to be quite customary for women to dance together.

SATURDAY 20th: Dress up for Governor’s invitation to lunch at Plantation House. We arrive a bit early and admire Jonathan, the tortoise. Lady Alford offers him a banana. Governor and Tony Cross arrive in his open car with flag flying, a nice touch. Pleasant lunch with conversation turning to birds.

TUESDAY 23rd: Napoleon’s Tomb. Beautiful valley, begonias, lilies, nasturtiums, geraniums, periwinkle and cannas. Tricolour flies. Prosperous Bay. We get rather lost in an eroded and completely different type of country (Fisher’s Valley) and our car breaks down but soon mended by the boys. Home to find George Eastwood having a party which is gay and goes on till midnight. We buy china lavatory chain pulls at the ‘Emporium’. Mangoes and granadillas hanging like grapes. People speak of white aunts.

WEDS 24th: We set off to climb Diana’s Peak. A most exhausting climb but beautiful. Arriving in a state of collapse we discover that we are on Actaeon instead. Falling, bleeding, slipping and sliding. Rock ridge road. Puncture with loud explosion. Helpful people lift the car as no jack. A lovely stretch of road with a huge shabby lovely old farm house at the top of the road. Atmosphere quite Italian.

SATURDAY 27th: We discover that there is a local broadcasting station - ‘The Ham of Half Tree Hollow’. Francis Plain, rather stinky from flax mill above. Walk to Heart Shaped Waterfall; super view down. Cinema in the evening. To the amazement of ‘the quality’ we sit downstairs, feel a bit scratchy. Audience laughs uproariously. Down to the docks afterwards in the dark to watch the young men going away for Ascension Island. Many have guitars, some tearful farewells.

WEDNESDAY 31st: Gilbert Martineau{2} phones, he is taking his speech very seriously. He meets us at Longwood House and conducts us around. Gives permission for filming of prints. We go to his quarters to read speech and listen to suggested music. His house is elegant. Meet mother who speaks little English and knits constantly. Rush up to school atop Ladder{3} after lunch. Principal Mr. Broadway very helpful; subjects include singing, dancing and composition. Standing at the top of Ladder Hill Road we see everyone go by. Little Joyce poses sweetly also a very small Jackie Kwan with front teeth missing. Cactus country.

SATURDAY 2nd FEB: Film the boys’ skiffle band at foot of ladder and boys slide down expertly. WMCA march through town; sashes, banners and medals. Men in sober suits and hats. Town very busy and gay.

WEDNESDAY: A scramble of packing and saying goodbye. Very very hot. We and many locals are in tears. Mrs Richards gives me a goodbye kiss and a present. Out to the ship (Durban Castle). Kennedy and Geo. Moss leave with the stevedores in the last boat. Bob Kuhn falls off the gangplank into the sea; dragged out laughing. All the Benjamins weep. We stand sadly at the stern as the ship leaves at dusk. Our last sight is the headlights of Geo. Moss’ car climbing Side Path, then darkness.

Contemporary photos


1961: Sailor aboard HMS Puma

Ex Able Seaman Gunner Control Third Class David John Britton D/053652 RN. GSM Borneo, Pingat Jasa Malaysia writes:

It was sometime in October 1961{19}, HMS Puma had left Togo, Lome, to steer South to St Helena. Famous to all who had an interest in Napoleon…unknown to a 17 year-old Ordinary Seaman of the Royal Navy.

First we had to enter King Neptune’s Domain. His most sacred Domain at Longitude 0 and Latitude 0 the very centre of the Plant Earth. The Bears had to catch me first, and we had awnings rigged all around the ship, which meant I had extra space to run and would not be easily cornered. That is until someone shouted an order to dismount, not as polite as that but I had to surrender. A mouthful of soap and a charge of Being a ‘Silly Ordinary Seaman’ I was sentenced, to become a Trust worthy Golden Shellback, which sounded much better than an ordinary landlubber. Onward to St Helena.

Two days later, at evening we dropped anchor. Foggy dismal weather did not do any favours for the island’s scenery. I had seen a black and white photograph of Stonehenge look more attractive. We were eventually allowed ashore, to be greeted by no one. We could have been a raiding party, but couldn’t see anything to raid. We were looking for a nightclub or a disco bar, like there was on the rock of Gibraltar. The jetty was not designed to encourage people to land.

After a short time of some adventurous sailors attempting to climb Jacob’s ladder, and complaining there was nothing at the top, a local appeared out of the dark and opened a door in the cliff face, and served us with One bottle of Beer Only. No one can remember how much it cost but it tasted like Tiger beer; it was probably IPA of sorts. That was the high event of the day; not another soul was seen.

Not allowed ashore the next day except to pick up The Governor{5}, his wife, and friends. The captain and wardroom staff were going to entertain them. You can imagine their delight, especially the ladies; they had a reason to put their best frocks on. They looked terrific for mature women, from my point of view, but long gowns were not designed for rough boat rides. The ladies did not mind at all and it was an honour to look after them and make sure they didn’t get wet. I was Bowman, and showed off my Boat Hook skills, letting go and coming alongside the ship, which was a lot easier than shore side. We had the Accommodation ladder rigged, which meant a clear set of steps to climb instead of a ladder. The ladies thought the Puma looked wonderful.

Hours later we took the party back. On the way I spotted some Dolphins doing what they do best and I trained the search light on them. The coxswain turned into them and followed them. The ladies shrieked with excitement. The Dolphins enjoyed the appreciation.

Helping them back up the rusty ladder, after the governor’s wife threw her shoes onto the jetty first, she turned to me quite confident of her hold on the ladder with a beautiful smile and thanked me for a wonderful time. I thought she was very kind to say so. I hope she remembers the ‘Rub with Nature’ as well as I do. Both ladies had never been on the sea before let alone seen the Dolphins and up close.

That was my memory of St Helena; not a lot but now I realise it was worth writing about and I wish I could be on the island as it is now, to see properly what we were not allowed to see in 1961.


1956: An Unexpected Storm

Story told by Owen George, working on St Helena as Emergency Electrical/Mechanical Engineer for Government of St Helena, published in the St Helena News 20th April 2001{6}

One night in June 1956, in reasonably calm weather, 4 boats set out to fish for Mackerel in James Bay for the Island’s consumption.

During the early hours of the morning a sudden windstorm blew at gale forces of between 6-7 and caught the crews of the boats completely off guard. The nearest boat to the shore, No 19, stayed anchored, but the other three boats, Nos 1, 32 & 24, were further out and had to take evasive action, almost to their peril, by trying to row to safety.

The conditions overcame them and they became distressed by being blown even further out to sea to a distance of 5 miles.

Albert Fowler noticed their struggle for survival at 5 o’clock that morning while descending Jacob’s Ladder on his way to work, and instead of leaving the Ladder at halfway (his usual route) he continued to the bottom to report what he had seen to the night Constable, Ted Hudson.

After confirming what was reported, Constable Hudson immediately roused the Chief of Police, Superintendent Charles Osborne, who without hesitation rang me, explained the situation and asked if I could assist because I happened to be the Emergency Electrical/Mechanical Engineer for PWD. I immediately proceeded to the Wharf on my allocated motorcycle where I was met by Supt. Osborne who explained more about the crisis we had on our hands.

I agreed to help but the only boat available was the Cairo, a 40-seat open lifeboat from the SS City of Cairo, which had been sunk by a submarine during World War 2. The boat was powered by an 8hp Morris Marine engine. I asked for volunteers and two fishermen, Percy Yon and Harold Mercury were willing to assist but not in the Cairo as the boat was not powerful enough to tow the boats back to safety. I agreed but maintained that we could save the lives of 12 fishermen even if the boats were lost. On this basis they agreed.

Before we set off I asked the Supt. of Police to contact Cyril (Siddy) Young, Foreman of the Wharf at the time, and notified him of the situation and told him that that we would need more help.

