A history of Jersey's harbours

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This article was first published in Jersey Topic magazine in 1966

St Helier Harbour in 1770

As shipping between Jersey and other ports increased in magnitude in the 17th century, some form of harbour became imperative to accommodate and protect the visiting vessels from the effects of the south-westerly gales.

As a result, in 1700, work commenced on the construction of a pier or 'screen', as it was later derisively called. This 'screen’ was constructed where stands the old South Pier today, out of Impot revenue, but owing to the slow rate of progress it soon fell into disrepair. Later being repaired, the pier was improved by the construction of the 'New Quay', here now stands La Folie Inn.

Smeaton's 1788 proposals

In 1788, Smeaton, the builder of the Eddystone Lighthouse, and distinguished civil engineer, submitted ideas for improving the layout of both St Helier and St Aubin harbours. The States, being at that time embroiled in a quarrel with the Royal Court over finance, did not entertain his suggestions until 1790, when work finally began on the construction of the North Pier, running from the Southampton Hotel to the end of what is known as the New North Quay today. A lack of storage space caused the local merchants to construct the quay along Commercial Buildings, and with its completion, St Helier could boast a fine harbour, albeit still tidal.

The South Pier was by now 120 years old, and in a very poor state. A very large sum of money was spent between 1820 and 1822 in rebuilding and enlarging it. Among the 'improvements' gained, was a low water landing place, for use by passengers arriving at low-tide. This was situated in what is now the middle of the Victoria Harbour.

Smeaton's plan

To improve the harbour still further, an expansion programme was embarked upon, resulting in the laying of the foundation stone of the new South Pier in 1841. This was completed in 1846, in time for the visit of the Queen, who consented to having her name associated with the new works, the new South Pier being renamed Victoria Pier. With the completion of this part of the work, the engineer-in-charge, a Mr Walker, commenced work on the new North Pier. This was completed in seven years, work finishing in 1853. With the second visit of the Royal couple in 1859, this new pier was renamed Albert Pier.

Despite these changes, the south-westerly gales still affected shippping so that in 1868, serious consideration was given to a plan that had been mooted as early as 1822, the construction of a breakwater from the Hermitage Rock to Elizabeth Castle. This was incorporated with a plan to build a long landing stage out from La Collette, and with a further extension of the breakwater, the whole forming a large acreage of still water.

1872 development

The contract was won by Sir John Coode, who commenced work on the project in 1872, both at La Collette and at the Castle. Work continued successfully on the breakwater, but that on the landing stage suffered several setbacks, due to the severity of the saverity of the very winds the work was designed to check.

In 1877, after spending over £180,000 on the La Collette stage alone, the whole works were abandoned, and Coode was paid off, leaving the crumbling concrete blocks at La Collette as a warning to any others who might conceive ideas about taming the sea. Further inspection of the site showed that it would be better for the remainder of the Harbour Works if the Hermitage Breakwater was extended beyond the rock, by a further 500 feet. To do this, the States approached Robert Kinniple, who had been responsible for the construction of the Greenock Docks and had unsuccessfully tendered for the Jersey Harbour Works in 1870, with a view to completing the required portion.

This he readily agreed to do, taking up his new appointment in March 1887. Kinniple effected his work in granite from local quarries as opposed to the by then crumbling concrete blocks which Coode had used. After extending the breakwater, he turned his attentions to completing the widening of the old North Pier, on the Albert Pier side. This work had been carried on at a pathetic speed for the previous few years using old Coode blocks.

The completed work then became known as the New North Quay. The third and final scheme was the construction of a wooden landing staging within the Victoria Harbour and the dredging of a deep water berth. It was while he was engaged in this that he felt he was losing the confidence of the Harbours and Piers Committee and he resigned in December 1888.

The top of the Old Harbour before it was filled in in 1884

Old harbour infill

In 1884 the Constable of St Helier placed before the States a plan to fill in part of the old harbour. This was approved and the retaining wall was moved to just south of the top of the Albert Harbour, and the whole filled in. Peculiarly, rather than make use of the reclaimed land for industrial purposes, a circular garden was laid out on the land in 1885, the statue of Queen Victoria being put there in 1890.

