Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Prosperous Bay Signal Station Murder, 1904

A signal station was probably first built at Prosperous Bay about 1770, referred to in records as 'Alarm House'.  Initially relying on alarm guns, during the Napoleonic period a more rapid telegraph system using flags was introduced, and continued until the electric telegraph rendered the semaphore system obsolete in 1866.  The present building marks the return to use of the site in 1887, when it formed part of the newly-established military telephone network and was built to house the telephone equipment and provide living quarters for its operator.  It was connected to Longwood by a 6km stretch of line and poles.  A well-defined and in places excellently preserved track leads up from the plain to the signal station. The military network of communications and defences was effectively abandoned in 1906.
The Signal Station Ruins May 2010.

Edward Gunnell was the signalman at Prosperous Bay Signal Station and when he died in 1899 his son Robert, then aged only 17 took over his duties.  On November 2nd 1904 Robert was found dead by the door of the signal station with a gunshot wound to his head.
The St. Helena Guardian of November 3rd reported:  The public were greatly surprised yesterday morning to learn that Robert Gunnell the Signalman at Prosperous Bay Telegraph Station was found dead by the door of the Station with a wound in his head.  As he was living alone, no one knew of his death until found.  An inquiry is made into the matter, but up to the time of going to Press we have not heard the result.
The 3rd of November entry in The Register of Deaths in the Island of St. Helena records the cause of death of Robert Samuel Gunnell.  Verdict by an Inquest Jury as a case of “wilful murder” against some person or persons unknown.
Arrested on November 4th, Louis Crowie, aged 20, and Richard Crowie, aged 17, were placed in custody.  Tried on the 11th January 1905 at a session of The Supreme Court before His Excellency Henry Galloway, Acting Chief Justice, they were found guilty of Robert’s murder and sentenced to death by hanging.  There were only two defence witnesses and the twenty-three prosecution witnesses included the Inspector of Police and Gaoler who "listened to all the conversations between the two accused and put down as much as possible". The sentence was carried out the following month, the last executions carried out on St. Helena.  A note added to the minutes of the sessions reads: The prisoners were executed on the 2nd Feb at 7.30 am privately at the Customs back shed and there buried in coffins in quick lime.

Robert was buried with his father in St Matthew’s Churchyard Hutt’s Gate.
Standing by the grave looking east, the ruins of the now abandoned signal station can be seen on the horizon.
The front page of the St Helena Guardian dated November 10th 1904 had the unfortunate juxtaposition of Mrs Gunnell thanking friends for their kind letters following the death of her son Robert and an advertisement for a replacement Signalman for Prosperous Bay Signal Station where Robert had been murdered six days previously.  This copy was taken at the St. Helena Archives, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in St Helena's history with a most helpful archivist and access to original documentation from 1673 to the present.
I am indebted to Ian Baker in whose book "St. Helena One Man's Island" I first read of the Gunnell Murder, and much else, and which should be read by anyone with an interest in St. Helena, its history and its people.  His book led us to all corners of the island and to a better understanding of this unique place.

The photographs were taken in May 2010

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