Bertrand’s Cottage, St Helena
Lally Brown | PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
Original article & photos as published in Breeze e-magazine January 2016, plus updated photos.
Historic pictures supplied.
When Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on the island of St Helena October 1815 to begin his exile, he was accompanied by an entourage of twenty-four people, including Count Henri-Gatien Bertrand, his wife Fanny and their three children.
After some initial confusion it was decided to house Napoleon and his ‘companions in exile’ in the summer home of the Lieutenant Governor of St Helena, Colonel Skelton, at Longwood. However, Countess Bertrand flatly refused to move her family into Longwood House with Napoleon and so it was agreed that a separate residence should be built for her family, but in close proximity to Longwood House.
When it was completed in 1816 Countess Bertrand described the cottage as ‘very pleasing, with good views across the Camp and Deadwood Plain, where the horse-racing and parades take place’. She planted out the garden with fruit trees and brought camellia and rose bushes from the property they had rented at Hutt’s Gate. On 17th January 1817, shortly after moving in, Countess Bertrand gave birth to her fourth child, Arthur, at the cottage.
Napoleon was a frequent visitor. It was only a short walk through the gardens of Longwood House to Bertrand’s Cottage. He brought pastries and sweets for the children and enjoyed watching the horse racing. In fact in late 1817 when Longwood House was undergoing renovation it was proposed that Napoleon should move into Bertrand’s Cottage until the work was completed, a suggestion Countess Bertrand was very quick to oppose!
After the death of Napoleon in May 1821 the Bertrand family left St Helena, having lived in the cottage for almost five years.
The property later became known as Longwood Farm House and between 1900 and 1949 was owned by the Deason family. The farm provided the Union Castle Line cruise ships that visited St Helena with eggs, milk, butter and vegetables. It was a busy and prosperous farm. There was a tennis court, horse riding and polo, and a great many parties (‘particularly Bridge’ according to Lydia Benjamin, the last live-in domestic at the Farm House).
During the Second World War, Major Moss, who was Sheriff of St Helena, was billeted here and had his room in the attic. Throughout the war the property beside Longwood Farm House (originally built in 1821 for Napoleon as his ‘new’ Longwood House home, though never occupied by him) was used by the St Helena Regiment but later fell into disrepair and was demolished and re-built in 1949 as a dairy complex for the farm. Thirteen Ayrshire cows in calf and one bull were imported to stock the new Dairy, but sadly the business collapsed around 1956 because, according to the late Eric Mercury who worked at the Dairy, the fresh milk (at five pence a bottle) was more expensive than imported canned milk and was not selling.
Longwood Farm House was sold to Mr and Mrs Tatum and became a private home. The stairs to the attic and the attic floor were removed around 1960. The Tatum’s remained living here until 1983 when the property changed hands again and was taken over by the Government of St Helena as accommodation for contract personnel working on the island, primarily as the residence of the Chief Engineer.
When Bertrand’s Cottage was built in 1816 the roof was slate but this was later replaced with galvanised tin. By 1990 the tin had become pitted and rusty with age and the roof leaked so badly that tarpaulins had to be stretched beneath the ceiling of the entrance hall to collect the rainwater.
The decision was made to replace the roof with galvanised troughing, but after vigorous opposition from the French Consul (who was himself re-roofing Longwood House with slate) it was agreed to replicate the original 1816 cottage roof.
In 1995 the slates required arrived on island and the entrance hall was immediately re-roofed. However, the rest of the cottage was left with rusty leaking tin until 2001, when the work was re-commenced and the main part of the cottage was finally re-roofed. But the kitchen area was put on hold and the slates were stored at PWD in Jamestown.
In 2001, when the tin was taken off and the original 1816 timbers exposed, it could be seen that the white ant (a termite originally brought to St Helena in the 1850s in the timbers of a captured slave-trading vessel) had eaten through the centres of the six-inch square pitch pine. Approximately 75% of the timber had gone, creating a wide channel of fresh air through the middle of the beams leaving the timbers hollow. They had become structurally unsafe without any obvious outward signs. All these timbers had to be replaced, including the attic windows, before the work of placing the slates could begin. It was a much bigger job than at first anticipated.
In 2016 the long-awaited airport becomes a reality for St Helena, and two hundred years after it was built for Count Bertrand the cottage is about to enter a new and exciting phase. Under the auspices of Enterprise St Helena there are plans to transform Bertrand’s Cottage into a ‘Restaurant with Rooms,’ open to the public and used by the hospitality sector of St Helena as a venue for trainees.
When this exciting and ambitious new project has been completed it will be a valuable asset to Longwood, to the island of St Helena, and to visiting tourists.
If you are planning a visit to St Helena (and Napoleon’s Longwood House), do make sure you stop for refreshments (or if you are very lucky, stay) at Bertrand’s Cottage!
WTSDN note: As Lally indicated in the original article, the Cottage did re-open in October 2016, as shown in these updated pictures.