A history of St Catherine and Archirondel

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What's your street's story? - St Catherine and Archirondel


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Pine Walk in the early 20th century, with the breakwater in the background, photographed by Albert Smith


This article is based on a 2017 presentation by online development manager Michele Leerson in Jersey Archive's What's your street's story? series


The Philip Dumaresq map of Jersey in 1694 shows St Catherine's Bay between the rocky headlands of La Crete and Verclut, with an outcrop of rocks near Verclut called Pierre Mouillee. The bay is thought to be named after the medieval Chapelle de St Catherine, [1] which was located on the coastline near Rue du Champ du Rey.

Pine Walk

The site was built over when a new coastal road called Route Le Brun, commonly known as the Pine Walk, was created at the time of the construction of the breakwater. A small house called La Vielle Chapelle still exists near the site of the original chapel and is thought to have been the home of the priest.

Very early maps of this coastline do not mention Archirondel, and this name seems to have originated from the time when a Martello tower [2] was built on the rock called Roche Arondel, in the late 18th century. The Richmond map of 1795 records the Bay of Arch hiron delle. [3]

Another Martello tower [4]. in the bay, St Catherine's Tower, or Tour de la Mare, was built just before the Archirondel tower and both were of great importance in the line of defence against the threat of invasion by French forces.

Archirondel tower before the breakwater was built

Breakwater

The other prominent man-made structure on this stretch of coastline is St Catherine's Breakwater. Much has been written about this great feat of engineering, which was one arm of the proposed harbour of refuge, built at huge expense to the British Government, and which for various reasons ended up being unfinished and completely unfit for purpose.

The 1841 census shows that before the construction of the breakwater this was a somewhat isolated community of mainly fishing, sailing and farming families. The States of Jersey petitioned Whitehall for a harbour of refuge in 1840, concerned about the vulnerability of the island in light of the invention of steamships. At the time the preferred sites were Bouley Bay or Noirmont, with barely a mention of St Catherine's Bay. [5]

When the decision was finally made by the British Government to build the harbour at St Catherine, the consultant engineers were instructed to buy up houses and land in the vicinity. This started in 1846 and continued for three years, during which over 100 houses and plots of land were purchased between Fliquet and Mont Orgueil. The purpose was to acquire sites suitable for extracting the vast amounts of stone required as well as providing offices, workshops, stores and living quarters.

This mass purchasing must have created an atmosphere of great change in an area which had seen very little change in decades, if not centuries. Some of the sellers were speculators who, upon hearing of the project, had acted quickly, buying from the locals with a view to reselling for a tidy profit.

Construction work began in late June 1847. The quarries at Verclut and Archirondel opened and work on both arms began simultaneously. This meant that upwards of 300 men were soon involved in the hard and very dangerous work of blasting, mining and building. A report on 3 July 1847 in the Chronique de Jersey newspaper reads:

"People have been gathering at St Catherine's Bay to see the happenings daily now that works have begun. Last Thursday 50 workers were employed to clear the land. Their salaries are 2 British shillings and 6 pence per day. The contractors are waiting for a large number of workers to arrive and we could see 400 on the works by next Monday."

A report in the British Press and Jersey Times of 18 February 1848 gives a good update on the progress of work at that time. The southern arm had progressed to 300 feet, nearly reaching Archirondel Tower, and at Verclut the breakwater had almost reached the rocky outcrop of Pierre Mouillée.

It gives a very detailed description of the seemingly chaotic works at Verclut, with horses drawing heavy loads of rock, quarrymen working on precipitous cliffs, many cranes lifting heavy weights of massive stones and numerous workmen, supervisors and engineers all going about their work.

A 1933 Aerofilms view of the breakwater

Deaths and injuries

This report claimed that seldom did any accidents occur, despite the hundreds of men involved. However, just a month later, on 17 March, the superintendent of the work for Jackson and Bean, David Ross Dixon (31) was killed by falling stones after an explosion.

There is evidence of six other men killed during the project and a hospital was established in one of the properties purchased, to treat the many blast and crush injuries that the workers sustained. The house, which is still in existence on the hill overlooking the bay north of St Catherine's tower, is called l'Hopital and is now a listed building.

Despite good progress on the northern arm at Verclut, MPs began to ask questions in Parliament about the usability of the harbour and the vast amounts of money being spent on the project. This resulted in the suspension of work on the proposed extensive southern arm in 1849, leaving the breakwater unfinished just beyond Archirondel tower.

With the focus solely on the Verclut arm, work progressed steadily and at the end of 1852 it was 2,300 feet long. By the end of 1854 the structure was complete above tidal level. The report for the last quarter of 1855 stated that the whole of the masonry work had been finished and a cast iron lighthouse was erected at the end ofthe breakwater in spring 1856.

Project abandoned

That was when the project was abandoned. Quarrying stopped, the workmen, their families and the engineers gradually left the island, machinery and horses were removed, and St Catherine's Bay was left to return to the quiet coastal community it had been before, albeit with a very large structure as a legacy.

The Godfray map of 1849 shows the original plan for the harbour. The southern arm barely extended past Archirondel tower when the project was abandoned

Community life gradually returned to normal, with most renting back the properties they had sold to the Crown. Debate by the British Government over the breakwater and what to do with it and the surrounding land and properties continued for many years. In 1866 they decided to transfer it to the States.

The States, however, were less than keen to take on ownership of what they perceived was a liability, arguing that it served no purpose, it was of no benefit to the island, and it could prove very costly to maintain.

After much negotiation the transfer of the breakwater was finally completed on 12 April 1878, including the transfer of land and property along the coastline as far as Archirondel. A States committee was formed to administer the real estate, including houses such as St Agathe, La Grande Maison, Gibraltar and Archirondel Cottage, which from this date collectively became known as the St Catherine Estate. Some of the original properties are still owned and leased by the States to this day. [6]

Notes and references

  1. One of the mysteries of the name is why it is not Ste Catherine, which would be the correct French for a placename with a female origin
  2. This is an all-too-common wrong use of the name Martello. The majority of Jersey's coastal towers are of an entirely different pattern from those on the English coast which, some time after the construction of most of Jersey's towers, came to be known as Martello towers. The tower at Archirondel is a coastal tower or a Conway tower, after the Lieut-Governor who ordered their construction. The distinction between the majority of Jersey's coastal towers and Martello towers is explained in a Jerripedia article on the subject
  3. hirondelle is French for 'swallow'
  4. This is also a Conway coastal tower, not a Martello tower, which is of an entirely different pattern
  5. Bouley Bay was the choice of the States, which, it is believed, was more interested in obtaining a harbour with commercial potential at the expense of the British Government than it was concerned about threats from France. Noirmont was the choice of admirals who were consulted on the best location for a refuge for their fleet.
  6. In 2018 the coastal strip alongside the Pine Walk, was offered for sale by the States and was purchased by the National Trust for Jersey so that it could be protected for all time from any development
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