Stories from St James’ Church Tower | Sharon Henry
The fairy terns suffered a bit of a shock recently when a large upside-down ice-cream cone hijacked their perching area on top of St James Church St Helena. Unfortunately for them a spire has reclaimed the space after a 36 year absence to once again grace the skyline of Jamestown, St Helena.
The ‘new’ piece lends quite a Disney-Magic-Kingdom-like feature to our historic seaport and in the first few weeks after its erection, motorists had to be vigilant of pedestrians distracted by the novel sight – it is after all the only spire on St Helena.
Its gold/bronze colour somewhat clashes with the church’s grey paint job and although opinions differ on the reinstated landmark, it is fair to say the scales are tipped in favour of the happy majority.
Crayfish For Breakfast
Top of that list is Churchwarden, Ivy Ellick who has a nostalgic affinity with the old spire. “Before days when I was a little girl,” she tells me, “stump (crayfish) fishing was big. Fishermen would go out to set their nets in the afternoon and went to bring in their catch early mornings. They’d cook the stumps and sell them there at the seaside before people went to work or school. I was sent to buy them as a young girl. Anyway, those fishermen said they used the church spire as a guide on where to place their nets. And before the days of motors, fishermen would row out to sea and use the spire as a reference point on how far to go from the island.”
Of course today’s fishermen use GPS technology to navigate St Helena waters, but back in the day they relied on St James’ church spire – the fisherman’s friend.
More Than Meets The Eye
Whilst eyes are understandably drawn to the new spire, I wonder how many glance at or even notice the turret clock just below? Well, behind its unassuming face lies a 230 year old time machine. Granted, not the type used by the likes of Marty McFly or Dr Who, but an inscription on the clock’s machinery dates it back to 1786, and it still works, which I think is ultra cool.
It doesn’t stop there. This same clock has ties with – (drum roll please) none other than London’s, Big Ben aka The Great Clock. The link actually comes twofold. The company that made St James’ clock were custodians of Big Ben and most significantly, St James’ clock bell was cast by the same founders, John Warner & Sons, who made the original Big Ben bell in 1858. Albeit that bell (in London) cracked and had to be recast by another company.
The church tower itself resembles a grand scale grandfather clock. High up in the belfry a brass inscription reads, ‘Aynsworth Thwaites of Clerkenwell, London 1786.’ It’s attached to a contraption of cog wheels, spools and wires. These are connected to a fixed bell that rings the quarters and hour chimes.
Shutter-slat windows surrounds the room which were specifically chosen to better disseminate the sound of tolling bells. Thick beams, which once lived life as ship masts, criss-cross overhead.
Every four days, volunteer, Roddy Yon climbs this two-storey tower to ‘wind’ the clock. To do this he manually turns a crankshaft that lifts 200kg weights to set pulleys and hammers in motion which keeps the clock happily ticking and chiming along. “It’s a clock and a half,” smiles Roddy, who resurrected the clock ‘winding’ ritual seven years ago on his return from overseas.
St James Church St Helena – Links To Original Big Ben
The clock bell is green with age and oxidation; an inscription reads, ‘John Warner & Sons, London 1872, Patent.’ It also bears a rather regal coat of arms which appears to be the same insignia moulded on the original Big Ben. Thankfully ours has stood the test of time and remains crack-free.
When The Princess Came To Town
The same cannot be said of the other bell hanging in the belfry. In terms of age this is a baby compared to the clock bell and it swings as opposed to being fixed. Separate from the time machine this bell is manually rung by pulling a suspended cord, usually before and after church services. It was installed in 1950 in honour of the Royal Visit of 1947 when Queen Elizabeth II, a young 21 year old princess at the time, stepped ashore in Jamestown.
This bell was cast by John Taylor of Loughborough and has a small chip on the rim. It is inscribed, ‘In memory of William A Thorpe, 1842 – 1918. Honour the King 1947.’ Mr Thorpe was a churchwarden.
St James Church St Helena – Oldest South Of The Equator
Built in 1774 St James is the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere. Its walls have witnessed centuries of island events that in movie terms would shift from black and white to colour footage. Hopefully along with the church, the fisherman’s friend and the time machine will continue to shine and strike long into the coming centuries, and progress onto who knows what movie media will be the norm in the future.