Construction of the Elizabeth Castle breakwater

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By Robin Cox, first published in Jersey Topic magazine in 1965

The benefits of some sort of breakwater to protect the newly extended St Helier Harbour were realised as early as 1822, but with the municipal purse being quite exhausted, the idea was not encouraged.

Further extensions strengthened the need for a protective arm and in 1866 the Admralty produced a report on the island’s roadsteads.

1872 foundation stone ceremony

New harbour recommended

One of its recommendations was that a whole new harbour should be built, designed to embrace an area of rocky sea and to accommodate even the largest of passenger steamers.

The idea was thoroughly investigated and it was decided to go ahead. On paper it looked simple: A breakwater would be built out from Elizabeth Castle], the tip of wich would form a pierhead with the of the landing stage, which would start from La Collette. The breakwater would protect the landing stage from the heavy seas and produce a large acreage of still water within the harbour, where the most fragile of ships could weather a storm.

Specifications were drawn up and tenders put out. Three civil engineering firms bid for the works, the successful tenderer being John Coode. He had offered to do the work for £360,175, the other two being rejected because they were too cheap.

The foundation stone was laid on 13 August 1872, all the civic dignitaries being ferried out from the Albert Pier to the point selected for the ceremony, just south of the Castle harbour. The mallet used for the ceremony can be seen in the museum, as can also a model of the works as they would have looked on completion. This model was commissioned by the Harbours and Piers Committee,and was exhibited by Coode at an industrial exhibition in South Kensington in 1873.

Concrete blocks

The whole works under Coode were to be built of concrete blocks. For this, large quantities of cement were brought over from England, and stored in the La Collette Works yard. The gravel and granite were local.

The gravel was brought by barge from St Brelade’s Bay and the stone was quarried at South Hill. These quarries belonged to the War Department, and permission from the British Government had to be obtained before any stone could be removed. The quarries were very old, many tons of stone having been taken out for the building of all the Harbour extensions.

To transport the stone from the quarry to La Collette, a railway was laid down, running in a tunnel beneath the road. It was simple to disperse the materials for the La Collette landing stage, but anything for the Herrmitage had to be loaded at the Victoria Pier into barges, and by means of tugs, taken over to the castle.

At each place, there were identical workyards. Here the concrete was mixed and formed into huge blocks in the block-making pits. When set, they were lifted onto trucks by means of a gantry and dispatched to the place of work, and lowered into place on the walls.

La Collette works

Storm damage

Work was proceeding well until December 1874, when the first of the terrible gales which were to destroy the States confidence in Coode's building methods sprang up. Only a little damage was done, hut from then onwards, the whole of the La Collette enterprise became subject to a crippling repair bill, each time the gales arose. The Hermitage works escaped lightly, obviously due to the fact that both ends of the works were firmly anchored onto solid rock.

Work continued on the La Collette stage until December 1876 when a further tempest destroyed the stage beyond repair. The States were very disappointed, but as so much public money had been used on so little it was decided to abandon the works. Coode's resignation was accepted as was that of his son, who was also engaged in the project. His clerk of works, Imrie Bell, who had been promised ten years work, was detailed to make an inventory of the plant and dispose of all the cement which the Harbours and Piers Committee now owned. After doing this, he, too, was dispensed with, much against the committee's sentiments, but they pointed out that £1,000 was a lot of money to pay out each year just for looking after unused machinery.

The Harbours Superintendent, Thomas Blake, was appointed to look after the plant for the committee. This included, among a collection of cranes, gantries, lifts and barges, three small railway engines named ‘Bailiff', ‘Governor' and 'David'. All this equipment was stored in sheds on the various work sites and was kept greased. Every so often, the boilers were tested.

The barges were put to good use by the committee by being hired out to such as the Swimming Club for their regattas, the Railways Company for their building of the La Haule sea wall and to divers who were detailed to inspect the numerous foundered ships which littered the south coast of the Island.

In 1881, Blake reported that all the equipment was in very good condition.

Pier widening

Probably as some sort of excercise, the Committee decided to widen the Old North Pier, and in 1882, work started, Progress was painfully slow, despite all the equipment necessary being available. The materials used were all the concrete blocks which had been abandoned by Coode in 1877, and at low tide, these can clearly be seen at the beginning of the New North Quay.

Pleased that no damage had been caused to the breakwater, the committee ordered that it should be extended for 500 feet. But who would do it? They certainly did not ask Coode, and as the third of the original three tenderers had been lost at sea they asked Mr Robert Kinipple if he would undertake the task. He agreed, and set to work March 1887.

Work progresses on the new breakwater

Not only did he have to extend the breakwater, but also to finish off New North Quay, build a landing stage of wood on the Victoria Pier and dredge the whole harbour.

Unlike Coode, Kinipple would have nothing to do with concrete. He would use granite. In his report prior to his accepting the work he pointed out how the concrete blocks, although laid only ten years earlier had started to crumble. His granite came from the quarries at La Moie, which themselves had been idle for many years. The stone was brought down to the harbour by the newly-extended railway, there being a specially-laid branch line running along the Albert Pier.

This was shipped across to the breakwater, and to this day it is easy to see the two completely different methods of construction in the breakwater. Along the New North Quay an be seen the gradual changeover from concrete to granite, indicating where Blake left of and Kinipple took over. Perhaps Kinipple worked too slowly, but he worked well.

Resignation

The committee became impatient and wanted him out of the way, with the result that he resigned in December 1888. He had completed the breakwater and the North Quay and left only a little further work to be done on completing the landing stage and the dredging. His place was taken by the States' Engineer, Thomas Berteau, who completed the work.

It is difficult to comprehend the next episode in this story. Apart from the cranes, which were placed in service on the harbours, ail the other equipment was left to fall to pieces. The huge gantries were left over the block-making pits, the railway trucks deteriorated. The engines were later sold to Devon light railway. Today evidence of the little railway around the Hermitage and La Collette works can be seen, even with, at the Hermitage, a run of line into the sea, so that the barges could be unloaded at all states of the tide.

The breakwater is as strong as ever, but the La Collette stage is disarranged at each rough tide. The huge, weed-clad, blocks litter the area. The Militia found a use for the 'root' of the stage. It was from there that they held their firing practice, out to sea.

As with everything else, the Germans found a use for both constructions. At La Collette they constructed a blockhouse and erected a pump for salt water. On the Hermitage arm, they built a corresponding `monument'.

The Castle was used during the war as a cement store, the floors of many of the houses being ripped out to convert them into warehouses, the resultant wood being used as firewood. The ships with such a cargo would unload directly on to the breakwater, to relieve pressure on the town harbour.

They also had a use for Coode's blocks. After D-day, all the remaining blocks were loaded into barges in the Old Harbour, ready to be towed and sunk across the Harbour mouth, in the event of an invasion.

Today the La Collette stage has been incorporated into the seawall around the new power station, while tomorrow, possibly, the Hermitage arm could play its part in a new harbour, formed by walling up from the Albert Pier to the Castle.

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