A history of Jersey transport - sea

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By Doug Ford

Jersey has been an island for approximately 8,000 years: therefore, apart from the last 60 years, the only way for people to come to or leave the island has been by sea. Over the centuries the way in which boats have been powered has changed - muscle power, wind power, steam power and now diesel power.

St Helier's first jetty in 1770

Neolithic times

For neolithic farmers, travel over land was slow; on foot, as the wheel was unknown and the horse was not used as a beast of burden. As the land was heavily wooded, the easiest way to travel was on water; and because we know that the neolithic farmers settled Jersey when it had once more become an island, it is safe to assume that they had the skill to make some form of boat. In addition to this we know that they were also able to sail and navigate between the island and Armorica and over what is now the English Channel to the mainland.

There were a variety of types boats used by the neolithic farmers: dug-out canoes made from hollowed out tree trunks and skin covered boats. The latter were more versatile than the dug-out as they could be made larger and the smaller ones were lighter than a similar sized dug-out. They were made by shaped branches lashed together to form the framework and covered with skins which had been sewn together and onto the topsides. The seams were then caulked with animal fat.

A similar type of vessel - a curragh - is still in use in some parts of the west of Ireland.

Two neolithic passage graves in Brittany, Petit Mont and Mane-Lud in Morbihan, have what may be carvings representing ships on them. The carving at Petit Mont shows a vessel with some form of cabin and closely resembles early Bronze Age rock carvings of boats in Scandinavia and a similar carving at Tarxien in Malta. These Scandinavian rock carvings represent skin covered boats mannedkly a number of rowers and it is felt that the earlier neolithic boats of this style would have been similar.

In 1992 a wooden ship made from planking and estimated to have been about 45ft (131/2m) was excavated in Dover. Dated to the late Neolithic period by the flints, animal bones and a stone hammer associated with it, the vessel still has to be carbon dated.

Experiments carried out in a skin boat propelled by six oarsmen, based on the early Bronze Age Scandinavian carving, showed that a craft such as this could average 3 knots. It is doubted that a sail was used as these boats do not appear to have had an efficient keel to prevent sideways drift.

Boat design improved so that by the late iron age ships of the Venetii, who lived in the Morbihan region of Brittany, were using fairly large wooden boats driven largely by leather sail. It was the lack of oarsmen which proved to be their downfall in the naval battle in the Gulf of Morbihan, about 55BC, for the Venetii ships were becalmed and unable to manoeuvre effectively and so were defeated by the Romans. It is likely that this type of boat was used in local waters.

Havre Neuf, where South Pier stands today

Trade in Roman times

During the Roman period there was an established trade route between Alet (St Servan) and Hengistbury Head in Dorset. Guernsey was the favoured stop off point, because of the natural deep water harbour at St Peter Port, although these boats undoubtedly called in to Jersey as well. The Roman cargo boat recently raised from St Peter Port Harbour provides information on the type of vessel used on this route.

The migration of the Romano-British to Armorica in the 5th and 6th centuries was obviously carried out by boat and indeed this period is sometimes referred to as the age of Saints and Seaways. There was a regular route in use between the South west of England and Brittany at this time.

The Vikings appeared on the scene during the 9th and 10th centuries. Their ships were undoubtedly better suited to these local waters than their predecessors as they did not require any port facilities and could be run aground for loading and unloading. A fully loaded viking ship carrying about 30 tons of cargo needed less than a metre of water to float in.

Ships became larger during the 12th century and ports began to take on a greater importance. The earliest harbours in the island were the natural havens which provided shelter from the worst of the winds and a sandy bottom on which a vessel could ground with damaging its keel. Areas such as Havre des Pas, St Brelade, St Aubin and La Rocque were used. There is mention of a Spanish ship taking on a cargo of wheat "in the harbour of St Obin".

This was not a harbour in the modern sense, but a simple anchorage with perhaps a wooden jetty, although in all probability loading and unloading of beached vessels took place from carts at low tide.

As ships became larger, Gorey, which is first mentioned as a port in 1274, began to grow in importance and on the 1685 Dumaresq map a small pier is shown although in his survey, Dumaresq describes it as being decayed. There also appears to have been a simple stone pier at St Brelade . There was no harbour facilities in St Helier at this time - boast could be drawn up on the beach by the church yard.

St Helier Harbour in the 1830s

17th century harbours

A concerted effort to build harbours did not take off until the late 17th century, when work began on building a pier on the islet on which St Aubin's fort stands. During the 18th century St Aubin's harbour proper was constructed and work began on developing St Helier as a port, although the capital had to wait until the 19th century before it really began to develop as a port.

It was during the early 19th century that stone piers were built at La Rocque, Bouley Bay, Rozel and Gorey, to accommodate the oyster boats. The harbour at Gorey also took passenger traffic from Normandy.

Of course, the primary purpose of these harbours was the movement of cargoes and not people. If a person wanted to come to or leave the island they had to approach the master of a vessel and strike a bargain with him. The alternative was to hire a boat to take you wherever you wanted to go and this was an expensive exercise.

Passenger transport in the modern sense did not come into being until there was a regular service between the island and a specific port on the mainland. There were a number of reason for the development of this regular service - the delivery of the Royal Mail, the growing economic importance of the island and the development of tourism in conjunction with the growth in railways.

The first government mail packet service came about when France entered the American War of Independence, on the side of the rebellious colonists against the British in 1778. It was discontinued five years later, at the end of the war, but resumed in February 1794 when the Post Office inaugurated a weekly mail service between Weymouth and St Helier, with two sailing cutters, the Royal Charlotte and the Rover . In suitable weather they could make the 96-mile crossing in 16 hours.

