In the 19th century Guernsey and Jersey were two of the largest and most important shipbuilding centres in the British Isles and hundreds of vessels were constructed for the island's commercial fleets, as well as owners further afield. The ships were used mainly on European and Atlantic trade routes, but some voyaged as far as Australia and were involved in the tea trade.
Between 1815 and 1878, there were over 200 ships built in Guernsey.
In 1789 the Gazette de l’Ile de Jersey recorded the construction and launch of a 280-ton wooden sailing vessel at Bel Royal. She was named the Elisha Tupper, built for the ship-owning Janvrin family, on whose land the oak used had been grown, although named after a Guernesy ship-owning family, who may have been in partnership with the Janvrins in this venture.
No records of shipbuilding in Jersey in Medieval times exist, but ships must have been built. Edward III ordered the Channel Islands to send ships of 40 tons to join in the military convoys in the Hundred Years War as early as the 14th Century.
At that time Norsemen were crossing the North Atlantic in open boats and although it is difficult to put a starting date on Jerseymen's involvement in the Newfoundland cod trade, it is believed that they were probably fishing these waters in the early 16th century at the same time as their near neighbours from Brittany and Normandy.
It is sometimes suggested that John Cabot, who discovered the Newfoundland cod banks on one of his voyages of discovery in 1497 was himself a Jerseyman, but this is not so.
A 1582 will refers to a Jersey-owned vessel returned from Newfoundland and some 30 years later the Governor was instructed not to sell stores to Newfoundland-bound fishermen for fear of depleting Castle stores. There is no proof that any of these vessels were built at home.
Sir Walter Raleigh, who was Governor of Jersey from 1600 to 1603, owned land in Newfoundland. He is believed to have encouraged young Jerseymen who could not find gainful work in the island to seek their fortunes there.
It is possible that the first Jerseymen to cross the Atlantic did so in boats built and owned outside the island, and the first shipowners had vessels built in America, where many of the boats which were used for the fishing trade were built. In 1700 Daniel Bacon, a Salem shipwright, was building a 54-foot long ship for Captain John Balleine of Jersey. Schooners were also built at Marblehead, in New Brunswick and in Nova Scotia.
In 1845 Francis Perrée bought from shipbuilder Edward Mabé, of Malbaie, "a certain vessel now laying on the stock of Malbaie (Gaspé) of about 160 tons to be launched and completed in a carpenter-like manner".
Many ship owners commissioned artists, including Jerseyman Philip Ouless, to paint pictures of their vessels, and these were proudly displayed in many a Jersey home. Some of the pictures had an island background, but another favourite was to show vessels at Naples with Vesuvius in the background. It is most possible that islanders bought larger trading vessels built elsewhere, but it is unlikely that fishing boats were imported, because that is not the way things worked in those times. Fishermen would have built their own boats, initially very small vesselsw, but progressively larger vessels capable of travelling further afield would almost certainly have been built in the island, as they developed design and boat-building skills by trial and error.
It seems more likely that records of ships built in the island have been lost rather than that no significant vessels were built before the 1870s.
There are certainly clues which suggest that small boats were built for fishing and coastal trading from early times. The Rolls of the Royal Court for 1671 record that two men were sued for payment of a piece of oak for a ship's beam and some plywood for a rudder. In 1683 Richard de Carteret, Thomas Poingdestre, Jean Pipon and Jean Dorey were fined by the Constable of St Brelade for leaving masts and other material on the road running from their houses to the Boulevard.
In 1676 Abraham Balleine was sued for the cost of a ship and canvas by a St Malo merchant and there is evidence that island traders bought and sold vessels in London.
Other Jerseymen captured their ships through privateering, a lucrative pursuit during the many periods when Britain was at war with France, Spain and other countries. A Jersey-built ship, "The Phoenix" was one of the most famous privateers during the Napoleonic wars, particularly when captained by Peter Duval, whose family settled at Bonaventure Island off the Gaspé coast of Canada.
Major ship-building centre
Although the Elisha Tupper was not built on a permanent shipyard, it was only 40 years later that Jersey was building a reputation as a major ship-building centre, which was to last into the 1870s, when the demand for large, metal-hulled vessels, caused industry to go into rapid decline.
It seems inconceivable that sailing vessels had not been built in Jersey before the Elisha Tupper, but she was the first to be recorded for posterity.
She would very likely have been built by a team of itinerant shipwrights, supplemented by local labour, but there is reason to believe that most of the Channel Islanders who contributed to an industry which produced six percent of the United Kingdom’s total output in 1864, learned their skills on the other side of the Atlantic.
They would have travelled there to participate in the Newfoundland cod-fishing industry at a time when many of the vessels involved were built on the Canadian shoreline from wood which was plentiful.
Oak for 100 ships
Although the report of the Elisha Tupper’s launching suggested that there was sufficient oak in St Lawrence just waiting to be turned into another 100 ships of similar size, and similar amounts throughout the island, this is not substantiated by reports a mere 50 years earler that the island was severely lacking in woodland.
