Jamestown

Where it all happens

Petite ville, grand renom.
(Small town, great renown.)

François Rabelais

On the whole, if something is going to happen in St Helena, it’s likely it’s going to happen in Jamestown‍‍

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Location Map jamestown

Below: In brief…Why ‘Jamestown’?Quick guided tourStay here?Town PlanClimateBusy and quiet daysHistoryTunnelThen and nowJamestown DistrictIs Jamestown really a ‘city’?Jamestown Parking Proposals, November 2016Read More

In brief…

Jamestown is built on igneous rock in a small enclave, sandwiched between the steep cliffs that form James Valley. These cliffs are unsuitable for building, so the habitation is limited to the valley floor and thus is rather long, thin and densely populated, with tightly knit, long and winding streets. Shrubs and trees decorate some of the street corners. The surrounding terrain is rough and steep, and rockfalls are an occurrence, in the past damaging buildings and causing loss of life, though extensive netting in recent years has almost eliminated any risk. The town is commonly divided into Lower and Upper parts, depending on the distance up James Valley, though with no precise boundary between.

The town has some excellent examples of British Georgian-era colonial architecture, having been largely un-modernised, and has been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many buildings are built out of local volcanic rock. Jamestown has more than half of the island’s listed buildings.

There is a resident population of around 14% of the island’s total population{4}. This used to be much higher - in the 1931 census it was 38%.

Why ‘Jamestown’?

Jamestown was so named in 1660 in honour of James, Duke of York{5}, to celebrate the restoration of the Monarchy in England. James Bay was christened at the same time.

Previously, what is now James Valley (in which Jamestown sits) was known as ‘Chapel Valley’, after the small church built by the island’s Portuguese discoverers.

A quick guided tour

Lower Jamestown, from above
Lower Jamestown, from above

Since the start of the scheduled commercial air service most visitors arrive into Jamestown on the bus from the Airport. But for the first 500 years of our history everybody started at the Wharf. Those arriving by yacht or cruise ship still do…

Below: Arriving by sea: ‍The Wharf‍All visitorsJamestown in pictures

Arriving by sea: ‍The Wharf‍

Waves at the Seaside
…one of the Sounds of St Helena

Click here to hear this audio file, or hover on the icon (right)

You disembark from your vessel via a tender or ferry which lands you on the wharf steps. Getting ashore is a little tricky…but generations of visitors managed it, including everybody up to the King & Queen of England! As one visitor wrote:

We landed at a jetty queer enough - the boat is backed & you swing yourself ashore by a rope suspended from an iron crane - there is no beach.{ad}

After clearing customs and immigration you walk out onto the ‘seaside’, a long strip of land with the wharf at one end and Donny’s Bar at the other. You can see evidence of the island’s fortifications as you walk along. Passing through The Arch, constructed in its present form in 1832, you arrive in Grand Parade.

It is sometimes said that when you alight at the Wharf you do so where Napoleon walked. Sadly this isn’t so. The wharf has been extended and reconstructed so many times since 1815 that none of the fixtures from Napoleon’s time remain{6}.

All visitors

Standing in Grand Parade beneath The Arch, on your left is The Castle - the current seat of Government and formerly a fort - along with other administrative buildings, including the courtrooms and library, built by Governor Hudson Lowe in 1817 on the site of the former main guard room and barracks built in 1709. On your right you have HM Prison and some currently unused buildings which are in the process of being restored, between which you find the Museum of St Helena and the foot of Jacob’s Ladder. Also on Grand Parade is St. James’ Church, the oldest Anglican Church in the southern hemisphere. In the centre of Grand Parade is the memorial to Dr. W. J. J. Arnold, the greatest friend St Helena ever had. The Grand Parade is where many island events take place. Normally mostly a car park, on special days it is cleared and turned into a market area, performance stage, or whatever.

Moving up from Grand Parade you enter Main Street. Notice first on your left the Castle Gardens - a quiet place to stop and sit, even on the busiest days. In Main Street you will find shops, offices, the Post Office, etc. At the top of Main Street is a mini-roundabout (one of only three on the island) with the Tourist Office behind and also ‘The Trees’ where, in former times, auctions were held (including those of Slaves). You have not passed the Rockfall Memorial Fountain, because it is no longer there…

Napoleon Street sign

The road then forks. On the left you have Napoleon Street, so named because it is the road to Longwood, where Napoleon stayed during his exile here, and also the route to his tomb, via Side Path. In Napoleon Street you will find shops and houses.

The right hand fork leads onto The Bridge; another area used for public events, especially at Christmas, where you will find shops, bars, The Market and the Bank. Next to The Market is the Bridge Memorial Clock. The road now becomes Market Street, and continues right up through to the top of town, passing shops, churches, meeting rooms and many houses.