There have been many schemes thought up to improve St Helier’s harbour in the past, many of which included dry docks, graving docks, wet docks, timber ponds, etc, but there was none so ambitious as the plan o Thomas Hayley, who proposed that a sea wall be constructed from near the Albert Pierhead across to Noirmont, reclaiming as it went 3,000 vergees of land. This, proposed in 1857, would, it is rumoured, have been effected by the Germans long after, had they won the war.

20th century developments at St Helier revolved mainly around the improvement of the Albert Pier, replacing slipways by landing stages, and completely reconstructing Victoria Pierhead in the 1920s. A further part of the old harbour was filled in during the early 1930s, reducing the harbour to is present size.

During the war the Germans, conscious of the important role the harbous would play in the supply of materials, sealed the whole area off with wire and concrete poles, and laid a comprehensive system of railways around the harbours, connected with store dumps elsewhere in the island.

After the war the harbours were cleared up, although since 18 June 1966 a similar arrangement, without the railway, has been in operation on the New North Quay.

An aerial view of La Rocque Harbour

Fishing harbours

Moving away from the town, there is Havre des Pas. This was a very old anchorage for fishing boats, but what little importance it had, dwindled completely when the town harbour was built, the ‘Havre’ then becoming an important shipbuilding area.

The harbour at La Rocque was built in 1872, when local fishing was at it peak. With the building of the Eastern Railway in 1873, and the opening of La Rocque Station, this harbour became directly linked with the town and markets to enable the catch to be sold quickly. Here too, was a busy shipyard.

Gorey is the oldest port in the Island, the castle being the early seat of government. In this cove, boats with men and materials were unloaded, though it was not until 1826, with the need to supply shelter to the Jersey and English cutters which were engaged in dredging the newly laid oyster beds, that the present-day harbour was built. In common with Havre des Pas and La Rocque, there were shipyards here, all engaged in constructing cutters for the then popular oyster industry. Today, after a frenzy of activity by the Organisation Todt during the War, the harbour is quiet

Further north is St Catherine, where the remains of a planned large naval harbour of refuge can be seen. With relations between France and England strained, two such refuges were planned in the Channel Islands, one at Alderney and the other at St Catherine. Work started in 1847 on both arms, and after the Verclut, or northern arm, had been established at the land end, all efforts were turned to completing the Archirondel arm, so as to protect the Verclut pier from south-west winds.

This displeased the Government, who instructed the contractors to press ahead with the Verclut arm. On nearing its completion, the contractors returned their attentions to the Archirondel side, but were informed that the whole works were no longer required, as the French were now on good terms with the British, and in 1855, after some £250,000 had been spent, the harbour was abandoned.

There are three little ports on the north coast, which can he classed as fishing harbours, Bouley Bay was built in 1828, with that at Rozel, in 1829. Bonne Nuit Harbour was built in 1872. The harbour at Rozel also catered for the oyster dredgers.

Ronez Quarry jetty in 1902

Ronez Quarry jetty

The jetty at Ronez Quarry was built in 1902, to facilitate loading of roadstone from the quarry to England. Although subjected to the whims of the weather, two ships per week are scheduled to enter each week to take on cargo.

During the War, quarries were very important to the Germans in providing materials for the fortifications which they put up in various places in the island. In the closing months of the War, the White Russians, who were stationed along the north of the Island, systematically wrecked the quarries, toppling the cranes into the harbour and destroying the jetty.

It was some time before normal production could be restarted. Not until 1947 did the first post-War ship call at Ronez to collect a cargo of stone.

From the harbour point of view Jersey has had its share of misfortune. Both La Collette and St Catherine were failures, and so was Greve de Lecq. This was built in 1872, and there were hopes of converting it into a major port, to save ships having to run round La Corbiere.

There was even talk of a special north-western railway, to link up with the St Aubin line, and take passengers to town. But within months of its completion, the sea started to break it down, and today, after 94 years, its stones are strewn all over an area of the beach. There is a small fishermen’s harbour at St Brelade's Bay, but the other harbour in this parish is much larger, that of St Aubin.

This is the oldest harbour in the Island, the first work being the construction of the pier at the Fort, which was completed in 1700. It was a condition of the building of the St Helier Harbour that the pier at St Aubin must be completed first.

It was not until 1765 that the first stones of the south pier proper were deposited, and further extensions of the south pier took a long time. The harbour did not become completely enclosed until 1819, when work on the North Pier was finished.

By this time, however, the town harbour had become the most important, only coal and timber boats running into St Aubin.

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