Unlike the other main fortifications on St Helena, this fort is situated well inland at 584 metres above sea level and has commanding views both to sea and to the valleys below. The island’s other main fortifications are all by the sea.
While work commenced in 1790 under Governor Brooke, the High Knoll tower was completed in 1798 under the guidance of Major Pierie who held the view that each defensive structure should be designed to cover others. While common practice elsewhere this is the first time the concept was explicitly applied in the British Empire. High Knoll was well positioned to defend Ladder Hill Fort (on the hill above Jamestown) in the event of an attack on the latter and provided a redoubt for islanders in the event of an invasion.
The circular tower (Martello style and along the lines of the then recently constructed tower at Simon’s Town in South Africa) was topped off with 6 cannons while gunpowder, balls and shot were stored in rooms at the bottom of the tower. These windowless rooms were purpose built for this purpose, even to the extent that all fittings were of brass or copper, even the nails and screws, to avoid sparks.
The fort never saw enemy action though it did play a key part in a mutiny in 1811. Mutinous troops demanded a full ration of spirits (alcohol) and to enforce their demand seized a high ranking officer and headed for nearby Plantation House, the Governor’s residence, – intent unknown but no doubt dishonourable. The mutiny was a miserable failure and six of the ringleaders were hung at High Knoll and other mutineers were interred in the barracks block which then became a prison.
By the 1850s, with Napoleon long gone, there were few troops in the garrison and many of the buildings were converted to a school and housing for many of the liberated slaves I have referred to in my review on the Jamestown Museum.
Concern in the 1860s and 1870s that there was no central defensive position on the Island resulted in the fort being revitalised and extended. It was then that the southern buildings were constructed, the perimeter walls build and the main gate completed (1874), replete with moat.
By 1900 the fort was again dated as a defensive structure and was used for the most recalcitrant Boer prisoners of war and Transvaal Rebels with officers keeping them separated from those in the main prison camps on Deadwood Plain.
The Fort’s parapets were repaired during World War II but again no action eventuated and from the 1940s to the 1960s High Knoll was used as a quarantine station before it was abandoned and left to ruin though in the mid-1980s, NASA had a technician at the fort who ran a small tracking station. The towers here now belong to the local telephone company.
Redevelopment and restoration work on the fort commenced in 2010 under the auspices of the National Trust. The Fort is generally only open by appointment (with a GBP2 entry fee). Contact the National Trust Office or the Tourist Office in Jamestown before visiting and take care as you drive up and down the narrow steep two way road to the fort.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries on my trip to St Helena. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Prince’s Lodge and the Castell Collection – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my St Helena Introduction entry.