Nicolle history of St Helier - Chapter 21

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Development of the town

We now trace the progress and development of St Helier during the 18th Century.

Falle's description

In the second edition of Falle's History of Jersey published in 1734 a very glowing account of St Helier is given.

”Its situation is both commodious and delightful, on the south-west it has the sea, with a full view of Elizabeth Castle, and of the road for ships. All round on the north quarters it is fenced against cold blasts by hills rising up gradually into the Island. From the bottom of those hills to the town lies a flat of meadows, watered by a clear stream, which, after it has enriched them, enters the town, runs along some of the streets, under some of the houses, so that by a bucket let down through a trap-door the water is brought up with the greatest ease. How far the nearer neighbourhood of another great hill, one prominence whereof hangs in a manner over the town, may be a benefit or a nuisance to it, I will not undertake to decide. As it is a common, it should be beneficial for the sake of the herbage and to gentlemen and ladies, it affords a lovely walk, with a most extended prospect on all sides."

This last allusion is to Mont de la Ville, which would have afforded St Helier a magnificent public promenade, had it not been utilised for military purposes.

"The Town," Falle continued, "in its present enlarged state, contains about 400 houses, laid out into several wide and well-paved streets. In the centre is a large quadrangular place, faced on each side with handsome buildings, among them the seat of Justice, called La Cohue Royale. The town is inhabited chiefly by merchants, shop-keepers, artificers, and retailers of liquors; the landed gentlemen generally living upon their estates in the country. In short here is scarce anything wanting for necessity or convenience. Besides the stream running through the place there is a farther supply of good water from wells and pumps. The Corn Market (Halle-a-ble) is a piazza, under a pile of building supported by pillars, where the country people with their corn stand dry in all weathers. And so likewise the shamble (Halle-a-Viande or Boucherie) is a spacious room inclosed, so that in passing the streets, neither the sight nor smell are offended with dead carcasses of beasts, exposed on stalls or in open shops as is too common elsewhere."

This description of the town is, it is perhaps needless to say, greatly exaggerated. The facts are that the streets of the town were neither clean nor well-paved and that the Market Place was the most offensive part of the whole town, as many contemporaneous references prove. An Act of the Cour d'Heritage of 24 September 1719 refers to the filthy state of the streets and public places, and informs us that pigs ran loose about the Market Place and in the cemetery. The market women were exposed in the open without any shelter, as may be seen in towns in Normandy today. The fish was sold on some slabs near the Market Cross.

The inconvenience of holding the market here was a constant source of complaint but it was not until 1800 that it was transferred to its present site in Halkett Place.

Falle estimates the population of St Helier in 1734 at 2,000, but he does not include those residing in the rural Vingtaines, who are, he says parishioners but not townsmen.

Inaccuracies

While referring to Falle and his history of Jersey it may be well here to observe that although he has generally been regarded as a writer of high authority, when his work comes to be examined in the light of present-day knowledge, we are forced to the conclusion that it not only contained many errors as to facts, but that it will not bear criticism as to many statements, historical and constitutional. It is superficial, due doubtless to the author's lack of the necessary materials.

When he wrote in 1734 he had few original documents and authorities at his disposal, and an important factor to be taken into consideration was that he had been absent from the Island for a great many years.

The population of the Town remained stationary until the French Revolution, when its prosperity received a fresh impulse by the advent of the political refugees. Nowhere was more kindness and hospitality shown to them. Jersey forgetful of 6 January 1781 received with open arms many an illustrious exile.

Chateaubriand; Cheylus, Bishop of Bayeux; De Puisaye; the Bishop of Treguier and many others including numbers of the aristocracy of France sought refuge among us. The Jerseymen just as they had espoused the cause of Charles II, then strongly favoured the Royalist cause in France. The population of the Town proper swelled and in 1800 it stood at 8,000. Luxury was then unknown, but wealth was increasing, agriculture improving and general knowledge and education were becoming diffused among all classes.

St Aubin

We have seen that in the 17th century St Helier, so far as Harbour accommodation was concerned, could only boast of a shelter under the Town Wall for small boats. St Aubin's Fort pier was completed at the beginning of the 18th century, and attracted most of the shipping.

