|Avis Part Three - The Effect of a Visionary|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
1828 was a year of change on Ascension Island. Lt Col Nicholls was coming to the end of his spell as Commandant Ascension. The farm was productive, water could be found at three springs; Breakneck Valley, Dampiers, and Middletons, and a small village had been established near the pier. Nicholls was very proud of his achievement.
On the 3rd of November 1828, a new commandant arrived, Captain William Bate. Bate was to remain on Ascension for 10 years, and his vision and drive produced many changes on the island. When he arrived, Bate was not a happy man. He had a report produced on the state of the island. This painted a poor picture. The quarters were so poor that many men spent the nights on the beach. Water parties stationed at Dampiers were still living in caves cut out of the cinders, unsafe and damp. One New Years Day 1829, the foundation stone for a new water tank at Dampiers was laid. This tank is still there today, and later became known as Bate's Tank.
On the 3rd of April 1829, in honour of the King's birthday, Bates gave the settlement the name that it has since known - Georgetown. Some honour! In June 1829, a great ally for Bate arrived, Captain Brandreth of the Royal Engineers. He was sent to the island to comment on some recommendations Bate had made. Brandreth's report paints a vivid picture;
"The population at the period of my arrival consisted of about 140 Europeans, principally of the Royal Marine Corps, and 76 Africans, making a total of about 220 persons, including military and civil officers, a few white women (the wives of non-commissioned officers and privates of the Royal Marines, and black women and children.
A small town or rather village had grown up near the roadstead, which on my arrival consisted of a collection of miserable tenements, with walls put together without lime, and harbouring vermin; roofs of canvas or shingle and floors of sandstone or tarras. The hospital which occasionally received the sick of the African Squadron was placed in a hollow, and consisted of four rooms, each about 16 feet by 11 feet, and the Africans occupied wretched hovels dark and filthy. A victualling store, a tank, and a small stone tenement for the officers, were the only buildings that redeemed the settlement from the appearance of an African village.
The anchorage was defended by a few guns, on a projecting slip of land, about 70 feet above the sea, but without any breastwork or other cover, and in the rear, on a higher elevation, a building with a canvas roof was occupied as a powder magazine. Nearly parallel to this position was a second slip of land, of lower elevation, formed into a pier or landing place, protected at the head by masonry, and with a flight of steps to the water.
The supply of water at this time was scanty and precarious. It depended on springs, or rather drips in the precipitous banks, and the rains that could be collected in old casks and a few iron tanks. A stone tank in Georgetown, calculated to hold about 80 tons, was supplied with water from the mountains, a distance of six miles. Three carts, six oxen and three drivers were employed daily in the transport of about 360 gallons of this water."
Given this sad picture, (very different from Nicholls upbeat story), the Admiralty agreed to changes. Georgetown was to move, away from the lowlands of the first settlement to the plateau it occupies today. Brandreth designed the buildings, and Bate and his men started work. The stone was quarried from the site of today's Chinatown, and at the start it was decided that all buildings would have guttering so that roof water would flow into the storage tanks.
The first construction started within a month of Brandreth's departure; excavating to build a large stone tank capable of holding 1200 tons of water. The foundation stone was laid in 1830, and, St George's Tank as it became known, was the main water storage on the island for many years. All roofs in Georgetown were at one time connected into nearby tanks, and as these individual tanks overflowed, the water went into St George's. Water from the mountain was also fed into this tank. It's still there, the domed tank near the Church, and still holds water.
The next construction was Fort Cockburn, which eventually had new magazines, water tanks, and a two storey block house capable of independently housing 35 men. Extra guns were mounted on Goat Hill (later to become Fort Hayes), and on the pier.
A hospital followed (still in use today), and also a single storey Marine Barracks. (In 1848, a second storey was added, bringing the capacity of the barracks to 150. The building remained un use until 1903, when a replacement barracks was built.) Yes! It's the old Exiles Club, and it is interesting to note that although the Exiles is still standing, the building that replaced it was demolished in 1966!
Housing was the next concern, and plans were produced for houses for officers and NCOs. Unfortunately the Admiralty had started to cut back on money and troops, but by the time he called at the island in 1835, Brandreth noted that much work had been accomplished. Bate's layout of Georgetown can still be seen today. The officers quarters stretched from the Barracks (the Exiles Club) to the Hospital. It was known as Scandal Terrace! Teapot Alley was the site of the NCOs quarters, and that ran from Long Beach along the line of the present road by the Church. Private's quarters were in Vindictive Row, probably the only street that we can no longer identify. The buildings created by Bate and his men have stood the test of time. The tank, the basic fort foundations, the barracks and the hospital all remain. Most of the houses have been rebuilt, although some have reused internal walls. I say most, as part of one house still remains. All of the houses in Scandal Terrace had separate kitchens and servant quarters, and one, in front of Bungalow number 3 still remains, now known as Bungalow 98, it is still in use today, the home of Sue and Neil MacFall.
So that was the effect of a visionary; large stone buildings on an airy plateau, and a town layout that has stood the test of time. The water system was even more amazing; but more of that another time! Unfortunately, Bate did not live to see the end of his labour. He died on the 15th of April 1838, of a virulent influenza, which also killed many of the garrison. No other commander was ever to equal Bate in enthusiasm or drive, and none has left such a lasting legacy.
He lies in Georgetown's Deadmans Beach Cemetery. May he rest in peace.