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7 Wonders of St Helena – Jacob’s Ladder, St Helena’s number 1 choice

Receiving the most votes during the 2018 7 Wonders campaign, it’s clear to see that Jacob’s Ladder is beloved by islanders.

Today the ladder is an iconic landmark. It is used by islanders and visitors alike and is a ‘must do’ when visiting St Helena, whether for 1 step or 699.

The history of Jacob’s Ladder

The initial ladder to the fort at the top of the hill where the troops were stationed was a rope ladder that served as the means of ascent until the first road was cut (Records 1693). The first path which replaced the rope ladder was improved around 1718, and can still be seen winding up the hill.

The amazing Ladder was built by engineer GW Melliss on instructions from the last East India Company Governor, Dallas, starting in 1828. Eventually more roads were constructed for easier access, but this was and remains the shortest and quickest route to the top.

Ladder Hill c1860

Ladder Hill c.1860, photo courtesy of the Museum of St Helena


The Ladder and the Hill

Governor Dallas’ main purpose was to enable stores, but particularly manure from stall fed animals in town, to be carried in carts on the funicular railway at the side of the steps to the top of the hill, as fertiliser for the lands on that side of the island.  However huge cuts in expenses were made when the Crown took over the administration and the new Governor abandoned the idea in 1836. The rails were used elsewhere.

An Observatory was set up at Ladder Hill by Governor Walker in 1823 and Manuel Johnson, later to become a famous astronomer, began his career on St Helena. There was also a Time Office on the site giving GMT to shipping. The Observatory was also sadly abandoned when the Crown took over in 1834. Only a plaque in the garden of Bleak House reminds us of the venture.

A fire in 1867 meant that the steps of the Ladder were rebuilt by the Royal Engineers in 1871.

Ladder Hill c1903

Ladder Hill c.1903, photo courtesy of the Museum of St Helena


The 25 Zulu exiles from the Poll Tax Rebellion in South Africa were housed at Ladder Hill Barracks 1907-10. They worked on Side Path Road, and seven of them died while here. The buildings eventually became stores for PWD, and the central ones became Secondary Selective School, with a Trade School attached in later years, until 1988 when Prince Andrew Community High School opened.  Some buildings have been converted to social housing and the school has become offices.

A Zulu delegation came to the island in May 2009 to revisit the site of their ancestors’ exile, and they held a moving ceremony at the top of the Ladder for the spirits of their ancestors who died here.

Text by Barbara B. George, summarised from her booklet “Ladder Hill, The Inclined Plane and the Ladder”, published locally 2015. Available at Arts and Crafts, the Canister, Jamestown.

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