Many people find it surprising, when they see the street name boards today, that King Street, St Helier's premier shopping street, should once have been known as Rue de Derrière (the road at the back), but that is exactly what the street once was.
Until the town of St Helier began to expand in the 19th century, there was little or nothing to the north of the Royal Square except meadows and swamps. King Street was an unpaved lane at the back of the houses forming the north side of the square, where the weekly market was held.
The main entrance to the square was from Broad Street at the western end. The principal route from Charing Cross to what was then the centre of the town was along Broad Street, lined with important buildings on either side, and King Street faced the countryside.
We have so far been unable to discover when street numbers were allocated for King Street. Although no street numbers are shown in the 1841 census, the properties had certainly been allocated numbers by the early 1830s, and possibly even earlier. The north side of the street was first developed in the early to mid-18th century. However, these were not commercial properties, but fine homes. Maps of St Helier from 1737 and 1787 do not show individual properties along the north side of King Street, but a thin line of buildings with gardens behind. It was not until the early 19th century that the homes began to be replaced by shops and the street emerged as it is today, flanked on both sides by a continuous line of shops. It can only be after the development of the north side had been completed that the numbering system, with odd numbers on the south and even numbers on the north was introduced.
How things have changed over the decades. For a long period King Street became a busy thoroughfare, carrying horses and carts, and then the motor car, buses and other vehicles, from the west of the town to the east, but in the 1970s enlightened politicians had the courage first of all to ban through traffic, and then to pave the street as the town's first pedestrian precinct.
It was a slow process. At the beginning, in December 1971, a trial was conducted by barring traffic from the section from Halkett Place to Don Street, in front of Burton's, Woolworth and British Home Stores and cars were allowed to drive up the street from Charing Cross as far as Don Street. The pedestrianised area was not paved at the outset, just in case public opinion forced a change of mind and vehicles were again admitted. But the Jersey public was firmly in support of banning cars from the centre of their town, although the pedestrian area has not spread nearly as far as it was first envisaged might happen. Traffic was barred from the full length of King Street by 14 June 1974, and the street was then paved. The initial paving was replaced some time later with a smarter finish, which is still in place today.
On 18 April 1977 vehicles were prohibited from using Queen Street for a trial period and the town centre precinct continued to spread.
The history books are silent on exactly when the street's name changed from the old French to King Street, so it is not clear which King was being honoured. The Town of St Helier, the definitive work on the history of the town by Edmund Toulmin Nicolle, covers old and new street names, but is strangely silent on the timing and origins of many of them. King Street is completely ignored in George Balleine's work The Bailiwick of Jersey.
Some suggest that the change may perhaps have come about at the same time that the statue of King George II was erected in the Royal Square, but this was 1751, some considerable time before Rue de Derrière ceased to be an insignificant back street. There are plenty of references to the original name well into the 19th century. An article in The Pilot, a Jersey church magazine, in 1971, (it has been suggested that the article, which was unattributed, was written by Balleine, but this cannot be confirmed) suggested that King Street was named in honour of George III, and Queen Street in honour of his wife, Queen Charlotte. This would place the change to between 1760 and 1820 - George III had a particularly long reign, the longest of any British King. This suggestion is also made by Raoul Lempriere in his 1980 work Buildings and Memorials of the Channel Islands in which King Street merits a mere two paragraphs.
However, a set of cards showing views of the island which were produced for Ching's cigarettes in the 1950s suggested that King Street was named after William IV, King from 1830 to 1837, and Queen Street after his niece and successor, Queen Victoria.
Many of the businesses in King Street today are branches of multiples which can be found in many other high streets in the British Islands, but there are others which are unique to Jersey and have been trading for a century or more.
Notable long-established businesses still trading, and others which have now disappeared, include:
- Abraham de Gruchy
- Beghin's a shoe shop started in the mid 19th century by a French family and still bearing their name
- Hamon's - A haberdashery and ladies' wear shop at 37-39 King Street selling curtain fabrics and fittings, household textiles, haberdashery and 'rather old-fashioned women's underwear and nightwear'
- Noel and Porter - department store building was sold to British Home Stores in 1966. The origin of the business was in the drapery business of Mr Porter.
- Hotel du Palais de Cristal, the hotel which once stood in King Street
We have created a series of histories of all the shops in King Street. Follow the links in the list below to articles on individual properties. One factor worth noting in these articles is the number of businesses run by English and French immigrants to the island. Jersey was not a nation of shopkeepers in the 19th century and onwards, with very few records of any shops at all in St Helier until very late in the 18th century. Business was carried out at the market in the Royal Square and then the new premises in Halkett Place, and as the growing population of the town in the early years of the 19th century created a demand for retail outlets, these were mainly provided by outsiders who settled in the island with their families.
- King Street traders in 1834
- King Street in 1851 and 1861
- King Street traders in 1857
- King Street traders in 1880
- Growth of St Helier 1737-1834
Looking down the street from the Halkett Place junction
... RM Stores on the right was at No 31
Close to the Halkett Place junction - picture courtesy of Facebook group Jersey Temps Passe
1945 - life gets back to normal after the Liberation
Shoppers at the Halkett Place end of the street in the 1930s
The junction with Queen Street in 1948