This done we set off from the steps and headed for the farthest boat checking the other three on our way and assuring them that help was on its way. Boat No 19 with Charles Stevens, John Caswell and Julius Fowler on board; then boat No 1 with Charles Henry, Fred Thomas and Duncan on board. We then proceeded to check boat No 32 in which Hopey Joshua, Fred Drabble and Billy Cranfield. The boat had a 5hp Seagull engine, which was swamped and would not start. The most distant boat was No 24, which was really in trouble and it should be borne in mind that being the farthest out the crew, Humphrey Benjamin, Sam Bennett and Swainie had suffered the brunt of the storm and were fighting a losing battle with one good oar and two half broken ones. It was only a matter of time before our worst fears for their safety would have been realised.

We managed to put a towline aboard and towed our way towards boat 32, where we were spared the decision of taking both crews aboard and losing the other two to the sea as the Yellowfin with Siddy and Dan Francis aboard came into sight. We managed to hold on until she came along side and the lines were transferred. They promptly set off in the direction of the two remaining boats and eventually towed all 4 back to safety. The Yellowfin then turned to our aid but we had made good albeit slow progress in heading for safety ourselves. However we did experience a difficult moment when a freak wave struck the bow of the Cairo broadside, turning it at 90° to the weather. Luckily there was a brief lull during which time we were able to correct our course.

By the time we had navigated between West Rocks and Breakneck Point the Yellowfin had us in tow and we headed for the head buoy. Suddenly the Yellowfin’s engine packed up and we rapidly switched the towropes and the Cairo towed Yellowfin to her moorings.

Both boats were secured and their crews safely transported ashore by dinghy where we were questioned by the Doctor and given some liquid refreshment after which everyone went their separate ways and back to their respective jobs; mine at the time was installing the starboard navigation lights at Ladder Hill Fort.

Today only Charles Henry (Boer) and myself are left to tell the tale of a job which had to be done. And by the Grace of God and the prompt actions of Albert Fowler and Supt. Osborne - it was.

World War 2

Below: 1944: Poem by servicemen stationed here1943: The Guano Trip1941/3: Memories of the St Helena Coastal Battery R.A.1941: Former Governor’s Tale1939: HMS Neptune and the Cable & Wireless staff

1944: Poem by servicemen stationed here

This poem was first printed in May 1944 in ‘The Bush Telegraph’ (a.k.a. St Helena Command Magazine), for circulation amongst the troops:

Come to sunny St Helena, gem of the southern seas.
Come and hear the palm trees whisper, as they sway in the perfumed breeze.

Come sail o’er the sparkling water. Come swim in the blue lagoon.
Let some dark-eyed beauty teach you how to love ’neath a tropic moon.

Come stroll along lovely highways to magnificent Sandy Bay.
Or over the hills to Longwood where an Emperor passed away.

Come and climb green Diana’s Peak and lofty Flagstaff Hill.
Come where the snow-white lilies grow, by every stream and rill.

Come visit our Super Cinema and admire all the latest stars.
Come sample our fine liqueurs and wine and forget about distant wars.

Come see the sweet Eves in this Eden. But beware lest they lead you astray.
These beautiful maids are on parade. They whisper so softly Yes - eh?

Come to dusty St Helena, island of bugs and fleas.
Come and taste our sawdust sausages. And our putrid M. & Vs{7}.

Come look in vain for the palm trees, for the ruddy things ain’t there.
And the tropic moon shines down instead on a waste of ‘Prickly Pear’.

The roads are zig-zag mountain tracks that make even the donkeys bray.
And Longwood is as cold and bare as it was in old Nappy’s day.

Come and climb Jacobs Ladder at eleven O’clock each night.
It’s bad enough when you’re sober, but just try it when you’re tight.

The pictures change but once a week and as for the local bars.
You can get beer, but it’s mighty dear, and you drink out of old Jam-Jars.

You may have your sweet Eves and your Eden. All I say is Roll on the day.
When waving ‘Goodbye’ we will tumble aboard a homeward bound ship in the Bay.

Well, mates, I’ve just been fooling. Now I’ll tell you the truth and say.
That all we sailors are agreed. This island is - O.K.

1943: The Guano Trip

By Robert Stephen, a serviceman stationed here in World War 2, from his memoirs ‘Around the Atlantic’, reproduced in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{4} #46, 2017{6}

Photos by Robert
Ladder Hill Fort
Robert (3rd from left) & colleages
Donkeys in Jamestown, 1943

One day, the manager of the Department of Agriculture rang up to ask if any of the lads would care to accompany him on a trip which he was going to make to some small islands, with the object of obtaining a supply of Guano for the Department’s gardens and experimental grounds at Scotland. There was also the possibility of birds’ eggs. Proctor and myself were the only ones to whom it appealed. It was to be an all-day job, and we left the station, at 5:30am next morning, when Mr Halcro called for us with his car.

When we arrived at the wharf, we found the fishermen busy landing their night’s catch of tunny. Although they appeared regularly on our menu, it was the first time that I had seen the whole fish. They were as large as a small porpoise, and are fished for in about ninety fathoms, although less than twenty fathoms of line is used. The bait is a whole mackerel.

We set off in a large motorboat, which towed two smaller boats, and slipped quickly along until we reached Sugar Loaf Point, where we began to feel the wind and sea. The motor boat Cairo, which was a large ship’s life-boat, a relic of the torpedoed SS City of Cairo and built to carry eighty persons, was not much use as it was very light, and the screw, being so near the surface, was as often in the air as in the water. A grizzled old islander was in charge, and although he had us all perched in the very stern, it was very slow progress. After fighting for a long time to round the Barn Point we were congratulating ourselves that another few minutes would see us past the worst, when we became aware of frantic shouts from the boats astern. On looking back we saw that the tow rope of the last boat had parted. All the occupants standing up waving, their arms in the air. There was nothing to do but to swing round and go back for them, then start the struggle all over again.

Finally rounding this point, we had the wind abeam, and after three hours, arrived at our destination, considerably behind schedule. There were two rocky islets, and we hove to in the lee of the larger of the two - George Island - which lay about a mile offshore.

Three men were landed, by no means an easy undertaking, as the small boat was rising in the surf, as the men, standing in the stern, were waiting an opportunity to leap for a small ledge, which was the only possible landing place. All safely ashore, a supply of sacks were thrown to them, and we ran inshore to the other island, called Shore Island, which was much smaller, but higher, in fact, what we would call a ‘clett’. Here, landing was easier, and after the men were ashore, we anchored the Cairo and went fishing in one of the small boats.

A large stone, with net worked around it, served as an anchor, and we had a good laugh when the old St Helenian heaved it over the side with only a fathom or so of rope attached. He at once blamed this on his dusky mate, and a heated altercation ensued. A large ballast stone was then put into a sack, and this time, carefully bent on to the proper rope. The water was not very deep, as we were quite near the cliffs.

Another islander had come along for a day’s fishing. He was apparently one of the better class, and was fairly white. A very large hat, and a pair of ancient white breeches, were the most striking portions of an altogether old world attire. I was reminded that pictures of Napoleon always showed him in white breeches, and wondered if these could possibly have survived for the necessary 120 years?

Settling himself to his task, he opened a tin of bait, consisting of a mixture of small crabs, mackerel, and squid’s tentacles, all in an advanced state of putrefaction. This smell, coupled with the fact that we were to leeward of the guano island, proved too much for Proctor, who lost all further interest in the proceedings, and was sick for the remainder of the day.

We had very little luck, and our catch consisted of some small grey fish, which the islanders called ‘old wives’, and one conger or moray. This fish, which is yellowish with brown spots, is as active as a snake when brought into a boat, has poison glands connected to its needle like teeth, and the bite being dangerous, is treated with great respect. They would appear to be good eating, as we frequently met fishermen carrying one home for the ‘pot’. The ‘old wives’ were of the shape of a John Dory and had very small mouths and did not seem able to swallow the bait, so although we had plenty of bites, the combined catch was very small. Considering the state of our bait, it was perhaps surprising that we caught anything at all.

