Tuesday, 10 December 2013

In Search of "Polly" Mason

1815 Map showing location of Mason family properties around Fishers Valley

Miss "Polly" Mason was well known to the occupants of Longwood. Apparently she always bowed profusely whenever meeting Napoleon on one of his rides in the Fishers Valley, and she and her niece were on the list of people authorised to visit Mme Bertrand. She was also present to greet Gourgaud and Arthur Bertrand when they came back to St Helena in 1840 for the exhumation of Napoleon.

The Mason family were probably the largest landowners on the East of the Island. Miss Mason was recorded as living at Orange Grove, and "Jack" Mason, presumably her brother, at Bradleys. The family also owned other property close to Hutts Gate, including what later became known as Teutonic Hall, usually referred to during the time as Miss Mason's, as in the map above.(1) Presumably this is the house Chaplin claims that Hudson Lowe considered renting for Napoleon at £100 a month.

Earlier references to the Masons' properties can be found in the journal of William Burchell who served the East India Company on St Helena as schoolmaster and botanist from 1805-1810. In November 1806 Burchell recorded walking to Miss Mason's much talked of apple garden in the Fishers Valley and then round to Fledger's .. (presumably Pledges). On Christmas Day 1806 he visited Jack Mason's

at the bottom of Fisher's Valley, below Polly Mason's apple garden ..Of all the rude, uncouth rocky, barren, untempting structures for a house, this is the strangest and most remarkable of any I have yet seen. (2)

Jack Mason's garden apparently yielded £400 worth of produce a year, a small fortune at the time, growing figs, grapes guavas, apples, melons and cucumbers.

On another occasion after a visit to Longwood, Burchell caught sight of a small house of Miss Mason's which can be seen from no other place but this, which surely can only be what is now known as Teutonic Hall.

Teutonic Hall, formerly known as Miss Masons and Masons Stock House

So I think we can take it that Jack Mason and Polly Mason were well known figures in the eastern part of St Helena. "Polly" and "Jack" were of course nicknames, so who were they?

Jack was regularly used for John, and the only John Mason recorded in the baptismal records in the late eighteenth century was the son of Richard, a "Planter", and Elizabeth Mason. He was baptised in 1776, the second of a family of eight. The death of John Mason, described simply as "Native", was recorded on 9th December 1815, before Napoleon had settled into life in the eastern part of St Helena. He had five sisters (Elizabeth baptised 1774, Mary 1777 died in infancy, Mary 1780, Caroline 1783, Margaret 1790) and two brothers (Richard baptised 1786, William 1798).

Polly is more difficult to identify by name, but the only female Mason that crops up in the land and slavery records in the early part of the nineteenth century is Mary Elizabeth Mason, John's younger sister, baptised in 1780 and in July 1859 at the age of 83, a Gentle Woman, died of Natural Decay . (3) It seems that she must be Miss "Polly" Mason. Her Will indicates that at the time of her death she owned two properties, Sunbury Hill and the Pledges, both a little further east past Teutonic Hall.

The Will of Mary Mason

The Will and signature of Mary Mason

In her will Miss Mason left £60 to the Church of England Society for the Island of St Helena, and her house and lands to her nieces Marian Anne and Elizabeth M.T., the daughters of her brother Major William Mason. (4)

Memorial Plaque, St Pauls St Helena, to Benjamin Mason who died in 1805. Probably Miss Mason's Grandfather.

Orange Grove, The Pledges and Sunbury Hill: Recent Views

The area surrounding the Fishers Valley where the Masons lived in the early part of the eighteenth century has changed beyond recognition. Few of the old properties remain, apart from Teutonic Hall which is now in a very dangerous state.

Orange Grove 2013

Few people on St Helena have heard of Orange Grove, now known as Pink Grove.

Orange Grove 2013

A brief visit revealed it to be a very pleasant fertile valley, with a few modern houses.

Orange Grove 2013

It is impossible to tell exactly where Miss Mason lived.

