Jersey's shipbuilding industry

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This article by Alec Podger was first published in the 1962 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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Like dwellers by the sea all over the world, Jerseymen have always been sailors, but history is almost completely blank on one aspect of this sea-roving community - who built their ships, and where?

A large vessel being built at West Park

14th century onwards

It is obvious that even in quite early times they would have built their own small fishing craft, for even the most primitive peoples do this today. It is a different task altogether to build a ship of 40 tons or more, which we know that they possessed at least as early as the 14th century, for on more than one occasion Edward III ordered the Channel Islands as a whole to send ships of this size to join in military convoys during the period of the Hundred Years War. By the end of the 16th century Jerseymen were journeying regularly in their own vessels to the cod banks of North America, which they continued to do right up to the commencement of the present century.

The first men to have crossed the North Atlantic regularly were the Norsemen, who by the end of the 14th century were making periodic trips to Greenland, where they had an established settlement, and who are reputed to have travelled even further west on occasions to the somewhat inhospitable coasts of Labrador. It is interesting to find that the first men to use the Newfoundland cod banks regularly for fishing, early in the 16th century, if not before, were the fishermen of Normandy and Brittany. The banks were first reported by John Cabot in 1497, who had sailed from Bristol on a voyage of exploration. (Cabot, incidentally, was the son of a Venetian, and not a Jerseyman as has occasionally been suggested). The fact that the Normans seem to have taken to visiting Newfoundland regularly at such an early date in much greater numbers than the English, whose discovery it was, may be explained in that they were the direct descendants of those sea-roving Norsemen who had so often raided the Channel coasts in the 9th and 10th centuries. They were a race of fearless seafaring men, and undoubtedly they would have known all about the journeys made by their kinsmen to Greenland. Thus to them Cabot would have merely opened up a new route to the west, which they were not slow to follow.

Terre Neuve

So far we have no proof of Channel Islanders being among these very early visitors to Terre Neuve, as it has been known locally ever since, but it seems highly probable that they were no slower than their contemporaries across the bay at St Malo and the other small ports along the coast. G F B de Gruchy makes a strong claim that the inhabitants of the Channel Islands are also direct descendants of these same Norsemen, and it is noteworthy that on more than one occasion Channel Islanders and Frenchmen fishing off the coasts of North America have been described indicriminately as 'Normans'.

There seem to be no records extant of any sort of shipbuilding taking place in Jersey in medieval times, but even if we choose to doubt the statement that our ancestors were probably visiting Newfoundland within a decade or so of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, we know for certain that they were doing so during the 16th century. There is a will in existence made in 1582 which refers specifically to a Jersey-owned vessel 'now unloading after her voyage to Newfoundland' and in 1618 the Privy Council had to direct the Governor not to allow stores from the castles to be sold to the Newfoundland fishers, as the depletion of these stores was likely to imperil the inhabitants in times of emergency.

Thus we are now faced with the problem of the origin of these locally-owned ships, which would have been of a size somewhere in the region of 100 tons. It would be easy to take for granted that they were bought outside the island, but there are sound reasons for disputing such a suggestion. The inhabitants had been fishing for centuries, and must have had considerable experience in the construction of small fishing vessels. Any suggestion that they also purchased these small fishing boats is quite unthinkable when one considers the facts of medieval life. There was, close to hand, ample quantities of wood from which small boats could be quickly made, for the island was fairly well wooded, and fishermen at that time would have had almost no money with which they could make such a purchase. It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that in the very early times they would have occasionally made some attempt to build a larger vessel when this was required, and merely through trial and error over the centuries would have discovered what pitfalls to avoid, even if they knew little of real design.

Havre des Pas shipyards

Mont Orgueil

The first actual mention we have of the construction of a boat is in 1468, when Mont Orgueil Castle, occupied by Lancastrian supporters, was being besieged by a small fleet under the direction of the Yorkist Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Harliston. The occupants of the Castle are described as building a boat in full view of the besiegers, but one day an arrow fired from the Castle was found to bear a note from a Jerseyman who was working there, stating that they were in fact building two boats. The one on view was only a decoy - the other was nearly ready for use. Needless to say it was captured as soon as it was launched.