On the island nearby, the men were getting on with the job of collecting the guano from the rock ledges. Ropes were made fast to the summit of the rock, and men lowered down in boatswain’s chairs, while their sacks, their mouths kept open with wooden hoops, hung beside them. As the guano was removed periodically there was no great accumulation, and it was a tedious job. About three o’clock they started to get the full sacks into the boat. This was also a laborious task, as the bags had to be lowered by ropes, and then taken to an overhanging point from which they were let down into the small boat. This took some time as the boat was being swirled about all over the place. This accomplished, and the men taken off, we set out for George Island.

We were already much later than had been intended. However, ‘more haste, less speed’. We were hardly underway, when there was a terrific bang, followed by silence, soon broken by the imprecations of old Jack abusing the occupants of the small boat who had allowed their towrope to foul our propeller. Futile prodding with boat hooks and knives lashed to sticks followed, while the small boat kept us from going ashore in the stiff breeze now blowing. Finally, the dusky engineer had to strip and go over the side, clearing the screw, but getting a good sousing in the process. The old engine had got a severe shake, and it was continually on the verge of stopping, as we slowly made our way out against the wind to the other island. The unfortunate engineer was still stark naked, and shivering like a rat in the chilly breeze, being unable to leave it long enough to slip on his shirt and trousers.

Reaching George Island, we found the surf greatly increased, and I wondered how they were to get the men and bags taken off. After struggling for a quarter of an hour all they had succeeded in throwing into the small boat, was one sack. Old Jack, after watching impatiently, demanded to be put aboard the other boat to take charge of operations. However, it was still no good, and in the end, the bags had to be carried to the opposite side of the island where the rocks were much higher but more perpendicular. It was, of course, the weather side of the island, and it often seemed as if the boat was bound to be dashed into the rock. Time and again the islanders backed her in, only to pull out again, but at last, by taking advantage of every opportunity, all the bags were thrown in, and the men, with a short run, leaped outwards and downwards into the tossing boat and the waiting arms of their companions. It was now after 6:30pm and nearly dark.

With the wind behind us we made better time on the homeward run, although the engine continually threatened to pack up. Towards nine o’clock we saw the twinkling lights of Jamestown, and unloading our cargo by moonlight, we set off for home. Mr Halcro was not too pleased with the result of the day’s work, and mentioned that the hire of the Cairo had cost him five pounds. At the same time, he said, the guano was absolutely essential for growing certain things. I must say that I rather agreed with one of the men who had been on George Island, when he remarked dryly, as we made our way towards Mr Halcro’s car It’s a lot of risk to take for a few bags of shit.

1941/3: Memories of the St Helena Coastal Battery R.A.

By William Akam; Published in the ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{4} #17, Spring 1998{6}

I arrived on St Helena about June 1941, as a young Gunner on the S.S. Lycaon. This ship was an old coal burner and would have been scrapped years earlier if there hadn’t been a war. We had left Birkenhead and joined a convoy in the Clyde, from where we sailed across the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we recoaled. We then sailed south, down the eastern coast of the U.S.A. to Castries, in the island of St. Lucia, where we again recoaled.

Then we headed South East across the South Atlantic for St. Helena. The decrepit steamer broke down at least once on this part of the journey and the ship’s butcher used a strong rope with a large hook and lump of meat to catch a shark, about five feet long. The ship had a Chinese crew who took the fins, which they hung up and dried, and the backbone, which they made into a walking stick by inserting a steel rod through the vertebrae and fixing a handle. The journey had taken us six weeks.

We were mainly conscripts, with a few regulars, who replaced the Army Reservists. These had been called up on the outbreak of the war to replace the small detachment of Royal Marines who maintained the two 6 inch guns in peacetime.

One of the first meals we had on reaching the Island was tunny, ‘chicken of the sea’ which after the austere diet we had been used to, seemed delicious. However, after we had eaten it almost daily for months on end, we could hardly look at it.

I was made the Battery Clerk for the St Helena Coast Battery R.A:, which involved being occasionally on night duty. This meant sleeping on the floor of the Battery Office, which was infested with cockroaches. We used to kill them with a broom and in the morning we would sweep them into a pile, out of the office. In front of the Master Gunner’s Office in the Barrack Square on Ladder Hill was a small raised bed of earth. I obtained permission to use it, and grew tomatoes, from plants I obtained from the Islanders.

When we were not on duty during the afternoon, we would swim from the quay steps in Jamestown. During the rainy season, the overflow from the water tanks on the hill behind the Barracks would be piped into the small concrete swimming pool which the Royal Engineers had made in the past. We could then use it for swimming for a few weeks until the water became too dirty and was released over the cliff into the sea. On one occasion a small party of us had gone to Ruperts Bay to swim. One of our party, Gunner Percy Dungey, collapsed. We took him to the R.A.M.C. Hospital in Jamestown, but he was dead on arrival.

Some of us would also play tennis on the concrete court made by the Royal Engineers on the top of the cliff. The local boys used to collect the tennis balls which had fallen on the shore below and sell them back to us. A few of us who like walking would explore the Island in our .free time and I remember walking to Diana’s Peak, Sandy Bay and many other places. On one occasion a friend and I obtained all night passes and went fishing from the rocks. We were guided by two local fishermen, who provided us with bamboo rods and lines, and we caught several fish, including a six foot conger eel.

Our diet was very boring, usually either tunny or army preserved rations. Occasionally we would have other fish, such as conger eel, which was delicious, barracuda or a small red fish called ‘soldiers’. I remember on one occasion, seeing four Islanders walking up the road from Jamestown to Ladder Hill carrying a turtle on their shoulders, tied to stakes, which I believe was sold to the Sergeants’ Mess.

While we were there, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Tanker Darkdale was anchored in Jamestown Bay and was used to refuel the Royal Navy South Atlantic Squadron. We used to see the crew walking up and down the deck of the Darkdale. At night we could see the red glow of their cigarettes as they walked along the deck and we often thought the ship would blow up. One night it did catch fire and sank with the loss of all the crew, except the Captain and Chief Engineer, who were ashore at the time. We were uncertain as to the cause of the disaster, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that it was revealed that the ship had been torpedoed by a German U Boat. The Captain had been a naval cadet in the German Navy before the War, and had sailed round the world in a Sail Training Ship. It had called at St Helena on its journey, and the Captain had remembered the Jamestown anchorage.

The Garrison had its own team of fishermen from the locally enlisted Battery who provided us with tunny and other fish, and about the same time as the Darkdale sank they hurriedly returned to Jamestown one day, having declared that a submarine had surfaced not far from them. One Sunday night several of the Battery were attending the evening service in St. James’ Church in Jamestown, when the service was stopped and all troops were told to report back to Barracks. Apparently an armed German Ship had been sunk by the British Cruiser H.M.S. Dorsetshire in the South Atlantic, and the German crew had been last seen heading for the Island in their boats. Additional barbed wire defences were erected at all the possible landing points on the Island and look-outs were doubled, but nothing was ever seen of the survivors of the sinking.

We were on the Island when some of the survivors of the sinking of the liner City of Cairo landed after weeks at sea. The ship had been returning from India with the wives and children of ex-pats. Shortly after leaving Cape Town the liner had been torpedoed. Those who survived the torpedoing had taken to the boats, heading for St Helena. Many did not survive the journey, but two or three boats did reach the Island, with the remaining survivors in a terrible state. Among the survivors were a number of lascars from the crew, and the Battery was called upon to send the small square mattresses, known as Biscuits, three of which formed our beds, to Jamestown, for the use of the survivors. Meanwhile we were issued with replacements from the Battery Stores. After two or three weeks our bedding was invaded by a plague of bed-bugs. We had to go all over our metal beds with blow-lamps and wash down all the new Biscuits with a strong solution of disinfectant.

