St Helena Online

Tag: Plantation House

How an absent governor returned to St Helena, 230 years on

A chance discovery has led to a former governor of St Helena taking his rightful place on the island, 230 years after he sailed away with his St Helenian wife. Here, New Zealander DAVID NICOLL tells how he tracked down his ancestor’s portrait – and met relatives still living on St Helena. 

David Nicoll with the portrait of his ancestor, Governor Skottowe, at home in New Zealand

The story starts with the rekindling of a connection of one of my distant relations in New Zealand, Dame Alison Quentin-Baxter.  Dame Alison has visited St Helena twice to advise on legal and constitutional issues.  It was Dame Alison who told me about Governor John Skottowe (born 1725, died 1786).

Dame Alison also told me about a book about the Skottowe family called The Leaf and the Tree, written by Philip Skottowe and published in 1961.  I found the book online and had it sent to New Zealand. That book contains a black-and-white photograph of the original portrait of John Skottowe, painted in 1784 by David Martin.

John seemed quite a remarkable fellow, and so in 2011 I looked up further information about him on the internet.  To my surprise, a colour copy of John’s portrait appeared on the internet.  On checking further, I found that the portrait had been put up for sale through Christie’s of London in 2008.

I was disappointed to think that I had missed the chance to buy the portrait.  But some weeks later I emailed Christie’s in London to find out what happened to the portrait.  It was unsold, and still at their premises.

I went to London, bought it and had it shipped back to New Zealand.  The vendor of the portrait was not a family member.

Governor Skottowe married Margaret Greentree, soon after being posted to St Helena, and had four children.  One of their daughters is my ancestor.

I was fortunate to come to beautiful St Helena in January 2012, and met many family members on that trip – not least of which were Alice Greentree and son Adam Williams, even Captain Rodney on the RMS. Captain Greentree is also a relation, but I haven’t met him.

All our extended family on the island made us very welcome, especially Adrian Greentree; as did Basil George (not a relation) who guided us around the island.

My wife Rosey and I were also delighted to meet Governor and Mrs Capes at Plantation House during our visit.  It was on that visit that I promised Governor Capes to send a framed copy of the 1784 portrait of Governor Skottowe, which could hang in the corridor in Plantation House where there are many portraits of prior governors.

It was lucky that my father’s cousin, Tom Pickering, and his wife Sue also decided to visit St Helena this year, and so it was agreed that they would carry the copy of the portrait.

I wasn’t aware of the portrait being lost for a while in Cape Town!

In October 2012 I was in the United Kingdom and went to visit All Saints Church in Little Melton, Norfolk, where John Skottowe was baptised in 1725.  There were many memorials to the family in that small church.  Shortly after 1725, the Skottowe family moved to Yorkshire.

Another interesting connection is that John Skottowe’s father Thomas employed a labourer on his farm in Yorkshire. His son was apparently very bright, and so Thomas Skottowe paid for his education –as a schoolmate of his own son, John.

That labourer’s son turned out to be Captain James Cook.  There was at least one reunion between Governor John Skottowe and James Cook, including in 1775 when Cook, in the Resolution, called in at St Helena and spent time a happy week with Governor and Mrs Skottowe.

‘Missing’ portrait travels from Auckland… and goes missing

After 150-plus years, Gentleman Jonathan gets his privacy

That’s close enough: an island visitor with one of St Helena’s younger tortoises. In future, they’ll be fenced off

St Helena’s “creakingly old national treasure,” Jonathan the tortoise, will soon be protected from over-enthusiastic tourists, in an effort to extend the long life of the oldest known creature in the world. Work has started on building a fenced walkway at Plantation House to protect its tortoises. 

by St Helena Government writer 

Tortoises are sensitive creatures and, as we all know, Jonathan is getting very old, having famously exceeded his life expectancy of 150 years by probably 30 years or more.

Classic view: Plantation House and distinguished residents

At this great age, his senses and ability to eat are impaired, and we can consider him to be a rather frail old gentleman – one who has good and bad days.

