St Catherine

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St Catherine


Navy station.jpg

An original plan for the harbour at St Catherine


An Illustrated London News picture of work under way on the construction of the harbour

St Catherine's Breakwater, strictly called Verclut Breakwater, but invariably known as the former by islanders, was built in the middle of the 19th century as the northern arm of what was to be a massive naval station. It would have been the largest harbour on the south side of the Channel after Le Havre.

Threat of war

When the harbour was commissioned in 1847 there were concerns about the possibility of a renewed war with France. The French had constructed a major naval harbour at Cherbourg and fortifications on the French coast adjacent to Jersey were perceived as creating the threat of an invasion of the island. If there was war and the English fleet could not make it back to home ports in adverse wind conditions, it would be able to anchor in a giant harbour at St Catherine on Jersey's north-east coast, or a second naval station to be constructed at Alderney.

But the original idea for a new harbour had come from the States of Jersey of Jersey rather than the UK Government. It is unclear just how strongly the Jersey authorities viewed the threat of a French invasion, or whether they simply thought that this would be a good way of providing the island with a deep water harbour (St Helier Harbour was at the time a tiny affair which dried out at low tide).

Island's petition

A petition was sent to Queen Victoria on 26 August 1840, including the following clauses:

"That though your Majesty is now in a state of peace and alliance with France, the States, reflecting on the mutability of human affairs have seen, with considerable anxiety, the gigantic affairs which have been made on the opposite coast for the enlargement and the fortification of the Ports of Cherbourg, Granville and St Malo and on the immense mass of offense which these places will possess in time of war.
"That there is at present no harbour about the Island where ships of the line might be stationed with sufficient security or steam vessels be kept afloat at all times.
"That such a harbour would, moreover, offer a refuge in stress of weather to the British squadrons of observation on the neighbouring coasts of France.
"That a convenient spot may be surveyed and selected on the north coast of the Island an that a harbour and breakwater may be constructed where armed steam vessels might be constantly kept afloat."

Bouley Bay plan

The British government were clearly not interested. It was nearly four months before the petition was even acknowledged, and the Lords of the Admiralty said that the issue would kept under review. So the States pressed again, enlisting the help of the Inspector-General of the Navy, Sir William Symonds, who had lived in Jersey, and calling for a harbour to be built at Bouley Bay. In the best traditions of one arm of government not knowing what the other is doing, the British Government was, by 1842, separately investigating the defences of the Channel Islands.

A 19th Century drawing showing the method of construction of the breakwater, taken from a 2007 report outlining plans for repairs to the end, which is under threat from storm damage. The report states that the horse seen toppling off the end of the breakwater swam to safety!

Relations with France remained uneasy and there were hawks within the British Government and military who saw a large naval station at Jersey as providing a good base from which to launch an assault on France, not as a defensive feature. But nobody seemed to be able to agree where this port should be, mainly because of the difficulties of navigating between the island and France with large vessels. Those admirals who were consulted favoured Noirmont, on the island's south coast.


Work starts

When work started at St Catherine on 28 June 1847, it came as a surprise to many people, not least the French, who complained about what they saw as an aggressive move, seeing an opportunity to divert attention from their own work on fortifications at Granville and St Malo.

The original plan was for a breakwater to be built from the southern end of Anne Port Bay, close to Mont Orgueil Castle and Gorey, but this was changed, and work started on joining a martello tower on a rock off the coast at Archirondel to the shore, and then extending the granite wall out to sea.

Work went ahead on both arms of the proposed harbour, using stone quarried from the large rock at St Catherine, which is known as Gibraltar. In 1849 work on the southern arm was suspended to allow the northern arm, which would provide the greatest protection from wind and tides, to be constructed from Verclut Point. There are suggestions that this arm was destined to be longer than the 640 metres which was eventually completed and to turn south to meet the Archirondel arm, but plans, including that above, show that the southern arm would have turned to meet the northern one, which was rounded off as it now stands. Spiralling costs and improved relations with France fuelled doubts that the project should be continued with, and it soon emerged that the proposed harbour was silting up at the same time that naval vessels were growing in size and draught. There was no hope of establishing a working harbour.

Work abandoned

So work was abandoned, much to the relief of the original inhabitants of this corner of the island, whose lives had been totally disrupted by an at times unruly workforce of over 1,000 men and dependants. Having spent £234,235 16s 0d, plus the cost of purchasing land, the British Government tried to recoup their losses by offering the Verclut Breakwater to the States of Jersey at a "proper valuation". The States was not interested, and eventually accepted the breakwater as a gift on 23 February 1876.

The rounded end of the St Catherine arm has itself suffered damage in heavy seas and a proposal has been put forward recently to carry out extensive repairs. It is feared that if the end of the breakwater is breached in a storm, substantial damage could be caused further along.

Further articles

Correct name

In times past many areas in Jersey had an 'apostrophe s' added to their name: St Ouen was popularly known as St Ouen's, St Brelade as St Brelade's, and so on. This practice has largely ceased, certainly in print, although old habits die hard with some islanders. But for some strange reason St Catherine is still widely known as St Catherine's. Certainly it is correct to say St Catherine's Bay, St Catherine's Breakwater and St Catherine's Hill, but the main road approaching the area is undoubtedly Route de St Catherine, and, although perhaps even more correctly Verclut, the general area close to the breakwater and bay in the north-west corner of the island, is simply St Catherine.

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References

  • The Bailiwick of Jersey by G R Balleine
  • The Harbour that Failed, by William Davies
  • St Martin, Jersey - The Story of an Island Parish, edited by Chris Blackstone and Katie Le Quesne.

Picture gallery of the St Catherine area

A very early photograph of St Catherine showing the rock popularly known as Gibraltar

Click on and image to see larger picture

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