On the coast
St Aubin is at the western end of St Aubin's Bay, opposite St Helier, and is the island's second largest harbour and town. It attracted merchant vessels long before it had a jetty. This drawing dates from 1731
Never the capital
Some writers claim that St Aubin was the island's capital before St Helier, but this is not true.
Given that it did not have it's own church until the 18th Century; it has always been a district of St Brelade, ruled by the Constable and Parish Assembly of that parish; and is not even a separate Vingtaine, falling partly in Noirmont and partly in Le Coin, it would hardly have had the status of capital, although it may well have been the more important centre of commerce at one point.
So insignificant was St Aubin for so long that there is no mention of it in the 13th Century Assize Rolls and Extentes, on which so much of our knowledge of early life in the island is based. Indeed, there is no mention of St Aubin in any document until the 16th century.
Also, St Helier had the island's only market for some time, there being no record of any in St Aubin until 1584.
We are not sure where the suggestion that St Aubin was the island's capital started. It was described as 'the main town' during the second half of the 17th century by the noted 19th century Jersey historian, the Rev Alban E Ragg, in his 'Popular History of Jersey'. Even that was something of an exaggeration because work on the first quay at St Aubin, which started in 1670, was halted by Royal decree in 1681 because it was not thought to offer the claimed advantages. At this time the town had a fledgling market, mainly for foreign produce brought in by ships which beached behind the fort and were unloaded at low tide. But it had no church, no court, and there is no record of any government buildings.
How could Ragg have been justified in calling it the island's chief town? The Court sat in the building on St Helier's Market Square and prisoners were brought there from Mont Orgueil. Most islanders who ventured 'to town' for the market, went to St Helier. Ships were already using St Aubin, drying out on the beach to load and unload cargo, but this seems hardly to have justified the description 'chief town'. Balleine's respected 'History of Jersey' published in the 1950s, says that the eventual completion of the Bulwarks led St Aubin to grow into a little 'town' (his quotes). All of this was subject to the control of the States, which sat in St Helier.
What may give rise to the belief that St Aubin had a superior status to that of St Helier was that it provided a better sheltered anchorage for fishing vessels in the days before there was a harbour at either end of St Aubin’s Bay. Ships could be grounded without danger at low tide for unloading, and as trade grew, and a quay was built, better than any facility at St Helier, merchants began to build fine houses and the population expanded.
Old Court House
One of the finest of these properties, at the southern end of the harbour, is now the Old Court House Inn. The original buildings are claimed by the present owners to date back to 1450. The front portion of the property, originally "Osborne House" was a wealthy merchant's homestead with enormous cellars which date from the 17th century - there is a fireplace bearing the date 1611 - stored privateers' plunder alongside legitimate cargo. There is no evidence that the building was ever actually a courthouse, although it may have served as an Admiralty Court to rule on vessels and cargos captured by privateers in the 17th century.
St Aubin's Fort
Ships unloading their cargo into carts on the beach at St Aubin were vulnerable to attack by pirates coming into the bay. This was a particular problem in the 16th century when pirate vessels from Brittany and Belgium roamed the Channel and sailed into island waters looking for easy prey. A bulwark (earth work) with two guns was constructed on shore, giving the area the name, Bulwarks, it still has today, and then a tower was constructed on the offshore rocky islet to house four more gunners.
A century later in the Civil War the Parliamentarians turned it into a stronger fortress, by building a bulwark it, and when the Royalists regained possession they replaced this with granite ramparts and added a storey to the tower. In the 18th century, and again in the 19th, the fort was rebuilt twice, but in peaceful Victorian times it was let as a summer residence. In the Second World War the Germans strengthened the fort with turret guns and concrete casemates.
As trade grew at St Aubin the demand grew for better harbour facilities and King Charles II ordered a pier to be built, paid for by import dues. The States wanted it to run out from the shore to the south of where today's southern pier lies, but time slipped by without work starting and the Governor, Sir Thomas Morgan decided to take charge and ordered a pier to be built out from the fort in 1675.
It was not until 1754 that work began on the south pier, and 36 years later the merchants who had established themselves in the growing little town constructed a quay the length of the shoreline, reclaiming a considerable depth of land to add to their gardens in the process.