In order to provide a suitable festive lunch for our first Christmas on the Island, our C.O., Major Logan, bought a number of piglets from the Islanders. These were kept in the Barrack Square at the top of Ladder Hill and fed with the swill from the Cook House. One of the Gunners had been a Butcher in civilian life and when Christmas arrived he slaughtered the animals and prepared them for the Battery Cooks. A delicious meal was had by all.

Although the Coast Battery was there mainly to protect the Cable Station, defences of the Island were in a parlous state. There were the two 6 inch Naval Guns on Ladder Hill and a Search-light Battery at Mundens. Much of the ammunition for the guns was out of date. We were critically short of small arms. The rifle I was issued with on arriving at the Island was a single shot model made in Australia in 1872. We had no machine or Bren gun and only one Lewis Gun. We would frequently have field days when we had ‘T.E.W.Ts’ - Tactical Exercises Without Troops, and these would invariably end with the order to Roll stones down on the Enemy.

The Garrison which had arrived in 1941 was due to return to the U.K. in 1943, but there was a shortage of ships. A Manchester Liner called the Manchester Division called at the Island without its usual complement of Maritime Anti-Aircraft Gunners. I was one of the lucky few to be repatriated on this boat and we sailed via Ascension Island to Freetown, where we picked up a convoy to the U.K. The ship had not been fumigated properly at its last port of call, and was infested with cockroaches. The Anti-Aircraft Gunners had a cabin at the stem of the ship where they made their tea etc., and in order to ensure that our bread was out of reach of the cockroaches, it was hung up by a piece of string from a hook in the ceiling of the cabin.

1941: Former Governor’s Tale

In 1941 Former Governor Henry Gallwey wrote an article about his time here, ‘A Sojourn in St. Helena’ for the Journal of the Royal African Society, which included the following story:

Henry Gallwey
Former Governor Henry Gallwey

In the churchyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral, just behind Government House, is a grave around which hangs a most amazing story. It is the resting place of an English missionary who died at sea between Cape Town and St Helena, and who had expressed a wish to be buried in good English earth.

This man, who was not blessed with good health, and his wife went to South Africa as missionaries some seventy years ago. After a few years in that country the husband became so ill that he and his wife decided to return to England. They were not blessed with much of this world’s goods, and could not afford to travel home by steamship. They accordingly sailed from Cape Town in a sailing ship, which craft was calling at St Helena, about seventeen days’ sail.

After being a week or ten days at sea the husband died. The wife implored the Master of the vessel not to bury her husband at sea but to keep the body aboard until they arrived at St Helena. The Master told her that he could not under any circumstances comply with her request, as his crew would never consent to sail with a corpse. The carpenter accordingly made a rough coffin, and the remains were committed to the Deep.

About eight or ten days later the ship arrived at St Helena, but the body had done better, the coffin having been washed ashore at Sandy Bay the day before!

One of the curious facts of this amazing occurrence is that the south shore of the Island is a succession of high rocky cliffs, Sandy Bay being the only beach in the long stretch of coast. Had the coffin hit at any other spot, it would simply have been broken to pieces against the rocks.

The missionary consequently had his wish and was buried in English soil. The story sounds like a traveller’s yarn of the most doubtful veracity. All the facts, however, are detailed on the tombstone, giving dates of sailing, death, burial, and arrival at the island. A Mr. Pooley, who had been American Consul in St Helena for many years, and who was there when I first went to the Island, told me that the whole story was perfectly true and that he was actually present when the widow identified the body of her husband. So that’s that!

A variation of this story appears in ‘Curious Little World’{8} and the gravestone can apparently be found in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the inscription:

In memory of The Rev. J.H. Beck who died on board the brig Jane, 11th March 1851 whilst on voyage for his health. His remains most unexpectedly drifted and were washed on shore at St Helena.

1939: HMS Neptune and the Cable & Wireless staff

A story told by Tim Cattley’s father, from December 1939.

During World War 1 the German Navy decided to attack the Cable & Wireless station on Cocos, to sever the ‘Victorian Internet’ and thus disadvantage the British forces. The attack succeeded in damaging the station but not in putting it completely out of action, and the attacking German vessel, the Emden, was sunk in the ensuing battle. All of which has no direct relation to St Helena except that, in 1939 the Cable & Wireless staff worldwide, including on St Helena, felt somewhat exposed and jumpy about the possibility that Germany might well try the same tactics again. It must be remembered that international communications technology had hardly progressed in the inter-war years and long distance contacts were still only available via the subterranean telegraph cable.

One night in December 1939, late one evening and completely out of the blue with no warning, a brilliant searchlight-type beam of light from the sea but quite close inshore suddenly started sweeping over the houses in Jamestown and also up both valley sides. The alarm was immediately raised, everybody assuming it was a German warship about to launch an attack. Everybody scrambled for cover.

HMS Neptune
HMS Neptune

Then, as suddenly as it had arrived, the searchlight was extinguished and in its place a Morse signal light started winking, spelling out:

A Very Merry Christmas to you all from HMS Neptune

Fresh trousers all around, one would imagine!

The Wikipedia records:

In December 1939, several months after war was declared, Neptune was patrolling in the South Atlantic in pursuit of German surface raider pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Spee. Neptune, with other patrolling Royal Navy heavy units, was sent to Uruguay in the aftermath of the Battle of the River Plate. However, she was still in transit when the Germans scuttled Admiral Graf Spee off Montevideo on 17th December.

Early 20th Century

Below: 1933: Mrs. Bolwell, serviceman’s wife1911: Passenger on the SS Papanui1911: Another Papanui Passenger

1933: Mrs. Bolwell, serviceman’s wife

An account of their stay here was written in c.1933 by Violet Bolwell, wife of Royal Marines Signals Officer Bert Bolwell, who was based at Signal House. They and their son Dennis (and second son Keith, born here in November 1929) were posted here from 1929-1933. She wrote her account on her return to England. Much of it relates to nothing more significant than the usual ex-pat interactions (with reference to Saints only as incidental characters){9}. However some of her observations are interesting to understand how the island was in the early 1930s, so extracts are reproduced below:

Ladder Hill Signal Station
Ladder Hill Signal Station

I awoke early next[first] morning and heard noises in the kitchen and living-room. I asked Bert what it could be. Oh, that will be Lena, lighting the fire and getting things ready for breakfast. All the wives here have maids to help them. They don’t cost much as we feed them and pay them a small sum monthly. It seems that Lena’s brother worked in the Barracks and when he heard that I was going out there, he asked Bert if his sister, who was 14 years old and had just left school, could come and work for us. Lena and I got on well together and I’m pleased to say that she stayed with me all the time we were there. She was a slightly built girl with brown skin, big brown eyes and a thick plait of black hair. She was a little shy but had a lovely smile and was very mannerly.

The Barracks were situated at the top of Ladder Hill on the edge of the Cliffs, 700ft above sea level{10}. They had been built in Napoleon’s time and they were solid stone buildings with tin roofs. As one entered the gates one saw a big area of stony, well-flattened ground. This was the Parade Ground and it faced the sea with a stone wall along the cliff edge and with several obsolete cannon mounted on concrete pointing seawards. In the far corner on the right-hand side was the Signal Station, just above, a patch of spare ground, then the Billiards Hall and several storerooms. These all looked down over Jamestown. On the left near the gates was a very long Colonnade facing the sea, with steps down in the centre leading to the Parade Ground. It had Store Rooms leading off, also a big Dance Hall, Dry Canteen (our shop), Staff Offices, Victualling Office and one or two small offices. On the far side to the left of the Parade Ground were more storerooms. I think these had been originally Barracks Rooms for troops. Near to them was the Wet Canteen and, behind that, the single Men’s Quarters and 2 Married Quarters for R. Marines. Beyond these buildings, out in the open, were Tennis Courts, a Fives Court, an Indoor Swimming Pool and the Rifle Range. Just across the road, outside the gates, were the rest of the Married Quarters, scattered about Ladder Hill - 4 houses set apart and the veranda, which was three joined together. The Works Dept. was outside too, on the Hill. The Garrison employed Island men here to do all repairs needed to buildings and furniture. They also employed a number of men as messengers and 2 boys to look after the single men. The houses were all built of stone with corrugated iron roofs. Timbers had to be of oak or other hard woods as White Ants were a menace and soon made short work of soft woods.

