Controversy over tree planting in the Royal Square
By Geraint Jennings, first published in Town Crier, the St Helier Parish Magazine, in May 2013
Who doesn't love trees? Who could possibly have been against planting trees in the Royal Square? In 1894 it was a controversial proposal.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Royal Square was considered an insalubrious urban wasteland: windswept and muddy in winter, hot and dusty in summer, and a place no respectable person lingered after dark as prostitutes from the ends of Town drifted in to the centre to ply their trade in the shadows.
But the Constable of St Helier, Philippe Baudains, was a man with plans, and as a member of the Defence Committee persuaded that body in January 1894 to adopt an act (by 3 votes in favour to 2 against) to plant trees in the Royal Square.
A certain amount of controversy broke out immediately when the news trickled out in the newspapers, with some States Members alarmed that the committee should undertake works of such importance without first bringing the matter to the States as a whole.
So at the States sitting on 1 February, the matter came up for discussion. The Constable explained that, contrary to suggestions in the press of a forest planted right across the square, it was only intended to plant 24 trees around the edge, 18 feet apart. Something needed to be done with the square as the paving was in such disrepair that rain led to large puddles of standing water making the square impassable.
Jurat Gruchy remarked that the Constable received £6 per year for the maintenance of the square, to which Baudains retorted that even for £6 he couldn't stop the rain falling and it was what we'd call today a matter of health and safety.
Various Members then typically got down to the detail of which trees they'd like to see: the Rector of Grouville wanted apple trees, the Deputy of St Saviour wanted horse chestnuts, while the Constable of St Martin was inclined to favour limes. Philippe Baudains suggested that details could be left to the committee and that each tree would cost two shillings and sixpence. The States approved the committee's act unanimously.
Naturally enough, there was debate in the newspaper columns. One resident wrote that the square was too restricted, that the roots of the trees would inevitably undermine the buildings, that the foliage would prevent people seeing the clock of the Town Church, the wind in the leaves would be too noisy and prevent residents sleeping at night, and the shelter of the trees would encourage even more prostitutes to gather in a location that no respectable person dared traverse after 9pm.
Objections were raised that encumbering the square with trees would spoil the traditional location for national events and, alas, that trees would make St Helier look too French.
La Nouvelle Chronique de Jersey however waxed lyrical: Too many trees had been lost in Jersey due to the demands of potato growing, but now public opinion had turned in favour of trees. The square could be a new grove of academe, where lawyers and States Members, latter day Platos, could discuss high politics in the shade of planes and limes, in a place of charm, of fairy tale aspect, and ever more royal character.
More prosaically, spadework started on 7 February, when 12 holes were dug along Royal Court Road. Protests were raised, however, that the proposed plantings at either end were too close to the buildings, and those two holes were promptly filled in again. On 9 February, 10 horse chestnuts from Mr Becker's plant nursery, about 20 feet high, were planted, with the planting of the second row along Vine Street planned for the following week.
But that was not the end of the improvements, as the newspapers noted that, for the first time that anyone could remember, roadsweepers had started work on 15 February in the newly-afforested square. Prostitutes, States Members, and everyone else could look forward to a much cleaner and attractive public space,