Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Ladder

Recent membership of the Friends of St Helena ( ) has given me access to back numbers of the society’s magazine “Wirebird”.  I was intrigued by the map-view below in the Autumn 1992 edition of a “Prospect of James Fort on the island of St Hellena by J. Thornton” published around 1700 and which showed “the Ladder” in the top right-hand corner.
James Fort, John Thornton, Wirebird Autumn 1992
Today’s Ladder with its 699 steps is a much later (1829) structure so what was this earlier ladder?  The New York Public Library Digital Gallery provided another image but by S. Thornton.
A Prospect of James Fort on the Island of St. Hellena. London, Samuel Thornton, c. 1711. A view of the East India Company's fort on St Helena, the important stop on the route to the East Indies.  Shown are the triangular fort, the crane used for unloading supplies and the Governor's garden. Published in Thornton's 'English Pilot.
Samuel Thornton, the Ladder, Detail

According to Jonathan Potter, the London map dealer, Samuel Thornton was the son and heir of the English chart-maker John Thornton who was the pre-eminent English mapmaker of the later part of the seventeenth century and first decade of the eighteenth.  After his death in 1708, Samuel Thornton continued to re-issue his father’s charts, often with his imprint substituted.  However, according to the late RV Tooley (and Richard Betz) John and Samuel Thornton were brothers.  John, the elder, being for a time Hydrographer to the East India Company between 1669 and 1701 and also collaborated with the publisher John Seller.  John died around 1706 and was succeeded by Samuel who died around 1715. 

Janisch, helpful as ever, gives several references to Ladder Hill:
March 16th 1736.  The Governor reports in the last two weeks we had such great cataracts of water fallen from the Skies that it hath drove away great part of "Cow Path." On Ladder Hill there was such breaches as was never observed before. In some places great heaps of Rubbish drove down. In other places many large Rocks removed—large pieces of the Wall thrown down so that it is very difficult to go up or down by those who carried loads.
Oct. 7 1771.  Road to Ladder Hill to be altered, Inhabitants paying half. Ladder Hill Road is the only Road kept in repair by the Company.

July 7.1795.  Henry Powell publican unfortunately killed in bed by the falling of a rock from the height of Ladder Hill yesterday morning at 4 o'clock.
Oct. 23, 1809.  Many of the Lanes directed to be kept open for the purpose of carrying off water falling from the side of Ladder Hill are stopped. Deep channels had been cut on the side of the Hill to carry off all the water into the Burial Ground by the Barracks. The ground is in a shameful neglected state having more the appearance of a common for Dogs than a burial place for deceased Christians.

Ladder Hill, Fort and Telegraph, Read 1817

Hawkesworth in his narrative of Cook’s first visit to St. Helena in May 1771 provides some explanation: They (the inhabitants) are used also to climb the steep hill between the town in Chapel-valley and their plantation; Which hill is so steep, that, having a ladder in the middle of it they call it Ladder Hill; and this cannot be avoided without going three or four miles about; so that they seldom want air or exercise, the great preservers of health.

Janisch then records that:
Sept. 1.1828—With the view of saving the heavy labour and expense of carriage along the zigzag between Jamestown and Ladder Hill the Governor (Dallas) proposed the construction of an Inclined Plane upon the principle of several which have been beneficially adopted at Bridgenorth and Monmouth of 45° of Elevation, 3° more than Ladder Hill and many other parts of England and Wales.

It was subsequently built in 1829 by the St. Helena Railway company with Janisch recording on 14th January 1829 that “Ladder to Ladder Hill £200 allowed in aid of the work”

The Inclined Plane, 1829
The Mechanics’ Magazine of March 1834 gave a description of the system, its defects and the efforts made to make it safe.

Writing in 1875 JC Melliss described the Inclined Planes’ purpose, construction and eventual dereliction:

The whole of the manure, which accumulates from stables, stockyards, etc., in the town, is thrown into the sea, instead of being conveyed up the hills, and returned to the land.  By this long-continued practice the lands have become almost exhausted.  Moreover, a large quantity of guano, collected around the coast, is exported to Europe, instead of being used in the Island, and it is much to be regretted that the Government permit it, merely for the sake of swelling the revenue by a paltry charge of 10s. per ton exportation fee.  With such a system continually at work, is it surprising that the farmer obtains but a poor crop, and fruit trees blight and dwindle away? rather is it a matter of astonishment that he obtains any return at all.  Forty two years ago General Dallas, then Governor of the Island, was fully alive to this most ruinous system, and, with a view of supplying some practical means for lessening the cost of conveying the manure from the town up the hills, and back to the lands in the country, caused the erection of the ladder or inclined plane.  This engineering work, carried out under the directions of Lieutenant G. W. Melliss, an artillery officer, comprised a ladder 900 feet in length, with upwards of 600 steps, communicating up the side of the hill from Jamestown to Ladder Hill, at an angle of 39' or 40', with a tramway on either side, upon which waggons, in connexion with ropes and machinery at the top, travelled up and down.  By this means manure was conveyed up an almost perpendicular height of 600 feet and deposited, from whence it could easily be conveyed by the farmers.  A secondary use of this "St. Helena Railroad" was to convey stores from the town to the garrison stationed in the Fort of Ladder Hill, and, as it would be most invaluable for both these purposes in the present day, it is very greatly to be regretted that the whole construction has fallen into disuse and bad repair, the woodwork being eaten by white ants. Indeed, it is said that these insects visited Ladder Hill through the medium of its longitudinal wooden sleepers.

