Balleine's history of St Helier Harbour

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This history of St Helier's harbour development is taken from George Balleine's The Bailiwick of Jersey

One amazing thing about Jersey is that it had no harbour until modern times. As early as 1275 Edward I had ordered Guernsey to "build a stone wall between our Castle and our Town of St Peter Port", and this was expanded into a proper harbour in 1570; but Jersey, apart from a few rough moles for fishing boats, like those at St Brelade and Gorey, gave no artificial shelter to its shipping, till the pier at St Aubin's Fort was begun in 1670, and even then progress was so slow that it was not finished till 1700.

When Dumaresq wrote in 1685, St Helier was still harbourless. "Under the churchyard," he said, "is a shelter for boats, which with the help of the brook that comes down there might with no great charges be made fit to secure greater vessels; that would be a great conveniency to the commerce of the Town, with is at great charges to bring its merchandise by land from St Aubin's."

When in 1700 the States at last decided to give St Helier a harbour, they laid their plans on a very modest scale. On either side of the small projection on which the house called La Folie now stands, there was a tiny cove (one was called later the Havre des Francais, the other the Havre des Anglais).

Shortage of money

A start was made to build a hooked pier south of the Havre des Francais, which would partially shelter both these coves from south-westerly gales. The first stone was laid in 1700 but taxes were unknown in Jersey; the only funds available werc the import duties, and these produced so little that the work had to stop. In 1720 the States issued paper money to the value of 50,000 livres tournois (a few thousand pounds in modern money); merchants lent considerable sums free of interest; and in 1751 George II gave £200. But even when finished this little harbour had many drawbacks. It could only be entered at high tide. The water inside was always rough when a gale was blowing, and no road led to it. Carts crossed the sands at low tide and drew up alongside the ships to receive their cargo.

In 1788 it was decided that something better must be provided; so the States invited to the Island Smeaton, the famous engineer who built the Eddystone Lighthouse. Local sea-captains, however, criticised his plans so severely that the States devised a scheme of their own. They built what was later called the Old North Pier, and prolonged the South Pier till it almost met it. This work, again through lack of cash, took 25 years. Meanwhile, the merchants at their own expense built the Quai des Marchands (now Commercial Buildings) on the land facing the pier. The result was the Inner Harbour.

La Folie in 1893

Duke's tumble

But this still had the defect that it could be entered only at high tide. When the Duke of Gloucester, the King's nephew, came to Jersey in 1817, he had to land on the rocks outside, and slipping on the seaweed he fell and scrambled ashore on all fours to where the States and Militia were drawn up to greet him, a royal entry that certainly lacked dignity.

The Newfoundland fisheries were now booming, and the number of Jersey ships was increasing by leaps and bounds. The new harbour grew hopelessly congested. So the States decided to treble its size by building the outer harbour. The foundation-stone of the new South Pier was laid with great ceremony in 1841, and a large oil-painting of the event hangs in the Museum. The work was finished in 1846. One of the first persons to step ashore on it was the young Queen Victoria, and it was then and there named the Victoria Pier. The new North Pier was begun in 1846 and finished in 1853; and this was called the Albert Pier after the Prince Consort.

The start of the harbour - The Havre des Francais and the Havre des Anglais

Lack of water

But still the number of ships increased, and the old fault remained, that ships arriving when the tide was out had to wait in the roads until there was enough water inside to float them. When Queen Victoria landed, the Prince Consort asked, "Why do you Jerseyrnen always build your harbours on dry land?"

Innumerable plans were now debated for harbour improvement. The boldest was the proposal to build a sea-wall from the end of St Aubin's Pier to the tip of the Fort Pier and then right across the Bay to the Albert Pier. It was claimed that this would add 3,000 vergees to the Island, which by the aid of the town sewage could soon be transformed into rich agricultural land, and would also provide a fine supplementary harbour at St Aubin.

Another idea was a great breakwater along the Castle Bridge, extending beyond the Hermitage to a point where the largest ships could unload. One group pressed for an entirely new harbour at Noirmont, where the water is always deep; while a fourth suggestion was a new harbour behind the Victoria Pier.

When the States invited engineers to submit definite plans, 42 were sent in, and the Committee selected that of Sir John Coode. This seemed a wise choice, for he was the best-known harbour engineer of the century, and had constructed harbours in many parts of the world. He proposed a great breakwater stretching out from Elizabeth Castle, and this part of his work still stands, with another pier three-quarters of a mile long reaching out from La Collette to meet it.

Storm damage

The model that he submitted is in the Museum. but he underestimated the force of the waves that come thundering in from the Atlantic during south-westerly gales. In December 1874 a great breach was made in the La Collette Pier. This was repaired, but the following winter another large section collapsed. When a third winter came and again the great wall was pounded into ruins, the States gave up the struggle, though it had cost them £160,000; and contented themselves with the harbour they possessed, deepening it by dredging. Further dredging has been done since so that the mailboats can enter harbour at any tide. In recent years a new electricity power station has been built, with a tall chimney which now dominates the harbour entrance.

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