Coast: First Tower

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Coast:

First Tower to Town


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The site of the former gallows on Westmount - a summerhouse long since demolished


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 2016


Tower's uses

Tower No 1, which gave its name to First Tower, the new suburb of St Helier [1], was built in 1778. Until the French Revolutionary Wars it was manned by the Royal Invalid Battalion. Then it was taken over by the militia. It was abandoned once the threat of invasion disappeared, and in 1896 the States bought it from the Crown for £100.

Since then it has had a variety of uses. It was once surmounted by a windmill and cistern installed to provide water for refreshing the plants along Victoria Avenue. In later times it has been used as a sewer vent for the nearby pumping station.

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A stream, Douet de Ste Croix, discharged on to the beach around about the site on which Pinel’s slipway was built in 1878, at a cost of £803, in anticipation of the seawall around the bay being completed. Like many other slipways in the bay it was blocked during the Occupation and never reopened.

During the early years of the French Revolution, the exiled Royalist forces used to carrry out their drills on the beach at First Tower. In January 1794 they numbered 750 men, and by the following year there was an estimated 3,500 male emigrés of military age residing in the island. They were all conscripted into regiments to land in Brittany to help the Chouan counter revolutionaries. As many of the emigrés were of the officer class, they had to be carefuly handled by their leader, the Comte du Tresor. In June 1795, following a blessing of their colours on the beach at West Mount (West Park) by the Bishop of Bayeux, the emigré regiments set sail for Quiberon; most never returned.

Westmount

14 years earlier the French had a different reception and it was here at Westmount that British troops and Jersey Militia gathered before they marched into Town to fight in the Battle of Jersey.

Westmount was known as Mont Patibulaire in French, or Mont ès Pendus in Jèrriais – both mean Gallows Hill; this was where public executions took place. The last man to be hanged here was 21-year old Philippe Jolin in 1829.

It was not all martial activity and retribution for it was here on the beach that Jersey’s Industrial Revolution took place. First Tower to West Park was the site of some of island’s largest shipbuilders - Daniel Le Vesconte at First Tower, George Deslandes at Val André, Philip Grandin on the site of the Lower Park and Frederick Clarke whose yard stretched from what is now Kensington Place to West Park - who together built around 200 vessels here. The largest ships to be built in the island, the Helen Heilgers, 1,069 tons, and the Matilda Wattenbach, 1,058 tons, were both constructed by Clarke for a Liverpool company.

In 1860 Jersey was the fourth largest ship-building centre in the British Isles. Island shipyards could build £3 per ton cheaper than their mainland competitors. In the late 1860s the industry began to go into decline as Jersey was unable to build the more modern iron ships. The new St Helier to St Aubin railway did not help, because it ran between the yards and the sea. When Deslandes launched the 202-ton brig Cygnus in January 1875, train services were disrupted for two days while a roller-way was laid to enable the vessel to get to the sea.

Daniel Le Vesconte obviously saw the writing on the wall, and sold his yard to the railway company in 1867. They used it to build three open carriages and most of their station fittings.

Today nothing remains of the shipyards as whatever evidence there was lies beneath Victoria Avenue.

The seawall between First Tower and West Park was proposed by the Jersey Railway Company in 1869, and approved by the States in March 1870. The idea was to create a strip of land wide enough to accommodate the railway, a road and a promenade. Despite States’ approval, the Railway Company abandoned work on the seawall in 1873 because of the cost, and suggested that the existing groynes and culverts could be improved to protect the line from the ravages of the sea. In 1876 the States Surveyor, Philip Le Sueur, presented the Defence Committee with a proposal to complete a section of the seawall between West Park and First Tower at an estimated cost of £3,000. Once the Committee had fiddled with his designs and put the job out to tender, the costs came in at £8,000. Charles Gruchy was awarded the contract and by the time the wall was finished, minus the road, in 1884 the final cost came in at £12,000 – it would appear that the Island has a great tradition of States overspending.

Beach airport

Aircraft, an old coach as a booking office and a stretch of level sand - all that were needed for Jersey's first airport

The beach between West Park and First Tower was also the site of Jersey’s first ‘airport’and was administered by the Piers and Harbours Committee. The first aircraft, a DH 84 Dragon, took off for Portsmouth carrying eight passengers on 18 December 1933. The following month a Jersey London service was started, followed in March by a Jersey Southampton service.

Despite having a timetable controlled by tides during 1935, the first full year of operation, Jersey Airways planes carried 24,717 passengers and over 76 tons of freight. Aircraft movement was preceded by two policemen clearing a path for the aeroplane and the runway along the sand was cordoned off with rope. The waiting room was a bus that drove down the slipway every day.

The last scheduled flight from the beach airport was on 9 March 1937, when the new airport at St Peter opened the following day, although it was back in action again in the winter of 1947/48 when snow closed the St Peter runway.

Air race

These were not the first aircraft to land at West Park. On Monday 26 August 1912 the world's first international air race took place on a circular course between St Malo and Jersey, with the aircraft landing on the beach to refuel. The event was won by an American, Charles Weymann, in a Nieuport, at an average speed of just below 60 mph.

In addition to military parade ground, shipbuilding industrial site and aerodrome the beach was also used for leisure pursuits. On Wednesday 20 May 1876 a cricket pitch was marked up between First Tower and West Park and a team from Oxenford House played a Victoria College team. The game would have appeared to have been a bit one-sided as the Oxenford House boys won by 106 runs – 126 to 20.

Before the late 1820s the area between West Park and the Weighbridge was open beach. Beyond Castle Street – Les Mielles - a sea-wall ‘La Muraille de la Ville’, ran from Charing Cross to the Conway Street end of Bond Street , roughly along the line of Commercial Street, to protect the Broad Street area of Town from the worst ravages of the sea and weather. [2]

Following the completion of the North Pier in 1820 it was decided to reclaim land in front of La Muraille de la Ville by building a new seawall as far as what is now Patriotic Street. By 1829 plans had been drawn up and the money voted, and Abraham de La Mare began work building what was to be known as the Esplanade. The job was completed in 1835 and the Esplanade became home to a variety of merchants’ warehouses and hotels. In 1858 John Le Cras was tasked with extending the Esplanade as far as West Park.

Over the years there were a number of shipyards operating around the Patriotic Street area - Edward Esnouf (1826 – 42), Nicolas Le Masurier (1837-42), Esnouf and Mauger (1847-68), and George Vautier (1861-73) – all lie beneath what is now the reclaimed land of the Esplanade and the Jardins de la Mer. One of the earlier companies owned by Edward and Philip Nicolle had a ropewalk here towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, before they began building ships in the 1820s.

Further reading


Notes and references

  1. The district was previously known as Ville es Nouaux
  2. This wall is often referred to as a 'harbour wall', often by otherwise well-respected writers, but it was never that. It was, as the author correctly states, constructed to keep sea and sand away from town streets, although early maps suggest that there may have been one or more private quays built in the vicinity – editor
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