Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Guns of St Helena

"Long Tom" being transported to Mundens 1903 (Not Ladder Hill - see postscript)

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the Friends of St. Helena's new Facebook page and the excellent collection of 1890-1930 photographs to be found there.

One that caught my eye was that of a large gun being wheeled up the main street in Jamestown. I asked then if anybody could tell me anything about it, and now Ian Bruce, the creator of the Facebook page has helped me out. An article he has written,to be published next year in The Wirebird, the Friends of St Helena magazine, provides the historical context about the island's garrison.

In 1902, at the end of the Boer War, the St. Helena garrison reached a peak of over 1500, and in 1903 two large modern guns were installed to guard the island. These "Long Tom" guns, were wrongly believed to have been French made Creuset guns captured from the Boers, which had done a great deal of damage during the war. (But see postscript below) Shortly after the guns arrived the garrison was run down to a little over 200 men, with predictable economic consequences for the island, similar to the rundown after the death of Napoleon.

In 1906 the new Liberal Government, elected on a platform of retrenchment, and doubtless aware of the declining military value of St Helena as a coaling station as the Royal Navy shifted to oil, decided to close the garrison altogether. Despite public outcry on St Helena, and the organisation of a Committee in the UK which bizarrely and futilely tried to gain compensation for St Helena's landowners, the Government held firm.

Winston Churchill, holding office for the first time as Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, defended the policy, arguing that they should await the results of an expert being sent to the island to investigate. This expert concluded that the establishment of a flax industry was the only possibility for avoiding economic depression. (1)

In 1907 Parliament voted a grant to set up the flax industry, and so another chapter in the island's precarious history began, to be ended, so legend has it, by another peremptory decision in the 1960's. (2)

Quite what happened to the redundant guns is a mystery to me.

POSTSCRIPT Since writing this post I have received the following from a highly respected source:

What you see in the Bruce photos is the barrel of a 6 inch Mark VII Elswick coastal defence wire gun, the type of gun you can see in situ today at Ladder Hill. The Bruce photos are probably from when the guns first arrived in 1903. Although four emplacements were built, two at LH and two on the top of Mundens, I don't think there were ever more than two guns. A former RA captain I knew years ago, long since dead, who was stationed on SH during WWII, once told me that to keep the chaps occupied, they used to strip down a gun, move it to the other side of JT, set it up and fire it, then reverse the process! The barrel alone weighs over 3 tons! They also used to do blind target practice, firing shells over the top of the Island, to hit targets on Prosperous Bay Plain. Airport construction has turned up some of the shells.

The Bruce photo captioned "Long Tom on its way to Ladder Hill fort" is clearly taken on the Mundens road.

Incidentally, the trolley you can see the guys using is the one still in use in the Star to display the veg!


1. "The First Dozen Years", draft article by Ian Bruce, kindly supplied by the author.

2. The conventional wisdom is that a decision at a fairly low level in the Post Office to abandon the use of flax for mail bags led to the shutdown of the flax industry. The explanation may be rather more complex, as Laurence Carter's blog suggests.