Trade at St Aubin grew strongly and in 1816 the north quay was constructed, creating an enclosed harbour. It was not unusual for 30 merchant vessels to be tied up at one time, loading and unloading cargoes. The only problem was that everything had to be transferred by cart to St Helier across the beach, because there was no coastal road at the time, and eventually the States decided that St Helier had to have its own port. Despite the construction of a road from St Helier to La Haule in 1810, and then on to St Aubin in 1844, and the arrival of the railway in 1870, St Aubin could not compete with the new facilities provided in St Helier and its days as a commercial port were numbered.
The growth in the community at St Aubin led to a demand for their own church, to avoid the long walk to St Brelade's Parish Church and back. A petition by the merchants to the Bishop of Winchester complained:"The town is distant from its Parish Church about two miles. The road is difficult by reason of rugged ascents, and a great way on moving sands. The inhabitants are exposed to great fatigue in summer by the scorching heat and in winter by tempestuous winds, from which there is no shelter". Even worse, there was insufficient time to return home between morning and evening services so those attending had to pass the time in an inn near the church.
Permission was given to build a chapel of ease and the new church was in use by 1749, although it was condemned as unsafe in 1887 and replaced by the present St Aubin on the Hill Church. Methodism came to St Aubin in the late 18th century, causing considerable unrest, but in due course a chapel was built in 1817, to be replaced by the building which still stands on the Boulevard, in 1868. Roman Catholics used a hall on Mont les Vaux for many years before building their seafront church.
St Aubin has six main streets. The coast road from St Helier is known as Victoria Road and the centre of the town is Charing Cross, off which lead the Bulwarks and Bulwarks Hill (Mont du Boulevard) at the far end; St Aubin's Hill, or Mont les Vaux; High Street and Market Hill. The High Street has a number of interesting houses. At the bottom L'Ancienneté was the home of John Janvrin , Peterborough House is named after Francis Jeune, Bishop of Peterborough, who was born there in 1806; and St Magloire was the home of Charles Robin, the famous founder of the cod fishing business on Canada's Atlantic coast.
The brook which runs down the side of Mont les Vaux is called Egouttepluie (raindrops) and it once drove a mill, which is mentioned in records as far back as 1269 and parts of which remain today.
St Aubin has seen exciting and sad days. During the Civil War, when Sir George Carteret's privateers were plundering shipping in the Channel they would return to St Aubin with their prizes. Carteret's captains brought their families from England to live in style in Jersey. However, none were immune from the outbreak of the plague in 1626, when 105 people died in five months, many of them buried in their own gardens.
- A history of St Aubin
- Development of St Aubin over the centuries
- The old town of St Aubin, a detailed history by Julia Marett from the 1949 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise
- St Aubin's High Street, or Rue du Croquet, a Jersey Archive history
- St Aubin's markets
- St Aubin shipyards
- St Aubin's Fort
- Somerville Hotel
- El Spelterini at St Aubin, an Italian woman tightrope walker performs at St Aubin
The Jersey Heritage Historic Environment Record website has this description of the harbour:
- 'Harbour, 18th - 19th century. St Aubin was the main port for commercial trade to Jersey during the 17th century until the early 19th century - offering shelter to the growing number of merchant vessels collecting and delivering cargo and goods to the island. Ships were originally loaded and unloaded by carts at low tide - the main anchorages being in Belcroute or in the lee of the Fort. Work began on the first stone quay, out at the Fort, in 1680. Work on the present harbour began in 1765 when a short stone jetty was built on the southern side. This was lengthened in the 1790s when the Bulwarks, in front of the old merchants houses, were also built. The northern arm (now occupied by the Parish Hall) was built in 1810, and the final enclosing arm built in 1819 - constructed of random, dry jointed granite masonry, with parapet walls on the seaward sides. During the 19th century a number of shipbuilders were based around the harbour or across on the Fort. The area of the designation encompasses the harbour arms and associated 18th / 19th century structures that contribute to the significance and character of the tidal harbour site, including the granite seawall that forms the landward side along Le Boulevard, the various slipways and iron railings, ancillary structures of historical value such as the cannon bollard; and German World War II defences.
- The Bailiwick of Jersey by G R Balleine
- Buildings and Memorials of the Channel Islands by Raoul Lempriere
We have now created an enlarged and improved gallery of photographs of St Aubin on a new page