St Helena Online

Tag: Jacobs Ladder

The day a tortoise turned turtle for the King of England

Flags flapped along the seafront as King George VI stepped ashore on St Helena… a small island, somewhere off the coast of France.

Quite a long way off, actually – and the same goes for the rest of the text that accompanies newly released archive footage of the royal visit.

One is left wondering whether it is possible to libel a tortoise.

Undiplomatic blunder: film notes put St Helena in France
Undiplomatic blunder: film notes put St Helena in France

The five-minute British Pathé news film, now made public on the YouTube website, shows the King and Queen stepping ashore at the wharf on 29 April 1947.

They were accompanied by the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

The royal party are seen looking round Napoleon’s badly dilapidated home at Longwood, and then admiring Jonathan the tortoise on the governor’s lawn.

The King even crouches down to try to feed him a banana, which the old boy appears to treat with some disdain.

There is also brief footage of two unnamed young Saints showing the traditional technique for sliding down Jacob’s Ladder, at an impressive speed.

The film is silent – it would have been shown in cinemas with a scripted voice-over, and music – so viewers must rely on the accompanying text to learn what is going on in the pictures.

But the text isn’t too reliable. For one thing, it says the men are sliding down St Jacob’s Ladder.

And the location of the film is given as “St Helena, France”: a bit of a slip, given that the Queen was later to summon the French Ambassador to explain why his government had allowed Longwood House to fall into severe neglect.

But the greatest indignity is suffered by old Jonathan, who even in 1947 was considered impressively ancient.

The notes refer to “several shots of the royal family observing a giant turtle.”

Turtles are indeed found in the waters around St Helena, but they’re not often seen eating bananas on the governor’s lawn, a thousand feet or so above sea level.

Eventually the royal party make their way back to the landing steps, with several straw bonnets and pith helmets in evidence in the large crowd.

The royal party stopped at the island on their way back from South Africa, on their first overseas visit after the Second World War – as noted by future governor David Smallman in Quincentenary, his history of the island.

He says that the present Queen Elizabeth clearly remembered her first experience of arum lilies growing in the wild. She had celebrated her 21st birthday a week earlier.

As the royal party prepared to leave the island, His Majesty told the crowd: “This is the first occasion on a which a reigning Sovereign has ever set foot on St Helena.

“I wish to tell you how much the Queen and I, and our daughters, have enjoyed our brief visit.

“We wish you all prosperity in the future.”

Mr Smallman also notes that the Queen’s remonstrations led to the posting of a French official to care for the Napoleonic properties on St Helena.

The online notes record that the film ends with “more daytime shots of the royal party looking around from the deck” of HMS Vanguard.

Hmmm – nice beaches. That looks a bit like Ascension…

The text accompanying footage on YouTube
The text accompanying footage on YouTube

Click here to watch the British Pathé news film

Royalty on St Helena – in David Smallman’s book, Quincentenary
Reflections on a Journey to St Helena – pictures of the royal visit

Who ‘disarmed’ the Boer War bomb in the tower?

In his column in the St Helena Independent, Julian Cairns-Wicks recalled the saga of the unexploded bomb that was discovered in the old round tower on Ladder Hill. But what happened to it? Here’s the down-to-earth answer, as told to the Friends of St Helena by former governor ANDREW GURR.  

The unexploded bomb – now there’s a good story.

We learned about it as the RMS St Helena was a day out of Ascension, and I was also told there was a bomb expert on Ascension who could put it right. So after a lot of haggling, we turned the ship round and we went back to Ascension.

We then had haggling with goodness knows how many people in the UK as to whether this lady could get on the ship, and at midnight, after we had been negotiating all evening, she got on board and we took her back to St Helena.

And the story has a wonderful end, because she said it was an air-burst cluster bomb from the Boer War and she couldn’t dismantle it because she didn’t know how to, but she suggested we roped off the area and didn’t go near it, and sooner or later somebody might come.

So she went back.

I rang up the Ministry of Defence and said, could someone come and take it away? They said, “It’s not our bomb.”