We wish to do everything possible to extend the latter part of Jonathan’s life by protecting his welfare and ensuring that he is not disturbed and stressed.

Unfortunately, this can happen when tour groups all-too-frequently ignore the “two-metre rule” to get that once-in-a-lifetime snapshot with the oldest known living animal on the planet.

Properly caring for Jonathan and his friends means that we must restrict access. As increasing numbers of visitors to the island will naturally wish to see Plantation and St Helena’s most famous animal resident, the impact on the paddock – the tortoise habitat – will become untenable.

Plantation, the tortoises and the paddock are a great asset to tourism and highly photogenic, so we are providing a fenced path that will give fine views across the paddock to the house.

It will also link visitors to the popular forest paths.

The plan has been put together to improve visibility of all five tortoises right across the length of the new walkway.

The new layout has been designed to satisfy visitors while meeting the welfare needs of St Helena’s creakingly old national treasure and his colleagues, David, Emma, Fredrika and Myrtle.

The Great Survivor: how Jonathan turned out not to be extinct
Tortoise Tales

The Column: is there a surreal world inside The Castle?

The idea of turning part of The Castle in Jamestown into a hotel takes an unreal turn in The Column. Did island philosopher Nick Thorpe really mean to suggest that inside The Castle is “a surreal world in which all your control patterns… begin to fall to pieces?” Plus: another idea for a potential new hotel (tortoises included), and St Helena’s ultimate Christmas getaway – from the in-laws. Read it here.

In pictures: life at Plantation House, by Andrew Gurr

Andrew Gurr took thousands of pictures of St Helena during four years as governor. He showed some of them when he addressed the Friends of St Helena, and agreed to share them with readers of this website. This first selection gives a flavour of life at his official residence, Plantation House. 

The governor’s office (actually in The Castle) is large: the same size as the council chamber, just across the landing. A portrait of The Queen keeps watch on her official representative on the island.

“One of the great privileges of being governor is the entertaining,” says Andrew. At Christmas, the table is set to suit the grandeur of the 18th Century mansion. Plantation House was built in 1792.

“We had a dinner for Bobby Robertson and Dulcie on their 60th wedding anniversary,” says Andrew. “Bobby never said a word against me in council after that. It was one of the shrewdest dinners I ever gave.” Bobby was a popular and long-serving councillor who helped many families on St Helena. Shortly before he died, he was awarded the island’s Badge of Honour

“We had a smaller room at the back converted into a dining room  for us. We used to dine at that table, just Jean and myself, with this wonderful Napoleonic chandelier. Napoleon died under part of it. It’s two parts from Longwood House: one part was in his dining room, one in his bedroom.” After Napoleon died, the chandelier was put back together and moved to Plantation House. There had been talk of returning it to Longwood at one time.

Not every aspect of life at Plantation House was glamour and luxury. The kitchen was not impressive: “It was a disgrace, in my view – a health risk”

Andrew had the kitchen stripped out and fitted with modern equipment. “I apologise to one of the cooks bending over there,” he says. “It’s just how it was.”

Councillor Mervyn Yon at a function in the garden at Plantation House. Andrew chose pictures featuring well known personalities on St Helena, but says of the picture: “It’s unfair – he wasn’t always on the booze.”

Ethel Yon is a Saint who rose to become Deputy Chief Secretary of St Helena Government. “Ethel was a very hard worker – a very useful person to have around.”

“We did have a tennis tournament or two at Plantation. We put a few tents up, and people came and had a great time.”

When the St Helena cricket team took part in its first ever overseas tournament in 2012, Dax Richards scored more runs on his own in one match than the whole of the Mali national team. He also cut an impressive figure on the tennis court, for rather different reasons. “Some of the men dress up as females,” says Andrew. No further explanation required.

Sharon Wainwright, taking a break from her arduous role in pushing for St Helena to be given an airport. Her efforts were successful, but she did not live to see the day of the announcement, in November 2011. She died suddenly while in London. “She was a wonderful person. I used to have a weekly chat with her. A very good man manager. She got things done: a priceless individual, sadly missed.”

