Saved: ‘national treasure’ is found on rubbish dump

Drawings of The Run feature in a book that was found on St Helena's landfill site.
Drawings of The Run feature in a book that was found on St Helena’s landfill site.

A journal written by one of St Helena’s most important historical figures has been found on the island’s rubbish tip.

Historian Nick Thorpe has described the hand-written book by 19th Century engineer John Charles Melliss as “something of a national treasure” – and it was nearly lost.

It is not known how it came to be thrown on to the landfill site at Horse Point, where it was discovered by Denis “Oxie” Young.

J C Melliss condemned "miserable" huts occupied by freed Africans in the old China Town
J C Melliss condemned “miserable” huts occupied by freed Africans in the old China Town

Entries by the celebrated historian and naturalist include his report on a plan to dig a tunnel between Upper Jamestown and Rupert’s Valley.

In another, he urged the demolition of a collection of “miserable” huts in the island’s former China Town, occupied at the time by Africans liberated from captured slave ships, and the descendants of Chinese workers.

J C Melliss is acclaimed as the author the 1875 work, St Helena: A Physical Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, described by the late historian Trevor Hearl as the most impressive book ever written about St Helena.

His descriptions of endemic plants are still cited by conservationists.

The work found by Denis gives a new insight into living conditions on St Helena at a momentous time in its history.

Denis took his find to show his brother-in-law, Mike Thorpe, at his home at Oakbank.

By chance, Oakbank had also been the childhood home of the very man whose book Denis had found on the rubbish tip.

Mike immediately recognised its significance, and took photographs that he then passed on to his brother, Nick.

Had Denis not spotted the hand-written work, it might easily have been covered up by other waste within days and lost to history.

Nick said: “I haven’t seen the journal, but some extracts show discussion on a tunnel to Rupert’s, and water distribution – all very current. This is something of a national treasure.”

The water map shows how spring water was supplied to parts of the island that have been caught up in the drought crisis of 2013, including the governor’s residence at Plantation House.

The book also contains drawings showing the poor state of The Run, the watercourse through Jamestown, with proposed repairs; and also a report on the condition of a building that had been used as “the Ragged School”.

It is not clear what will happen to the collection – or whether Denis can be required to hand it over to the island’s government.

And an investigation may be needed to discover how it came to be thrown away.

  • Melliss's signature on a document dated 1871 - a year after he reportedly lost his job
    Melliss’s signature on a document dated 1871 – a year after he reportedly lost his job

    The new discovery may cause island historians to review the story of John Charles Melliss – as recounted in St Helena Britannica, a book of papers by Trevor Hearl that was published only in June 2013. Its account of the Melliss family activities – which included building Jacob’s Ladder – says that in 1870, “the military took over public works making ‘J.C.’ redundant at thirty-five without any prospect of employment.” Melliss had “little choice in 1871 but to leave the island”. But that is at odds with one entry in the collection found on the rubbish tip by Denis Young. The report it contains on the Ragged School building is signed “J C Melliss, Colonial Engineer” – and dated 1871.

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  1. Thanks for this report. John was very talented – even as a 15 year old he assited his father George in drawing up plans for St Paul’s cathedral and when he attended King’s College, London, he was the first year surveying and geometrical drawing scholar and “prizeman”. I look forward to any update on what other gems the book holds. I am a descendant of the Melliss family.

  2. Re; John Charles Melliss report found recently by Denis Young and your comment that as it was written in 1871 this is “at odds” with Melliss leaving the Island in 1871. J.C. was the brother of my husband’s great-grandmother and our documented life of the Melliss family shows that John Charles Melliss was pensioned off on a pension of £186-6s-8d p.a., on 31 March 1871 ..and left St. Helena on 14th June 1871 on the RMS Norseman with his wife Alice to return to England, via the West Indies. It appears that his report is dated 9th February 1871.

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