|Avis Part Seven - Ascension Reborn!|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
During the 1880s, the Admiralty gave serious thought to the disposal of Ascension. The remote island did not offer any advantages over St Helena. Something however, changed their minds. Africa was, like now, a volatile continent, and Britain was keen to maintain a level of influence. Perhaps the possibility of cable circuits was considered in that decade; certainly the danger of having coastal circuits interrupted by local wars had been identified.
Whatever the reason, Ascension's fortunes swung once again. Despite the relish with which buildings were demolished in the early 1880s, a new building programme was initiated. Between the period 1885 to 1900, many buildings were completed. A new Seamen's Mess (now the Administrator's Office), a new Library (now the Courthouse), a new Marine Barracks (since demolished), a new CPO's Mess (now the Islander Hostel), and a new entertainment complex known as the Bowling Alley (now the Saints Club and Hall) were just a few.
The island's defences were not ignored. Fort Thornton was restyled, with the old blockhouse being demolished. New guns were fitted to Fort Hayes and Fort Thornton, and a new fort, Fort Bedford, was built on the slopes of Cross Hill.
Ascension however did not lose its ability to strike a note of absurdity. Amongst all the useful buildings appeared Napier's Fountain. A sum of money had been presented to the island to provide for the recreation of the sailors and marines. The Island Commandant, Capt. Napier, decided that what everyone really wanted was a decorative water fountain. As fresh water was still scarce, a salt water fountain was constructed. The water soon corroded the pipes, and it ceased to function.
Then in 1899, came an event that was to change Ascension forever. A party of the Eastern Telegraph Company arrived, and Ascension ceased to become solely a military island, although it continued to be run by the Admiralty. The Eastern Telegraph Company was to use Ascension as a relay station in its new undersea cable network running from Capetown to St Helena, Ascension St Vincent and on to England. On the 15th of December 1899, the cable from St Helena was completed, and Ascension was no longer isolated from the world. By the end of February 1900, the island was part of the network extending from Capetown to England. In 1901, a cable was added connecting Ascension to Sierra Leone. Cables to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro followed in later years.
The cables were dragged ashore at Comfortless Cove, and a cable termination hut built on the beach. Landlines connected the undersea cables to Georgetown, where the new company was to establish its offices. The course of these cables can still be followed, and in the area between Comfortless Cove and Long Beach, ETC cable markers can still be found.
The Navy allocated one of its new buildings to be used as an office and termination room. The CPO's Mess, now the Islander Hostel, was the first home of the ETC. The Superintendent had the top floor of the building as a flat, and the ground floor was used as an office and operating room. All telegrams passing through the cable were read and retransmitted by hand.
Further ETC buildings were erected. A larger office was built where the old SACC building stands now, with a water tank. Accommodation was also erected on the southern edge of the town, (now known as Cuba); mess rooms, a billiard room, a library, kitchens, and ablution blocks were erected all in the same colonial style out of corrugated iron sheets. Two tennis courts also followed, with the complex being complete by 1910. The accommodation buildings still survive today, and are in use. As well as the UK staff of the ETC, company servants were recruited from St Helena. By 1908, the ETC presence amounted to 40 persons, including the domestic servants. The ETC staff obtained their victuals from the Navy, but although they appeared on the island's books for food purposes, in all other respects they were private individuals, rather like the servicemen's wives and children.
Meanwhile up at the farm, there had also been many changes. In 1896, a new Head Gardener had been appointed, Hedley Cronk. He was to remain on Ascension for 26 years, bringing to the island new skills and techniques. Cronk introduced many new species to the island. At the time of his arrival, there were no more than fifty full size trees on the island. He imported and established Norfolk Island pines, eucalyptus, casuarina cypress, limes, oranges, banana, coconut, and others. The grazing areas were extended with the introduction of guinea grass. He tried to improve the quality of the existing pasture, removing the wild guava, buddleia and periwinkle from the areas where the cattle grazed.
Cronk gave his name to Cronk's path, an alternative route to North East Cottage from the farm area, which was carved out of the hillside under his direction. Each evening he would stroll to North East Cottage returning on his new path, while enjoying his pipe of tobacco. Then he would sit and watch the sunset while drinking his daily pint of beer. Other than the cart to Georgetown with the produce, there was little interaction between the farm and Georgetown. The mountain settlement was a remote part of the island.
The final improvement to the island in the period leading up to the First World War, was to the water supply. The system that Captain Bate and Lt Brandreth had designed and installed 70 years before was still working well. However it was decided to increase the capacity of the island's water storage, and to site this additional storage inland, behind Georgetown. Additional tanks were built at the foot of Cross Hill; Needles Tank was first, and the larger King Edward VII Tank followed (known as King Ted). On the mountain the first water catchment areas were constructed at the top of Breakneck Valley. The water from these catchments flowed into Mountain Main Tank, either directly, or through the tunnel. Within the larger catchment area the exposed edge of a clay seam was left uncovered. This seam was the source of the water for the Brandreth Wells, and it was feared that if covered over, the wells would dry up.
And so Ascension was rejuvenated; new buildings, new activities, new plants and an improved water supply. By 1914, Ascension was ready for the events then unfolding in Europe.