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St Helena Island: assessment and conservation of structures

[This paper was presented to a meeting of the Institution of Engineers of Australia (Queensland Division) and published in their Technical papers, Vol 28, 1987.]


Over the last generation in Australia, the general level of public interest in historic buildings, places and sites has increased remarkably. Since the 1950s and 1960s, when National Trusts were established in each of the Australian states, the growth of our obsession with the physical remains of history has been marked by an increasing professionalism and refinement of the theory of why and how these remains should be preserved.

I should mention some of the milestones which show the way we have come: The Commission of Inquiry into the National Estate(1), the establishment of the Australian Heritage Commission and its Register of the National Estate, the enactment of protective legislation in most of the states, and the formation of Australia ICOMOS, the Australian Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. Australia ICOMOS, the principal organisation of professionals in the field of historic site conservation, held a pioneering conference in 1978(2) and has since produced the Burra Charter(3) and a number of important related documents(4).

The formation of the Heritage Panel of the Institution of Engineers, of course, shows that members of the Institution are awake to the importance of the physical evidence of our engineering past.

With the growing interest in historic site conservation, and the development and refinement of theory and practice in the field, government departments have begun to employ specialist staff and to use consultants such as conservation architects, historical archaeologists and historians. These specialists have influenced the treatment of historic sites, and have done much to improve understanding and concern for the cultural significance of sites, and the preservation of their authentic attributes.

It is concern for the preservation of the authentic physical fabric of historic sites that distinguishes serious professional work, like the St Helena Project, from popular 'Disneyland' entertainments and fantasies.

The conservation process

Historic places are like documents in which we can read about the past. They have significance to present and future generations because they exemplify both the great achievements and the ordinary life of the past. The evidence contained in the physical fabric of these places requires care to prevent its loss or distortion. A century of experience in Europe has shown how vulnerable this kind of evidence is to distortion through inappropriate 'restoration'. The safeguard against loss of evidence, whether it be caused by natural deterioration or by inept interference, is the application of a rigorous conservation process.

The accepted conservation process is most lucidly set out in the Burra Charter and its supporting Guidelines, and the practical application of the initial parts of the process has been amplified by Dr James Kerr.(5) The Burra Charter defines six processes — 'conservation', 'maintenance', 'preservation', 'restoration', 'reconstruction' and 'adaptation', and offers guidance on which of these are appropriate in particular circumstances.

More importantly, perhaps, the Charter promotes an orderly process of investigation, assessment, analysis, synthesis and recording, which is the essential mechanism for protecting the value of the site under consideration. It also points out the need for this work to be done by people with a wide range of skills and experience, using appropriate methods and materials.

St Helena Island

As Warren Oxnam's companion paper has discussed, St Helena Island contains a good range of authentic fabric, even though the site might at first appear to be just a collection of small ruined stone buildings. When St Helena was gazetted a National Park in 1979, it showed the evidence of recent small-scale tourist activity overlaid on the remains of sporadic farming, in turn overlaid on the remains of the penal establishment which had been partly demolished in the 1930s.

In 1980, St Helena was the first National Park in Queensland to be declared an Historic Area — some of the tasks involved in the management of historic sites are new to the Queensland National Parks & Wildlife Service, but they have been able to draw on the example of other similar sites in Australia, and have consulted a wide range of other public agencies and private consultants. The Service has made good use of the advice it has obtained, and the St Helena Project represents a useful example of the responsible care of an important historic site.

The interim strategic plan

As one of the early stages in the development of the Project, the Queensland National Parks & Wildlife Service commissioned our office in 1981 to prepare an Interim Strategic Plan for St Helena. The objectives of the study, as defined in the Brief, were


to provide interim guidelines for the management, protection and use of the park; 


to identify critical actions necessary to protect and conserve the park; 


to set priorities for actions necessary to protect and conserve the park; and 


to establish a framework within which future investigations and works on the park may be undertaken

Among other things, it was required that the study assess the cultural significance and integrity of the historic remains on the park, and make recommendations concerning their conservation, management and interpretation.

The study was funded through the National Estate Grants scheme, and involved our office in approximately 1000 hours of work. The work was carried out in close cooperation with the staff of the Service, and was completed in 1983.

The preparation of the Interim Strategic Plan required us to work with the extensive official records of the quarantine and prison periods — these had already been sorted and reviewed by staff of the Service,(6) and by a group of students.(7) This documentary evidence provided a framework for understanding the physical remains of the site.

From the documentary information, a list of physical components of the island in its various historical phases was developed, and information on each of these components was then collected in an orderly way, both from the documents and from the site itself. The record which was formed was developed into the Record of Components of Cultural Significance, which I will discuss presently.

