Coast: Harbour

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St Helier Harbour


St Helier's small harbour in 1786, facing Elizabeth Castle

This article by Doug Ford, a respected authority on Jersey's maritime history, was part of his Coast series for the Jersey Evening Post, and was first published in 2017

Shoreline moved

Of any stretch of coastline around the island, the area between West Park and Point des Pas has, over the years, changed more than any other; to the extent that most islanders would be unable to point out the original shoreline.


Eight hundred years ago a ship coming to St Helier would have either anchored in the lee of the Islet or more likely run itself on to the gently shelving beach by the Town Church, in the area of what is now Commercial Street and Bond Street, and waited for the tide to go out before unloading directly into small carts on the sand.

As a natural haven, St Helier benefited from having a good landing beach close to a market, which may account for the seemingly excessive number of bakers and taverners living in St Helier – they were needed to supply visiting ships and their crews.

Its major drawback was that, with no protective pier or breakwater, it was open to the prevailing south westerly winds. In rough weather the Town, as well as ships, was threatened, and so in the 16th century a seawall, which became known as La Muraille de la Ville, was built. [1] This ran from the stream known as Le Grand Douet, in what is now Charing Cross, to the Conway Street end of Bond Street where the same stream had been diverted to power a fulling mill. Beyond this the Cemetery Wall continued to serve as a seawall as far the foot of the Town Hill.

Havre Neuf

The first hint of some sort of man-made structure appears on a manuscript dated 1545; The Haven of Jersey appears crudely drawn by modern standards, but shows an enclosed harbour below Mont de la Ville – the Town Hill - in the area of the modern South Pier. Seven years later, in September 1552, Matthew Le Geyt was fined 18 livres by the Royal Court with the money expressly set aside for building the Havre Neuf – the New Harbour.

The description would indicate that there was already an earlier structure somewhere – either on the same site, or perhaps on the other side of the Small Roads on the Islet. In 1587 the States passed an act aimed at fining anyone caught removing stones from the Havre Neuf pier. It would appear that the Island authorities were fighting a losing battle, for when Dumaresq produced his Survey of the Island in 1685, he described Havre Neuf as being almost abandoned.

Within 30 years this situation was radically addressed when the area known as La Folie was fronted by a stone quay, despite offering no protection from the south-westerly gales - to many people it was a foolish project, hence the name of a folly.

Workers were also active on rebuilding the Havre Neuf. By 1720, instead of waiting for the tide to fall, islanders could bring their carts to the new harbour over what came to be known as Pier Road.

Work on the harbour was paid for in a variety of ways - in 1720 the States issued banknotes to help fund it and in 1749 a States Lottery was started to raise money. And money was most definitely needed, because when Peter Meade’s map of St Helier appeared in 1737 it simply stated ‘Town Peer not finished and very unsafe’.

Cargoes were landed on the beach before there were any piers at St Helier

French Harbour

The Town (South) Pier and La Folie were linked in 1765, and this area soon become known as the French Harbour, probably because as early as 1768 the moorings on the Town side of La Folie were referred to as the English Harbour. In the 19th century a number of shipbuilders operated here, including George Hamptonne, George Deslandes and Thomas Gavey. Whenever a vessel was to be launched, a wooden slipway had to be built out into the harbour.

In 1819/20 a long retaining wall was built along the face of the Town Hill as part of the Quai des Marchands scheme, and by La Folie, 27 small, lockable stores (les runs à calfaîtage) were built for the caulkers who worked there to store their equipment in.

Throughout the 1790s further work was carried out on the harbour, South Pier was lengthened, a slipway was built from La Folie into the French Harbour and, in order to protect boats moored in the harbours, a new breakwater was started. This was to be the North Pier – work began at the seaward end and slowly progressed towards Town. It would take 30 years and expenditure of over £80,000 before it was finally completed, although by 1798 ships could moor alongside. St Helier Harbour was gradually taking shape.

While the States were dragging their collective feet, some of the individual merchants were happy to look after their own interests. A drawing in the Société Library shows the area of St Helier between what is now Conway Street and the entrance to the Fort Regent Tunnel. As well as showing the original shoreline, it shows what appears to be three quays jutting out onto the foreshore. In 1770 Captain Kirby had a quay running down what is now Mulcaster Street. In 1788 Matthieu Gosset had a quay near Caledonia Place and in 1794 another quay is shown jutting straight out to the shore along what is now Conway Street. What makes this 1794 quay so interesting is that this is the area that Philippe Dumaresq identified in his survey as a potential berth for ships:

'Which with the help of a brook that comes down there, might ... be made fit to secure greater vessels, that would be a great conveniency to the commerce of that town.'
The North Pier being widened in the 1890s to become the New North Quay. As the photograph shows, it was widened from the landward end outwards; but the original pier was built in the opposite direction

Quay des Marchands

Towards the end of the Napoleonic War it became obvious that more quays were needed to deal with the island's increased trade. In 1814 a consortium of merchants headed by David de Quetteville got together to reclaim land underneath the cliffs of the Town Hill from the English Harbour towards Town. Set back from the quayside was a row of fine buildings; many of them had offices on the ground floor with accommodation above, and storage or workshops to the rear. This became known as Quai des Marchands. A second run of warehouses, which we know as Caledonia Place, was built between 31 Quai des Marchands and Mulcaster Street. Popularly called Commercial Buildings the name was then extended to cover Quai des Marchands as well.

In the late 1820s more land was reclaimed to the west of Mulcaster Street and, in 1829, work began on building more warehouses, hotels and boarding houses for commercial travellers - this was to become the Esplanade. It was here that in 1854 the Rev Philippe Filleul bought a piece of land to build a chapel-of-ease to serve the seafaring community - hence the dedication to St Andrew. As the Island’s shipping trade declined, the congregation fell; the last service was held in the church in April 1928. A new church dedicated to St Andrew was built at First Tower.

Despite these changes, ships were still unable to come alongside at low water; ships had to anchor in the Small Roads and transfer passengers by small boats to the low water landing stage at La Collette. All this changed with the building of the Victoria Pier.

In the 1830s a report presented to the States recommended building two new piers – these were to become known as the Victoria Pier, opened in 1846 and the Albert Pier, completed in 1853. It is often said that it was only named the Albert Pier in 1859 following the Royal Visit, however, it was always the intention to call it after the Prince Consort and it is called the Albert Pier in newspaper reports virtually from its completion.[2] It was during the Royal Visit of 1859 that Prince Albert is usually misquoted as saying: “Why do you Jerseymen build harbours on dry land?”, what he actually said was: “It is very much regretted that the harbour was not so constructed as to allow a good landing in all states of the tide”.

The age of the modern harbour had arrived.

Further reading

Notes and references

  1. This wall is often referred to as a 'harbour wall', often by otherwise well-respected writers, but it was never that. It was, as the author correctly states, constructed to keep sea and sand away from town streets – editor
  2. Some reports and maps show the Albert Pier as the New North Pier. As the author states, this was inaccurate. The original North Pier was widened at the end of the 19th century and renamed the New North Quay. Quay was probably substituted for Pier because since the construction of the Albert Pier, the North Pier had ceased to be the harbour's outer wall and had become an internal quay.
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