Nicolle history of St Helier - Chapter 22
The development in commerce during the latter half of the 18th century is one of the most remarkable features in this Island's history, and there is a phase in its commercial relations which must be noticed. I refer to the fact that Jersey was always a free port.
Jersey privateers of the period of the Civil Wars were renowned, and from contemporaneous references we may take it for granted they were also feared. In times of peace the roving Jersey sailor was characterised by a longing for employment coupled with a strong eagerness for gain and a life of excitement.
So it was that in Charles II's reign commenced that practice of smuggling, by which Islanders enriched themselves for many years to follow. Their trade consisted of the importation of cod from Newfoundland and tobacco in leaf from Virginia, of wines and brandy from the South and of foods imported from England which were not allowed to enter France duty free.
The activity and daring displayed by the Jersey sailors in smuggling contraband into Normandy and Brittany became the despair of the French Government and many and bitter were the complaints of the French revenue collectors. All to little purpose, for England being continually at war with our neighbours, the British Government was not very earnest in its efforts to suppress smuggling and our forefathers lost no opportunity in taking advantage of the situation and of thus enriching themselves.
Merchant shipping increased by leaps and bounds, and in 1768 the Jersey Chamber of Commerce, the oldest in the United Kingdom, was established.
Jersey privateers of this period were as great a terror to our neighbours as the pirates of the previous century had been. Our nimble little vessels, resembling fishing smacks more than anything else, but well-armed and well-built, made such havoc and committed such depredations on the neighbouring coast that they attracted the attention in 1778 of Dumouriez, who drew up a report on the subject, in which he incidentally remarks that it was discreditable to the French nation that these Islands should have belonged so long to England. At the moment he was writing this no fewer than 60 French vessels were lying in the various ports of Jersey and Guernsey, captured by our privateers with all their cargoes.
Owing to the want of official records of the entries and sailings of vessels, for the Custom House was not established in Jersey until 1801, it is difficult to acquire exact details as to the extent of Jersey shipping of the 18th century. We must be content to glean what we can from scanty passages and notices by contemporary writers. Falle stated that in 1731, 17 vessels were engaged in the Newfoundland trade alone. Shebbeare, writing in 1771, put the number at 45. From the Magazin de l’Ile de Jersey of 1785, it appears that the number had increased to 59 for that year. These figures, it will be noticed, only refer to the Newfoundland trade. To these, therefore, must be added a great number of Jersey vessels then trading with all parts of the world.
By the importation of wines, brandy and fruit from France, Spain, Portugal and Italy and the exportation of these commodities to America, Brazil and the West Indies, a considerable and lucrative trade was being built up. Its development had been much impeded by the lack of proper harbour accommodation. As soon as the North Pier was completed this trade expanded tenfold. At the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 no fewer than 1,200 vessels sailed in and out of the port of St Helier in the course of the year doing the carrying trade of the Island. Although the present harbour adjoining the town of St Aubin had been built at the beginning of the 19th century, all the principal merchants forsook it for that of St Helier, as being the more commodious.
In these early days crossing the Channel to the mother country was not so easily achieved as it is today. In olden times it was an undertaking requiring consideration and preparation, and before embarking, our forefathers generally deemed it prudent to make their testamentary dispositions. In Charles I's reign communication was generally with the ports of Weymouth, Southampton and Portsmouth. Correspondence of the period affords ample proof of the inconvenience of travelling and of the uncertainty of the means of communication. The Channel swarmed with pirates of all nationalities and the doughty little Jersey vessels had often all their work cut out to avoid falling into their hands.
Letters were often weeks or even months in transit to London. The first mode of conveying letters to the Islands was by consigning them to Southampton agents, who despatched them by the small trading sloops which crossed at very irregular intervals, and which, during time of war, had often to go under convoy.
The first government packet employed between England and the Islands was a cutter which in 1778 plied as often as practicable from Southampton, but it was not until February 1794 that a Post Office was established in Jersey. The office was in Hue Street, which for some years was consequently called "Rue de la Poste".
In 1794 two government packets, the Chesterfield and the Rover, both cutters of about 80 tons commenced running weekly from Weymouth. It was not until 1811 that the service was increased to two voyages each week.
The first steamer to enter St Helier Harbour was the Medina on 11 June 1823. She took 19 hours to make the passage. The anecdote of an inhabitant of St Brelade who, on seeing her making the Corbiere, hastened to St Helier to report a vessel on fire, is probably true for on her arrival in port she excited among the natives no small amount of wonder and curiosity.
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