The Major lived up country in a lovely big mansion called Rosemary Hall{11}. It had spacious grounds with lots of trees, well-kept lawns and gardens. There was a small cottage in the grounds for his Batman and family. The houses on Ladder Hill were allotted according to rank, the higher the rank the bigger and better the house and furniture. All had names. Town View was just opposite the gates, then Bleak House, then The Villa, then, on the bend from Ladder Hill towards Half Tree Hollow, was Briar Rose Cottage and, close by, the veranda. I can’t remember what the houses inside the Barracks were called and there was the Signal Station Bungalow.

Sunday morning, lower Market Street, 1930s
Sunday morning, lower Market Street, 1930s

The St Helenians are a mixed race, all with a touch of colour in their skin from light tan to black. The Island was first discovered by the Portuguese, then Britain took it over in 1673. Chinese, Dutch, Zulu Prisoners and Black Slaves were all taken there and many shipwrecked sailors landed on its shores, so it is not surprising that they are of mixed origin.

They are friendly people, warm-hearted and very trustworthy. Crime is practically unknown, although they have two Policemen to keep Law and Order. The language is Old English, very precise with one impediment. They all sounded the letter ‘v’ like a ‘W’ and, my name being Violet, they all called me Wiolet.

The country people, especially, were very poor. They lived mainly on Fish, Rice, Yams and what vegetables they were able to grow on their small vegetable patch outside their houses. The women are very gifted and do wonderful embroidery, make Lace, do Seed and Bead work and make Raffia Mats and Baskets of all descriptions. On mail days they come from up country carrying their Wares on Donkeys and line up on the Jetty displaying their goods for Passengers to see and buy. Several of them will go on board the ships for the same purpose. The ships always stayed a whole day to unload Stores for the Island and take on Mail, Stores and Passengers for South Africa and collect fresh produce for the ships use. These country people always went barefoot because the roads were so rough. They could only afford to buy cheap shoes and these they wore on Sundays to go to Church, but after the Service one would see them sitting by the roadside, taking off the precious shoes and walking home in their bare-feet. Lena, our maid, always did her work in her bare feet, and after lunch she would stand in a bucket of water with the kitchen scrubbing brush and scrub her feet and, when dry, put on stockings and shoes, then put on a clean dress ready for the afternoon.

The Island was very fertile, especially inland. Every Fruit and Vegetable grew there, English and Tropical side by side. Runner Beans, Tomatoes, Cucumbers and Yams grew all the year around. They didn’t sell them by pounds. It was always a dish of Beans or a dish of Tomatoes roughly about 2lbs, always wrapped in a Banana leaf and tied with Raffia. We had an old country woman who brought our supplies once a week. She wouldn’t come near the house as she was afraid of Jack the dog, but would stand at the Barracks Gates and yell for Lena who would go and collect our stuff.

The most fertile part was called Scotland (as it resembled that country) and the Agricultural Officer and his Staff lived there. They experimented in growing all sorts of Flowers, Fruit and Vegetables. We were friendly with the Officer and he often sent us things. We got some great big Victoria Plums one day. I’d never seen such huge ones. I don’t like Plums but Bert enjoyed them.

There weren’t many Cows on the Island. I think Longwood Farm was the only one with a big herd of cattle and they supplied the Garrison with Milk, but we were more or less rationed and only got a bottle a day; sometimes it would be a Whiskey bottle or a Beer Bottle with straw stuck in the top. Not very hygienic but I always boiled it, and I had to eke it out with tinned milk.

As there wasn’t much meat on the Island and we only got the men’s rations twice a week, we had to have fish on the other days. Ike, the fisherman, used to supply us with Barracuda and Tunny fish; these were coarse brown-coloured fish, but very tasty. We also got Stumps; these were shell-fish, similar to a Lobster, but more stumpy. These were a real delicacy when cooked.

During the 10 years Bert had been in the Service he had always assisted in the Social side. Now he had been put in full charge of all Entertainments. He organised Dances, Whist Drives, Social Evenings, Tennis Parties and he always got plenty of helpers as he was popular with everyone. Once a month he would put on a big dance to which lots of business people and Islanders would attend. The Band was three Island Boys{12} and they were very good and tried to keep up to date. When the Naval Ships came to St Helena, we had to entertain them and always put on a big dance and if they were staying a few days, they would give us a return dance and if they had their own band, would bring them too.

The Garrison had a Cricket Team and played nearly every Saturday against an Island Team (their favourite sport). Life was very hectic during my first three months. There was so much to do and see, so many people to meet. I just loved the Dances, Whist drives, and Socials, but I never liked Swimming, although I would go and watch Bert, and Dennis simply loved the water. I had also to revise my Tennis, as I had let that lapse long ago.

Rev. Walcott
Rev. Walcott

Just a few days after we got settled into the Signal Station we had a Visitor. I had the Sewing Machine out and was busy making Cushion covers. Dennis’ toys were strewn about the floor, when Lena came and told me that the Rev. Walcott had called. When he came into the Lounge I apologised for the untidiness and he said, Don’t apologise, This looks like a real home to me. I came to welcome you to the Island and I hope you will enjoy your stay. Mr. Walcott printed the only paper on the Island. It was called the St Helena Magazine and was first printed in 1899 by the then Parish priest, and Mr. Walcott took it over from his Predecessor in 1921. It was mostly a church magazine as there were four churches; two in town, the Cathedral and one church near Longwood, but as time got on, items of Island news were added, and the comings and goings of all ships and people. We never knew what was going on in the outside world, as we only got two Mail-boats a month, one from South Africa and one from England, so when we did get our papers, books etc. it was stale news.

One day an elderly, poorly dressed man in bare feet knocked on the door and asked if we had any odd jobs he could do. He said he did not want any money, just a bit of rice, tea or sugar would be acceptable. Bert found him a job or two and paid him in kind and ever after Amos was our odd-job man. He came regularly every week, did all the odd jobs like cleaning out the Chicken Run and Rabbit Hutch, and chopped all the sticks and was paid with a supply of food. He lived at Ladder hill just above Town View. Just before we were due to leave the Signal Station he brought us a present. It was a silver butter dish, which had been one of his own wedding presents. He was so poor that he couldn’t afford to buy us anything and insisted that we take his gift, which we had to accept gracefully.

After the New Year Dance in 1931 I said to Bert, I think Lofty King is falling for Dot Bizarre. Yes he said, I’ve noticed that. Lofty was Bert’s assistant in the Canteen and a single man. A few weeks later he confided in Bert and told him he was going to ask the Major’s permission to marry Dot. Well, when he saw the Major, he I tried to turn him off by saying, You must be absolutely certain because, as you know, all these people have colour in their skins and although we here are not prejudiced and treat them as equal, it may be difficult when you go back to England. In those days coloured people were not easily accepted at home. Too many of the single men had been marrying St Helenians; that was one reason why Married Families were being sent out. There were already three Island girls among the Garrison Wives when I got there. However the Major gave Lofty a few days to think it over and when he found he was still of the same mind gave his permission, and the wedding was fixed for April. They were married in the afternoon before a church full of people at St. John’s in town. Mr. Walcott officiated and afterwards joined in the festivities. After the reception, the tables were cleared away and a dance held in the evening, It was indeed a big and memorable day for all concerned.