Elisha Tupper

There follows a lapse of nearly three centuries before our next reference, when Falle mentions that "most wood (in Jersey) is knotty, but here and there sticks are found fit for the building of good ships". It is reasonable to take this as meaning that these 'sticks' were actually used for the building of such ships, but we have another wait of over 50 years before we again find a direct description of a ship being built. This time, however, the evidence points very strongly indeed to the fact that Jerseymen were already well-versed in the construction of quite large vessels, for the Gazette de l'Ile de Jersey records the building of the 280 ton Elisha Tupper at Bel Royal in 1789.

This was built in the parish of St Lawrence from oak grown in that parish, and it was owned by the Janvrin family, who were at that time the shipping magnates of the island, owning several vessels. The paper contains a glowing account of this venture, referring to the forthcoming launching on the following Monday, and stating that enough extra oak was cut on this occasion to build a somewhat smaller ship and a small boat. It goes on: "The principal inhabitants of St Lawrence say that in spite of the quantity of oak that was cut down on this occasion, there is still, in that parish, more than one hundred times as much, fit to fell, if it is not to die of old age".

The writer then goes on to claim that the other parishes are all equally well wooded, and though such a statement is obviously an exaggeration, especially in view of Falle's statement only 50 years earlier, it seems that Jersey was beginning to consider seriously the possibilities of setting up a permanent shipbuilding industry. It must also be remembered that this was the era of civil commotion and revolution all over Europe, with consequent dislocation of normal trading, and this was therefore probably built to confirm that Jersey grown timber would be satisfactory if other sources of supply were closed. It is interesting to note that this particular ship was named after a prominent Guernsey merchant of the time. Was it at his suggestion? Was he a partner in the venture? Who knows?

In many places, and notably in the West of England, it was customary for teams of shipwrights to travel to any place where a vessel was wanted, and build it on the most convenient beach to hand. This method, like a modern builder hired to build your house for you, continued there from medieval times well into the 19th century. It is probable that this may also have applied to the Channel Islands, though owing to difficulties and expenses incurred in travelling, we may have to look for some more local method. As I have said earlier, it was quite possible to find the right way to build merely by a slow process of trial and error, but a marriage of these two systems would be a simple matter, in that where a large vessel, requiring some specialised knowledge, was to be built, a small team of expert shipwrights might be hired, acting as foremen over the less experienced local men. This is, as yet, a matter for conjecture, but it would explain the seeming total absence of any permanent shipyard in Jersey until the 1820s.

It is, incidentally, also for this same reason that it is so difficult to find any archaelogical proof of medieval shipbuilding in many countries. Not only were there no permanent shipyards, except in one or two rare instances, but whatever traces may have been left in most places would have been lost in the tides long since.

American construction

However, another fact has recently come to my notice which would appear to explain even more decidedly the lack of yards in Jersey until this date. The Jersey Register of Shipping, commencing at 1801, shows at the very beginning a substantial number of locally-owned ships to have been built in 'British Plantations', or in North America. It is a known fact that later on, during most of the 19th century, it was normal practice for Jersey firms operating in North America and Newfoundland to send their retained men out to the forests during the winter months, when fishing was not possible. There they would cut down trees in some creek or a short way up river, and use them to build the small schooners which were used on the Banks during the remainder of the year. Many of the schooners were built this way, and it would therefore seem from these registers that this was a custom of some duration, and that some of the local firms which had been established in the New World since the early part of the 18th century had been building their own ships for many years, not in Jersey, but in North America and Newfoundland.

I have not yet been able to make any extensive search into this question, but there are at least three pointers to its probable truth:

  • The almost complete absence of any reference to shipbuilding in Jersey itself, despite the large number of ships owned here
  • The fact that while there was not a great deal of wood in Jersey suitable for shipbuilding (with apologies to the writer in the Gazette) there were enormous forests in Canada and Newfoundland growing almost to the water's edge, and which in the 18th century at least must have been virtually free for the taking.
  • The spare labour available through the winter months, as mentioned above, due to the fact that it was customary to indenture certain types of labour for a term of years (usually five) in the New World. This saved the companies the cost (and risk) of transporting numerous men there and back each year, and also ensured a permanent staff in a way that would not have been possible with seasonal labour.