Analysis of the documentary and physical evidence led us to an understanding of the important attributes of the site— In summary, St Helena Island is an important part of the nation's heritage: 


Because of the evidence it contains of human occupation and use from pre-historic times up to the present, and particularly for the evidence of occupation as a quarantine station and prison from 1866 to 1932; 


for its evidence of prison design and practice of that period; 


for its evidence of building methods, landscape and garden design; 


for the scenic qualities of its man-modified environment; 


for its remaining fragments of natural environment; 


for its visual contribution to the landscape of Moreton Bay.

This understanding of the significance of the island as a whole, and the detailed assessments of significance of individual components of the site, led us in turn to the formulation of broad recommendations concerning conservation policies, urgent works, security, interpretation, visitation, design of new structures, service facilities, re-use of components, access, circulation, use of the island, the natural environment, and historic artefacts.

The report concluded with recommendations, in outline, concerning the establishment of a conservation program at St Helena Island.

The recommendations made in the report have, in general terms, been adopted by the Queensland National Parks & Wildlife Service. Since the Interim Strategic Plan report was completed, the Service has refined our proposals in the light of practical requirements and opportunities, particularly the opportunities offered by the Australian Bicentennial Grants.

The record of components

St Helena Island is a complex site, consisting of a disparate collection of components which contribute to the cultural significance of the place. These components include landscapes, buildings and a range of miscellaneous structures. Each of these components is more or less significant, for one or more reasons. Some are rare, some common — some are complete and intact, while only faint traces remain of others.

The Record of Components of Cultural Significance was set up as a tool for assessing, managing and recording changes to this complex collection of ruins, relics and marks on the ground. The Record of Components — for which Service staff use the acronym ROCCS — consists of approximately two hundred sets of forms on which information about each item is recorded in a consistent way.

The ROCCS was set up for two purposes:


As a technical appendix to the Interim Strategic Plan — it forms a reference volume in which answers may be quickly found to questions about the history, condition or significance of individual components; 


As a starting point for the systematic record-keeping which is a necessary part of the conservation of significant places. For this purpose, the three A4 size forms dealing with each component are intended to form the beginning of a file on that component. Records of periodic inspections, newly-found historical information, detailed assessments of significance, decisions about conservation work and records of the state of the fabric before and after such work, should all be added to the file from time to time.

For the purposes of the ROCCS, a Component of Cultural Significance is taken to be any discreet man-made structure or object, or man-modified part of the natural landscape, which is culturally significant, or which affects the significance of some other component. One of the first tasks in preparing the ROCCS was to prepare a list of components, and to set up a system of classification for them.

Components were divided into these classes — areas, buildings, fences and walls, roads and tramways, aboriginal sites, views, wells and tanks, and miscellaneous items. The whole site was also divided into nine areas, each of which is a discreet unit in terms of either land form or historical use. The two attributes of Class and Area were included in a scheme of component numbering, in which each component was given a unique identifying number.

The ROCCS recording forms were completed with descriptions of the physical condition of each component (derived from the field survey notes and illustrated with photographs), summary information about its history (derived from historic documents and illustrated where possible), a preliminary statement of its significance, along with recommendations about conservation, management policy, urgent works, security, interpretation and further investigation.

The Record of Components has now been in use for several years by the National Parks & Wildlife Service as a general purpose reference source. The system appears to operate as an effective tool for managing the site, and making sure that the needs of conservation are not lost from view when practical planning and management issues are addressed. The Record is kept on the Island and is to be used as the basis of a recording system for conservation work.

In our own office, we have set up a micro computer database version of the ROCCS to assist us in the further stages of work on the St Helena Project which we will soon begin. We expect that, in this form, the Record will more readily lend itself to comparative analysis of components.

As I have mentioned, the island possesses a wide array of components which have value for many different interests. The physical remains of the island provide evidence about the way of life of nineteenth century prisoners, their turnkeys and superintendents, about nineteenth century building, farming and sugar milling technology, about gardening, and about developments in water supply arrangements for this partly self-sufficient community of several hundred people.

The case of building technology will serve to demonstrate the way the ROCCS can provide a basis for deciding how to treat the surviving structures. Most of the buildings of which substantial remains survive at St Helena have walls built of beach rock quarried on the Island between the 1860s and around the turn of the century. These stone walls are built as coursed rubble walls laid in mortar made with lime burnt on the site. Different buildings and other structures — such as cattle watering troughs, tank stands, and retaining walls — built of beach rock at different times show interesting variations in construction technique and architectural treatment. The stone is of variable quality, but generally of relatively poor durability, and the structures have suffered from the removal of their roofs in the 1930s and the loss of the lime wash coatings which formerly protected them from the weather. Altogether, this collection of structures would present an enormous conservation problem, if every one of them were to be preserved at all costs. By the sensible use of the information in the ROCCS, supplemented with some further investigation, it will be possible to set priorities for their conservation treatment. A representative sample of forms and details of construction can be selected to receive a higher level of care, while others can be simply recorded and monitored.

