A history of the town of St Helier
This article by Jerripedia editor Mike Bisson is largely based on information drawn from The Town of St Helier, by Edmund Toulmin Nicolle, published posthumously in 1931.
The town of St Helier started life as a very small settlement on the shore of a marshy plain roughly a kilometre square. It was perhaps a strange place to build a town, although the earliest inhabitants would have had no thoughts of this, and were merely looking for a convenient place to settle.
But why Le Marais de St Helier? This was not rich farmland, but a wet marsh, surrounded on three sides by hills and crossed by a stream which divided into three before flowing into the sea on the short stretch of coastline.
The Assize Roll of 1299 contains a plaid de quo warranto which records that Pierre de Saumareis, son of Pierre de Helier (or Hilaire) declared that the site of the town then in existence was given by his ancestors to the prior of l'Islet, the small religious community on rocks off the shore.
It may be that a settlement of early Christians grew up close to the offshore abbey, established according to legend by Saint Helier, Jersey's patron saint. However the island developed - and there were certainly much more highly populated parts than St Helier at various stages in its history - what is now the island's capital town appears to have acquired the first market and adjoining court of justice, and from this centre a small community gradually evolved.
The Abbey was eventually downgraded to a priory, which eventually fell into decay. The old abbey church suffered an ignominious end in 1651, when having been converted into a power magazine to serve Elizabeth Castle, it was blown up by a shot fired from the Town Hill during the Parliamentarians' siege.
By then the Parish Church of St Helier had become the centre of worship in the parish, having subsumed the neighbouring Chapelle de la Madelaine, and the Chapelle de Notre dame des Pas on the other side of Town Hill.
Little is known of St Helier in Medieval times. It was a fishing, not an agricultural community, but life was hard. Fishermen had to contribute a tenth of their catch as the clergy's tithe, and were forced to take their catch to the eperquerie, controlled by the Seigneur or the Crown, and pay heavily for it to be dried and salted for export.
- "The feudal system, the stumbling-block of true freedom, of knowledge and of the development of commerce, obtained in Jersey The people were dependent on the Seigneurs. As tenants they had to cultivate their lord's land, cut and store his wheat and corn and perform many menial duties and services. A middle class did not exist and the population was thus entirely unprotected and at the mercy of the Lords of the Manors. They remained poor and it is not surprising if under such conditions the rise and development of the town of St Helier was very slow and that it is only in quite modern times that the commerce of the island assumed any magnitude.
Nicolle dismisses any suggestion that St Aubin, for a time a more prosperous town than St Helier with a much busier port, was ever the island's capital.
- "This is entirely erroneus. We have seen that the earliest buildings erected in Jersey of any consequence were those of the first Abbey of St Helier and that it was in proximity to the Abbey that the early population congregated. The village of St Helier existed long before that of St Aubin. In those early times we find that the Court invariably held its sittings at St Helier. The great majority of the old deeds passed before the Bailiffs and Jurats state explicitly that they were executed at St Helier.
- "The prison, of course, was at Mont Orgueil, where the Governor or Master Porter resided, but certain Crown Tenants or holders of land in St Martin, Grouville and St Saviour owed the service of conducting the prisoners from the Castle to the Court at St Helier. They were called Halberdiers and numbered between 100 and 200.
- "Again the Market was held at St Helier, for in the ordinances enacted in 1461 by Pierre de Breze, Comte de Maulevrier, who held the island for the French King, we find it expressly stated that the inhabitants had petitioned for the market to be held in the town of St Hlier every Saturday, "as it used to be of old". A cusatom had apparently crept in of holding the market at GOrey for the benefit and convenience ofthe garrison.
- "St Aubin has never been termed in any official document the capital of the island. At a later period in our history it was certainly a place of some importance, which was owing to the fact that it possessed a Harbour before St Helier did, and that consequently many merchants and ship owners took up their residence there, as being more convenient for their business. At a more recent date, when St Aubin was a very flourishing place, in an Order in Council of 31 May 1750 on the subject of the building of the general Hospital, we find St Helier described as "The Capital of His Majesty's Island of Jersey".
Growth of town
Nicolle wrote that the real growth of St Helier started after the construction of proper harbour accommodation towards the end of the 18th century.
