Talk to the Head

Gerald "The Constable" Hawkins is a licensed oracle. Sure, it's only a driver's license, but I'll bet the Oracle at Delphi couldn't pull a carriage, let alone operate a motor vehicle.

[Archive]       [Ask the Head]       [COTC 3]

Dear Gerald,

Why is ‘Mount St. Helens’ plural? Is it named after more than one St. Helen?

-- Helen & Helen

Dear H&H,

The Catholic Forum patron saints index does list eleven different St. Helens, but this is not where Washington’s famous volcano gets its name. Known by the native Klickitats as ‘Louwala-Clough,’ meaning ‘smoking or fire mountain,’ the first sighting of the mountain by non-natives was made by Royal Navy Commander George Vancouver on May 19, 1792, who was surveying the Pacific Ocean on the HMS Discovery. Vancouver named the mountain for his friend, Alleyne Fitzherbert, 1st Baron St. Helens.

The barony of St. Helens had been created in 1791 in the Peerage of Ireland for Alleyne Fitzherbert (1753-1839), the Chief Secretary for Ireland. In 1801, Fitzherbert was granted a barony in the same name in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. Fitzherbert never married, and without descendents to carry on the title, the barony in both peerages became extinct upon his death in 1839. (In 1964, Michael Henry Colin Hughes-Young [1912-1980] became the 1st Baron St. Helens, but it was a different St. Helens. Hughes-Young was granted the barony of St. Helens in Lancashire, while Fitzherald had held the barony of St. Helens on the Isle of Wight. Hughes-Young was survived by his son, Richard Francis, the first man to hold the title of 2nd Baron St. Helens of any location.)

In the 12th century, a Cluniac priory was founded on the cliffs overlooking the sea on the eastern end of the Isle of Wight. This prior was known as the Church of St. Helen. In the early 18th century, the church was abandoned and rebuilt nearby due to erosion by the encroaching sea.

I’d like to think that the town became known as St. Helens due to there being multiple churches of St. Helen (the church was rebuilt a third time in 1831), but sadly the name is likely due to careless grammar—a dropped apostrophe from ‘St. Helen’s.’

For one, it is unlikely that the Hughes-Young family’s ‘St. Helens’ in Lancashire (a much younger St. Helens) could also be based on a multiple-church scenario.

Websites on St. Helens (Isle of Wight) still vary in their use or not of an apostrophe in the name, though the trend seems to be toward dropping the ‘strophe.

What we’re dealing with is a third degree error, originally made in the name of the town, it carried over into the title of Fitzherald’s barony, and eventually into the name of a volcano, which, lacking the apostrophe to contain the explosion, leveled 230 square miles on May 18, 1980.

If, in the 12th century, those monks on the Isle of Wight, had instead named their priory for St. Mary, could this have been prevented? It seems less likely that the apostrophe in ‘St. Mary’s’ would have been neglected (although St. Marys, Georgia, demonstrates that such an error is not beyond the scope of ignorance).

Or perhaps this have been better prevented in the late 18th century, if, when George Vancouver gasped in awe, pointed, and said: ‘Mount St. Helens,’ one of the Kickitats slapped him and corrected: “Louwala-Clough.”

-- Gerald

all material copyright 2003 Hawkins Empire
except logo photo by J.S. Coureaux