The old house that formerly stood on Sunbury Hill has also been demolished, and a post second world war dwelling now stands on the site.

Sunbury Hill

Close to Sunbury hill, with a view of the Barn and Longwood across the valley, the Pledges now has two modern houses built on it.

Modern houses on the Pledges
Longwood House and behind it the Barn: the view from the Pledges


1. The estate of Richard Mason, probably Miss Mason's father was listed in the Return of Family Land Cattle &c 1821 as owning 9 properties, including Sunbury Hill, the Pledges and what later became Teutonic Hall.
2. William John Burchell (1781-1763) St Helena (1805-1810) The Castell Collection, St Helena 2011.
3. Mary Mason was recorded as having 6 slaves, 23 acres of free land and 20 acres of lease land in 1828; in 1834 it was 3 slaves, 3 freeborn, 10 acres of free land, and 44 acres of permanent tenure. Land Records, St Helena Archives.
4. The Executors were Matthew George Torbett and her brother William.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Ban on Export of "Napoleon Death Mask"

The Independent 13th November, 2013

Apparently the Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey has been swayed by the advice of Ms Leslie Webster and has put a temporary block on the export of the rather dubious Boys death mask of Napoleon:

The sense that you are in the presence of Napoleon is very strong. There are many grandiose portraits, as well as contemporary British caricatures of this great and controversial figure, but this deathbed image speaks far more directly to us – here we see the man himself, and sense his charisma, even in death. (1)

The Independent trots out the usual claim about Boys and Napoleon of which there is not a shred of evidence, but does sensibly attribute that claim to the auction house that sold the mask:

Rev Boys played chess with Napoleon and brought several mementos of him when he returned to England, according to Bonhams .

It will be interesting to see if anyone comes up with the money. I can't really see the reason for doing so, particularly since the other Napoleon death mask allegedly made for Rev Boys on St Helena, the Sankey mask, is in the country.


1. Ms Leslie Webster as quoted in The Independent , November 13th 2013.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Anyone for a Flight to St Helena?

Article on Atlantic Star Airline, St Helena Independent 18th October 2013

Before leaving for a meeting of the Friends of St Helena in London yesterday, about which perhaps more some other time, I read the above article by Vince Thompson in the St Helena Independent.

Apparently Captain Andy Radford of Atlantic Star Airline is hopeful, confident even, that his compasny will be the preferred supplier of air services to St Helena. At the moment Atlantic Star has no planes, but plans to lease a single Boeing 757.

The proposed initial route is Gatwick or Stansted - Madrid - St Helena - Cape Town, and then back again, once a week, with monthly flights to Ascension.

Atlantic Star thinks that a Boeing 757 is the right choice for St Helena's short runway, and it would propose to adapt its plane to allow it to carry more fuel, necessary given the distance of backup airports from St Helena.

Boeing 757: soon to be a regular sight on St Helena?

The plane would then have a reduced capacity of 120 passengers. Although the 757 is no longer in production, Atlantic Star is confident it can find one to lease. In the unlikely event that the 757 ever breaks down then no worries, Atlantic Star will sign a contract with a company that specialises in providing backup in cases of technical difficulties!

Atlantic Star hopes by the end of 2017 to be able to run two flights a week. So, best case scenario, that would make 240 passengers from Europe per week, and 240 from South Africa, making an annual total of almost 25,000 tourists if all the planes were full, and none of the passengers were Saints or expatriates returning to live or work on St Helena. Those are rather fanciful assumptions, which illustrates just how big a task it will be to get the 50,000 tourists a year that Government plans anticipate. Crucial of course will be the cost of flights, and Atlantic Star anticipates that it will be no more and hopefully less than a current Fly/Sail package between the UK and St Helena, which for the very cheapes berths on the RMS St Helena would I think currently be around £1600 via Ascencion Island.

Atlantic Star's plans require a Government subsidy for the first five years or so. No indication is given of how big this would be, and I am unclear whether such a subsidy is included within the £250 million the British Government has allocated to build and run the airport for 10 years.

