Coast: St Ouen's Bay - south

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Coast:

St Ouen's Bay - south


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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 2016


La Rocco

About half a mile straight out from Le Braye slip lies a natural outcrop of Jersey shale La Rocco - from Rocque Hou which means ‘the rocky islet’. The northern side of this islet is called La Joue, the ‘prow’, from the way it presented itself to the incoming swell. Because of its position, guarding the approach to the beach, La Rocco was selected as the site for the last of the Conway towers to be built in the island.

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In addition to the usual design, this tower also had a surrounding bulwark for four guns. Work started in 1796 but was hampered by lack of funds, and because of the low wages offered, local stonemasons were not too keen to be involved in the contract either. By 1798 the project had overrun its original budget and the Lieut-Governor had to come up with more money to complete the job. In May 1799 he had to take 15 stone masons to court to get them to complete the job. Finally, at a cost of over £8,000, the work was done and in May 1801 the tower was named after the Lieut-Governor, Lieutenant General Andrew Gordon [1]. Manned by a subaltern, a sergeant, two corporals, a drummer and 18 privates, its armament consisted of five 24-pounders.

It continued to be manned after 1815, and by 1848 a report shows that its armament had been upgraded to 32-pounders. It was abandoned in the 1850s following the improvement in relations with the French, and by 1896 the War Department proposed selling it. The States eventually bought it in July 1922 for £100, with the intention of creating a day-mark for shipping.

Occupation damage

The tower suffered considerable damage during the Occupation when a landmine on the southern side of the bulwark accidentally went off. The popular story is that the damage was caused by German gunnery. Whatever the real story, it was neglect and severe weather over the next few years that caused the extensive damage. A States report in November 1962 noted the damage and, with typical governmental alacrity, in October 1968 it was proposed that the States would pay 50% of the cost of repairs, if the public would pay the other half. A La Rocco Tower Appeal Committee was formed to raise the £17,500 required and, backed by the Jersey Evening Post, raised the money in just under 15 weeks. Rebuilding work began in the late spring of 1969 and was finished in 1972.

In the 1920s the tower was leased to Lady Houston, who used it as her ‘beach hut’. In 1931 she gave £100,000 towards the development of what was to become the Spitfire. In January 1806 the English vessel Adventure, on passage from Malta to London, was wrecked near La Rocco. Captain Watson and all his crew were saved but the ship was lost. The fates were not so kind in March 1861 when the 250-ton French vessel La Cultivateur, sailing from Dublin to Rouen, struck rocks off La Rocco and five of the nine-man crew, despite being able to swim, were drowned. It was not only ships that came to grief on La Rocco: in November 1940 a Dornier 17 crashed here while on a training flight and all four Luftwaffe personnel were killed.

Once completed, La Rocco tower became part of the fortification network in the bay. Just to the south of Le Braye, towards La Carrière, stood St Ouen’s No 6, also known as la Tour du Sud. Built by 1786, the tower was severely undermined by coastal erosion following a high spring tide and violent storm on 19 March 1847. By 1851 half the tower had collapsed, and what was left was used for target practice by the Militia artillery. Today no trace of the tower remains, although there is a marvellous photograph taken just before its destruction.

Quarry

Where the escarpment sweeps back to the coast there was a quarry - La Carrière - and it was here that one of the early gun positions in the bay was sited. In his 1685 report William Salt indicated that two demi-culverins were here. These cannon, which fired an 8-9lb shot, had a range of about a mile, although they were only really effective at up to a third of that distance.

The strategic importance of this area was recognised by the Germans, too, and two massive bunkers, a heavy machine gun position, a personnel shelter and a searchlight bunker were built into La Tête du Nièr Côte behind the anti-tank wall. Known as Resistance Point La Carrière, they are maintained and opened to the public by the Channel Island Occupation Society.

As part of this building work, the slipway known as La Charrière du Mont du Feu was demolished and blocked, although traces can still be seen in and around the anti-tank wall. The name commemorated the du Feu family who owned the land.

A painting of 'Fort Gordon' in 1805, shortly after its completion

The shore alongside La Pulente slip, more properly known as La Montée du Sud, was known as Le Grand Havre, and beyond the slip was Le Petit Havre. While they may not look like harbours to us today, they were recognised landing points in the past. In 1299 records show that duty was collected on a cargo of wine unloaded here.

In 1309 court records mention a wreck at La Pulente, whose cargo was 32 pieces of iron, some verdigris, two barrels of ‘roker’ fish (Thornback Rays), 12 lb of chalk, some ginger, six measures of cinnamon, six measures of pepper (these three spices were valued at 40 livres), six lengths of strong white cotton cloth (dimity), 140 yards of canvas valued at 8 livres, one mast, small logs of timber and a hand wheel.

The fishery survey published in 1872 noted:

"There is but one boat, we found here three or four fishermen from town who frequently visited this bay and told us they considered it the best bay for fish, particularly whiting, but the sea was always very rough and dangerous".
La Pulente close to high tide

This survey was undertaken just after La Montée du Sud had been completed. This allowed small boats to be hauled up from the beach and more boats began to be used here by the end of the century. The slip also allowed carts easier access to the vraicing area. Marks, such as La Merq de la Charrièrre, just below the slip, were set up among the rocks, which as the tide dropped and they became visible meant vraicing could begin. Sometimes the mark was a designated rock, sometimes it was an iron spike set in the top of a rock.

Like Le Pulec, La Pulente is derived from the Old Norse word for pool and endi the Norse word for end – so it means the pool at the end of the bay. In the 19th century a hotel was built here to cater for the growing number of visitors to the island. In the 1880s the landlord, Thomas Gibaut, was also one of the leaders of a smuggling gang who used the beach to land contraband before distributing it in Town. In June 1889, following a tip-off, the police intercepted a van carrying 20 barrels of illicit spirits in Devonshire Place, outside the home of Gibaut’s father. Inside the house they found another barrel. Altogether over 300 gallons of spirit was recovered.

The hotel was evacuated during the Occupation and partly demolished, before it was gutted of anything burnable during the last winter of the war. Rebuilt in 1946, the hotel to all extents and purposes became a public house.

Thursday 23 April 1896 must have been a slow news day in Guernsey as their newspaper, The Star, reported a nasty incident involving two men at La Pulente the previous Sunday. While riding their tandem, a cow had kicked their machine ‘rendering it useless, owing to half a dozen spokes being broken’. The traumatised pair had to walk to La Moye Station, carrying their machine with them in order to catch the train back to Town.

The following February The Star also reported the sad fate of John Syvret, who had fallen ‘40ft’ over the edge of the quarry at La Pulente to his death while going fishing. The rather unsympathetic headline read ‘A Ne’er-do-Well’s Sad End’. The headland John Syvret was walking over to get to the beach was L’Oeillière, which means peep hole. This could refer to a pierced rock or more probably some form of early lookout tower.

Further reading

Notes and references

  1. Islanders have always known it as La Rocco Tower, after its location, rather than Fort Gordon, after a man who was only in the island from 1797 to 1806, and did not otherwise make much of an impression
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