|Avis Part Nineteen - A Time For Change.|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
In 1964 construction of the B.B.C.'s four million pound radio relay system began at English Bay. The work was carried out by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, the work force consisting mainly of West Indians, living in tented accommodation at English Bay. In addition to the radio relay system, a new had to be built to house the B.B.C. employees and their families. Muriel Avenue was selected as the site, and the new community was called Two Boats. With the influx of so many B.B.C. personnel, it was deemed inappropriate that the General Manager of Cable & Wireless should also be in charge of the island, so in 1964, the supremacy of C&W came to an end when the Colonial Office in London appointed the first Administrator, Major M.E.Wainwright.
The U.S. Apollo space programme had a far-reaching effect on the island. It led to the construction in the mid-sixties of the NASA Tracking Station at Devil's Ashpit, and the Cable & Wireless Earth Station at Donkey Plain. This station was built by Cable & Wireless and Marconi at the request of NASA, and was used to transmit microwave borne data via the Early Bird Satellite back to the NASA facility at Andover, Maine in the U.S.A.
Turtles came back into focus on Ascension in 1972. A commercial organisation called Mariculture, established in the Cayman Islands had been given permission to remove eggs in 1969; in 1972 they returned for more eggs and research. In return for the right to remove more eggs, they supervised a project on Ascension to improve the chances of young turtles surviving into adulthood. As a female turtle started to lay eggs, a volunteer would lie behind the female, catching the eggs as they were hatched. Sand was removed from the nest chamber at the same time, and all were put into a cool box to await the hatching. A scratching noise from the box 60 odd days later announced the happy event. The day old hatchlings were moved to the Turtle Ponds in Georgetown where a food supplied by Mariculture was added to the water. After about two weeks, the by now larger turtles were taken out to sea in the C&W launch and released, safe from cats, frigate birds, and blackfish.
As the 1970's progressed, the organisation's operating on Ascension had settled into a routine. Life was comfortable, and all had a reasonable way of life. Unfortunately the accountants were about to intervene as the cost of operating on Ascension increased, and Government funds became limited. At the US base some rationalisation took place, which left the Base Commander and his sergeant as the only uniformed representatives of the USAF left on the Island.
Meanwhile in Two Boats, discussions were centring on the future of the MPBW, by then renamed the Property Services Agency. PSA were moving their core business away from the Ascension style of service provision, and the BBC and C&W were convinced that the Island could be serviced for less money. In 1976 agreement was reached, PSA left the Island, and the provision of services was shared between C&W and the BBC. C&W took over the running of the majority of the services, with the BBC accepting responsibility for the running of the Power Station, including the distribution of power and water to the Island, except for Georgetown, where C&W continued to oversee distribution.
Many of the staff transferred to the new operation, although there were some post closures. Peter Barry was the first BBC Power Station Manager, and he arrived with his family to start a two-year tour; C&W's Ernie Riddiough assumed responsibility for all of the Island's maintenance. The rationalisation of resources solved many problems, and offered some opportunities, as the changes left a surplus of housing. The US Base Commander was able to rent a bungalow, and the post became accompanied. Other Americans were also able to rent bungalows for a time.
It was the farm though, that was to see the major change. Already being considered as part of an economy review, C&W made a major reduction. The UK expatriate farm manager finished his tour and was not replaced. Peter Critchley had put many years into the farm, improving the output to match the Island's requirements. He was awarded the OBE on his retirement. With his departure the milk herd was shipped to St Helena. The closure of the dairy farm also meant reductions in the staff, eventually it would be reduced to five people, from its peak of 20 posts.
Two Boats also saw some major changes. The reductions in numbers living in the village meant that a rationalisation of clubs could take place. The Ocean View bar was mothballed with all village residents becoming members of the Two Boats Club. The Senior Mess was closed, as was the Junior Mess; St Helenian single staff were transferred to Georgetown, with UK staff sharing bungalows in Two Boats. After a short while however the Senior Mess reopened, as did the Junior Mess, under BBC control. Although the Ocean View had closed, it was remembered with fond memories by many of its previous users. It was opened for one Christmas period in a surge of nostalgia, and then once again closed.
Other changes were also taking place; the charter aircraft still continued to come to Ascension five times a year, but the Castle line ships ceased to call. To overcome this, the British and St Helena Governments arranged for the purchase and conversion of a ship that had been travelling up and down the Canadian coastline. The ship was to bear the name Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, and would become an institution as it carried the Ascension workers to and from home.
During one of his many tours of Ascension, Robin Hanney, who had done so much to encourage a wider appreciation of the Island, died, and was laid to rest in the Georgetown Cemetery. He was always willing to join in any conservation project, (I well remember the pile of cool-boxes on his patio containing incubating turtle eggs, crowned by a Booby with a mending wing). His love for the Island was infectious, and the time he was prepared to put into ensuring others enjoyed the Island considerable. He was sadly missed.
Meanwhile the work went on as always. At Butt Crater BBC engineers still continued their lonely vigil (one man per shift) operating the receivers for the BBC transmissions. If the air conditioning failed you opened the doors to get a cool breeze. If that happened you were quite likely to be joined by a donkey demanding a drink. Have you ever tried to persuade a donkey to engage reverse gear? At English Bay, the transmitting station and power station had adapted to the new regime with the BBC taking sole responsibility for their masts, and for the whole range of equipment associated with the power station. NASA continued its operations, while at the US Base Pan Am continued to man the facilities, and run the airfield.
The occasional RAF flight would call in and stay for a few hours. Often they would bring in supplies of fresh fruit vegetables and eggs. Crews were entertained in one of the clubs as a way of saying "thank you". More regular RAF flights appeared if an exercise was taking place. In 1972, the RAF and the army held three separate communication's exercises. A transmitting station - a grandiose name for the tent used! - would be set up on the old cricket pitch at English Bay, and the receiver site would be established near Butt Crater. Wires would connect the two sites, with each exercise bringing its own supplies of cable to stretch between the sites. All of the exercise participants added to the social life of the Island. Navy ships were another source of visitors and social occasions. Ships calling would seek the opportunity for sports, and generally a cocktail party would be held. Gin and tonics were mixed to secret Navy recipes - one bottle of gin to one bottle of tonic!
So Ascension slumbered on towards the 1980's. There were continual reductions in posts. The UK recruited Power Station Controllers were not replaced, and for the first time the Power Station shifts were run entirely by St Helenian staff. In C&W too the pressure on finances led to post closures and rationalisation. Each year the financial pressures from the UK Government seemed to lead to more and more cuts.
It couldn't last.