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Revealed: plan to tunnel through to Rupert’s Valley

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J C Melliss reported on the possibility of digging a tunnel from Upper Jamestown to Rupert's Valley
J C Melliss reported on the possibility of digging a tunnel from Upper Jamestown to Rupert’s Valley

Records found abandoned on St Helena’s rubbish tip reveal how the island’s administrators considered digging a tunnel between Upper Jamestown at Rupert’s Valley.

When John Charles Melliss was the Colonial Engineer on St Helena, the only path leading into Rupert’s Valley was the coastal route round Munden’s Point.

The island’s prison had been built in the upper part of Rupert’s, and attempts had been made in the early 1860s to establish a settlement there, known as Hay Town after Governor Drummond Hay.

Now a brief report on the planned tunnel has been saved from being destroyed before island historians had even realised its existence, in a hand-written book found by Denis “Oxie” Young on the island’s landfill site.

Melliss’s copy of the report is dated 14 January 1870.

It is headed: Memorandum with reference to a proposed tunnel Rupert’s Hill for the purpose of connecting Rupert’s Valley with James Town. 

As Colonial Engineer, Melliss advised that the tunnel could be dug through 580 yards of Rupert’s Hill, starting in the quarry that still exists near the hospital in Upper Jamestown.

His report described a thick bed of volcanic rock running almost horizontally through the hill.

He wrote: “…it is proposed to drive a tunnel through this bed of stone, which is soft and easily worked, for the purpose of connecting by level way Rupert’s Valley, which contains a good building ground, with James Town…”

The commencement of Hay Town had been made possible in the 1850s with the establishment of a reliable water supply for Rupert’s Valley, piped into the valley from The Briars.

At the time of Melliss’s report on the tunnel scheme, Rupert’s Valley was still being used intermittently as a holding camp for Africans liberated from slave-running ships.

The island’s 32-year role as a liberation station would not come to an end until two years later. The horrors of the time were revived by the excavation of hundreds of graves in the valley in 2007.

In 1875, Melliss published an account of the unloading of a slaveship – “a scene so intensified in all that is horrible that it almost defies description.”

He recounted going aboard one ship, and finding that “the whole deck, as I picked my way from end to end, in order to avoid treading upon them, was thickly strewn with the dead, dying and starved bodies of what seemed to me to be a species of ape which I had never seen before.”

Despite this recent memory and the associations it must have had for islanders, he was able to comment in his tunnel report on the “good building ground” to be found in Rupert’s Valley.

Melliss’s own father, G W Melliss – the man who built Jacob’s Ladder in Jamestown – had drawn out a plan dividing the length of Rupert’s Valley into building plots.

Modern-day historian Nick Thorpe said he could not recall ever reading about Melliss’s report of the tunnel scheme.

In fact, the tunnel idea would emerge again in the 20th Century, according to a document held in the UK’s National Archives at Kew in London.

The record is dated 1932-1946 and headed: St Helena: construction of roads; proposed road tunnel from Jamestown to Ruperts Valley.

In the 21st Century, the need for a good road route between the two places has surfaced once again, with plans for Rupert’s Valley to become the main location for unloading goods brought by sea.

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