The first steamships appeared on the route in 1824, although sailing packets maintained the service until July 1827, when the Post Office introduced the paddle steamers Watersprite and Ivanhoe . These were joined the following year by the Meteor , another paddle steamer of around 190 tons. When she was wrecked in 1830 she was replaced by Flamer .

When the Admiralty took over the service in 1837 she was given the more martial sounding name of Fearless . The first iron built paddle steamers appeared on the route in 1843.

At first passengers could bargain with the master of the vessel for a passage, but soon it was realised that as the ships were sailing anyway, the transport of growing numbers of fare paying passengers was a useful source of extra revenue. The mail packets became the standard way of travelling to and from the island for nearly two centuries, especially after the 1840s, with the transfer of the mail contract to the independent sector and the introduction of the penny post.

Diana unloading on the Victoria Pier

The mailboats

At this time the harbour of St Helier was concentrated around La Folie in The English and French harbours. At low water there was a landing stage at La Collette, to which passengers were ferried in small boats and picked up by waiting carriages and horse drawn omnibuses. With the building of the Victoria and Albert Piers in the 1840s and 1850s, passengers could arrive in a little more comfort, although the state of the tide still played an important role.

In May 1840 the London and South Western Railway Company line had reached Southampton and, with the extra overall speed this offered, the contract to carry the mail was awarded to the railway company's subsidiary South Western Steam Packet Company, when the Admiralty service ceased in 1845. In 1862 the railway company itself took over the operation of the steamer service, using three large paddle staemers. In 1877 they introduced the Diana , a screw driven steamer, on the route.

In the 1870s the steam engine went through a major phase of development and became much more efficient and as a result more economic. With the introduction of the ' 'Diana ' ' on the route, the days of the paddle steamers were gradually coming to a close.

In 1910 the first turbine steamers, the Caesarea and the Sarnia , were brought on to the route.

In 1857 the Weymouth and Channel islands Steam Packet Company had introduced a mailboat service from Weymouth; this route was taken over by the Great Western Railway Company in 1889. For the next decade there was fierce competition between the Weymouth and Southampton based vessels, which resulted in the tragic loss of the Stella in 1899.


One of the remarkable vessels built in this period was the GWR steamer Ibex . She nearly sank after hitting rocks in 1897 while racing her rival the LSWR steamer Frederica . In 1900 she hit rocks again and was under water for six months before being raised. During the First World War she was nearly sunk by a torpedo and she sank an enemy submarine with her guns. The Ibex was finally taken out of service in 1925. In 1923 the LSWR became part of the new Southern Railway and their Isle of Jersey , Isle of Guernsey and Isle of Sark together with the GWR steamers, St Helier , St Julien and St Patrick ' ' of the 1930s are still remembered in the islands.

The mailboat service resumed after the Occupation, on 26 June 1945, when the Isle of Guernsey entered St Helier harbour proudly flying both the SR and GWR house flags. the two railway companies continued their separate services until the formation of British Railways with nationalisation on 1 January 1948.

Both the Southampton and Weymouth routes were continued until 1961 when the Southampton run was closed. The mail service continued through Weymouth and three new ships entered service - the Caesarea , Sarnia and St Patrick .

The growing air service to the island began to take over the delivery of letters. The introduction of the ro-ro car ferry Falaise on the Channel Islands route in 1973 eventually led to even the parcel mail going by cargo boat, and the last regular mail carried from Jersey on the mailboat was on 8 October 1973.

The Caesarea was withdrawn from the Jersey service in 1975, although she was recalled in April 1978 for a time following problems with the car ferries. In 1976 the Weymouth route was completely taken over by ro-ro ferries when the Earl Godwin and Caledonian Princess were brought into service and in 1977 the Earl William was introduced on a new route to Portsmouth. In 1981 the Caledonian Princess was replaced by the Earl Granville.

The last link with a railway run ferry service was in July 1984 when the British government privatised Sealink and the company was sold.

The mailboats did not only run to the mainland; they also went to France. With the growing number of tourists, many of the ships that sailed to St Malo were purely passenger carrying.


With the growth in mass tourism in the 1960s the market for day trips to France was exploited with the introduction of hydrofoils on the St Helier-St Malo route.


Not everyone who set out to cross the water got there safely. There have been a number of disasters, some of which resulted in loss of life.

  • 20 Sept 1859 - the New South Western Steam Navigation Company Express struck rocks while taking the inner passage at La Corbiere and was wrecked, with the loss of one life.
  • 17 March 1870 - the LSWR Normandy collided with steamer Mary in thick fog and sank in the English Channel with the loss of 13 crew and one passenger.
  • 5 June 1873 - the LSWR Waverley struck the Platte Boue rock off north east Guernsey and sank.
  • 19 Feb 1881 - the LSWR Caledonia struck the Oyster Rock just off Elizabeth Castle and sank.
  • 16 April 1897 - the GWR Ibex struck the Normontaise Rock off La Corbiere. Beached in Portelet Bay.
  • 30 March 1899 - the LSWR Stella, at full speed, struck rocks near the Casquets. The ship sank and 105 lives were lost
  • 5 Jan 1900 - the GWR Ibex struck rocks just north of Guernsey and sank outside St Peter Port harbour.
  • 19 July 1911 - the GWR Roebuck struck the Kaines Reef. Beached in St Brelade's Bay nine days later. Was towed to Southampton six weeks later
  • 7 July 1923 - the LSWR Caesarea struck a rock off Noirmont and was forced to return to St Helier where she sank in the Inner roads just outside the harbourmouth. She was refloated two weeks later and taken back to England.
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