The Royal Square has been the centre of Jersey life for centuries. Indeed, there are no records of anywhere else having the same level of importance.
Some claim that Saint Aubin was Jersey’s capital before the town of St Helier, but this is scarcely credible considering that St Aubin did not have a church until the 18th century, the Royal Court and the States have met in Saint Helier since the earliest times, and St Helier had a market centuries before St Aubin.
St Helier has effectively always been the island’s main shopping centre, with the Royal Square market giving way to adjacent Broad Street in the early 19th century and then even closer King Street from then onwards.
But a very small proportion of Jersey’s country dwellers, who made up by far the bulk of the population until the 19th century, would have felt the need to go to St Helier, and even in the 20th century there were those who would proudly boast that “my gran has never been to town in her life”.
Those who did make the journey backwards and forwards were the seigneurs of the important fiefs in St Ouen, Trinity, St John, St Clement and the other parishes, who were invariably appointed or elected as the Jurats who made up the Royal Court with the Bailiff, Crown Officers and other important office holders, and ultimately held important positions in the States of Jersey when the island’s judicial and legislative roles began to divide.
They would attend the regular meetings of the Court in a building which, until the middle of the 17th century, resembled a barn – one storey thatched with straw. Bailiff Sir George Carteret had the structure pulled down in 1747 and a new Court building was opened a year later. This building lasted until 1764, when a new building was started. It took five years to build but was never popular, and was in turn replaced a century later by a building which underwent several modifications in the 30 years after its initial completion in 1866.
The States of Jersey did not get their own chamber until 1887, meeting until then in the Courthouse. It was not until 1934 that the States Building as it is known today, was extended past the public library on the other side of the Courthouse, to take up the entire southern side of the square and provide more office accommodation.
Other buildings around the square are privately owned. The former Corn Market, for some years a bank, now houses the island's Public Registry and a gentlemen's club on the first floor. At the eastern end of the square are two public houses and a house that served as headquarters of the Jersey Chamber of Commerce, the oldest chamber in Britain, and was once home to diarist Jean Chevalier.
Le Vier Marchi
Later the library moved out to larger accommodation in Halkett Place, releasing its old accommodation to provide a much-needed reception area for visiting dignitaries.
Until 1751 the square was known as Le Vier Marchi, the Old Market Place. Until the Reformation there was a Market Cross where public proclamations were made and new laws promulgated. It was surrounded on market day by stalls selling foodstuffs and hardware, and fish laid out on the flagstones. In later years some of the stalls were turned into permanent outlets.
The square was the scene of some of the most dramatic events in the island's history. In 1643 shoppers at the market ran for cover as the square was bombarded by cannon fire from Elizabeth Castle as the Royalists who had taken shelter there after the island was taken by Parliamentary troops put on a defiant show of aggression.
The 17th century diarist Jean Chevalier wrote of this day:
- "Twenty cannon fired a volley at two in the afternoon, when the Market was at its height, and all the 12 parishes were gathered together with their relations and friends, innocent ladies who had never taken any part in politics and children too young to discern their right hand from their left. Cannon balls fell like thunderbolts all about the Market. Everyone lay flat on the ground or rushed to take refuge in a house, overthrowing the stalls of the haberdashers and cobblers, and scattering their wares. Those who had money in their hands dropped it, and much clothing was lost, for everyone knew that cannon balls are no respecters of persons".
Battle of Jersey
The most famous event of all that took take place in the square was The Battle of Jersey in 1781. Invading French troops led by Baron de Rullecourt were beaten and put to flight by the Island's Militia, led by Major Francis Peirson.
In early years the island's only prison was at Mont Orgueil Castle. Prisoners due to appear before the Royal Court were marched to town and held in a large iron cage at the east end of the marketplace. Sentences were often carried out in the square. Hangings often took place at Gallows Hill at West Mount, but executions were also carried out in the square, which also had a pillory and stocks.
A witch was strangled and burned in the square in 1648 and Chevalier recorded:"Such crowds came to watch her execution that the Town was full. No one had seen so many people since the Prince came to Jersey. A multitude of men and women, young lads and girls, swarmed on the walls of the churchyard and the slope of the Town Hill".
When a prison was built in St Helier the cage was no longer needed and eventually a statue was erected in 1751 in honour of the then monarch, George II, and the square was renamed Royal Square in his honour.
There has been a Court House on the site from as early as 1329.
The States Chamber was first opened to the public in 1887 and features fine Plaster of Paris carvings and mouldings. The Royal Court is dominated by two majestic Tudor chairs and a number of distinguished portraits of past Bailiffs. It was built in three stages in 1866, 1879, 1885/6. Extensively renovated in 2003.
Some of the land at the eastern end of the site, now the States Chamber, was acquired at various dates from 1843 to 1859. At the western end of the site former houses, shops (H Hutching`s) and hotels. Hotel de l'Union and Hotel du Calvados, which burnt down, were acquired in 1881 and 1897.
- 28 October 1843 the Public acquired a former house, directly to the East of the Royal Court, from Francois Godfray.
- 24 July 1846 the Public acquired a former house, to the East of the Royal Court, from Pierre Le Brun.
- 28 November 1846 the Public acquired a former house, to the East of the Royal Court, from Nathaneal Westaway.
- 29 April 1859 a former house to the East of the Royal Court was acquired from Jane De La Taste, daughter of Edouard De La Taste.
- 7 May 1859 two former houses to the East of Miss De La Taste's were acquired from Jeanne and Henriette Martin. This land is now part of Halkett Place (formerly Morier Lane).
- 23 April 1881 the Public acquired the former Union Hotel, to the West of the Royal Court, from James Swain Gurney.
- 10 September 1881 the Public acquired a former house to the West of the Royal Court from Francois Jean Le Maistre.
- 19 September 1881 the Public acquired a former house to the West of the Royal Court from Philip Jean Ouless.
- 19 September 1881 the Public acquired a former house to the West of the Royal Court from Walter Bertram Godfray.
- 24 April 1897 the Public acquired, to the West of the Royal Court, the following three properties -
- 4 Royal Square from a Philippe Le Neveu
- 5 Royal Square from a Philip John Brée
- Grand Hotel du Calvados from Charles De Gruchy.
The central section containing the Royal Court was completed in 1866, to designs by Thomas Gallichan, the States Architect, and was remodelled by Philip Le Sueur and Philip Brée in 1877.
The ground floor of the eastern section, of stone, was added in 1879 to accommodate the Public Registry and Judicial Greffe. It was decided in the same year that the States should be provided with an Assembly Room on top, and this was ultimately built, as part of the same contract as the Library to designs by Messrs Ancell and Orange, and was completed in 1887. The western section originally housed the States Greffe and Library and was completed in 1886. The corners of the whole mass are rounded at each end, the western facade facing the Town Church, of 1931 design by Roy Blampied and Arthur Grayson.
The property has been added to and renovated several times, although many original features have been kept. The States decided to build offices to the West of the former Public Library on 8 April 1930. These were built by Charles Le Quesne Ltd.
Click on image to see larger picture
1870s picture by Ernest Baudoux
1876 picture by Ernest Baudoux
One of Jersey's first portrait photographers, Henry Mullins, was in business in the Royal Square in 1852