Visit St Helena Online again for Andrew Gurr’s pictures of the natural wonders of St Helena, due to be published on Wednesday, 8 August 2012.

The inside story on St Helena, by former governor Andrew Gurr
Experts, expats and what England expects: a governor’s view, part 2
Civil service versus the can-do culture: a governor’s view
What the nurse said to the governor: Andrew Gurr looks back

Jonathan stares at the camera, beak open wide

Keep your distance, please: Jonathan gets some privacy

Jonathan stares at the camera, beak open wide
Oi! I was here first! Jonathan the tortoise, pictured by Guy Gatien

The paddock that has been home to St Helena’s oldest resident for more than 100 years is to be given a makeover. The island’s planning board has given approval for new fencing to protect Jonathan, one of the world’s last surviving Seychelles Giant tortoises, from the attentions of over-intrusive visitors at Plantation House.

Planning board member Vince Thompson said: “The new fencing will do away with the kissing gate which people used to pass through to get a closer look at the Jonathan.  Now they have to stand at a distance.”

Jonathan’s age has been calculated at between 160 and 180, meaning he has already exceeded his life expectancy by at least a decade. Joe Hollins, the island vet, said being swamped by visitors could be “too much” for him.

The planning board also approved a new shelter for St Helena’s donkey sanctuary, and the siting of containers and a sign for a recycling centre to be run by SHAPE, the island charity providing disabled people with work.

FEATURE: Jonathan the tortoise: a slow heart-throb keeps on going
FEATURE: The great survivor: how Jonathan turned out not to be extinct

What the nurse said to the governor: Andrew Gurr looks back

When Andrew Gurr arrived on St Helena in 2007 as the first governor to be appointed through open competition, he found an island civil service that was financially adrift. It needed to undergo surgery – and so, later on, did Mr Gurr himself. In the fourth and final extract of an address to the Friends of St Helena, he reflects on changes made in his four years living in the governor’s mansion, and on some of the possibilities for the future – including a boarding school for rich South Africans, and even a space station. 

See also parts one, two and three.

On government accounting

During my time we made some important changes. The accounting system was really pretty awful: good, old-fashioned Victorian accounting. Cash accounting – penny in, penny out. No concept of time in the management of money throughout the whole civil service.

And over the last four years we put in accrual accounting.

[St Helena Online note: cash accounting records transactions only when money actually comes in or goes out. But many deals – including DfID funding – involve payments in the future. Accrual accounting includes these future payments (in and out) to give a better picture of finances. It is complex and costly to set up, but is used by nearly all but the smallest businesses].

The Foreign Office said it was not worth doing, but then, they said that in the Falklands but we did it in the Falklands and it undoubtedly was worth doing. It improves your management of funds and it means people begin to develop an awareness of the value of money over time, which is very very significant if you are going to manage it.

On media

We put in place a plan for re-aligning the media. That’s still going on, isn’t it?

The silly situation was we had two media organisations and the government was funding both, and it really wasn’t necessary.

Okay, we weren’t funding the Independent to the same extent we were funding the Herald, but councillors were getting increasingly restless, as indeed DfID was, about the fact that the two papers were so similar – and the two radio stations were so similar.

So that, I think, has been dealt with.

[St Helena Online note: Mike Olsson, who oversees both the St Helena Independent and Saint FM radio station, insists that the newspaper received no subsidy, though some content was directly funded. The St Helena Herald closed in March and was replaced in the same month by the government-funded Sentinel, which – unlike the Herald – was allowed to compete with the privately-owned Independent for advertising. Since Mr Gurr gave his talk, Mike Olsson has applied to run further radio stations in competition with three being set up by the St Helena Broadcasting Corporation, which publishes The Sentinel].

On advisers’ reports

Reports are difficult, because a consultant can come and make recommendations and then we will say to DfID, “Okay, let’s have the money to put this into practice.” “Oh, we haven’t got the money.”

About half of them, I would say, you cannot take forward because you haven’t got the resources to take forward what the consultant might be recommending, or you have to wait to do it.

