MASTER masons from Herefordshire crossed continents and hemispheres to help a selection of local craftsmen maintain their remote island’s historic architecture.
A rock in the middle of the South Atlantic, St Helena has been a colonial chess piece for centuries.
However, without an airport, and three days by boat from its nearest neighbour, Ascention Island, it has become the forgotten cousin of Britain’s South Atlantic presence.
Like too many relics of the old empire, St Helena’s 4,000 locals were too often forced to rely on handouts and low paying jobs from the British government.
“It’s a sad, sad, situation,” said John Munro, from Clifford’s Traditional Building Skills Company (TBSC).
As an island it is dramatic, but defined by its isolation – it was chosen for that reason as the place to jail Napoleon, who died on the island – and until the airport is completed in 2016, young, skilled ‘Saints’ will continue to leave for jobs and the promise of a better life on mainland Africa.
For that reason, a small team of masonry teachers from Herefordshire made the voyage to help a selection of local builders achieve that standard of British excellence, a City and Guilds qualification.
As part of the qualification, TBSC’s John Munro and Henry Rumbold MBE taught local builders the specific techniques necessary to maintain the island’s colonial buildings.
Mr Munro said: “What this project was trying to do was to get the ball rolling – to pass on something that could help craftsmen become self-sufficient.”
Often made from the island’s volcanic rock – which students excavated themselves to use in restoration projects – buildings are in varying states of disrepair.
While the whitewashed governor’s mansion remains impeccable, there is plenty of opportunity throughout the island for a masonry student to hone his craft; from churches to old farm houses and former hospitals.
With their new skills, the hope is that the builders will have a sustainable career on the island, and one that they can teach to the next generation.
And for some the qualification meant a real fresh start.
A worrying number of young local men occupy the small island’s prison. "They get locked up very quickly,” said John.
“They have got lots of men in their 20s in jail. So we worked with some of the prisoners that had been in jail who had a background in construction.
“A lot of our students had been involved in construction – but had no philosophy of conservation.”
The TBSC – a Clifford-based business that specialises in training contractors to work on pre-1919 buildings – are looking to return to the South Atlantic later this year in a trip to Ascension Island.
And they intent to bring across some of their students from St Helena to train them, in part, in skills needed for their airport’s construction.