I said, “Of course it’s your bomb: you fought in the Boer War, didn’t you? It’s a British bomb. Come and take it away.”

And they wouldn’t.

Only last year (2011), I noticed the area wasn’t roped off. I said, “What’s happened to that?”

I was told: “Oh, a fireman picked it up, went down the Ladder, and threw it in the sea.”

St Helena Online asks: who was the no-nonsense fireman who carried the 110-year-old on the long walk down Jacob’s Ladder, thus saving taxpayers a bill for a couple of thousand pounds or more? If you know, click on the “Contact” tab at the top of this website or tell Mike at the St Helena Independent. 

Graham beats Jacob’s Ladder record – hands down

picture by Tina Yon-Stevens, St Helena
I’ll crawl if I have to: Graham Doig sets a new Jacob’s Ladder record. Picture by Tina Yon-Stevens

The record for climbing Jacob’s Ladder has been broken by less than a second – by a “runner” who went up on all fours.

Graham Doig cleared the 699th step of the St Helena landmark in a time of 5 minutes, 16.78 seconds, using feet and hands. Then he rolled on to the ground at the feet of spectators.

copyright: Tiny Yon-Stevens, St Helena
That hurt: Graham reaches the top. Picture: Tina Yon-Stevens

The previous record was 5 minutes 17 seconds.

And island resident Martin Squibbs set a new record for others to try to beat – five ascents of the Ladder (and four descents) in a time of one hour, 14 minutes and 4 seconds, with the clock running throughout.

Martin is an outdoor enthusiast who has made a practice of climbing the notorious flight of steps out of Jamestown at least twice a week.

He had previously managed three ascents in succession before deciding to set himself the five-climb challenge.

Charlotte Hubbard climbed three times.
Charlotte Hubbard climbed three times.

School student Charlotte Hubbard also completed three ascents, but her overall time was not recorded because organisers had not known in advance that she would do so.

Graham is a visiting consultant working for engineering firm Fairhurst, due to leave the island on 25 January 2013 after a two-week visit. He is a keen mountain biker.

He passed up on the technique used by most Ladder challengers, who use the wide handrails to pull themselves up, and instead pitched forward and placed both his hands and his feet on the steps, as though climbing a fireman’s ladder.

The same approach could be adopted by future runners – especially those with short arms.

Martin leads the way
Martin leads the way

In all, 24 people took part in the Ladder Challenge in aid of New Horizons youth centre – many of them members of the organisation. Chairman Derek Richards and his wife Linda joined the climb, as did manager Nick Stevens.

Ten-year-old Josh Benjamin managed the climb in 9 minutes and 28 seconds, six seconds faster than Aiden Yon-Stevens – Nick’s son – who was the youngest challenger, aged just seven.

Every participant was asked to raise at least £5 in sponsorship.

All pictures by Tina Yon-Stevens


Each of the Ladder’s 699 steps is roughly 11 inches high and 11 inches deep, making an incline of about 1:1. But cruelly, it’s much steeper at the top.

There used to be 700 steps. The bottom one is now below ground.

Jacob’s Ladder was originally built as an inclined railway for hauling animal dung and guano out of Jamestown, and to lower fresh produce into the town. Construction was supervised by Lieutenant G W Mellis during the governorship of Brigadier-General Dallas. Trucks were pulled by ropes linked to a capstan, powered by donkeys. The railway fell into ruin when the East India Company lost control of St Helena.

Island children learned to slide down the rails of the ladder, extending their arms along one rail and using their feet to brake against the other. It is said they carried hot food down to soldiers, on their stomachs.

The original Jacob’s Ladder appears in the Book of Genesis in the Holy Bible. It led to Heaven. The St Helena Jacob’s Ladder leads somewhere else.

Several other places around the world have flights of steps called Jacob’s Ladder. They are found in the UK at Sidmouth, Cheddar Gorge and the iconic Kinder Scout hill, and in Massachusetts (USA), Auckland (New Zealand) and Perth (Australia).

Andrew Gurr, governor from 2007 to 2011, climbed the Ladder regularly. He invited islanders to join him on his hundredth ascent, and many did.