Frankly I am a little underwhelmed by this. It is beginning to look to me as if the new airport will have plenty of spare capacity for the private jets and military aircraft that a number of sceptics have predicted. A respected member of the Friends of St Helena told me yesterday that he expects the RMS St Helena to be with us for rather longer than the Government is currently admitting.

I hope this pessimism is without foundation, but anyway we should get a clearer idea of the St Helena Government's plans by the middle of 2014.

Monday, 7 October 2013

"Napoleon's Desk" at Downton Abbey: all is not what it seems

"Napoleon's Desk" at Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey)

During our stay on St Helena earlier this year we visited Longwood House after 30 or so pieces of furniture had been removed, packed and sent to Paris for renovation in time for an exhibition planned at Les Invalides in 2016. Not long after our return to the UK we received with some incredulity a report from a friend that she had just seen Napoleon's desk from Longwood House at Highclete Castle!

Sure enough a web search revealed that such claims were made for this piece of furniture by the current owners of Highclere as recently as January 2012:

The mahogany desk and chair in the Music Room belonged to Napoleon. “They were bought by the third earl of Carnarvon in 1821 after Napoleon’s death,” Lady Carnarvon said. The chair was made for Napoleon, and the Carnarvons have a sketch of him by it circa 1804. "The desk is probably from the same period, and both pieces went with him into exile at Longwood house on St. Helena,” she said, referring to the island where Napoleon died. (1)
Another article, dated April 2013 claims
The green leather-topped desk and carved griffin-image chair were created by Jacob Frères, the furniture-making company of the brothers Georges II and François-Honoré Jacob from 1796 to 1803. Napoleon took the desk and chair with him into exile on the Island of St. Helena after his defeat at Waterloo. The pair was purchased by the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon in 1821 after Napoleon’s death that year. (2)

Now one thing we do know with certainty is that other than his camp bed, on which he died, Napoleon took no furniture with him to St Helena. We also know that all the furniture at Longwood was English, and as the furniture restorer currently working on the Longwood furniture in Paris said to me, it is far inferior to the pieces on display at Highclere Castle.

Highclere Castle, home of the Carnarvon family, scene of the TV series, "Downton Abbey"

In view of these erroneous claims I contacted Highclere. I was informed that the guides had originally been told that the desk was English, probably by George Bullock, and was purchased for Napoleon by the Britsh Government. This information was changed a few years ago to say that it was made by the same person who had made the chair stamped ‘Jacob Freres rue Meslee’, which did not come from Longwood House, contrary to the quotations above. I was also informed that the desk was purchased in 1827, being part of the contents of Longwood House, and that Highclere Castle has a note from Napoleon’s chaplain (presumably Vignali not the ubiquitous Rev Boys) saying that it came from St Helena after Napoleon's death. (3)

The archivist at Highclere later confirmed to me that there have been changes in the attribution of the desk, but also that there is very little about it in the archives. So I think we can state with certainty that none of the conflicting stories linking this desk to Longwood House have any credibility. The furniture in Longwood House was British, this beautiful desk is French, it was not taken by Napoleon to St Helena.

The most logical explanation is that the 3rd Lord Carnarvon was the victim of a scam, and that his descendants have been clutching at straws in order to validate the desk's faulty provenance. One would have hoped that at the very least the owners might have contacted the curator at Longwood House before allowing such claims to be made, but in any case I think it is time to tell the truth.


1.Los Angeles Times, Jan 30 2012

2. Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine, April 2013

3. Boys was the Anglican priest who never actually met Napoleon but along with his descendants has been the source of much confusion. I have written a number of blogs about Rev Boys, concerning another armchair allegedly from Longwood, about other confusing claims and the death masks his family years later claimed were made for Rev Boys on St Helena.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

In the Footsteps of Napoleon: Madeira, Henry Veitch and Winston Churchill

The 1792 "Napoleon Madeira"

A recent visit to Madeira made me look up the story of Napoleon's brief stay off shore on board HMS Northumberland in August 1815. I first heard of this from a friend who writes a wine blog.