The Wireless was in its early stages in those days and was almost unknown on the Island. The Cable Co. had tried to get it but hadn’t been successful so far. However in March 1932 Harold Thorpe had had a powerful valve set sent out from England. His wife, Laura, had talked so much about it after having heard it in England, and she persuaded him to get a set and try to get results. This he had achieved and he invited Rene, Jeff, Bert and I down to his house to listen in. It was coming through although the reception wasn’t too clear. Music and singing was alright but it was difficult to make out what the announcers and speakers were saying. I think it was coming from America, which was nearer than England. Harold was delighted and thought it was wonderful that it had reached that remote little spot in the South Atlantic Ocean.

1911: Passenger on the SS Papanui

The account below was written in 1968 by Lillian Mary Gillham, a passenger aboard the SS Papanui that caught fire and burned out in James Bay in the morning of 12th September 1911. The account starts after she had been informed that her father was sending her and her children to Australia to make a new life{13}.

Plaque by the rescued passengers
Plaque by the rescued passengers

I wrote and told them to not wait for a reliable boat, but the first boat that was going would do. Well the result was that they sent us by the SS Papanui going to Australia. It was manned by Australians, and had a crowd of girls coming out supposed to be ‘domestics’ but they dressed up with ribbons in their hair and ‘carried on’ with the ships officers. My cabin companion was Miss Simpson - a lovely type of a girl - about my age, coming to Australia to get married, and with her and some of the other people I quite enjoyed it.

After we were out about a week one of the passengers, a ‘Mr Know all’ who used to study the chart every day, said to me It’s funny but we seem to be in this quarter for about 3 days. Then one night we landed at St Helena. As we sat on deck we could see the captain and one or two in his room drinking, and I said to one of the officers who was a bit friendly with us Why are we stopping here? he said. Oh, I expect the boss wanted some shore company! (Well it was the place where Napoleon was kept prisoner). So I said to Miss J, We will go and explore in the morning. I put out all the clothes that the children had to put on and all got to bed.

About 10 pm. there was a knock on the door Get up and get dressed quickly. The ship is on fire. Cyril was fast asleep and it seemed impossible to wake him up. Enid was up and dressed. I took the baby down to the deck and left her with a woman, then went back and collected all the blankets and locked my cases. All the time there were taps at the door, Hurry up and go out on deck. The first officer stood at the top of the ladder with a loaded revolver in his hands, in case some of the steerage passengers (Italians) attempted to go first{14}. Boats were ready for us to go over to a ship anchored nearby and British men were on it and were lovely, gave up their berths and gave brandy to those who were overcome.

Next morning we were put ashore. Natives{15} were waiting for us and took the baby and we all walked to the barracks. There were lovely buildings and the barracks where the British soldiers were located during the war with South Africa and a nice hospital. We had to sleep on the floor the first night, so I was glad I had collected the blankets from the ship.

Next morning Miss Thompson and I dressed and went to see the magistrate to see if he could find accommodation for us. He said My dear ladies, you are shipwrecked passengers! I will see that blankets and other things that are in store are sent to make you comfortable. On the way back we came across one of the passengers and he said, My wife and I are staying with the constable. The man he was talking to was dressed in a white suit (one of the residents) and a white toupee. He said Ladies, if you would accept our hospitality, my home is only humble but if you would stay with us we would be most happy. He immediately took us to a house opposite. It proved to be a lovely home. The sitting room was huge, had a piano at one end and an organ at the other. He brought his wife to see us, a dear little slightly dark lady dressed in white and she smilingly greeted us. When we were alone I said to Miss Thompson You stay back. He does not know that I have 4 children!

When he came in I told him and he said We have three so the more the merrier. And off he trotted to the hospital to bring the children and the blankets etc. We stayed as their guests for about 6 weeks while a boat had to be chartered to bring us to Australia. We left on the Opawa, a New Zealand boat which brought us to Australia.

1911: Another Papanui Passenger

A letter written to his family by passenger Arthur Stordy, kindly supplied by his Great Niece, Kaye.

September 1911

Dear Mother and Father and all

I am writing this on the Island of St Helena the fateful Isle, not only of Bonaparte, but of your most dutiful son and a few hundred souls, but unlike Napoleon, a little more hope for the future. I suppose before you get this you will have got a full account in the English papers through the Cable. Very few ships call here, about one a month, cut off from the world for that time, seeing a paper once a month, so we know nothing since the day we left England and know nothing of the English paper account of our mishap, unless we get some news from England before we leave here.

The last letter I wrote you was from Las Palmas in the Canary Isles. The boat took in coal and water and left the next day, it was from the coal that the fire originated, the coal being small poor stuff and fine dust forming a lot of gas and the heat caused it to ignite. When we first heard of it we were about a week’s run from St Helena and a few days past Las Palmas, but though some of the passengers were rather startled most of us were not much concerned at first as there was no alteration of the ship’s course and she kept on for the Cape and we expected the fire would be soon got under control. The officers and crew said the coal at times on ships often fired but generally was soon put out, however, we were not to be so lucky for as time passed we found it was still burning and the crew hard at work each day trying to get the coal from the bunker in which it was burning (there are a certain number of coal bunkers in every ship). The coal, however, got too hot and the fumes too strong for the men to work in and they dare not put water on as that would cause gas and explode, but still the ship kept on her course for Cape Town.

The Captain, so we understood, expected to keep the fire down until we reached Cape Town. He found out, however, that the fire was not so easy to control and so on the 9th after burning 5 or 6 days he altered his course and turned off west for St Helena a full day’s journey at top speed. All this time the crew were at it and also a number of passengers down in the coal hold shifting it out as fast as they could. On Sunday midnight, the 10th, we came within line of St Helena but instead of the ship turning for the isle she past straight on and went direct south again for the Cape. About 7 o’clock he turned round and went back again and made for St Helena. In 2 hours’ time he turned again south, at noon turning once more we made for St Helena which we reached at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. During this time the passengers kept quite easy and set about and read and slept as though nothing was the matter and indeed beyond a small amount of smoke coming through the fore hatch, one would not have thought a fire was burning down below.

SS Papanui on fire
SS Papanui on fire
On fire
On fire
Evacuees on the Wharf
Evacuees on the Wharf
Saving cargo
Saving cargo

When we arrived at St Helena all the men were brought up from below and the fire left to burn, no effort was made after that and we stood there looking at the shore and wondering what was going to be the next move. As nothing was said or done most of the passengers went down to their berths after 10 o’clock. I went down myself about 11 o’clock and was just nodding off to sleep when I heard an explosion and Bill Chappel came rushing down from the deck and told me to get up quick and go up on deck as the hatch in the fore part of the boat had blown up. I got up and dressed and went up on deck where I found most of the passengers stood watching a great cloud of smoke pouring out of the hold. At the first sound of the explosion the Captain had sounded the siren as a signal to the shore for help, and in a very short time a number of boats from the land and from a Cable ship that by good luck happened to be at St Helena came and offered their assistance.

The Captain after the explosion gave orders for all the ship boats to be lowered into the water and the passengers to be taken on shore. The noise as the crew on the top boat deck rushed about the work of lowering the boats was terrible, pulling and tugging at ropes and pulleys and officers shouting orders, it was pretty exciting while it lasted. After a short time all the boats were in the water, the women and children collected together and put in the boats first and taken on board the cable ship, Britannia, next all the married men and then the single men were sent on shore.

