top of page

A Brief History of Climbing Ladder Hill

Jacob’s Ladder is one of the most striking examples of built heritage on St Helena. A dramatically steep staircase of 699 steps, it now provides the most convenient, if tiring, route from Jamestown valley to the top of Ladder Hill. However, Jacob’s Ladder’s was not the first structure built in an attempt to lessen the impact of scaling Ladder Hill.

Some 18th century maps of the island record a route from the bottom of James Valley to the top of Ladder Hill. This consisted mostly of a steep path that could only be navigated by foot, followed by a rope ladder to reach the top. It is believed that the current name of the hill derives from this rope ladder.

During Napoleon’s residency on St Helena, the most efficient way to climb Ladder Hill was via a new zig-zag road built for carts, which meandered this way and that to reduce the effects of the steep climb. James Wathan’s depiction of the road in 1821 emphasises the hill’s height by showing the path ascending into the cloudy sky. His engraving also shows numerous commuters, suggesting that the road was a well-used route. In a commentary accompanying the print, he assures the reader that: “the ascent is so easy and safe, that carts and oxen pass along without danger of difficulty.”

James Wathan, Ladder Hill, ‘A Series of Views Illustrative of the Island of St Helena, 1821.

Nonetheless, a tedious uphill journey on foot left much to be desired for those trying to transport goods both to Ladder Hill Fort and the farms located at the centre of the island. In 1828, under the governorship of Brigadier-General Dallas, a new means of transportation up Ladder Hill was devised: the Inclined Plane. An edition of the Mechanics’ Magazine from 1834 shows how horses could be used to haul goods to the top of the hill using pulleys and a railroad system. Work began on the Operation of the Inclined Plane in August 1828 and was completed by December 1829. It was used successfully until 1871, when the railroad system was dismantled due to disrepair.

Jacob’s Ladder is all that now survives of the Inclined Plane. As the image in Mechanics’ Magazine shows, the staircase that we see today formed the middle of the railroad pulley system. The current name originates both from the origins of ‘Ladder Hill’ and the Biblical story of Jacob’s stairway to heaven, reflecting its steep angle towards the sky. Unlike in earlier centuries, when the routes up Ladder Hill were devised for the practical movement of goods,

Operation of the Inclined Plane, Mechanics Magazine. 1834. St Helena Island Info.

Jacob’s Ladder is now primarily visited as a tourist attraction. The St Helena Festival of Running also organises a timed race up the staircase, known as the ‘Jacob’s Ladder Challenge’.


This blog post was produced by Kathryn Davies, an Oxford graduate who took part in our September Micro Internship Programme (MIP) with the University of Oxford Careers Service.


bottom of page