Coast: St Aubin

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St Aubin


This article by Doug Ford, retired education officer for Jersey Heritage and 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

Little fort

Once past Noirmont the cliffs continue northwards towards the harbour of St Aubin. Just before the cliffs open into Belcroute Bay some offshore rocks create turbulence in the water known as overfalls. These rocks are the Bou, and as early as 1563 there was a small battery placed here to guard the approaches to the anchorage. In 1646 Jean Chevalier described it as a little fort, armed with two cannon, and by 1737 its armament had been increased to four, which in 1787 were listed as two 24-pounders and two 12-pounders.


Around the point lies Belcroute, whose name originally meant ‘good croft’, although by the late middle ages it was a rather more grand affair, for this is the site of Noirmont Manor, which was owned by the Pipon family from 1695 until the late 19th century. One of the family’s more famous members was Captain Philippe Pipon RN who discovered the last surviving mutineer from HMS Bounty on Pitcairn island when he was in command of HMS Tagus in September 1814.

Belcroute Bay had a good anchorage. It was here that the Esther, Philippe Janvrin’s ship, was being held in quarantine when he died of the plague in 1721. The anchorage was protected by a couple of gun positions along the shoreline between the slip and St Aubin. The first Belcroute Battery was just above Le Bassin Robillard and the Battery Val Varin was on the outcrop known as La Tete du Vau Varin. Vau is from the viking word meaning a cove, while Varin was a family name in the 13th century.

Sheltered from the prevailing winds and the worst of the weather, St Aubin developed as the island’s main port in the 16th and 17th centuries and became the base for the Island’s involvement with the Newfoundland cod fisheries. The first reference to a boat using the port was in 1533, when a Spanish barque took on a cargo of wheat. Thirteen years later John Fishbill, of Brighton, an English pirate, entered the anchorage under cover of a storm, plundered the John, of Middleburg, of its cargo of woollen cloth and then made good his escape. This was rather ironic as the original St Aubin (Albinus), the sixth century Bishop of Angers, was often referred to as being the patron saint against pirate attacks.

It was also audacious, as a small tower had been built on the islet to protect the anchorage four years earlier. The States had ordered it to be garrisoned by four men and armed with a cannon when it was built, but by 1546 spending cuts meant the garrison had been reduced to one man, and the cannon was stored in La Haule Manor. There was obviously a need for an armed presence here because, in 1553, four ships from St Malo sailed into the anchorage and attacked another Spanish barque loading wheat. Luckily there were enough islanders around to fight them off.

This was not a harbour in the modern sense. Boats would be beached and then loaded or unloaded directly into carts drawn alongside, although some of the houses had a ‘quay’ - possibly some light wooden structure allowing boats to be unloaded at high tide. A Quai Aubert was mentioned in 1646, and today this practice is remembered in the street name Quai Bisson.

An early drawing showing galleons at anchor off St Aubin

'Town of merchants'

As more islanders became involved with the Newfoundland cod fisheries from the 1560s onwards, St Aubin grew rapidly and as Philippe Falle (1656-1742) noted, it was developing as ‘a town of merchants and masters of ships. . . the best and most frequented (port) in the Island." [1]

Houses were built on Le Boulevard along the shoreline; most between 1680 and 1700, when a stone pier was built on the islet. In 1685 Jurat Philip Dumaresq wrote:

"There is a pier almost finished adjoining the north-east point of this small Island; which will be about 30 feet high at the head, some 300 feet long and above 30 broad".

The stone facing of the northern edge of the islet had been partly constructed by 1742 and was completed by the end of the century.

In 1765 a short stone jetty was built from Le Rocher aux Ancres (in front of the Old Court House), and this was lengthened in the 1790s. About the same time the owners of property along the shoreline built a public quay, ‘30 feet wide’ with slips.

This new road became known as the Bulwarks, which means a rampart or seawall. The northern arm (now occupied by the Parish Hall) was built in 1810, and the final enclosing arm in 1819, but by then St Aubin was in decline as a port, due to the growing importance and effectiveness of St Helier's harbours. In 1840 the Constable complained that the improvements in St Helier harbour were having a drastic effect on trade in St Aubin. This was an over-simplification of the case as St Helier at that time was handling 1,466 ships totalling 112,433 tons compared to St Aubin’s 56 vessels totalling 3,651 tons.

Ships were built at St Aubin just outside the harbour, where the Jersey Western Railway terminus was later built on reclaimed land. Today it is the Parish Hall

While the trading fortunes of the port declined, a number of shipbuilders were operating in the village. In terms of production, Edward Allen, a Scotsman, was one of the biggest builders. He built five very large vessels, although to a varying degree of success. In 1852 he built the Mirzapore, a 846-ton ship for W S Lindsay of London, but the workmanship and materials were so poor that the Lloyds surveyor refused to classify it. His final vessel was the Evening Star – an 847-ton barque for Francis and Nicholas Le Bas. She was engaged in the Australian trade and on her maiden voyage in 1854 about 200 would-be emigrants paid £21 per head for passage to the South Australian gold fields. Even though the voyage took less than 12 weeks, by the time they reached the goldfields the rush was over.

Reclaimed land

Since the Middle Ages all the low land from the Old Court House as far as La Haule has been reclaimed and stabilised by building seawalls - most of it was done in the late 18th and 19th centuries. When the area now occupied by the Parish Hall and the car park was reclaimed in the late 1860s the site of Edward Allen’s shipyard was covered.

Until La Neuve Route was built in the 1840s, the High Street, which runs parallel to the shoreline, was the main route out of the village to La Haule. Its old name is Rue du Croquet as it leads up to the top of a small promontory which separated St Aubin and La Haule –known as Le Croquet. In 1685 Dumaresq described it as a red cliff. At some stage it was quarried and then a portion of it slipped. Marett’s ropewalk or Corderie, which was leased too William Brine in 1770, ran from here towards La Haule Manor. His grandson, John Brine, was still operating here in the 1840s.

Royal Visit

In August 1859 St Aubin received a surprise visit by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Prince Alfred and Princess Alice - they were rowed to the harbour from the Royal Yacht unannounced to a bemused crowd of locals who had been hurriedly gathered for the occasion at short notice. As no one had explained what was happening the Royal Party were greeted by stony silence.

Along La Neuve Route stands the Roman Catholic church - the Sacred_Heart_Church - which was being built as World War Two broke out. Its facade has patriotic significance for the stonemason, Joe Le Guyadier, used granite of a slightly different colour to create a ship’s anchor to celebrate the Royal Navy’s victory in Battle of the River Plate in December 1939, which resulted in the Germans having to scuttle the pocket battleship Graf Spee. Look carefully between the clock face and the top of the window below and the anchor will appear.

Further reading

Notes and references

  1. Although St Aubin was a more important port and centre of commerce at this time, it was not the island's capital, as is sometimes suggested. St Helier has always been the capital town

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