- "It may be said that St Helier emerged from its infancy and arrived at manhood towards the middle of the 16th century. It then came to be designated as the 'town of St Hilary'. Prior to this it was called a Bourg, which in ancient times (as still today in Normandy) was used to designate an agglomeration of a few houses only around the parish church."
The first reference to St Helier as a town can be found in a letter from the Privy Council to the Royal Court in 1550. It is called ville in an Act of the Royal Court of 1569 and there is another reference six years afterwards to the Capitaine de la Ville de St Helier.
The 1550 letter was written to suggest that the town should be moved, away from the coastal plain where it was difficult to defend, to the top of Mont de la Ville, where Fort Regent was later built. But residents and islanders in general did not take kindly to the thought of their town being uprooted and moved up the hill and nothing more is heard of the suggestion, until it is revived in another letter in 1590. But the reaction must have been the same because three years after that, a letter was received from the Privy Council to say that the plan to move the town had been dropped and that the construction of a bulwark of earth to defend it was now being proposes.
This is a particularly important letter because it provides valuable information about St Helier. There were 300 households in the town, suggesting a population of about 1,500. Every south-westerly gale filled the streets with sand swept off the foreshore. St Helier was certainly a growing town, but probably not a particularly pleasant place to live, except for those with sufficient money to build substantial properties, with gardens protected with high walls.
A document in the Town Hall archives reveals that in 1572 the parish had only four Vingtaines - de la Ville, du Mont a l'Abbé, du Mont Cochon and du Mont au Pretre.
Nicolle writes that the main thoroughfare of St Helier in the 16th century was Rue de Derrière, now known as King Street. This conflicts with other historians' views and also with the evidence to be found on maps of the town. The alternative view is that the main street, such as it was, was Broad Street, which initially only had properties on the north side, the other side being sand hills leading down to the beach, along which La Muraille de la Ville (the town wall) was constructed pour la saufté et le repos de la Ville de St Helier (for the safety and peace of mind of the town).
Rue de Derrière ran behind the houses on the north of Broad Street and the Royal Square, becoming Rue du Milieu or Rue ès Porcqs (after the family Le Porcq who lived there), a section now known as Queen Street.
On a sketchy map of the town drawn in 1691 a street is clearly shown from Charing Cross as far as Snow Hill, but the more detailed 1737 map based on a survey by Peter Meade suggests that Rue de Derriere did not start until Broad Street entered the Royal Square and that behind the houses along the north side of Broad Street were gardens or open marshland, with a stream running quite close by and paralle with what is now King Street.
A comparison of the two maps, supposedly drawn less than 50 years apart, shows substantial new development by 1737, with buildings on the south side of Broad Street and also outside the town wall, and a 1787 map shows that 50 years further down the line the town was starting to spread to the east and west, although there was still very little development beyond Charing Cross, from where sand dunes stretched to Gallows Hill.
Exposed to the elements
Writing in the 17th century Jean Poingdestre revealed just how exposed to the elements the south and west of the town were:
- "All that part of the Parish of St Helier from the very Towne to the Bulwarke of St Laurence is quite spoiled by the sands, from the sea to the very hills."
So little value was placed on the coastal dunes where Sand Street, Gloucester Street, Patriotic Place, Kensington Place, the Parade, Elizabeth Place and Peirson Road now lie behind the Esplanade and the protective seawall, that large plots of land changed hands for a few pence, according to deeds existing in the Public Registry. And on the north the problem was the opposite of windblown sand. The streams and marshlands which covered the majority of the area now occupied by the town were not crossed even by the tracks which passed for roads at the time, and the only way out of the town to the north was to cross the dunes or the edge of the marsh to Rouge Bouillon, from where a road ran by Mont Madgris to St John. There was a track across the marsh to the Moulin de la Ville, but this probably went no further.
The limit of the town on the east was Snow Hill, then named La Pompe de Haut because one of the two main public pumps stood there. The second, La Pompe de Bas, was at Charing Cross.