And as I said when I talked about consultants, some are excellent, some aren’t. The ones who succeed are normally the ones you work with, so they leave behind people who have inculcated what they are saying and carry it forward. We don’t do enough about that: it’s a kind of, “the report is for DfID, not for St Helena” type of attitude.

It’s not a perfect situation, by any means.

On new economic opportunities

There are some very good ideas that have been around.

One, I think, is education: boarding schools for South African kids. A lot of people would like an English education for their children – people who live in South Africa. It would bring in staff, it would bring in activies, and that would be very good.

[There could be] all sorts of academic things – a marine laboratory, like what the Norwegians did with Spitzbergen, a coal mining island in the Arctic. It has become such a centre of excellence that it pays for itself.

On everyone knowing everyone… and what the nurse said to Mr Gurr

There are many things that St Helena is a good research environment for.

Not least is this non-anonymity thing. It astonishes me. People, when my grandfather was alive, if they had been to the next village they would stand in the village hall and tell everbody about it. It would be a big deal. It’s like that in St Helena still.

That lack of anonymity impacts on the police service, on the medical service. The nurse tending your bed when you’re sitting there in pain: you know her and you know her children and you know her way of life, and she knows you.

I went in for a rather nasty exploratory operation and the nurse said to me: “Don’t you worry, I see everything and I see nothing.” [laughter] I thought, that’s nice.

On Ascension as a space centre

An idea I touted round is Ascension as a space centre. If you are going to take off from a runway to get into space, which will happen, you have got to be near the equator because you have a better launch speed and it’s cheaper to get into orbit from the equator. And you have got to be somewhere that’s secure.

It seemed to me [Ascension is] the place where the West has the longest runway in the Southern Hemisphere, and it’s near the equator.

On exploiting isolation

St Helena has always paid its way when its isolation and position is worth something to somebody. Unless you major on that isolation as being the thing that is going to deliver, you are copying somewhere else that can do it cheaper. So you are looking for things that have that special characteristic.

On Plantation House

It’s iconic, isn’t it, Plantation?

I was looking at a country house and thought, “I wish I lived in a house like that – and I did! I had so much junk I could fill every room. I would say, “Do I mind living all by myself in a big house?” And I didn’t: it was really quite easy.

Having staff was a new experience for us. It’s not that easy. Suddenly the house isn’t just yours: there are people who think it’s theirs too. It’s their workplace and you have to take that into account every day.

The kitchen was a disgrace in my view – a health risk – and we had it refurbished into a modern kitchen.

On the late Bobby Robertson, councillor and fund-raiser

One of the great privileges of being governor is the entertaining. We had a dinner for Bobby Robertson and Dulcie on their 60th wedding anniversary and do you know, Bobby never said a word against me in council after that. It was one of the shrewdest dinners I ever gave.

On the late Sharon Wainwright
[Sharon was air access co-ordinator for St Helena; she died suddenly while in London, helping press the case for an airport, in August 2011]

She was a wonderful person to work with. I had a weekly chat with her: she was a great communicator and a very good man manager. She ran what she did well, she got things done – a priceless individual, sadly missed.

On the Friends of St Helena

Those people need the support here that you give them. They are very grateful for that. It’s very much in the interest of St Helena that this organisation, the Friends, exists.

On the future

We were trying, in our time, to move the island towards self-sufficiency and maintain the balance of interest. And it is about balance.

The situation is that the airport [contract] is signed, the ship’s capacity is being increased, there’s a sensible political structure, there’s better systems in the civil service. I think the private sector is getting increasingly engaged and people are getting excited about the airport.

Whether the future is bright or not I don’t know. I think it’s better, however you look at it, than the past; it’s better than it would have been but it’s still up to the Saints to grasp the opportunities that are there.

And they are there now, real opportunities, with – how many? – 170 people working on the airport or airport-related things. That will increase over the next few years.

Shelco are going to take a lot of people into that hotel and housing complex, so all that is going to be brighter, without any question.

On being remembered

Part of me says I would love people to say, “Well, he did a good job”, and part of me says, does it matter in the long run? I will just be a name on a wall or a fading photograph.