The only person allowed to go on board the Northumberland and meet Napoleon was the then British Consul, Henry Veitch. A Scotsman, born in Selkirk, who spent most of his life on Madeira, Veitch played a very important part in Madeira's somewhat complex history in the first half of the nineteenth century. A man of liberal sympathies, who was also a strong supporter of Madeiran autonomy, Veitch served as Consul from 1809 until 1834.

Henry Veitch (1782-1857), British Consul-General on Madeira

He was suspended from duties in 1828, at the commencement of the Portuguese Civil War, but still retained some influence and was restored by Palmerston in 1831. At least one of the guide books eerroneously says that he was dismissed for calling Napoleon "your Majesty".

Veitch's visit on board was recorded at the time by Admiral Cockburn's Secretary, John Glover

Mr. Veitch, His Majesty's consul, visited the ship, of whom Bonaparte asked numerous questions with respect to the island, its produce, the height above the level of the sea, its population, &c. Mr. Veitch dined on board, and after dinner Bonaparte walked with him and the admiral a considerable time, conversing on general topics, when he retired at once to his bedroom without joining the card-table. (1)

As the story goes Veitch gave Napoleon some fruits and other gifts, and persuaded him to take a pipe of Madeira, a barrel containing around 600 bottles.

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Funchal

Veitch always claimed that he was never paid for the Madeira, but he was given some gold coins by Napoleon. According to the accepted story, these were buried beneath the foundation stone of the Anglican church in Funchal, the building of which was supervised by Veitch.

Napoleon's own reaction to Madeira was recorded by another Englishman on board the Northumberland, William Warden:

On our approach to Madeira, the hazy state of the atmosphere precluded the possibility of seeing the Island, until we got close between Puerto Santo and the Deserts. The latter rocky island is almost perpendicular; and has some slight resemblance to St. Helena. This circumstance I mentioned to De las Cases, and he instantly communicated it to Napoleon, who had quitted the dinner-table sooner than usual, and joined a few of us on the poop: but the comparison of what he now saw, with his gloomy notions of the place where he was shortly to abide, produced not a single word. He gave an energetic shrug, and a kind of contemptuous smile; and that was all. The sloping front and luxuriant aspect of the island of Madeira could not but excite an unpleasant sensation, when contrasted with the idea he had entertained of the huge black rock of St. Helena. (2)

The barrel of Madeira was never opened by Napoleon, and after his death was returned to the island where it remained with Blandy’s until 1840. Most of it was used to make the famous solera of 1792, but some 200 bottles were filled solely from Napoleon’s barrel. Such bottles are now very rare, and very valuable. One of these was given to that great admirer of Napoleon, Winston Churchill, when he holidayed at Reid's Palace on Madeira in 1950.

Winston Churchill painting at Câmara de Lobos, the small fishing village above which Henry Veitch built a fine house, now the Quinta Jardim Da Serra Hotel

Sir Winston insisted on pouring a glass for each guest, commenting "Do you realise that when this wine was vintaged Marie Antoinette was still alive?".


1. Napoleon's last voyages : being the diaries of Sir Thomas Ussher, (on board the "Undaunted"), and John R. Glover, secretary to Rear Admiral Cockburn (on board the "Northumberland") p 165

2. Letters written on board His Majesty's Ship the Northumberland and at St. Helena’ (1816), William Warden pp 73-4

Friday, 20 September 2013

Images of Napoleon on St Helena 1818-1821

NAPOLEON I two months before his death, sketched from the life by the English Naval Captain Maryat [sic]

I have in the past posted some images of Napoleon made after his death. I thought it might be interesting to display these lesser known images of him made made by Englishmen on the island in the later years of his captivity.