Some of the original names of town streets give strong clues as to the state they were often in. Regent Road was Rue Froid Vent because it was exposed to the east wind, a red brook flowed through Rouge Bouillon, Coin-ès-Anes and Coin-ès-Cochons were close to the market square and were where farmers tethered their donkeys and pigs, respectively. Church Street, between the Royal Square and the Town Church, was Rue Trousse Cotillon, because it was so dirty that the ladies had to tuck up their skirts to pass along or across it.
A number of streams flowing from the north of the island merged into one, which skirted the eastern edge of St Helier's coastal plain and then divided into two, as it turned to flow west. Today these streams have been diverted underground and reach the sea through culverts, but in the 17th and 18th century they were open. One branch reached the sea roughly where Gloucester Street is today and the other divided again into two, one flowing through Charing Cross, where there was a flat wooden bridge over it, and the other down what is now New Street, crossing Broad Street and flowing out to sea down what is now Conway Street.
These streams could become very swollen and dangerous during periods of heavy rainfall, and there are reports of children falling in and drowning, their bodies only being recovered on the seashore. The main stream worked the Moulin de la Ville in what is now Grands Vaux and the Conway Street outlet worked Le Moulin à Foulon, near what is now the corner with Bond Street.
The Muraille de la Ville continued to the stream and on the other side was the wall of the town church cemetery. The sea washed these walls at high spring tides, but suggestions that small boats were moored to them must be wide of the mark because on all but a handful of days a year they would have remained dry and there would never have been sufficient depth of water for even the smallest of boats.
Nicolle identifies rings discovered in the old cemetery wall early in the 20th century and still to be seen today as being used for securing cattle brought to town for market rather than for tieing-up boats.
In the early 19th century, when substantial amounts of land were reclaimed beyond these walls, there were moorings along the waterfront, but even these were only accessible at high tide.
The first cattle market was held next to a large rock some 60 metres to the seaward of the churchyard. What remained when land was reclaimed around it was finally removed early in the 20th century. Clearly keeping cattle secure before they went on sale in such an exposed place was a problem and an Act of the Court of 14 September 1605 prohibited their being kept anywhere else in town.
The public market was held in what is now the Royal Square. It was a large, unpaved space, with only a scattering of thatched buildings around, and a wooden shed at the bottom which housed the Corn Market in the early 16th century. In 1688 the States wanted to erect a larger building in the same position, but part of the land was owned by the Dame de la Haule, Susan Dumaresq. She agreed to an arched Halle à blé being built on condition that she could construct a building on top for her own use. After the arched basement ceased to be used as a corn market, it was sold by the States and the ground floor of the building had one owner and the first floor another for many years.
Today the ground floor, which was used by a bank for many years, houses the Office of the Superintendent Registrar, and the first floor is home to the United Club.
The best description of the early marketplace is given in George Balleine's The Bailiwick of Jersey:
- "The central feature was the Market Cross, where public proclamations were made and all new laws were published. The surrounding space was filled with stalls, piled with goods of every description, eggs, butter, poultry, vegetables, clothes, earthenware, hardware. The fish was laid out on flagstones, where the statue now stands. A little later permanent shelters were put up for some of the trades. The butchers, too, had a long, low shed with two rows of stalls 'but', says one writer, 'lucky was he who could get home without some grease on his clothes."
- "As the population increased, so did the business of the market, and by the end of the 18th century there were constant complaints about its congestion. Room could no longer be found for all who wanted stalls nor for the crowds of jostling customers trying to make their purchases. Moreover, business in the Royal Court was often seriously disturbed by the noise outside. So in 1800 the States decided to move the market elsewhere.
The square was the centre of the island's judicial system. On the south side stood the courthouse, La Cohue, at least as early as the 14th century. Here the Bailiff and Jurats sat to administer justice 'from time immemorial'. The cohue has been rebuilt several times. The first reference is in the accounts of John de Roches, Warden of the Isles, in 1329: 'For repairing the House in which the King's Pleas are held, 20 sols'.
Diarist Jean Chevalier lived in the square, so knew the buildings well. He describes the courthouse he knew in his youth in the early 17th century century as 'not much of a place to look at. From outside it resembled a barn. It had no chimneys, and only one storey, and was thatched with straw'. Sir George Carteret erected a new cohue in 1647, probably that depicted in the picture above, because it was built of Mont Mado granite, roofed with slates from France and with a gilt crown on its little belfry, which, wrote Chevalier, 'when the sun shone dazzled the eyes of spectators'.