It is far more likely that the wood used to establish Jersey’s shipbuilding industry was imported direct to the island from overseas, free of the heavy import duties then imposed in the UK, and at it was this which enabled a small island to build quality vessels at much more competitive prices.
The larger ships were built in St Aubin’s Bay. Shipbuilding at Gorey was of small boats for local fishermen and no evidence remains of exactly where the yards were. One was owned by Filleul and de la Mare and the other by David Le Sueur. Around the coast on Grouville Common, near Fort Henry, Philip Le Sueur ran a shipyard for 12 years in the mid-19th century.
Oyster fishing boats
At the top end of Grouville Bay there were eight yards which started making boats for the oyster fishing industry, but the industry went into sharp defcline in the early 1860s and the shipyards helped maintain Gorey’s prosperity as a small town by turning their attention to other types of vessel.
The largest vessel built on the east coast was the 288-ton barque Mars in 1839, but she was built by Cardon and Le Huquet at St Catherine. The largest vessel launched from Gorey was the 265-ton Montrose, from George Asplet’s yard. The great majority of the 184 vessels built in St Martin, at St Catherine and Gorey, from 1824 to 1883 were under 100 tons, and 62 were 50 tons and under.
J and T Le Huquet built 46 ships at St Catherine and Francis Picot built 44 at Gorey. Most of the Gorey yards stretched south from the port along the edge of the common, but Jean Vaudin’s yard was at Petit Portelet, behind Mont Orgueil.
Today all there is to make an important period in the island’s history is a granite memorial in the seaside gardens in the shape of a ship’s keel inscribed with the names of 16 ships built at Gorey.
The shipbuilding industry on the South coast was on a somewhat grander scale. George Deslandes set up the first yard at First Tower in 1831 and by 1861 there were 18 yards operating on the south and east coasts at the same time. There were also rope making yards at St Aubin, Kensington Place and Havre des Pas, and many sail lofts, mainly at Commercial Buildings.
F C Clarke had the largest yard at West Park, stretching from Kensington Place to where West Park Pavilion was eventually built. Daniel Le Vesconte had a very prolific output at First Tower, building ships of about 900 tons, two barques, a brig and two schooner brigs being on the stocks at the same time in 1864. In 1853 his yard built the Matilda Wallenbach, at 1,077 tons the largest ship built in the island at the time.
The largest vessel ever built in Jersey was the 1187-ton Rescue, which was built in a yard adjoining the St Aubin Bulwarks. An indication of the size of this vessel is given by its use to bring wool to Europe from Australia. The ''Evening Star'', of about 1,000 tons, was also built in this yard and sailed to Australia in 1854 with 200 emigrants.
Over 800 ships
Over 800 ships up to 1000 tons in weight were built in St Aubin's Bay's shipyards, using oak from France, pine from Scandinavia, and mahogany brought back from Honduras by the cod-traders.
Jersey’s Shipbuilding industry thrived at La Folie with several shipyards in operation during the nineteenth century. The most prolific Jersey yards were those located on the beach between West Park and St. Aubin where there was more space, although some shipbuilders had yards in more than one location.
George Deslandes built 79 ships at First Tower and 27 at La Folie, and F C Clarke built 62 ships at West Park, 10 at Havre des Pas and a further two at La Folie. A scale model of Clarke's West Park yard can be seen at the Jersey Maritime Museum.
The main shipyards in the 19th century were operated by Clarke, Allen (St Aubin), Hayley (Beaumont), Le Vesconte, Deslandes, Grandin, Clarke (First Tower), Gavey, Esnouf, Mauger (West Park), Godfray, Valpy (St Helier Harbour), Bisson, Valpy, Vautier, Allix (Greve d'Azette), Le Sueur (Grouville Bay), Messervy, Cantel, Aubin, Picot, Bellot, Noel, Fauvel, Vardon (Gorey), and Le Huquet (St Catherine).
Havre des Pas
The main shipyards at Havre des Pas belonged to Deslandes and Allix. A landscaped public space occupying part of the area of the former Allix yard has been created as a reminder of the industry which thrived here. The yard was founded by Francis Allix, grandson of a Huguenot refugee, John Allix. When iron hulls and steam engines ended the demand for large sailing vessels, this yard carried on after all the others had closed, making fishing boats and pleasure yachts.
Frederick Clarke also built five small vessels at Havre des Pas and more near La Folie from 1845 to 1847.
At its peak in the 1860s there were 14 yards operating at Havre des Pas, separated only by ropes. Work started early in the morning, at 6 o'clock, and most of the workers lived in lodging houses nearby. Behind the shipyards were a number of rope-makers and rope walks and nearby Green Street has names like RopeWalk and La Corderie, which hint at this area’s industrial past
By 1890 all of the shipbuilding yards had gone and just two repair yards remained.