At the top of town you will find China Lane, so named because the imported Chinese labourers lived there. If you go up to the right you are on Ladder Hill Road, the main route to the heart of the island, via the top of Jacob’s Ladder, Ladder Hill Fort and Half Tree Hollow.

If you continue to the left you reach the hospital, and passing to the left of there you reach Constitution Hill, the oldest route out of town; a narrow winding road which connects at its top with Side Path.

Jamestown’s watercourse is The Run, which is also a pleasant footpath linking the Hospital to lower Jamestown.

It may not be immediately apparent on the ground, but Jamestown actually slopes quite strongly uphill. The hospital is around 60m above the level of the seaside. The slope shows on this picture{ae} of Grand Parade:

The photographs below illustrate many aspects of Jamestown:

Jamestown in pictures

Stay here?

From our Where To Stay page:

Jamestown is where most activities happen and is the location of the Museum of St Helena and many of our important Historic Buildings. Diving & Dolphin watching trips and most tours start from Jamestown. It’s also a good location if you want a choice of nightlife without the need to drive home afterwards - even the top (hospital) end of town is only about twenty minutes’ walk from the centre, though it is uphill! Accommodation is usually in an older building, often with an interesting history, though Jamestown has all types of accommodation available. Because it is the island’s capital, Jamestown is well connected to everywhere on the island.

HOWEVER, be aware that Lower Jamestown can be very noisy, not just during the day (it is very much a working town) but also on weekend nights - always Saturday, often Friday and sometimes Sunday and Thursday. There is no zoning so your accommodation might be close to a bar which will play very loud music until after 1am, and then the drunks have to noisily make their way home… - not at all conducive to a good night’s sleep before an early morning trip!

Town Plan


__:Principal Roads;__:The Run;1:The Castle;2:Jacob’s Ladder;3:Tourist Office;4:Museum of St Helena;5:The Wharf;6:Castle Gardens;7:The Leisure Park;8:The Mule Yard;9:Duke of Edinburgh Playground;10:Grand Parade;11:Post Office;12:The Hospital13:Pilling School14:Post Office15:St. James’ Church
You can download a much more detailed map of Jamestown, issued in 2020{af}.

More about the origins of Jamestown’s roads on our Roads page. Not to be confused with ‘The Roads’…

Climate

Jamestown features an arid climate, temperatures being moderated by the adjacent ocean and ranging from 19-24°C{7}.

The town receives around 11cm of rainfall in a typical year with only around 40 wet days. This is because it lies on the drier Northern coast, sheltered by the bulk of the island from the rain-bringing south-easterly Trade Winds{8}.

Busy and quiet days

Jamestown is at its busiest when there is a ship in the James Bay (cruise ship or other visitor), or when there is an event happening. On these days it can actually look active!

On a normal weekday it’s busy from 8am-9am, when everyone is heading to work; from Midday-2pm, for lunch break; and again from 4pm-5pm when everyone is heading home. Saturday nights are also lively, with the shops open from 6:30pm until 8:30pm or 9pm, and then the various bars operating until 1am. At other times it is quiet; on Sundays, with almost everything closed{9}, it can seem like a ghost town!

Click here to hear this audio file, or hover on the icon (right)

‘Dawn Chorus’, Duke of Edinburgh Playground
…one of the Sounds of St Helena

Click here to hear this audio file, or hover on the icon (right)

In recent memory, a visitor from South Africa actually laid down in the middle of the road, at the mini-roundabout at the top of Main Street, at around 10am. Where else in the world, he argued, could you do that in a nation’s capital city?

Talking about ‘quiet’… Mynah Birds, Fairy Terns and other birds roost in the trees at Castle Gardens and Duke of Edinburgh Playground, making quite a cacophony at dawn and sunset (hear them, right)!

The image below from Google™ Earth™{ag} shows the whole of Jamestown, The Briars, Ruperts and (most of) Half Tree Hollow. Only a satellite or a very high-flying aircraft can capture this view! A clickable version of this image appears on our Maps of St Helena page.

History

Jamestown, 1794
Jamestown, 1794

French map, 1690s
French map, 1690s{3}

James Bay is the most practicable anchorage on St Helena, and so what is now Jamestown is where all the earliest explorers landed. The history of Jamestown is therefore inextricably linked with the history of St Helena itself. Fernão Lopez, the island’s first exile almost certainly lived in James Valley.

The town as we have it today is of largely Georgian construction, representing the time when St Helena had defeated the Dutch invasion and was being actively settled and developed by The East India Company, up to the end of their Charter and direct rule by The Crown. Development since has been mostly in-filling and, apart from a few more recent buildings (e.g. ‘New Porteous House’ in Main Street) most buildings remain largely as they were in the 19th Century.