Detailed measurement and assessment

As part of the ongoing conservation work at St Helena our office will shortly begin work on the detailed measurement and assessment of the remaining structures. This work will continue the work begun with the ROCCS, but in a more detailed way.

This work, commissioned through the Department of Works, is to be carried out in cooperation with the Department of Mapping and Surveying, who have already completed the mapping of the island, and who have begun a detailed terrestrial photogrammetric survey of the structures. Our part in the project will involve further documentary investigations, detailed recording and assessment of condition and significance, helping to set up a condition monitoring program, and making detailed proposals for conservation treatment.

This conservation treatment of the structures will be planned to retard deterioration, to protect structures from damage, and to reveal the significance of the fabric where it is appropriate to do so. In general, treatments which are minor and reversible will be favoured over radical 'once and for all' schemes, at least until the dynamics of the deterioration of the ruins are known with some certainty by means of the monitoring program.

The monitoring program will be carried out in cooperation with specialists from the Queensland Museum, who will also advise on the technical aspects of materials conservation. Through making regular periodic observations of the structures over the years to come, the custodians of the site will be able to accumulate detailed quantitative information about rates and modes of deterioration. It is intended that, once the monitoring program is set up, field staff of the National Parks & Wildlife Service will be able to make all the periodic observations, relying on specialists only for the interpretation of these observations. Dr Neville Agnew from the Museum deals with these aspects in his companion paper.

The availability and cooperation of the Department of Mapping and Surveying terrestrial photogrammetry survey team has provided a great boost to the St Helena Project, through the great accuracy, reliability and fine detail of recording which this method allows. The photogrammetric survey will record all the historic structures at St Helena and will produce a set of photographic negatives which will constitute a durable and reliable database on the present condition of the structures. Rectified prints can be made from the negatives for immediate use in recording and illustrating detailed observations, and the negatives can be used at any time to prepare plots or measurements. This technique offers considerable advantages over the methods more usually adopted for historic site recording, such as hand measurement and uncontrolled photography.

Site marking

Many of the buildings and other structures which once stood at St Helena Island were demolished when the Penal Establishment was abandoned in the early 1930s. Many of the buildings were of timber — remains of brick fireplaces show where some of them were, but many have left no visible remains.

Without understanding something of the 'missing' buildings, visitors to the site will have an incomplete and distorted vision of the place as a functioning prison. The recommendation made in the Interim Strategic Plan that the locations of the missing buildings should be marked on the ground has been adopted. We will shortly begin working with the Department of Mapping and Surveying team on the marking out.

This task of marking out will require a careful examination of historic plans, maps, drawings and photographs, as well as close observation of the remains of structures. After these clues have been assessed and, in some cases, after some limited investigation by the archaeologist assigned by the National Parks & Wildlife Service to the Project, in most cases we will be able to determine with reasonable accuracy where each structure once was. The surveyors will then mark the positions of the corners of the structure with small markers to assist the interpretation of the site to visitors, by prompting their imagination, without intruding in the landscape.


Now that St Helena Island is easily accessible for public visiting, the results of several years' work of investigation, assessment and planning of the site have begun to show tangible form on the ground. The St Helena Project is a revealing example of the results that can come from properly planned and conducted conservation work. I hope the example will become clearer still as the next stages of physical work on the site reach completion towards the end of the bicentennial year.

The Project serves to illustrate the value of thorough investigation by a diversity of people with the necessary broad range of skills and experience, of close consultation between them and, most of all, a shared understanding of the significance of the site.



Report of the commission of inquiry into the national estate. Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1974. Back to text.


The tide of Australian settlement. Conference proceedings published by Australia ICOMOS, Beechworth, Victoria, 1978. Back to text.


The Australia ICOMOS charter for the conservation of places of cultural significance (the Burra charter), adopted 1981. Back to text.


Guidelines to the Burra charter: cultural significance; and Guidelines to the Burra charter: conservation policy. Back to text.

KERR, J S,. The conservation plan: a guide to the preparation of conservation plans for places of European cultural significance. Sydney, National Trust of Australia (NSW), 1985. This second edition of the conservation plan includes an appendix containing the Australia ICOMOS documents cited above. Back to text.


HARMON-PRICE, P,. History of St Helena Island. 3 volume report prepared for internal use by the Queensland National Parks & Wildlife Service. Back to text.


BA PE, S; HAM, C & McDOUGALL, P. St Helena: Moreton Bay. Brisbane, Thesis QIT Department of Architecture, 1975. Back to text.


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