Nicolle history of St Helier - Chapter 1

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The site of the town

A picture of St Helier in the olden days is not easy to draw. In almost everything it was a different place from the St Helier we know. We have only to go back a century to be struck by the many changes not only in the town itself, but in its inhabitants. Retrospects are always pleasing, however, when progress and development can be chronicled, and if, in the history of St Helier up to the threshold of the 19th century, there may be a lack of steady progress, due in a great measure to our isolated position, such a retrospect on the other hand presents a vista which has all the charm of enormous distance to render it pleasing and, I venture to hope, instructive to the student.

Few memorials

Unfortunately St Helier possesses few memorials of the past. There is a lack of material for the municipal historian; little or nothing in masonry, meagre information in parchment deeds or in the municipal or court rolls. We cannot say we live in the past, for of civic buildings we have none, nor have we any old private houses of distinction. With such isolated materials however as we have at our disposal, we must do our best to obtain as faithful a reflection of the St Helier of the past as we can. When we have before us some notice of the rise and development of the Town, of the humble details of its common life, we may the more faithfully study the beginnings of its society.

The site which the Town of St Helier now occupies was in early times a marshy land, called Le Marais de St Helier, traversed by numerous streams flowing from the Northern part of the Island through the valleys now known as Les Vaux. This plain, much to be compared with the low-lying land in St Ouen's Bay as we see it today, was bounded on the west by what our forefathers called Mont Patibulaire, by Mont Madgris and Mont Martin; on the north by Mont de la Pouquelaye, Mont CantĂ©, Mont Nerous and Mont-au-PrĂȘtre; on the east by Mont Millais, and on the south-east by Mont de la Ville, where Fort Regent has been constructed.

It is unquestionable that at some very distant period the coast line extended far beyond its present limits. Peat beds and trunks of trees have been discovered in the Bay of St Aubin, incontestable proof of this assertion. But when the question is raised as to the period when this land became submerged, we must hesitate in offering any opinion.

Separation from France

Tradition has fixed on the year 709 as the date when these islands were separated from the mainland by cataclysm or the action of a sudden storm wave and relates how when the Bishop of Coutances used in those days to visit Jersey in the performance of his ecclesiastical duties, he crossed by means of a bridge over the rivulet which then separated Jersey from the Cotentin.

Judging by the analogy of other instances of tidal deluges, such a cause appears insufficient. A marine tumult of that nature may sweep away trees and houses but it retires and in retiring leaves the land where it was or even perhaps raises it by a deposit of silt.

M de Chevremont has morever in his interesting work Les Mouvements du Sol dans le Golfe Normanno-Breton shown that the evidence has been misapplied and that the changes not only did not occur suddenly, but involved far longer periods of time.

Cataclysm, storm-wave and bridge we must, therefore, in presence of the arguments of modern scientists, cast aside as purely legendary and for historical purposes we must take it that the site of St Helier has long been pretty much the same shape and size as we see it today.

Nicolle: The Town of St Helier
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