Napoleon 1820, from drawing made by Captain Henry Duncan Dodgin of 66th Regiment

I have serious doubts about the very unflattering portrait with the German inscription, allegedly painted by Captain Marryat in 1821. Napoleon ventured out so little in the weeks before his death that it would have been near impossible to have made an accurate sketch of him, and I would be surprised if he ever willingly posed for one of his captors.

Napoleon 1818, painting by Basil Jackson

I also wonder if there was not a certain amount of conscious or unconscious copying by the various artists.

Friday, 13 September 2013

In the Steps of Napoleon: The Fishers Valley

The Honorary French Consul and an abanoned Ford above the Fishers Valley

There is litle to bring most tourists to the Fishers Valley. We had not ventured here on our first visit to St Helena, but this time Michel Martineau, sometimes referred to, not entirely with his approval, as Napoleon's representative on earth, promised to show us the way.

Close to Longwood, and within the perimeter of the area in which Napoleon was allowed to ride unescorted, at the bottom of Fishers Valley is a narrow stretch of fertile land in which a number of poor farmers once lived and tried to scratch out a living.

There are still signs of cultivation in the valley, but not of human habitation.

Down here Napoleon and his companions could ride among the inhabitants, but were forbidden to comunicate with them.

Little now remains of the small farms that once were here.

Their rude architecture provides a great contrast with the country houses built at the same time by St Helena's elite.

The Nymph of the Valley

Riding in this rather depressing valley in January 1816 Napoleon and Las Cases came across Mary Ann Robinson, still only 16, maybe not as beautiful as the Longwood entourage, short of female company, found her.

Napoleon gave her some gold coins, named her "the Nymph of Las Cases", and the valley where she lived with her parents and sister as "the valley of silence".

Soon though for the Longword entourage, and for the whole island, she became "the nymph of the valley".

Both Gourgaud and Piontkowski coveted her affections, as did a number of soldiers, but their intentions were not entirely honourable, and she was looking for a more permanent commitment.

This she found in the person of Captain James Ives Edwards, whose ship Dorah arrived at St Helena on 5th July 1817 with the 53rd Regiment. The good Captain asked for her hand on 7th July, they were married on 17th and the nymph departed her valley and St Helena on the 29th.

A Fishers Valley Farm, often held probably mistakenly, to be the home of the "Nymph"

Before leaving, on July 26th, 1817, Mary Ann brought her new husband to say goodbye to Napoleon. According to Napoleon the Captain bore a resemblance to Prince Eugène.

That is about the last that was heard of "the Nymph". Unlike Betsy Balcombe she never tried to profit from her acquaintance with Napoleon. (1)

The husband, Captain John Ives Edwards, who evidently had some sympathy for Napoleon's plight, visited Mme Bertrand a few weeks before Napoleon died.

The Valley has its own beauty, but one can imagine how desolate Napoleon and his party must have found it, particularly amidst the mist and rain which are constant companions in the winter months.

It was ironic to find down here a few clumps of the Australian daisies, the gift of Lady Holland to the inhabitants of Longwood, which have now spread over the island and provide a permanent memorial to Napoleon's captivity.

Because of the construction of the airport it is at present not possible to complete the route Napoleon often took back behind Longwood.

We were also obstructed by a large amount of water, somewhat surprising in view of the shortages and the long period of drought that the island was going through at the time of our visit!


1. There is a chapter on Mary Ann Robinson in Chroniques de Sainte-Hélène : Atlantique sud by Michel Martineau, pp 163-168.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Wranghams and the Historic Country Houses of St Helena

Wranghams, one of St Helena's remaining colonial houses

Earlier this year I was taken to see Wranghams, a fine late eighteenth century house, secluded down a long drive above Sandy Bay, with a fine view of the hills to its front. It stands in three acres of now overgrown garden and orchards, sadly neglected by its owners, the St Helena Government.

Wranghams from the back garden

Having seen the state of some of the other country houses on the island its current neglect was a matter of some concern. Houses on St Helena deteriorate very fast.