Most of the island’s more notable events also took place in Jamestown. To read about these please see the overview on our page A Brief History or use the Island History index page.

If you’re interested in Jamestown’s history you might try Basil George’s Walking History Tour.

The following images show the development of Jamestown’s fortifications over the years:

The following picture, taken by John Isaac Lilley in 1862, illustrates some interesting points which are shown in the detail images below:

The last image (above), also by John Isaac Lilley from 1862, again shows work being done re-building the Lines. It also shows the old drawbridge, built when Governor Dallas moved the entrance to town to its current position in 1832, at which time this became the main entrance to Jamestown (and, indeed, to the island) and the route shown in the 1850s image above as ‘Access to Town’ fell into disuse{10}. The drawbridge was replaced by a permanent bridge in 1935, using stone recovered from the demolished Ladder Hill Observatory. The ‘Main Bastion’ is now The Mule Yard, to the left of which is the Swimming Pool. The West Bastion is now the Leisure Park, including The Coffee Shop.

Ghost

Unsurprisingly, given the amount of history it has experienced, many parts of Jamestown are said to be haunted, particularly The Wharf, The Castle and the area around Pilling School (the former military barracks).

I think Main Street is fantastic, it’s like a perfectly preserved bit of Georgian town.
Dan Snow, TV History Documentary producer, January 2020

History Images

The images below illustrate many aspects of Jamestown’s history:

The following image{ah} apparently shows Jamestown at the time Napoleon was here. Really? Either the (unknown) artist had never actually visited St Helena, or he’d been smoking rather a lot of something… (More fantastic representations on our page Do they mean us?.)

The Tunnel

In the 1990s it was discovered that a substantial underground tunnel runs at least from a spot outside the Canister (marked by the Mini-Roundabout) to a point just below Broadway House. The tunnel is fairly dry inside but it is thought it might have acted as a storm drain; nobody is sure. After the discovery the ends of the tunnel were sealed, for safety reasons. It can be opened - it was explored in January 2010 by the Scouts - but we have no idea to whom one might apply!

If you want to visit, examine our tunnel and maybe tell us what it was really for, please contact the Tourist Office.

Then and now

We show below pairs of photographs, taken from the same spot many years apart. The cars are newer but not much else has changed. Such as has is noted with each pair:

1975
1975

2016
2016

Main Street: Apart from the shorter spire on St. James’ Church, very little is different.

1975
1975

2015
2015

Lower Market Street: The shabby brown building (centre-left) was demolished soon after and replaced by a ‘modern’ supermarket, which later closed and was re-developed as a Department Store. The white line was removed because the road is too narrow for modern cars to pass.

1982
1982{ai}

2016
2016

Napoleon Street: At the time of writing the building at the top (‘ Col. Gilpin’s House’) is being renovated, after being derelict for more than a decade, while the one on the immediate left was in use but is now boarded up. The Banyan tree growing in the Community Centre (formerly the School) was pared back to almost a stump in August 2009.

Here’s a comparison over a much wider date-range, from 1866{aj} and 2019:

Jamestown District

The district of Jamestown also includes Ruperts Valley, to the north of Jamestown. Ruperts is designated for industrial development and should become the island’s main port for goods (it is expected that cruise ships will continue to offload in Jamestown). Ruperts is where the slave graves were discovered.

Is Jamestown really a ‘city’?

Yes! It’s city status was formally granted by Queen Victoria on 6th June 1859, and its full official name is the ‘City of James Town’{11}.

Jamestown Parking Proposals, November 2016

SHG crest

In November 2016 the Government started public consultation on outline proposals to manage parking in Jamestown. The proposals were cast in a background where there would be no funding available for significant works to increase the number of parking spaces in the town (i.e. covering and parking over The Run or building a multi-storey car park{12}). Any scheme would therefore need to be entirely self-financing.

The following summarises the proposals and adds, where relevant, some issues raised, primarily by the residents of Jamestown:

Comments on the proposals were to be made to the Secretary of the ENRC, Mr Nicky Lawrence, committee@enrd.gov.sh. No time limit was set for the consultation and it was clarified that amended proposals would be brought back for public consultation in due course. At the time of writing, years later, they still haven’t been. The proposals were discussed in Committee in January 2019 and several outstanding issues were reported.

JamestownHalf Tree HollowSt PaulsLongwoodAlarm ForestBlue HillLevelwoodSandy Bay

Districts of St Helena

Alarm Forest • Blue Hill • Half Tree Hollow • Jamestown • Levelwood • Longwood • Sandy Bay • St Pauls • Maps of St Helena

Population by district:{22}

See also the Tourist Office brochure on Jamestown, St Helena.