I enjoyed it. It was a tremendously enriching exerience and very colourful, and I will always have fond memories of it. But how people remember me depends on what people remember, and who’s telling them to remember it.

I loved the place, I love the people, but your time comes, you do your four years and you leave it. You have fond memories and life moves on.

(One or two of Andrew Gurr’s reflections from his talk to the Friends of St Helena in May 2012 have been kept back as stories in their own right, and will appear shortly. A gallery of his photographs may also appear soon).


The inside story on St Helena, by former governor Andrew Gurr
Experts, expats and what England expects: a governor’s view, part 2
Civil service versus the can-do culture: a governor’s view

Foreign Secretary ‘wants hands-on help for islands’ – report

Friends of St Helena

The truth about MP who slept rough in the governor’s garden

Mark Lancaster MP in desert fatiques, holding gun, in front of camouflaged vehicles
LANCASTER BOMBS OUT: soldier-turned-MP Mark Lancaster slept under the stars at Plantation House

For a Member of Parliament who once spent his holidays fighting the Taliban, a peaceful mission in St Helena ought to have been a walk in the park.

Instead, Mark Lancaster ended up sleeping in one. Or rather, in the Governor’s garden.

Black and white head and shoulders shot of Mark Lancaster
STILL SMILING: MP Mark laughed off his experience

He’d come up against superior forces in the form of sociable St Helenians. And then, when he should have been securing his objective (a bed) under cover of darkness, he was outmanoeuvred.

The story was first told  in the 4 May 2012 issue of the St Helena Independent by Vince Thompson, who described how the soldier-turned-MP found himself locked out of Plantation House.

The identity of the person who’d done the deed was a mystery, though. “Presumably one of the staff was not aware of the extra guest,” wrote Vince.

Further details of the story were let slip last weekend by Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary – and Mark Lancaster’s boss – when he met Saints in Swindolena to talk about the island’s airport.

“When we were in opposition I sent my number  two, Mark Lancaster, who had an extremely interesting visit.

“He came back full of stories. Not least was the very large number of people who took him to the pub one night. He then went back to the governor’s house and was locked out, and he had to sleep on a park bench outside the governor’s front door.

Giant tortoises outside Plantation House
WHAT’S THE FUSS? We sleep rough at Plantation every night…

“It rained upon him, but he is a former soldier and I don’t think it did him any harm.”

In fact, Mr Lancaster is still a part-time bomb disposal officer in the Territorial Army and has served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the summer of 2006, when other MPs were off on fact-finding trips to the Caribbean, he spent his hols on a tour of active service in Afghanistan. He can rough it.

He had been dispatched to St Helena to scout out the lie of the land for the airport, said Mr Mitchell. “I sent him down in 2009 and he came back with the information we needed to be sure that we should proceed with this project. 

I think he was taken to the pub by a large number of generous Saints who wanted to show him a good time, and I understand they certainly did.”

The lock-out would never have happened had he chosen to stay at Farm Lodge or The Consulate, instead of putting up at Plantation as a guest of Governor Andrew Gurr.

Mr Lancaster confirms the story, and settles the unresolved question: who was it that locked him out?

Mark Lancaster, in civvies, talks to soldiers in Afghanistan
“So we go in at night and try to get past the armoured guards. Shouldn’t be too hard – they’re just oversized tortoises.”

It was not some hapless member of staff after all, he reveals.

“Crawled back about two am having been in the nightclub on the front,” he writes in an email. “Despite having given me the key, the Governor had accidentally bolted the outer door, so I spent the night on the bench rather than wake him up.”

We must be grateful that Mr Lancaster – now luxuriating on the government benches in Parliament – did not allow the incident to turn him against the airport project.

“After an evening of St Helenian hospitality,” he generously concedes, “a bit of fresh air did me the world of good.”

And it gave him a heady experience of St Helena’s greatest spectacle. “Living most of my time in smoggy London,” he says, “the chance to lie on my back staring at the stars all night was too good an opportunity to miss.”

Come the morning, he no doubt refrained from referring to his host as Governor Grrrr.