For well over twenty years St. Helena was garrisoned by its own infantry regiment, Her Majesty’s St. Helena Regiment of Foot; the most popular corps to serve the Island during colonial times.
From the day of its settlement by the British on 4th May 1649, and for the next 257 years until 1906, St. Helena stood guard over one of the main ocean highways of the world. It was originally garrisoned by the St. Helena Regiment of the Honourable East India Company, but on St. Helena’s transfer to the Crown in 1836 the Company’s infantry and Artillery Corps were disbanded, and for the next seventy years the ‘Gibraltar of the South Atlantic’ was manned by detachments from Regiments of the Line, posted from Britain or the Cape every two or three years, supported by small units of Royal Artillery and a few Royal Engineers.
An important exception was made to this arrangement from 1842, however, when, for well over twenty years the Island was garrisoned by its own infantry regiment, Her Majesty’s St. Helena Regiment of Foot. References in the St. Helena Guardian and elsewhere show that it was the most popular corps to serve the Island during colonial times, affectionately known as ‘The Old Saints’. Moreover, it did so during the busiest and most productive period of St. Helena’s history, when Jamestown was a base for New England whaling fleets, and shipping from the East via the Cape was at its height. One thousand ships a year called for fresh food, water and repairs, and the Royal Navy brought thousands of rescued slaves for recuperation at the Liberated Slave Depot in Rupert’s Valley. Yet the guardians of this vital outpost of Empire have been virtually forgotten, and remain the only royal regiment to garrison the Island not to have a written history.
Her Majesty’s St. Helena Regiment (SHR) was specially raised in Great Britain, with the objective of safeguarding St. Helena as a strategic link in imperial communications. It was composed of one-third new recruits and two-thirds volunteers from other infantry regiments who were experienced soldiers of good conduct. With a strength of five companies (400-450 men), it was an important condition that all must be over 5ft 6ins (167cm) in height and physically fit, as well as of good character, the reasons for which were to become clear in due course. The new Regiment was assembled on the Isle of Wight in early August 1842, to board the troopship George the Fourth (1438 tons). It arrived at Jamestown after a passage of 58 days on 4th October.
Officers and men soon became integrated into Island society. There were practical reasons for this. They were not ‘birds of passage’ like other regiments of the line, but men who had volunteered to serve at least five years in the Regiment, with inducements to remain longer, some indeed staying for over twenty years. Officers became involved in local government and many men of all ranks married into local families.
Unfortunately there was a downside to garrison service on St. Helena on at least two counts. One related to the shortage of fresh food for the garrison at prices the Army could afford. To meet this problem the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Hill, ordered that the Regiment be allotted “garden ground” for the men to grow their own vegetables, but this was resented by local tradesmen, who were backed by the Governor. Consequently the land was withdrawn, creating bad feeling between the Regiment and the Castle, and misunderstandings in Whitehall between the War Office and the Colonial Office, to the detriment of the Regiment’s good name.
The other disadvantage to St. Helena service affected the men more seriously. The Island suffered from a shortage of reliable labour and skilled craftsmen, making it difficult for the Royal Engineers, for example, to maintain the defences and Island infrastructure, such as roads. Enough labour could not even be hired at times to load or unload men-of-war and military transports, including naval colliers. No doubt the recently emancipated slaves, rejoicing in their freedom, had little relish to work for military taskmasters, and so the Army had only one source of ‘forced labour’ to call upon: the rank and file of the St. Helena Regiment. The need for them to be tall and fit soon became apparent as the men had to endure heavy manual work as well as their regimental and guard duties, making it a demoralising experience of military service.
The Regiment, with its band, was well liked among Island society which had, until 1836, always been used to a permanent garrison resident among them. And thus when in 1863 military policy changed in Whitehall and the decision was made to disband the Regiment and return to the system of manning the Island with Regiments of the Line every two or three years, the announcement was greeted first with disbelief, then dismay and even anger on the Island, as letters and articles in the St. Helena Guardian demonstrate.
In fact two years passed before the last of the Regiment left, as many of the officers and men were engaged in a scheme to recruit and train ‘liberated Africans’ from the Depot in Rupert’s Valley, for the 5th West India Regiment, between 1863 and 1865.
During the Regiment’s 23 years’ service on the Island many of its members married locally. Their marriages can be found reported in the St. Helena Almanacs of the time. Many of the St. Helenian brides, and their children, later went to Britain; some of their children stayed on the Island, the most notable being Benjamin Grant of the St. Helena Guardian; while some of the men settled with their families to become part of the Island society.
Of soldier-settlers there is definite proof of at least three: Sergeant Charles Judd; Sergeant Major Noble; and Private Ward. But all the descendents can be proud to recall the words of the Officer Commanding the Garrison, Lt. Col. William Stace of the Royal Engineers, when bidding farewell to ‘The Old Saints’ on 26th November 1863:
“During 37 years’ service I have been in many garrisons at home and abroad, and I may say I never met a better or finer body of officers and men… Whatever Corps may relieve the St. Helena Regiment I do not expect it will be succeeded by a finer or better one.”
The St. Helena Regiment soldiers lived in barracks in Jamestown that are now used to house Pilling Primary School. Officers lived in houses nearby, now known as Barracks Square.
The Regiment wore ordinary infantry uniform. This included a red jacket with collar and cuffs in the regimental facing colour (buff for the St. Helena Regiment), white trousers (which were worn by all soldiers aboard, and in the summer by British regiments at home) and pipe-clayed leather belts to support the equipment. A reconstruction of the uniform appears in the Museum of St. Helena.