Fowler 1863, Jamestown showing the Inclined Plane and Ladder Hill

In November 1832 The Inclined Plane was bought from the St Helena Railway Co. by the East India Co. for £882.10s.

A description of ascending the ladder, by then in a poor state of repair, was given in "Reminiscences of a Nine Years’ Traveller" from The Church of England Magazine. May 2nd 1846. (With maybe just a touch of exaggeration in recalling the difficulty of the ascent and the death toll)

The Longest Ladder in the World.
On approaching the roads off James Town, in the island of St. Helena, your attention is attracted by an enormous ladder, that extends from the town beneath to a fort directly over the town, on the summit of a hill, 800 feet high. Previous to visiting St. Helena, I had heard much of this immense ladder; and, when at length I found myself on the spot, I resolved to ascend it.  On inquiry, I found that sentinels were placed both below and above, for the purpose of preventing any one ascending or descending without an order from the town-major.  This regulation was adopted in consequence of the number of accidents, attended with fatal consequences, that had occurred. Together with a companion, after dinner, I rambled down towards the guard-house; and, having found the town-major there, we applied, and obtained an order to permit our ascent.  The ladder is composed of steps, bettor than three feet in width, and some four inches in breadth, firmly fastened in sides of great strength.  'On either side is a hand-rail, of such a width that you can conveniently lay a hand on either side.
The steps are each upwards of eighteen inches apart, and great numbers of them much decayed.  At regular distances there are small seats for resting-places fixed. On one side, without the ladder, a description of slide has been formed, along which pulleys are fixed; for the purpose, it would seem, of raising anything from the town beneath, or lowering such from the fort above.  The face of the hill against which the ladder is erected is extremely steep; so much so, as utterly to preclude the idea of any ascent without artificial means.  In places there are perfect precipices, the rocks completely overhanging.  At the bottom we found no sentry, and so proceeded to ascend at once, but had not attained above the height of a hundred feet, when we heard a voice hailing us, and perceived a sentry calling on us to return, who in his walk had been concealed from us, when below, by an intervening projection.  Down we had to go, and, having shown our pass, and satisfied the Cerberus, commenced our ascent again.  At first we proceeded rapidly, but soon found that not the answer; the height of each step causing considerable exertion.  More slowly then we moved along, till we attained the third resting place, where we seated ourselves, and turned to view the town beneath, with its narrow streets and confined situation, cowering, as it were, beneath the two mighty hills that seemed to press it on either side.  Aloft we turned our eyes, anxiously wishing ourselves at the top; but we had the best part of the ascent yet to accomplish, and to our task we once more went.  As we attained a greater height, we found the steps getting more and more out of repair, in some places two or three steps together being broken; so that we had to clamber up the best way we could.  On, on we went, with alternate rests: the town, the bay, and shipping beneath, gradually became more minute the moving bodies seemed almost mites.  When we had reached within a hundred feet or so of the top, the unusual fatigue almost overpowered us: the dizzy height so affected us, that we felt as if we could scarce preserve ourselves from falling; yet we persevered, and did succeed in reaching the top.  A moment later, and one human being would have passed into another world.  My companion, who was before me, had scarce passed the gate at the top, when he fainted, completely overcome; and he afterwards declared to me that, for the last hundred feet or so, nothing prevented his physical energies from being overcome by the unusual fatigue and the position he was in, but the immediate prospect of reaching a place of safety.  I was not similarly overcome; but I was little better a sickening sensation oppressed me; and, a few moments after attaining the fort, I retched very violently.  Many lives have been lost on this ladder, particularly those of passengers, whom curiosity induced to attempt the ascent.  The artillerymen and garrison of the fort are not, however, used to going up and down, except from casualties; and it was only the very week before my visit to St. Helena that an artilleryman was killed in attempting to descend the ladder against time, for a wager.  Ladder Hill Fort completely hangs over the bay: it is of great strength, and completely commands the roadstead beneath.  After passing an hour at the fort, we descended; but by the road, which is cut in a zigzag manner in the side of the hill

Having fallen into disuse it was dismantled by the Royal Engineers in 1871 leaving the 699 steps to give us the structure we see today.

Jacob's Ladder circa 1900

The Inclined Plane, Plaque, May 2010

Jacob's Ladder, Sepia Postcard, Purchased Jamestown 1949,  Llangibby Castle en-route to England

The Inclined Plane, 1979
Jacob's Ladder, May 2010

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