Saints alive for a South Atlantic audit

Paul Houghton, Audit Partner, Grant Thornton
Paul Houghton, Audit Partner, Grant Thornton
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It was uninhabited when the Portuguese discovered it in 1502 and when Sir Francis Drake passed by on his way back from sailing around the world, nearly 80 years later.

Oliver Cromwell gave it to the English East India Company in 1657.

Jamestown, the capital of St Helena

Jamestown, the capital of St Helena

The astronomer Edmond Halley – of Halley’s Comet fame – set up an observatory on the island around 20 years later and Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned there following his defeat by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, remaining there until he died in 1821.

It’s Britain’s second oldest overseas territory – or colony, as we used to know them – just 10 miles long by five miles wide and home to around 4,200 people.

It’s about 1,200 miles off the west coast of southern Africa, in the South Atlantic Ocean, and nearly 4,800 miles from Sheffield, which makes it home to the most remote audit client Grant Thornton’s Heeley-based city office has ever had.

Pub quiz over. The island is St Helena – named after the mother of Constantine, Rome’s first Emperor to become a Christian – and Grant Thornton’s client is Solomon and Company, founded 25 years before Napoleon’s arrival and the business that runs most of the commercial activity on the island.

“They approached us. It was just a quirk of circumstance that brought the business here,” explains Paul Houghton, partner in the Sheffield office’s audit and assurance department.

St Helena’s status as a British Overseas Territory means British company law rules on the island and Solomon & Company is a UK registered business, which means it needs a UK auditor.

“We jumped at the chance,” continues Paul Houghton.

“It was a real opportunity for the staff. Something very different and very challenging.”

Grant Thornton rapidly discovered there was already a Sheffield link.

Currently, the only way to get to St Helena from the UK is by flying from Brize Norton to the British and US airbase on Ascension Island and take a boat from there.

So, St Helena has been campaigning for an airport to ease access and boost tourism and MPs backing the bid, which requires UK Parliamentary approval, include Meg Munn, the Labour MP whose constituency includes Grant Thornton’s office.

“The airport is a very important driver for the future of the island,” says Paul Houghton.

“The British government has agreed to provide an airport and it seems to be going ahead.”