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Restoring Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder is a Grade I listed monument adjacent to Jamestown, capital of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. It consists of 699 steps leading from the valley floor to Ladder Hill Fort and the hill-top settlement of Half Tree Hollow.

What survives today are the remnants of a horse-driven cable railway installed by the Saint Helena Railway Company in 1829 to carry materials from Jamestown to Ladder Hill Fort. The railway was designed by J.W. Hoar, a local engineer, and the Royal Artillery Engineers under the supervision of Lt. G.W. Mellis. Cars would run on iron rails fixed onto wooden joists attached to the rock face. By 1871, the railway had fallen into disrepair and was dismantled, leaving only the central pedestrian stairway intact.

Today, Jacob’s Ladder is a significant heritage monument and tourist attraction, much loved by the islanders who voted it one of the Seven Wonders of St Helena. However, a high proportion of the steps show signs of significant wear and erosion-related degradation, while the metal stringers and bolts – as well as the handrails – are corroded, making the ladder potentially unsafe.

Just prior to the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust worked with Dr Brent Fortenberry – Associate Director of the Center for Heritage Conservation at Texas A&M University – to conduct a thorough assessment of the Ladder’s condition and develop a plan to repair the steps, abutments and handrails in a way that would have minimal impact on the heritage structure but would ensure its stability and preservation for future generations. Thanks to a very generous donation to the Trust by Lord Ashcroft – whose personal attachment to the ladder goes all the way back to being carried up it on his father’s back as a baby – work on repairing and preserving the ladder was able to commence in August this year.

So far, worn and degraded sections of around 300 steps have been removed and the respective metal stringers and spindles cleaned and treated. Work has also commenced on constructing and fixing formwork for the steps and casting repairs to existing concrete steps. However, the pigment required to ensure that the lime mortar mix to be used in the restoration matches the existing structure has to be imported, and the ship carrying the materials has been delayed. Once this pigment is received, lime mortar repairs to the steps and inclined plane can commence. If there are no further delays, work on restoring Jacob’s Ladder is expected to be completed by the end of the year, or very soon thereafter.


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