There has also been discovered in Newfoundland the remains of a shipyard which has not been used for some centuries. According to the local legend, Jerseymen set up this yard as far back as the 16th century, but as no real archaeological survey has yet been made of this site, we shall have to await such a development before we can accept the legend as fact.

New markets

As the cod-fishing trade expanded so new markets had to be found both for the fish, and for the produce usually purchased as a return cargo after the fish had been sold. At the commencement of the 19th century it became apparent that wood could be imported cheaply from the Baltic, and with a world in the process of rapid and continuing economic expansion more and more ships were needed.

The Channel Islands were in the very fortunate position of being able to fix their own import dues, and yet pay no such dues on goods going into Great Britain provided that they had been manufactured in the islands. The result of this privilege, which dated back to the Middle Ages, was to give Jersey shipbuilders a tremendous advantage over their English contemporaries. Ships were built here of the finest wood available, and rigged with the best Russian hemp, and as Great Britain at this time was imposing a high import tariff on these materials, the Jersey-built ships could be sold in England at a lower price than English-built ships on which lesser-grade materials had been used. There was also, of course, a considerable demand from the many expanding local companies, and a new industry was soon established.

First shipyard

George Deslandes appears to have set up the first permanent yard in 1821, but in the next decade or so several others followed his example, and the number continued to increase until the 1860s, at which time there were 18 yards distributed around the coasts of the island. A map of the time shows altogether the sites of 26 yards, but it must be understood that these were not all in existence at one and the same time. They all appear at some time or other during the 19th century, but 18 was the highest number operating at any one time. Three ropeyard sites are also shown, at St Aubin, Kensington Place, and Havre des Pas. These were, of course, an essential part of the industry, while there were many sail lofts, the majority in the Commercial Buildings area.

The shipyards situated on the east coast, in Grouville and St Catherine's Bays, were small, and were set up to cater for the needs of the oyster-fishery which operated from Gorey. Their output consisted almost entirely of Cutters, with occasionally a small Schooner, but they were prepared to carry out a larger order if necessary. Picot, for instance, built at least one Brig and a Barque in addition to smaller vessels, but it was at Havre des Pas and in St Aubin's Bay that most of the bigger vessels were built. The yards there were quite extensive. The largest, F C Clarke, stretched from Kensington Place to West Park Pavilion, right across the area now bounded on the north by the Triangle Park. Other yards were situated all along the shore as far as First Tower, and their sites are now largely buried under Victoria Avenue. Although Clarke's was the largest yard, Daniel Le Vesconte and Co, at First Tower, hold the record for the largest number of vessels on the stocks. In 1864 they had under construction at one time three ships (each of about 900 tons), two barques (500 and 300 tons), one brig (250 tons) and two schooner-brigs (each 15O tons).

Largest ship

The largest vessel ever built in Jersey was the Rescue, (1,187 tons), and Miss Julia Marett mentions the Evening Star, of about 1,000 tons, built on the land adjoining the Bulwarks at St Aubin. This is described in the article as a 'clipper¬barque', an unusual term which I have not previously encountered, but as the vessel was employed on the Australian wool run, she was probably given a finer hull than usual, a clipper-hull, to enable her to compete with the fast vessels she was likely to encounter in that trade.

At the commencement of 1865 there were 34 vessels recorded as being on the stocks, with an estimated tonnage of 12,460, but suddenly the whole industry collapsed. Only 15 years later, even the laying-down of the keel of a cutter was a matter for newspaper comment, and by 1890 nothing was left except for a couple of repair yards. This failure was almost entirely due to the rapid expansion of the steam-boat industry, coupled with the replacement of wooden hulls by iron. There are no facilities in Jersey for large-scale iron-foundry work, and the cost of importing iron instead of wood was prohibitive. It is astonishing that the repercussions of such a rapid decline in an industry were not catastrophic. Although at this period there were some substantial banking failures in the island, they appear to have been due to the overall decline in the sailing-ship industry, and the loss of the shipyards alone does not seem to have had any major effect on the local economy.

Except for one or two of the merchants stores on the Esplanade and at St Aubin, which were originally built as part of these shipyards, a wooden stake in the sand here and there where a keel was laid down, and an occasional memory in the mind of a few old folk, nothing now remains.

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