Another feature of the square was La Cage, an iron cage which was used to detain the prisoners brought from Mont Orgueil by the Hallebardiers while they awaited trial. The cage was used until 1697, when it was demolished after the prison had been built at Charing Cross. The cage had also been used as a pillory, where offenders were incarcerated on market days. In the gate of the cemetery opposite were the public stocks, Le Cep where the Constable had the power to place drunkards and other offenders without trial.
Up to the end of the 17th century St Helier did not have many private houses. A small number of senior officials of the Royal Court, including Bailiffs and Jurats, either lived there or had town houses to use when the Court was in session. Most of the heirarchy were Seigneurs of the major fiefs and lived in their grand manor houses in the countryside. Such houses as did exist in the town were cottages built of wood or mud, and as we have seen, in the 16th century there were only some 300, and that number would not have grown much in the next century.
As more of the rich were attracted to live in the town, they built large granite houses, one or two storeys high and roofed with thatch. They had walls at least a metre thick, stone-arched doorways and tiny windows. Nicolle writes:
- "The interior arrangements of the dwellings of our forefathers seem to have been as rude as those of the exterior. Huge beams of oak supported the low dingy appartments, the ceilings of which were bare; the ground floors were generally neither paved nor boarded. The dwellings of the poorer classes were little better than mud hovels, covered with thatch. The people to a great extent lived in the open and their houses were merely places of shelter, the comforts of which were very meagre.."
No buildings survive from the 16-17th centuries, the last to be demolished being Manoir de la Motte in 1958. There is some dispute as to exactly how old the surviving structure was, but Nicolle believed that substantial sections dated to the early 16th century.
The development of St Helier as a town is inextricably linked with the establishment and growth of its harbour. As already mentioned, St Aubin had the first established port and during the greater part of the 18th century St Helier had only small jetties, variously at Havre des Pas, Elizabeth Castle and below the south-west corner of Mont de la Ville, which came to be known as South Hill.
Nicolle notes how the lack of a harbour affected the island's early trade:
- "St Helier unfortunately did not in early times possess the advantage of a harbour with the reult that the capital of the sister island of Guernsey, where a pier was built as early as 1275, became the emporium of the merchants of Normandy, of the south of France and of Southampton. St Helier does not seem to have enjoyed a share with St Peter-Port in these early commercial relations. The Guernsey capital possessed great natural advantages for a good harbour. St Helier on the contrary until very recent times lacked that accommodation for shipping necessary for the development of trade."
In the 17th century St Helier could only provide shelter for small boats below the Town Wall. In the closing years of the 16th century, when the fortifications of ELizabeth Castle were being strengthened by Paul Ivy, the Royal Engineer, a little pier, which Chevalier tells us was called Le Havre de St Jaume had begun to be constructed under the Castle walls by voluntary contributions from the inhabitants. But it remained unfinished in 1599, and was really designed to serve the castle garrison rather than commercial shipping, because all merchandise would have had to be carted across the beach to the town at low tide.
Money was raised from import duties for the building of a pier at St Aubin's Fort in the late 17th century, much closer to dry land, and this galvanised St Helier into action. A petition was sent to the Privy Council by the States on 24 October 1699 for permission to build a harbour at Havre Neuf close to La Folie, under Petit Mont de la Ville. Work started in 1700 but progress was very slow. The pier was not safe enough to attract the ships which would provide the revenue for its completion. It was not completed by 1751, when George II gave £300 to boost the building fund, and even when supposedly finished it was in a poor state and deemed a danger to shipping.
It was also too far away from the town. People could walk around the foot of Mont de la Ville but carts laden with merchandise still had to cross the beach at low tide. Another 40 years passed before, after considering various schemes, the States started work on building what was to become the North Pier, and Havre Neuf was renamed South Pier. It took another 25 years to complete the new pier, and meanwhile a group of merchants took matters into their own hands and started work on Commercial Buildings and the Quai des Marchands in front, which was completed in 1818.
In 1821 South Pier was rebuilt and then in 1841 Victoria Pier was started, followed by Albert Pier in 1846, and St Helier had what was then a proper, busy harbour, albeit built largely on dry land.