During all this time although it was dead at night and the passengers hurried out of their cabins, at a moment’s notice, some of them with very little clothing on, there was no panic or confusion shown. We were up on the first class deck looking down on the scene and a sight it was, the smoke rolling over the boat, and the people walking down the steps and getting in the boats as the waves lifted them up and down. The women behaved splendid and the children hardly gave a cry. As the last of boats came up the Captain came past whereabouts a score of us were stood including Chappel and myself. Someone asked the captain if the boat was safe to stop on until the morning, he said Yes, the officers and crew would be on board all night and if we cared to stay we were quite safe so we decided to stop on board until daylight as we thought we might get some of our things off then. We would see some of the officers and crew were now beginning to pack some of their belongings together.

The passengers had not been allowed to take any bag or anything in the boats. It was now about 2 o’clock and the steward saying he would call us if there was any danger before morning we went down to our cabin and after packing as many things as I could into the bag I got from the office and Bill Chappel packed a few things up, we returned in for an hour or so. We could not sleep very much but just dozed a bit. At about 5 o’clock the Chief Steward came and told us to get up at once and clear off the ship as the fire was spreading fast so we got on deck as soon as possible. I brought my bag that I had packed and Bill Chappel brought his. We were put into a boat and rowed off to the Britannia where we found all the women and children. They had been well treated on the ship, supplied with hot coffee, refreshments, brandy or anything they had. The women and children were welcome to giving up their own beds and making up bedding and blankets on the floor of the saloons.

When we got on the Britannia they rushed us down below and made us coffee, breakfast and wanted us to drink in their kindness all manner of stuff, whisky, brandy and soda, expense was nothing if they could only make us comfortable. I had a good breakfast of coffee and bread and butter and then went upon deck to see what was going on.

On getting to the top I found one or two boats belonging to the Britannia making ready to go to the Papanui again to get some of the passengers’ luggage if possible I thought I might as well have some more of mine if I could get it and we could see that the officers and crew were still working on the ship getting off as much food and stores as possible so I ran down the gangway and slipped into the boat with about a dozen other passengers and went back to the ship. I got into our cabin (I had all my luggage there including the box which I had just taken from the hold three days before) and packed all the loose things and Bill Chappel’s as well into a bed sheet, fastened it up and brought box, bag and sheet up and put them in a boat for the shore. So I practically secured all my things with the exception of a pair of slippers, dirty collars and one or two small things. Bill Chappel was not so lucky, his big box was lost, in it he had all his clothes and under clothing, sufficient to last for 2 or 3 years, all gone.

While we were on the ship the last time, and after getting our own luggage off, we gave a hand in helping to get as much of the luggage out of the cabins of the other passengers as possible and it was a hurry and scurry, mixing things up and shoving them into boxes, bags, pillow cases, sheets or anything and dropping then into the boats. About 10 o’clock the ship was abandoned and left to burn itself out, it was a wonderful sight, especially at night time, a great red glow and the blaze shooting up high in the sky, it burned for almost a week like that.

All the luggage as it had been taken shore went into the Custom House and it was a funny though a sore sight to see the passengers all during this day collected on the wharf in front of the Custom House anxiously watching as each piece of luggage was brought out to see if anything of theirs had been saved. When the pillow cases, sheets or blankets full of all sorts of things belonging different folks were spread out and laid out on the road it was a case of search for our own, one would find a pair of boots, another a coat, someone else a shirt, all in the same bundle. There was a bit of stealing of other people’s goods but considering the temptation the folks behaved well.

I had left my overcoat on the deck in my hurry and I found it on the quay amongst some sailors’ clothing. Probably it had been picked up by one of the crew and brought off with theirs. You can well imagine the landing of some 500 people would test the accommodation of an Isle like St Helena. When the men were landed they were met by the governor and arranged in order and marched for about 2 miles up a stiff hill at the dead of night to some old barracks right on the top of the hill some 700ft above the sea. These barracks are empty and have been for some years and here they were told to make themselves as comfortable as possible for the night, no bedding or blankets, just the bare boards to lay on. The next day when the women and children were taken off the Britannia they were placed in an old Military Hospital, no bedding just a blanket or two and what they could make into bedding from their own luggage, if they were fortunate enough to be one of those that had their luggage or part of it saved. Some were lucky in that respect, others had hardly a single thing. This hurt us most of all to see the women and children in such hard straits, some of whom, in fact most of them had been brought up in comfortable houses, but they bore it well, made the best of it with very little complaint.

Bill Chappel and I slept the second night up in the barracks. There was nothing else for it for if we took rooms in the town it meant spending money and that we had to be careful of as although I had about four pounds(£4) we could not tell what was going to occur or how long we should be here, so we decided to go into the barracks and see how things turned out after that night. We went into one of the rooms with about 20 more and there we had to lay on the boards on one of the ship’s blankets that we had, my coat for a pillow and a sheet I got off the ship. I slept better than one would expect under the circumstances. Breakfast we got as best we could, trestles were laid out in the open, loaves of bread, butter and marmalade placed on and help ourselves. They kept us locked up there until after 10 o’clock but when we got down into the town again we found out things were being organised a bit now. It seems that in case of disaster on the boat, and passengers and crew placed in a position as we are, it falls on the English Board of Trade to provide for them until such time as preparations are made for relief for this purpose. 3/- a day per head(£0.15) is allowed by the Board. The Governor of the Island sent word round that those who could secure accommodation in any of the houses could do so and that 3/- per heard or provisions would be paid to the people who accommodated them. All the spare rooms in the town were mostly taken up by the married folks. The people of the island are a kind and hospitable folk and did everything in their power to assist us, some of the houses that were empty were allowed to be used by those who owned them. One of the most influential gentlemen of the islands gave up his town residence for our use (Mr Solomon). Bill Chappel and I with half a dozen decent young fellows managed to secure one of the large rooms in his house. Here we brought our luggage and with a good number of blankets and sheets arranged on one side of the room we settled down nicely, rations were sent us by the Board of Trade. All the cooking was done for us by one of the women passengers who had one of the bedrooms with her 2 daughters. We ought to be very thankful to this lady, a Mrs Pearson, for what she is doing for us, nothing is a trouble to her or the daughters, splendid cooks, and as plenty of food, flour and such like is given us we are living well and getting plenty to eat which is the principal thing. One of the fellows is told each day to help the women in the kitchen, look after the fire, chop wood, set the table and wash up the pots etc. This Mrs Pearson is going out to join her husband who went to Australia in March and took up some land. She had all her furniture and household goods in the ship and all of it burned, none of it insured, very few seem to have insured their goods. They might get some compensation from the company but I don’t think anything like the value will be got. After we had been there a few days and found our feet a bit, a larger number of passengers began to clear out into the country, some left the place we are staying in which gave more room for us. We then got mattresses to sleep on and after the first few days we settled down quite easy to make the best of it until a ship comes and takes us off.

I have trampled pretty well all over the isle, visiting the House and Tomb of Bonaparte and the place where Cronjé, the Boer General lived. The island stands a tremendous height out of the sea, like a great big rock but in the centre of the island it just reminds one of the Lake District, all hill and dale and great stretches of fertile land and most beautiful scenery. The climate is splendid. This month is the commencement of spring but it is always spring here they say, no winter and in the summer time the North East Trade Winds are always blowing to temper the heat. At the present time it is just like our July weather, but not to oppressive, it suits me up to the mark.

Fruit of all descriptions, Oranges, Grapes, Figs, Bananas and some we never heard of before grow all the year round. It is funny to see a tree dropping its leaves, flowering, budding green fruit and rich ripe fruit all at the same time. Flowers of the most beautiful colour grow wild all over the place. Personally I am enjoying the changes and am not concerned much about being left here for a few weeks. The bother is I can’t let you know at home that I am safe and sound as I know you will be worrying and wondering how I am situated. Cablegrams are too costly and the mail post calls here for England on October 11th. We shall then have been on the island just a month, a week after we expect a boat (Opawa) is coming to take us off, so by the time you get this we shall be well on the way to Australia. I do not know if we call at Cape Town on the way or not.

