Coast: Elizabeth Castle

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Coast:

The Islet


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This article by Doug Ford, a respected authority on Jersey's maritime history, was part of his Coast series for the Jersey Evening Post, and was first published in 2017


Elizabeth Castle

The Islet now covered by Elizabeth Castle was originally two small tidal islets. A gun battery was built on the highest point of the southerly islet in 1550, to protect the approach to St Helier and to protect what would later be known as the Men of Wars Ground, the deep-water anchorage in St Aubin’s Bay.

As cannon became more powerful this battery was expanded and developed in the 1590s into what became known as Elizabeth Castle. It was because of its position that in 1685 Jurat Philippe Dumaresq described it as 'the Key of the Island'.

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A strange tale regarding the Islet made the news in August 1823 when the Bristol Mirror, among other regional newspapers, reported the death of a young man named as Thomas Clements. Seemingly on Friday 8 August he was fishing just behind Elizabeth Castle when he placed a small sole, taken from his net, between his teeth to kill it; with a sudden spring the fish forced itself into his throat and choked him. As the report put it: ‘The unfortunate young man expired in dreadful agony’.

When the castle was built, the boats used by the garrison were kept in the small sandy bay which was called Le Havre de St Jaume. Mentioned as early as 1269 in connection with the priory, it appears as one of the three harbours of St Helier in 1585, when the States appointed a Collector for the Taxes on Wines and Spirits. Records from 1617 also show that two men were repairing a boat here.

Dumaresq in his 1685 survey described the haven as having ‘a small pier, unfinisht, under the Castle Walls, at the East side by a Sally port’. Remains of the pier no longer exist, although along the rocks to the side of the sand, low water landing stages can still be seen.

The small harbour around the corner, sometimes referred to as La Caûchie St Jaume – St James’s Pier, was built as part of the rather grandiose scheme to create a deep-water harbour for St Helier in the 1870s, by building a long breakwater out from the castle to protect the entrance to St Helier harbour. Rocks were imported on to the islet and unloaded by crane to make the concrete blocks required for the project in a pit beneath the castle walls.

In May 1876 a new crane called Hercules arrived on the Islet. This was capable of shifting blocks weighing 12 to 15 tons. Although the original idea was to use concrete blocks, weather conditions forced the use of more conventional, and expensive granite. Work began in 1872 but was abandoned in the winter of 1876-77 due to severe weather and rising costs with only the breakwater and harbour on Elizabeth Castle completed.

The Castle harbour - La Caûchie St Jaume – St James’s Pier. The building in the background beneath the Hermitage Rock is the old Blacksmith’s Shop.

A further 150 metres was added to the breakwater in order to shelter the Inner Roads from southwesterly gales in 1887.

The area around the harbour was a bustling settlement of workshops and storage but today only a slipway, the walls of one building (popularly as the Blacksmith’s Workshop) and the ruined remains of a small stone magazine remain nestling under the Hermitage Rock. Close by, amongst the rocks beyond the slipway, there are a number of solid low walls which represent more low water landing stages.

It was in this gap between the Islet and the Hermitage Rock that, on the evening of Friday 7 January 1825, Captain Destouches of St Malo ran his cutter Fanny on to the rocks called Les Buts. Although Captain Destouches knew the waters, a storm had whipped the sea into a boiling mass causing him all sorts of problems. As there was no organised lifeboat at that time, it was up to volunteers to try to rescue the passengers and crew. Three brothers – Philippe, François and Jean De Ste Croix - and a friend, Philip Nicolle, organised a boat which made two trips out to the stricken vessel and saved 13 passengers. Before they could return for a third time the cutter slipped off the rocks and broke up. The six remaining people on board,including a little girl, drowned.

The National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, which had been founded the previous year, awarded gold medals to the de ste Croix brothers and a silver medal to Nicolle in recognition of their bravery. The other two men in the boat, Philippe Jolin and George Marshall, were rewarded with three sovereigns each, which represented about five weeks wages for a shipyard worker in the island, as they were "persons in a humble sphere of life".

It is ironic that Jolin was to be publically hanged four years later at Gallows Hill on Westmount, from where his last view of his island home was Elizabeth Castle and the scene of his heroism.

Hermitage

1872: The Hermitage Rock is connected to the Islet by the start of the new breakwater

The breakwater connected the Islet with the Hermitage Rock, which was given its name because it was reputedly where the sixth-century missionary St Helier lived. He had come to the island from the area we now call Belgium, seeking an isolated spot where he could devote his life to prayer and fasting. The actual rock ledge, on which he supposedly lived, known as St Helier’s Bed, was covered over by a small chapel or Oratory during the 12th century. The walls are made of granite rubble and the roof is made from flat stones set into mortar, and it is now approached from the breakwater by a very steep set of steps. The inside used to be plastered, and when it was restored in the 1930s, a small area in the south-west of the building was said to contain traces of a fresco.

Following Helier's death at the hands of pagan seamen in 555AD, a small community of monks built a church close by and the area became a place of pilgrimage. Helier’s death is commemorated on the parish crest, which features a pair of crossed axes. Every year on the Sunday nearest to St Helier’s Day, 16 July, the parish authorities organise a procession to lay a wreath at the entrance to the Oratory.

The rock took on a distinctly military role during the governorship of Sir Thomas Morgan when a gun battery or breastwork was built on top of it about 1678, and the Oratory was pressed into service as a guardhouse. Two 3-pounder cannons were mounted on the battery and a smaller ‘falconet’, which fired a one-pound cannon ball, was positioned in the Oratory to guard the approaches. Although the position was abandoned in the mid-18th century, traces of stonework still survive.

The massive cube of concrete at the base of the Hermitage Rock was built during the Occupation to house an anti-tank gun and machine gun, and also held the control panel for the electrically detonated mine field which protected the Inner Roads and the entrance to the harbour. This was one of a pair – the other was on the other side of the Inner Roads at La Collette.

Charles II

It could be said that the Royal passion for sailing started on the Islet, because it was here in the spring of 1646 that the 16-year-old Prince of Wales was taught to sail by Sir Henry Mainwaring. He even acquired what could be termed the first Royal Yacht while in the island. On June 8 of that year he took delivery of a two-masted pinnace he had ordered from St Malo. It was described as ‘elegantly painted and emblazoned with the Royal Arms’.

When Charles returned to Jersey in late 1649, as the newly proclaimed king, he again spent time sailing in St Aubin’s Bay, although following his time spent in Holland he now used the term ‘yachting’.

The man who taught Charles II how to sail, Sir Henry Mainwaring (1587-1653), was a colourful character. He had been a pirate before being pardoned by James I, and he then served in the King’s Navy attacking his former colleagues. His book The Seaman’s Dictionary, published in 1643, is considered the first authoritative treatise on seamanship. He wrote it to help the new breed of ‘Gentlemen Captains’ understand how their ships worked.

Like many places in the Island, the Islet has a history of smuggling. In 1694, despite there being a ban on trading with the French, John Button managed to smuggle a large quantity of goods from St Malo and hide them in the castle. It was obviously done with the complicity of the garrison, because when the King’s official went out to confiscate the goods – in line with Royal decree - he was badly beaten up by the soldiers.

Further reading

Notes and references


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