Read More

Article: Reaction to the ‘Jamestown Vision 2020’.

Jamestown Vision 2020 cover

This intriguing document was issued at the end of January 2013 by Enterprise St Helena{15}, the Government body charged with preparing St Helena’s private sector businesses for the arrival of the St Helena Airport. It was presented to Executive Council which welcomed the document as a valuable basis for public consultation{ak}. It describes itself as a bold Vision for the future which we hope will be shared by residents, visitors, businesses and investors alike.

This hope was not fulfilled - the document and its accompanying exhibition was met with a combination of horror and disbelief. Many assumed it was a joke. The more charitable thought it might have been a deliberately ridiculous offering to spark debate about what St Helena actually wanted. However the evidence suggests that its authors were actually serious.

The document was ‘shelved’ two months later and is no longer mentioned.

Read it and be amazed!

The following are extracted from comments printed in the St Helena newspapers:

It is totally useless to try and create and develop St Helena into a place that is identical to some of the great modernised places around the world. Why would tourists want to come all this way for something like that when they could pay less and have it on their doorsteps?
…looks like a cross between Watford and Lego Land{16}
A colossal waste of public money which should have been spent on real projects
Keeping the originality of St Helena is our best tourism attraction, if we kill it, we are doomed forever
Where can I get some of the stuff they were smoking when they came up with these ideas?

Credits:
{a} Tourist Office{b} Faron George{c} South Atlantic Media Services Ltd (SAMS){17}{d} St Helena Astronomy Club{e} Green Renaissance{f} Into The Blue{17}{g} Matt Joshua{h} SH Travel{i} Google™ Street View™{j} Gonny Pitlo{k} Marc Lavaud/Tourist Office{l} Joanna Roberts-George{m} ‘An Island Fortress’, by Ken Denholm, published in 2006{n} UK National Archives MPH 1/251{17}{18}{19}{o} Ozias Humphreys{p} William John Burchell{q} By Augustus Earle (1793-1838){r} Durand Brager Débarcadère{s} From ‘Views of St Helena’, by G.W. Melliss{20}, published in 1857{t} Domaines Français de Sainte Hélène{u} Thomas Jackson, Island Chemist{v} ‘St Helena, The Historic Island, From Its Discovery To The Present Date’, by E. L. Jackson, published in 1905{w} St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (SHATPS){x} Neil Fantom{y} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{17}{z} Paul McCartney, Hobart, Australia{21}{aa} Sheila Cook, one of the Royal Engineers Team from 1978/80{ab} Hugh Crallan{ac} Google Earth™{ad} Thomas Worthington King, 16th November 1842{17}{ae} SH Travel{af} Government of St Helena{ag} Kindly supplied by Ian Bruce, September 2018{ah} Napoleon on Saint Helena Website{17}{ai} Andrew / Peter Neaum{aj} John Isaac Lilley, 1861-1866{ak} St Helena Independent, 1st February 2013, p23{17}

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Footnotes:
{1} Note: no moat, which was not created until 1706.{2} Note: the new (current) entrance into town, created by Governor Dallas in 1832.{3} We have seen this map attributed to Bellin, 1764, but we cannot accept this attribution because the Lines were established in 1706 and the Castle was rebuilt in 1708 but neither of these is shown. If this map were drawn in 1764 it was around 60 years out-of-date. It has also been attributed to Bellin with a different date - 1704 - which seems more likely.{4} 2016 Census: 629 from a total of 4,534.{5} The second surviving son of King Charles I and brother of King Charles II; later King James II.{6} See other debunked myths.{7} The temperature in Jamestown is some 5°C warmer than the rest of the island.{8} This is also why James Bay provides a safe anchorage, despite having no enclosing sea wall.{9} 24/7 Shopping has yet to reach St Helena. Even most restaurants and cafés don’t open on Sundays.{10} Though it is still accessible, via steps from behind the new Customs Building.{11} It is, however, always referred to as just ‘Jamestown’, even on official documents, or more colloquially just as ‘Town’.{12} Even if a suitable site could ever be identified.{13} The bays in the middle of Main Street, from the roundabout down to Association Hall.{14} The island’s next Census will be taken in 2021, to assess the impact of the airport since 2016.{15} With the assistance of MWAI Architects and PLC Architects.{16} Others compared it to Milton Keynes.{17} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{18} Not to be confused with the St Helena Archives.{19} Download the full map.{20} Father of John Melliss.{21} Paul’s father was the island’s doctor in the 1960s and Paul accompanied him here. Paul visited St Helena in June 2018 and kindly gave us permission to use these family photographs.{22} Source: 2016 Census{14}.

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