Most of the passengers are trying to make the best of things now and those who are destitute are being assisted as far as possible. The Governor of the isle and other rich folks who happen to be here have put their hands well into their pockets and done all they could. The population of the place does not amount to 4,000 but they are a fine people, a good kind spirit seems to permeate the island, far away from the world of selfishness, they only want to live their own life, they are a very mixed race, generations of mixed blood, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French, English Indians and Negros all go together to make up a race. The language is English, no other is spoken and it is spoken perfectly{16}. I suppose that is because it is taught them and they know no dialect, though the tongue has a beautiful soft tone.

It is now October 4th and we have just had a ship in yesterday. The first we have seen since we came. It sailed from London a few days after our arrival here and we had the chance of seeing the Daily Mail account of the fire on our ship. It was the first report of the fire and I do not know if you have had any further account in the papers but the report in the Mail is not exactly true to fact, as you will find out when the Inquiry into the loss of the boat takes place before the Board of Trade in London (when you see the Inquiry in the papers, keep these papers for me). In the Mail the Captain is given the credit of saving the passengers from a perilous position as a matter of fact the captain is responsible for the loss of the ship and the passengers’ luggage. The fire was burning for nine days before he made for any port. Of course we did not know it was serious otherwise we would not have been so content but he knew it was serious and the fact of the ship being eventually burned to the water level proves the danger we were in and he should have made for some port at least 2 or 3 days after the outbreak when he found it was not under control.

Even when he did make for St Helena you would notice from the first part of my letter how he messed about before he came here and according to the Mail account we ran in at dead of night right on the beach. He anchored off St Helena at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and though the fire must have been burning fast nothing was done to get the passengers or any luggage off or even to deal with the fire until the gas exploded about 10.30 at night and that was through his carelessness in wedging down the hatch over the hold, allowing gas to accumulate. Even after the passengers were taken off at midnight all the luggage and half the cargo could have been got ashore quite easy during that night as it was a fine moonlight night, we can almost see to read by the moonlight. If it had not been for some of the passengers remaining on the boat that night and assisted by the stewards and some of the most decent ones of the crew no luggage whatever would have been saved.

The captain did not seem to bother or care a jot about the boat or cargo or baggage all through the voyage he seemed funny and indifferent to anything. We could see him from our first class deck in his cabin practically all the time sitting there smoking cigars and drinking whisky, he hardly had a single word for any passengers and was at loggerheads with all the officers and crew.

The chief mate of the boat was a fine little chap and did his very best and if he had had his way he would have saved the vessel and everything, all the work of the boat dropped on him and for days he had no sleep. Up to the very last he stuck to the boat and was the last to leave though the captain is supposed to be the last to leave a ship. All that night the captain was going back and forth to his saloon, stopping down half an hour at a time drinking, the consequence was there was not much order amongst the crew and after the people were sent ashore the crew did as each one thought fit, some stopped and got as much luggage off as possible, others got their own luggage and left the boat during the night and went ashore.

One of the crew told me after, that he was working with about 20 others under the second mate at the aft hold where most of the solid luggage of the passengers was, they had got most of it out and it lay on the decks simply wanted toppling over the side into the boats below belonging the people of the isle who were only too willing to take it and had taken may a load already and thought that part of the ship was clear from fire and smoke and he said they could have worked at that part for some 2 or 3 hours without danger. The captain ordered all to go ashore, they still went on and dropped it anyhow - in the boats boxes bursting open but that was better than leaving it to burn. The captain came long and told them to let the damned things lay on the deck and burn.

It shows what sort of a man he was, that while some of the people are destitute and get no luggage he took off every scrap of his own. The first mate came on shore, black with soot and grime without a single thing, except what he stood up in. But I expect the Inquiry will open a lot out when it takes place. By the way do not let it be known what I say about the captain I don’t want the Board of Trade to get me for evidence. I expect that passengers will have to go and give evidence. But when all is said and done the thing is we are all very thankful we are here to tell the tale. It might have been worse, far worse.

Well I have written a lot more than I thought so I think I will close and trust all is well at home. I do not know if you would know about this boat (The Opawa) that is coming from England to take us on. I hope you do know and have written to let me know how you all are. This letter will be a week on the way home by the time the Opawa comes. We have made friends with a good number of people who are taking up land under the Victorian Irrigation Scheme. One gentleman in…(sadly the last page is missing)

Arthur Stordy

19th Century

1878: Mrs Gill, astronomer’s wife

The full document records a visit to Ascension Island by astronomer David Gill and his wife{17}, for astronomical investigations. It was necessary for them to travel via St Helena - mail-steamers in 1878 did not call at Ascension on the south-bound voyage, so they had to travel to St Helena and then travel back on a north-bound ship, sometime later. Their visit to St Helena is detailed in pages 22 to 44, which we have extracted to a file, linked below.

On and on, the great ship rushed through the waters; the bells struck the passing hours, and every noon the answer to the anxious question, What’s the run? told of nearly 300 miles further on our way. At last on the 1st of July, at 4 a.m., the screw suddenly stopped, and I knew and rejoiced that we were in the Bay of James Town…

Read the full account.

Read More

Book: Isle of St Helena

By Oswell Blakeston, 1957{6}

Oswell Blakeston’s 1957 book ‘Isle of St Helena’ - written about his visit to the island - is now, because of its age, a useful guide to St Helena at the end of the 1950s.

Some of the stories and anecdotes will raise a smile and although he has attempted to disguise many of the characters most will be recognisable from this website.

Sadly we can’t provide the book as a download - it remains in Copyright © until 2056 (please check back then…)


{a} Nick Thorpe{b} Robert Stephen, a serviceman stationed here in World War 2, from his memoirs ‘Around the Atlantic’, reproduced in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{4} #46, 2017{6}{c} Charles Bridges{d} Hugh Crallan{e} Steve Brown{f} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{g} ‘Sparks’ - actually a pseudonym for Naval radio operator Robert Stephen, a serviceman stationed here in World War 2, from his memoirs ‘Around the Atlantic’, reproduced in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{4} #46, 2017{6}


{1} However, please be aware that we reserve the right to choose which contributions will appear on this page, and/or to edit contributions to aid readability.{2} Former French Consul (1956-1987) & father (by adoption) of Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, the current French Consul.{3} the Secondary Selective.{4} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{5} This would have been Governor Robert Edmund Alford.{6} @@RepDis@@{7} ‘Meat and Vegetables’, but not fresh - tinned, in a sort-of stew! It was sometimes known as ‘Maconochie Stew’ but we hope it wasn’t actually Maconochie Stew because that was only made in World War 1 so would have been around 25 years old by the date of this poem. Mind you, ‘best before’ dates hadn’t been invented in 1944, so you never know… about Maconochie Stew here. [Image, right]

Maconochie Army Ration

{8} ‘Curious Little World - A Self-Imposed Exile on St Helena Island’, by Rex Bartlett. Toppermost Books, ISBN 978-0-9783927-0-3 2007.{9} Some ex-pat workers choose to live this way even today, it seems.{10} Ladder Hill Fort.{11} Now Rosemary Estate.{12} Can anyone help us identify this band? Please contact us if you can.{13} For reasons that are not relevant to the story.{14} Note that ‘Steerage’ was in the bowels of the ship and hence closer to the fire. A similar disregard for human rights happened on the Titanic, the following year.{15} !!{16} We are not clear whether this means the ‘Saint’ dialect had not yet evolved or, more likely, that Saints automatically switched into official English for the benefit of the visitors (as they do today).{17} Who does not, as far as we can spot, anywhere in the 285 pages plus other notes, disclose her first name!{18} The Government newspaper{4}.{19} The St Helena Wirebird{18} does not record a visit of HMS Puma on this date; it records one on 3rd December 1960 and another on 28th May 1962. But that doesn’t mean this date is incorrect; the St Helena Wirebird{18} did not record every ship visit.