St Helier Harbour

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The original harbour

It has been a popular misconception for some time that Jersey had no harbour at all until a jetty was built at St Aubin's Fort in 1670 and that it was not until 30 years later that a small harbour was started at St Helier, some way distant from the town, requiring carts to cross the sand at low tide to unload vessels.

Balleine's history

It is uncertain when this idea, which has been perpetuated by numerous writers on island history, was first put forward, but it was certainly shared by George Balleine, probably the pre-eminent island historian of the 20th century, and not challenged to any great degree when his early 1950s works The History of Jersey and The Bailiwick of Jersey were republished in the 1970s after being revised by La Société Jersiaise members Joan Stevens and Margaret Syvret.

But, as Alec Podger made clear in a 2001 article for the Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise, St Helier certainly had a harbour, or harbours, before the first jetty was built at St Aubin, although the extent to which they were capable of being used is open to question.

1545 map

As Podger's article and the revised version of Balleine's History of Jersey point out, a map in the British Museum dating from about 1545 shows a rudimentary jetty and seawall to the south of what was then the small town of St Helier. If this was used for unloading cargo vessels, they would have had limited protection from the elements at high water, and their mooring would have dried out at low water. Carts could only have reached them by crossing the sands from St Helier.

In the 17th century a growth in trade made the need for a more functional port, which could also accommodate naval vessels, much greater. Initially cargoes appear to have been unloaded from ships which grounded on the sands between St Helier and the rocks on which Elizabeth Castle was eventually built.

There was also a small harbour on the opposite side of Mont de la Ville at Havre des Pas, but this could only accommodate relatively small vessels which could navigate through the treacherous rocks beyond it.

A two-masted sailing vessel in St Helier Harbour in the early 19th century

St Aubin favoured

So it was to St Aubin that the States turned when the demand for a harbour could no longer be ignored, and during the 17th century this certainly became the island's principal port, where vessels headed to and from the cod fisheries on the Canadian coast would moor, alongside cargo vessels and privateers and their captures.

It was not a convenient location, however, because the berths dried out at low water, and there was no road to St Helier, which was still the island's main town and marketplace. Cargoes had to be transported across the long beach from St Aubin to St Helier by horse and cart.

The harbour at St Aubin was still being developed well into the 18th century, but by the beginning of the century the clamour for a part at St Helier was so great that the States turned their attention to providing weather-proof jetties at what is now South Pier and La Folie [1]and in due course private money paid for the construction of the quayside in front of what is now known as Commercial Buildings.

Eventually St Helier had facilities which encouraged merchants to stop bringing their vessels into St Aubin, and the main town harbour developed at the expense of the latter, although not nearly as fast as the island's traders would have wished.

19th century

In 1790 work started on a new northern pier, known as the North Quay, and later the New North Quay, but it would be 25 years before it was completed.

This created a substantial harbour for the times, the other side of which was Quai des Marchands, built by the merchants themselves. Today there is a long row of these buildings stretching the length of the harbour and rising level with Pier Road. They can rise no higher because included in their deeds is a height restriction in order that the field of fire for the cannons at Fort RegentLa F on any enemy approaching the Harbour should not be obstructed.

The developments of the later Victorian period gave the harbour area almost a century of greater usefulness. Access was still limited by the tides. Even today regular dredging is required to keep the harbour open.

The Harbour in 1905

20th Century

There have been a number of 20th century developments. The tanker berth was built to allow tankers to offload fuel and oil supplies near to the fuel farm. It is also the outermost part (at the southern edge) of the harbour. Further north, La Collette Yacht Basin backs onto the Victoria Pier, and provides a deep-water harbour for leisure craft. Nearby is the area for the fishing fleet.

It was the 1980s when the Elizabeth Harbour, with its new terminal building for passengers, and separate freight area, was planned. It was opened by the Queen in 1989.

Marinas

The St Helier marina was opened in 1981 with nearly 400 berths; it is normally open for visiting yachts. The Elizabeth marina opened in 1998 with nearly 600 berths, most of which are for residents. Both these marinas have gates, so access is restricted to three hours either side of high tide. At least the boats in these marinas can remain afloat. The Old harbour still dries out at low water, as do the French and English harbours. La Collette yacht basin is a deep water, all-tide marina, again mostly reserved for residents.

Picture gallery


Further articles

Notes and references

  1. The name La Folie (a folly) may have had something to do with the perceived foolishness of building a house on the water's edge, or perhaps the whole harbour development in an area so far distant from the town centre, and drying out completely twice a day. La Folie had the unusual claim to fame of having a public house owned by the States of Jersey and administered by the Harbours and Airport Committee. The original building was demolished and rebuilt some time between 1723, which seems to be the most reliable date for its origination, and 1850, when it was realigned to face the entrance of the Harbour. La Folie has now closed and was threatened with demolition as part of a controversial scheme to create luxury flats with private moorings. That scheme was abandoned - Sylvia Pinel
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