Wranghams front view

I was interested therefore to read last week on St Helena online that the newly elected Councillors, have thrown out a Government proposal to downgrade it from a listed Grade III to a Grade II building.

Wranghams back garden

Wranghams has in the past had some unsympathetic alterations, but it could be restored to something approaching its original state, and it is encouraging that the new crop of Councillors are sensitive to such issues. I do hope that the means to save Wranghams will be found before it is too late.

St Helena's Country Houses

The country houses on St Helena mostly date from the latter part of the eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. They were built for the prominent, established families who held all the important positions during the days of the East India Company. At the apex was Plantation House, the country home of the Governor, the representative of the East India Company on the island.

Plantation House, late eighteenth century, the seat of the Governor of St Helena
Only slightly less grand were the houses of the members of the Council and their extended families, who intermarried, and often had houses in the town as well as in the country.

Oakbank, mid eighteenth century, built by the Dovetons, beautifully restored by the current owners

Wooden plaque in Oakbank dated 1843 with the name of Samuel Doveton, and also of C.R.G. Hodson, Sir William Doveton's son in law, dated 1824

These fine Georgian country houses, reflecting the aspirations, life styles and aesthetic tastes of St Helena's elite, are a vital part of the island's heritage, and an unique part also of British colonial history.

Oaklands, early nineteenth century, maybe older, once inhabited by some of the Brooke family.

Prospect House, early nineteenth century, once home of T.H. Brooke, Member of the Council, the nephew of a former Governor

Farm Lodge, early nineteenth century, now a fine country house hotel

Of the remaining houses Bamboo Grove and Bamboo Hedge seem, from photgrapic evidence, not in imminent danger, although I would be surprised if they were in as good a state as Oakbank.

Bamboo Grove 1808

Bamboo Hedge circa 1800

But Rock Rose, and sadly now Teutonic Hall, on which I have written before, look to be past the point of no return.

Rock Rose

Teutonic Hall
Inside Teutonic Hall

Then there is the sad story of Rose Cottage. Earlier this year I got permission from a representative of the Thornton Trust to visit this remote house above Sandy Bay, close to Mount Pleasant.

Rose Cottage, formely the home of Sir William Doveton's daughter, Mrs Greentree

Sad to say what remains of this once elegant house is not visible until you reach its walls. In fact you might miss it altogether, but for the statue of "The Man", the late G. A. D. 'Tony' Thornton, who was deported from the island by Governor Sir Thomas Oates in 1975.

"The Man", Statue of G.A.D. Thornton

During my stay this year I met two inhabitants who as children were taken to tea at this once fine house.

Rose Cottage returned to nature

The cellar opening at Rose Cottage

Wreath laid at base of Tony Thornton's statue

This provides a graphic illustration of what can happen quite quickly to houses that are neglected on St Helena.

This survey would not be complete without mention of Rosemary Hall on Francis Plain, perhaps the finest of them all, home of the Austrian and Russian Commissioners during the captivity of Napoleon.

Rosemary Hall

This imposing house was destroyed in the early 1930's, reputedly a victim of the termites that have done so much damage to the buildings on the island since the 1840's, and which are now said to be threatening Wranghams.

Part of the walls of Rosemary Hall
Adjoining house said to be the home of the butler, saved allegedly because it was constructed using red iron bark

A brief study of these houses, all built in a similar classical style, affords a unique insight into St Helena society at the height of East India Company rule. From the arrival of Napoleon things would never be the same again.

One final reflection is perhaps in order: clearly it would have been possible to have housed Napoleon in rather better circumstances than Longwood. Insofar as he ever expressed any preferences, Napoleon himself said he would wish to live in the more fertile part of the island, where of course most of the fine country houses were built. Clearly the inhospitable and isolated plain at Longwood was chosen for security reasons alone.

NOTE: Note: This blog has more photos than usual. I have decided to keep them small, but all may be enlarged if they are double clicked.