The first escape from the first family

History – it’s all in the detail. When reading the stories of St Helena, I look for the small, personal or unusual details that seem out of place in the broader account. These anomalies are the windows that allow me to glimpse the untold stories of the lesser known people. Today’s example includes an escape in 1866 that was announced by two tablecloths and a child.

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I’ve been searching for the women and children in St Helena’s history, and I’ve learnt that they are hidden in the fine print. Superintendents like John McDonald are memorialise for their brave deeds, have their voices recorded in official letters and have their actions influencing the lives of the entire St Helena Community. They’re easy to find, and John McDonald heads the escape story of Edward Thompson and Charles Court with his usual vigour. But this is not your average escape.

Escape attempts require prisoners and a prison. St Helena Island’s first escape attempt occurred before any prisoners actually lived there and before the prison was built. It occurred on the 14 August 1866, and, as per any other day, one boat with 12 prisoners, 2 constables – James Harrop and James Hamilton – and one turnkey – Samuel Olson – rowed from the prison hulk ‘Proserpine’ to St Helena Island to clear the land and construct the quarantine station.

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Side view drawing of the proposed Quarantine Station, St Helena Island, 1866.

They were met at St Helena by the first guard to be living permanently on the island – Water Police Constable Samuel Seymour. He had been in the Water Police for 3 1⁄2 years and had been in charge of St Helena Island from middle of March 1866, employed in the lock up. As we will see, his family was on the island with him.

Orders from Inspector John McDonald were for Constable Seymour to receive prisoners as they landed, supply them with tools, and see them marched off under escort. Samuel sent four prisoners and Turnkey Samuel Olson to work on the far side of the island, three prisoners and Constable James Hamilton to the first building on the hill facing the Hulk, one prisoner with the Foreman of the Works Matthew Burton, one prisoner with the horse, and two prisoners at work squaring timber close to the jetty and boat under the charge of the Water Police Constable James Harrop. Seymour also needed to keep a guard of one man on the boats, removing the sails and rowlocks and keep them in his quarters, which 40 to 50 yards from the boats at high tide. The oars were kept in the boat as they always are.

11 Slides Pattison 34 1969 Boat shed
The remains of the boathouse circa 1970’s This building, situated on the southern flats near the jetty, would have been close to the site of Warder Seymour’s quarters.

Samuel Seymour felt that Charles Court required too much looking after and did not think it safe to have him on shore, yet he and Edward Thompson were the two prisoners he put at the jetty, squaring timber and in charge of the boat. Seymour says he cautioned Constable Harrup not to do any work himself, but to look after prisoners. He claimed Harrup did not bring rowlocks on shore, but did bring the sails. Seymour visited the prisoners in each gang two or three times during the day and saw Harrop, Court and Thompson at 3:20 pm working 300 yards from the boat. At 3:55pm he was proceeding to boat when his own daughter met him and told him that two men had gone away with the boat. By this time the boat was nearly 3/4 of a mile out. He then went to his own house and hoisted two table cloths, a white one and a red one, as a signal to the Hulk. He could see the escapees with a glass until about 6:00 pm and saw them land on the mainland.

Tablecloths and a daughter. In an escape story. Fantastic!

Harrop claims that on arrival on the 14th he took the rowlocks out and put them in Mr Burton’s tentand so it was possible the two prisoners took them out of the tent in passing in the afternoon. At 4:00pm he told the two prisoners to put their tools in the lock up and cooeey for the men in the bush. As the two prisoners were leaving the lock up, Harrup was going in with a few tools they had left behind. Inside the lock up he spent 5 minutes putting on his shirt and by the time he reached the jetty the two men were pushing the boat out into the water. Harrop called to ask why they were doing that, but they did not answer and though he had a pistol with him, they were out of shot. He met the cook, William Tapper, who said that the two prisoners told him to get out of the boat or they would throw him into the water. He ran to Mr Burton but could not do anything as they had no other boat and sent for Seymour.

Now there is a tent on the island for the foreman of the Works. So it appears there may be two residents on the island at this point. It’s all in the detail.

Amanda boat stillness
Rowboat image by Amanda Thepanda.

Of course no one’s story corroborates the other and each apportions blame away from the other.

John Mc Donald stated that because of Charles Court’s demeanour and Seymour’s recommendation, he would not have sent him to the island, but Court made 2 complaints to the Visiting Justice and the VJ directed Mr McDonald to send him on shore.

Constable Seymour states he never gave permission for prisoners to be at the boat without a guard, with the exception of the cook.

Constable Harrop stated it was customary for prisoners to put the boats off any time and that Seymour pulled him aside as said not to mention this fact to Inspector Mc Donald.

Samuel Olson was returning at 4:00pm he was met by Warder Seymour’s daughter who told him of the escape. When in charge of the boat before he was told not to let it get aground and he had also seen prisoners down at the boat without officers several times before.

Prisoner William Tapper was the island cook. Tapper had never known the prisoners to come down to the boat unless in charge of the constable. The prisoners would go into the water and pull the boat out but only with a constable in attendance.

Water Police Inspector John McDonald blamed Constable Samuel Seymour for the escape attempt occurring at all, stating that though he had always been obedient and efficient, he felt he did not carry out his orders properly.

Sherriff Arthur Hallinan reported James Harrop ‘appears to be a very stupid man, quite unacquainted with the duties of a constable’

John McDonald placed a Constable at Doughboy Creek, another at Lytton rocks and he searched the bush around Tingalpa with three constables. Towards the end of August they were still at large, but were finally arrested.

For me, this is the beginning of having guards, families and contractors as residents on the island, situated in the lock up and a tent. There is a young female on the island, and despite all crudity of the lock up and the isolation of the island, it is obviously the right and proper thing to do to have not one, but two colourful tablecloths present.

But here’s where I need help. Samuel Seymour’s story begins with the tantalising details revealed above and he stays on the island in 1867, but then disappears. I can’t find him or his family in records anywhere. If you are able to contribute any details of him, it would be great to know more about the first permanent warder on the island.

St Helena Island jetty today. Image by Zac Smith.


Information source: Colonial Secretary’s correspondence COL/A82/66/2344

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