St Helena’s Historic Buildings

St Helena’s Historic Buildings – the Island’s built heritage

There is not likely to be any other 123 square kilometres (47 square miles) area of land in the world which is as rich in built heritage as the Island of St Helena.

Visitors to the Island land at the wharf, pass the 17th century ‘glacis’ or ramparts/fortifications and through the town gate to the Grand Parade.  Main Street leads off the Grand Parade and up James valley.  Along this entire route almost every building is listed because of its historic importance.  Main Street is described as one of the best examples of unspoilt Georgian architecture anywhere in the world.

While both the historic fortifications houses and other structures remain unspoilt much work needs to be done to maintain and preserve them.  The St Helena National Trust is constantly seeking sources of funding in order to get people with specialist skills and knowledge to the Island to help with this task.

The most recent Build Heritage report has these conclusions as part of its Phase One report.

There are two main groups of historic fabric on Saint Helena, the military and the civilian. It should be recognised that evidence from both may be found over most of the island and neither is confined to Jamestown and its environs.

Military

Half Moon Battery

Half Moon Battery

The military constructions should be recognised as an interlinked network, with the connections between the larger sites an integral part pf the whole. The large batteries forts and barracks are the more obvious survivals; the revetted pathways, guard huts, water management features and the wealth of buried archaeology inevitably present are less obvious but equally important.

The island’s military landscape is internationally significant because of the survival of this complete landscape, including the less obvious smaller structures which complete the picture and allow a considerably level of understanding and interpretation of the island’s defence.

Key Military structure types

This is a sample list indicating the range of material present, it is based on our brief visit to the island and therefore cannot reliably express a full typology of the military structures on the island.

  • Fortified Lines
  • Fixed Fortifications and Gun Batteries
  • Barracks and Storehouses
  • Forts
  • Military road and Trackway

Domestic

The domestic fabric of the island is far more complex than is first apparent. The relationship between town and countryside, genteel structures and the grittier working of the island and the ever present shadow of the military lend the place a very specific atmosphere. This atmosphere is only present because of the extraordinary levels of preservation both in terms of specific building survival and in terms of the more ephemeral specifics such as window glass, portable antiquities such as pots and guns, and the wider landscape features such as terraces, land boundaries, isolated housing and water management.

As with the military landscape it is the whole which makes it so significant. There are very few places in the world where the whole landscape is preserved as a unit with little modern intrusion.

Key domestic structure types

This is a sample list indicating the range of material present, it is based on our brief visit to the island and obviously cannot represent a full typology of the domestic structures on the island.

  • Large town houses
  • Small Houses
  • Slave/servant quarters
  • Warehouses and stores
  • Mills and industrial buildings
  • Government Buildings
  • Harbour and dock facilities
  • Field systems and landscape features
  • Roads
  • Water management structures
  • Quarries
  • Wrecks and marine archaeology
SHNT office in Broadway House

SHNT office in Broadway House

There is a core of local people who already understand a great deal about the island’s past, mainly, though not exclusively, focused around the National Trust. This group have a significant role in both the production of official records and policy, but also in supporting the process and providing one of several routes into the system for locals.

The general enthusiasm of the team for the island’s heritage, particularly the areas not previously highlighted by study was met locally with some level of confusion. The local pride in the island’s past was evident, but generally the understanding of the extent and importance of the remains is not well developed. The training and radio interviews will hopefully begin to address this, especially as the potential for increased development raises the profile of the island’s potential resources more generally.

High Knoll Fort silhouette

High Knoll Fort silhouette

Concerns

Amongst a major and vocal section of the community there is some hostility towards changes in government policy. There has been a significant rise in land prices and a general downturn in the island’s economy over the last few years. Large numbers of young people have left the island to work elsewhere; although they are a significant source of income for the island they are finding it increasingly difficult to justify returning. These factors hasve rasied conerns that additional protection for historic fabric will lead to increased financial burden being placed on the island’s economy. There has been at least one case in the recent past of an owner refusing to undertake works to a historically significant property because of government restrictions on the scope and manner of these works, which the owner claimed had major financial implications.

The heritage of Saint Helena has the potential to become a world class resource for the interpretation of social, political and military history since the seventeenth century. It has elements which can provide exciting and tangiable evidence for empire, military conquest and defence, slavery, trade, industry, scientific endeavour and maritime history, even piracy. These links are not fleeting or illusory; they are the sort of links that many tourist sites can only dream of.

Tourism has the potential to be the greatest economic force on Saint Helena. The Natural and Historic Environments are the two main main draws to the island, and their protection and enhancements is obviously key to the success of the island as a tourist destination. This has been recognised by the recent development and tourism plans.

The historic environment is of particular importance because it can provide both reasons to come to the island and exciting accommodation for vistors while staying. Accommodation is vital because it will be the main economic contact that vistors have with the island. If accommodation and historic environment are linked then money will naturally flow from tourism to part of the island’s historic fabric; protecting part of the distinctive character of the island and therefore preserving the island’s tourist potential.

Much of the historic fabric that is found on Saint Helena is of such quaility and preservation that it will require little interpretation. Despite this many visitors will find the array of sites, monuments and antiquities overwhelming without some level of interpretation. This interpretation will require investment and research and must be very carefully considered. If investment is put in place and the interpretation is based on sound research Saint Helena’s historic fabric could become a stunning, exciting and educational gem for locals and tourists alike.

World Heritage Status

The Historic and Natural Environment of Saint Helena is comparable with and exceeds many of the sites presently under World Heritage Status. There is no doubt that if other requirements such as policy and management are met it would be a successful candidate and would meet criteria for inclusion on the United Kingdoms tentative list.

At the time of writing, November 2007, the Price Waterhouse Cooper report on the World Heritage Sites Review has not been released, so the present position is somewhat unclear. Once this review has been produced and the consultation is complete we will have a better idea of the benefits of becoming a World Heritage Site, and if the UK intends to add to its Tentative List. This should happen later in 2007 or early 2008; with new nominations possibly being invited in 2008/9.

If Saint Helena wanted to pursue this is would need considerable work to its policy framework, and management systems for its historic fabric. The requirements of World Heritage Status have been considered in the recommendations outlined in this document.

Ben Jeffs & Rebecca Cairns-Wicks

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