Falle tells us that St Aubin was in 1734 a "town of merchants and masters of ships, who first settled in that place for the sake of the adjoining port, the best and most frequented in the Island". Goods and merchandise had generally to be landed at St Aubin and brought by land to St Helier, the inconvenience of which was greatly felt.

It is true that in the closing years of the 16th Century when the fortifications of Elizabeth Castle were being strengthened by Paul Ivy, the Royal Engineer, a little pier, which Chevalier tells us was called Le Havre de St Jaume had begun to be constructed under the Castle walls by voluntary contributions from the inhabitants, but letters from the Privy Council dated 17 April 1597, and 8 July 1599, inform us that it then remained unfinished for lack of funds.

Such a pier, so far as the town of St Helier was concerned, was moreover open to the same objection as applied to that of St Aubin, that all merchandise had to be brought across the sands to the town at low tide by means of carts. The lack of financial resources greatly impeded the provision of proper harbour accommodation.

Though completed in 1700 the construction of the Harbour at the Fort of St Aubin had been decided upon by the States as far back as 19 March 1648, and it was only after Charles II had permitted the Impots Duties on wines and spirits to be levied and applied for the building of the Pier that any real progress was made and even then it was very slow. The Rolls of the States prove how great were the difficulties to be encountered in finding sufficient money for the continuation of such expensive works.

St Helier Harbour

As soon as St Aubin's Fort Pier was approaching completion, St Helier seized the opportunity and agitated for proper harbour accommodation. On 24 October 1699 the States petitioned the Privy Council for permission to apply a certain portion of the Impot Revenue to the construction of a Harbour at St Helier.

The site chosen was what was then known as Havre Neuf a creek under Petit Mont de La Ville to the south-west of the house known as La Folie. In 1700 the first stones of the new harbour were laid, but the revenue was so trifling that no progress could be made, notwithstanding the fact that liberal donations were made by private persons and many of the merchants and inhabitants lent money without interest.

In 1720 the States issued notes to the amount of 50,000 livres tournois to assist the works. Half a century later "Havre Neuf" could hardly be said to be completed and in 1751 George II contributed £300 towards the expenditure. It was out of gratitude for this donation that the States erected the statue to his memory which stands today in the Royal Square, probably on the site of the old market cross. Though Havre Neuf had taken long to build, it was a poor construction and through the action of the waves it soon became dangerous to shipping. In 1785 the principal merchants of St Helier petitioned the States to effect the necessary repairs.

In that year 59 Jersey vessels were trading with Newfoundland alone and the Harbour of St Helier, small and confined as it was, must have presented a busy spectacle, and it can be easily realised how inadequate must have been the accommodation afforded to so many vessels. There was, moreover, no proper access from the town to the pier. Pedestrians reached the harbour by a road which skirted "Mont de la Ville", and carts went along the beach at low tide to unload the vessels in the harbour. In 1786 the Parish Assembly of St Helier decided to construct Conway Street in order that the access from the beach to the town should be more convenient.

Shipping had by this date so increased that a larger and better harbour had become an imperative necessity. Smeaton, the celebrated engineer of Eddystone fame, was consulted. He arrived in Jersey in 1788, and spent some weeks in an examination of the situation, consequent upon which he drew up a plan. It was not however adopted. As we have seen in more recent times, members of the Harbours Committee of the States prided themselves upon being their own engineers and a plan of their own was approved by the States on 8 February 1790, and on 19 April the first stone of what was to be called the North Pier was laid, a banquet following in the evening in the Chamber of the Court Hence. "Havre Neuf" then came to be called the South Pier.

The building of the North Pier dragged on slowly for want of funds and was only completed a quarter of a century later at a cost of £80,000. In 1811 the building of the row of houses known as Commercial Buildings was begun on land where originally ran the narrow pathway from the Town to Havre Neuf. In 1814 the Commercial Buildings quay called Quai des Marchands was commenced and was completed four years later. In 1821 South Pier was reconstructed.

The increase in commerce in the years which followed was so great that this harbour was found to be inadequate for the wants of the community. In 1841 the foundation stone of the present Victoria Pier was laid, followed in 1846 by that of Albert Pier.



Nicolle: The Town of St Helier
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