Ladder challenges are staged every two years as the final event in the St Helena Festival of Running. If it was the first event, runners would suffer “ladder legs” and be unable to manage the run up Diana’s Peak.

Records are now kept of the fastest ascent times, but they do not include the results of a challenge staged for the first Governor’s Cup yacht race carnival in 1996. For the record, a yachtie from New Caledonia won a crate of beer for running up in 5 mins, 33 secs. Second place – and no beer – went to the future editor of St Helena Online, with a time of 5 mins 45.12 secs. Chris, a UK half-Saint from Portsmouth, was third in 5.52.

Matty John, a legendary squeezebox player in the mid 20th Century, would climb the Ladder every Saturday night after sessions in the White Horse. Once, near the top, he fell, but was saved when his braces got snagged. He was spotted by an inmate in the prison below, and rescued.

When first-time climbers think they’re half way up the Ladder, they’re not.

Twenty four people took part in the Ladder Challenge on 21 January 2013. With the eight ascents completed by Martin Squibbs and Charlotte Hubbard, the total number of steps climbed was 20,970.

For more Jacob’s Ladder facts, visit John Turner’s St Helena website

Henrietta says island running is ‘spectacular’

St Helena Day ‘best to date’, says Nick

Two men squeezed into the back of a mini car... one with his bottom in the surprised face of the other
When they said “novelty” sports, I didn’t think….

The “best St Helena Day” for years raised more than two and a half thousand pounds for Nick Stevens’s organising team at New Horizons.

Monday’s celebrations included the biggest firework display seen on the island for a decade, and the introduction of new comic sports, including a dressing-up race.

Carnival float - the bow is the RMS St Helena, the stern is a sailing ship, an aeroplane flies above
Transport of delights: Pilling School’s float

“This was the first time we had novelty sports outside of the swimming pool and I thought it went really well,” said Nick. “There were people down there laughing until tears come out their eyes.

“The teams had to get eight of their team members into a Mini. That was quite a laugh.

New Horizons and Basil Read, the airport contractor, shared first place in the tournament, said Nick, “but because they are guests I talked to New Horizons and we decided to give them the gold medal and the cup.”

Click here to see Saint FM’s pictures of St Helena Day celebrations

The celebrations began with a religious service, with music provided by members of the St Helena Band, the Gettogethers Orchestra and the Salvation Army. There was also a parade by the Guides and Scouts.

Children's swimsuit contest
Every girl was a princess for the day

The afternoon procession saw a replica of the RMS St Helena come sailing down Main Street – but the stern half of the vessel was that of a square-rigged sailing ship. And soaring above it all was an aeroplane.

The extraordinary ship was created by Pilling School in Jamestown with the title, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” First prize was taken by another ship, created by St Paul’s.

A mini marathon attracted 32 runners, and 29 people took part in the gruelling Jacob’s Ladder Challenge, with competitors taking turns to tackle the 699 steps well into the evening.

“I was really pleased with the turnout,” said Nick, whose team has organised the event for the past six years. “We had close to 2,000 people in attendance and it was probably our best St Helena Day to date.

Firework lights up Ladder Hill
Fireworks are a rare treat on St Helena

“We were quite amazed with the takings on the gate – £1,912.89. That is the most we have ever taken on the gate.”

With sponsorship and a street collection, New Horizons has banked £2,536.67 to help pay for its work with young people on the island. It is fund-raising to take a group of teenagers to Ascension Island next year.

“It wouldn’t work without the fantastic help I have had,” Nick told Saint FM. “It takes a lot of effort and it wouldn’t be possible without the help of a lot of people.”

He thanked various groups, including Johnny Dillon’s team at the Mule Yard and the police, as well as the main sponsors, St Helena Government and the Bank of St Helena.

The celebrations, which take place on 21 May each year, mark the anniversary of the island’s discovery in 1502.

St Helena Day dances also took place in the UK on Saturday night, in London and Swindolena.

(Pictures courtesy of Saint FM and Barry Hubbard)

Barry’s pictures capture St Helena Day laughter
Museum celebrates 10 years on St Helena Day (with audio)