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    Avis Part Nine - An Idyllic Paradise
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(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)

On October 27th 1922, Ascension was handed over to the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC) by the Royal Marine Commandant, and Ascension became a dependency of St Helena. The ETC had to pay for the privilege of using the island however, and that included providing the civil administration. The ETC's manager became the island's Resident Magistrate, responsible to the Governor of St Helena for the proper running of Ascension. The Resident Magistrate was made a member of St Helena's Executive Council, allowing him the use of the title "Honourable". Later His Majesty the King granted the Ascension Resident Magistrate the right to wear Colonial Service uniform of the fifth class! - Mind you, he had to buy it himself. The ETC Assistant Manager became the JP for the island.

The ETC had to reserve one house for the use of the Governor on his annual visits, and Bates Cottage, soon renamed Governor's Lodge, was allocated for that purpose. The Resident Magistrate lived in Bungalow Number 9, which had previously been used by the Naval Paymaster. The old Mountain Hospital, "The San", was allocated to him as well. This became a rest house so that he could escape the rigours of Georgetown's heat. Rock Cottage and Barter's Cottage on the mountain were also used as rest houses, by the married ETC staff, and Bells Cottage was allocated to the single UK staff as a holiday retreat. All local leave was taken on the mountain. St Helena staff were not ignored, they were allocated North East Cottage for a rest house, but when you think of the walk involved in getting there, it wouldn't be my idea of a holiday!

In Georgetown, the Naval and Marine buildings were utilised. The old barracks became the Ascension Club, and the Bowling Alley became a cinema. Barracks and other buildings became single and married accommodation, in addition to the existing houses. The Seamen's Mess (now the Administrator's Office), the Captain's Office (rebuilt as Bungalow 57), the Naval Paymaster's Office (now AIS Works Dept. Office), the Island Maintenance Officer's Office (now Bungalow 92), and the Laboratory (now the Laundry), all became married quarters. The maintenance of the island facilities continued. The wells on the mountain were cleaned, with the access tunnel being reinforced; work was undertaken to try and connect Bates and Dampiers water tanks back into the system. And so for a short while the staff of the ETC, about 50 UK based staff and families, and 120 St Helena based personnel, were the sole inhabitants of the island, other than the many birds, turtles, donkeys, goats and cats. Booklets written by Bartlett and Keillor beautifully describe the slow peaceful existence. As Bartlett says:

"Life flows along easily, notwithstanding a certain amount of monotony and constriction. Everyone is ready to make the best of everything, and there is little discontent. It is not unlike being on a large ship, for the roll of the sea is never far distant, and the same individuals meet every day."

In October 1923 however, the solitude of the ETC was disturbed. Before handing the island over, the Navy had granted a concession for the extraction of guano and phosphates to a Mr. Sales, and he formed the English Bay Company (EBC) to utilise this concession. Labourers from St Helena arrived, and a camp was built at English Bay to accommodate the company's staff. Eventually at English Bay would be two houses on the rocks overlooking the beach, a jetty for the company's launch, barracks, store sheds, and even a small hospital. Separate kitchens, distillers for water, and refrigeration units were built, with generators to provide power. A light railway ran from the beach area inland. Parts of the track bed can still be seen. From the current beach car park (parts of the embankment and bits of an engine boiler can be seen here), it followed the line of English Bay Beach road towards the Power Station. The raised track bed can still be seen on the left of the road before it joins the Power Station road. Further sheds were built just outside the Power Station compound, but the track followed the line of the current road to the Klinker Club, before swerving right through the BBC Aerial Field (If following the track, please do not enter the Aerial Site without permission). A further section of the track existed at Ladies Loo on the way to Porpoise Point, although the two sections were never connected. At Ladies Loo can be seen sleepers, and the wheels of an old truck. All rails were removed for use in WWII, and can still be seen at various points around the island.

Most of the guano recovered over the next few years was from Boatswain Bird Island. Men actually lived on Boatswain Bird for two of three days at a time, being supported by a base camp on Spire Beach. Each day a party would row across to the island with fresh supplies. A small railway also existed on that island, so that guano could be moved to the edge and lowered directly into the company's boat for transport back to English Bay. Water was obtained from the catchment on Weather Post. The operation was a large one, and the activity at English Bay certainly contrasted with the peace of Georgetown. In 1926, the Union Castle liner Garth Castle mistook the lights at English Bay for Georgetown and ran aground. The boat remained for a week until a relief boat took the passengers away. The ship was eventually refloated. Not so lucky was the EBC launch, The Derby, which sank in a storm in 1929, providing a popular dive site!

Despite the shipment of guano and phosphates however, the company was not a success, and eventually was wound up. Out at Ladies Loo can still be seen shovels and bags just abandoned, almost as if someone shouted, "How unfortunate! The company has become bankrupt!" (or words to that effect!). Most of the staff, except for a caretaker, had left the island by September 1931. The concession, complete with stores, buildings, and equipment, was taken over by the St Helena Colony Development Company, which was visited by the Governor in 1933 on his annual visit. This company too failed to make a profit, (did it ever operate?), and eventually in June 1934 the concession was withdrawn, and everything put up for sale.

It wasn't quite the end of the story. In 1932, a German Chemist claimed he could extract large quantities of gold from Ascension's lava; he was still trying to raise money for this project when he was killed in 1935. Meanwhile, at English Bay the caretaker, Mr. Hayes, lived on. The Resident Magistrate reported his continued existence, which caused him to inquire in February 1935, "How does Hayes live?", and to ask for a fuller report. With the death of the chemist all hopes at English Bay evaporated, and the site was abandoned.

Other than the railway and the jetty, little can be seen today of the English Bay operation. There is elsewhere however a reminder that tragedy was also part of our colonial heritage. In Georgetown Cemetery are two infant children of the Hayes family. A reminder that idyllic paradises do not exist.


Copyright © 2000, Graham Avis
Created by Stephen C Fowler
Last revised on the 9th of February 2002