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.


Hels said...

Those Georgian houses must have all been beautiful. But a few of the houses, eg Oaklands and Prospect House, look specifically designed to suit the conditions of St Helena. I wonder if the East India Company provided the architectural designs and the builders, or the owners made their own decisions.

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Hels,

Interesting question. I won't even hazard a guess, but I will do a trawl through the Wirebird Magazine to see whether there is anything on colonial architecture and construction.



Michel Dancoisne-Martineau said...

Great survey and pertinent selection of buildings, John.
Visitors seldom realize how difficult it is to maintain Longwood House situated within St-Helena worth weather condition area. Moreover, it stresses how fragile all those buildings are and how quickly decays occur.

Cyril Wade said...

Have just come across this blog on period houses on St Helena.
I am the owner of Teutonic but now reside in the UK.
Unfortunately time and weather have not been good to it and is well beyond repair.
However in earlier days there were grants from the Heritage society on the island in which I applied for
being turned down because I was at the time working on Ascension Island and so no entitled to any grant as
earning a fair wage on Ascension.
Other houses grade listed at the time and after all had the grant to help with the work needed even someone who at the time was
not an islander managed to get the grant. And guess what the person who is I believe still a member of the Heritage society wants to purchase the property...
So now you know why Teutonic is in such disrepair ! We have plans but not for the old house it is to far gone.

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Cyril,

It is good to get your perspective on Teutonic. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, it is very sad that this fine old house cannot be saved for future generations.