Coast: St Catherine

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Coast:

St Catherine


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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 2015


Failed harbour

Mention St Catherine [1] today and the image that immediately springs to mind is the breakwater – 'the harbour that failed' as William Davis called it in his book.

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Originally planned as a harbour of refuge for the Royal Navy, to counter the threat of a French invasion, the idea was to create a secure anchorage by building two long breakwaters from Verclut and Archirondel.

Hundreds of quarrymen and construction workers came from the UK and Ireland to start work on the project in 1847. Two years later work at Archirondel was halted, and in 1855, after 700 metres of the northern breakwater had been built, it was decided that the bay was not deep enough to take the new steam ships, so the whole project was abandoned. It had cost the British Government well over £300,000, and 21 years later the breakwater and all the associated land and property was given to the States as a gift.

Some of those buildings are still in use today. The contractors built a small medical station - L’Hôpital - on a small rocky outcrop just to the north of the current slipway. Here Jane Robinson, an Irish nurse, lived and worked. Today it is a private house. Another of the buildings still in use is the carpenter’s shop, which today is used by St Catherine’s Sailing Club, which held its first recorded meeting in 1953.

Regatta

The newly-built harbour was used for leisure sailing in the mid-19th century, when it was the scene of the Eastern Coast Regatta, started to celebrate Queen Victoria’s visit in August 1859, when she and Prince Albert took a carriage ride through the island before embarking from the breakwater to rejoin the Royal Yacht, which had sailed around the coast from St Aubin to meet her.

The 1861 regatta was marred by tragedy when F C Clarke’s yacht Lurline ran down a small fishing boat and Francis Gunney, a fisherman, and one of his sons were drowned, leaving a widow and four more children.

Although they sailed for a living, regattas were an opportunity for fishermen to make extra money, either as crew on board the yachts of the wealthy or in the actual racing. At St Catherine the first race, with a top prize of £12, was for oyster dredgers and the third and fourth races were for fishing boats, offering cash prizes – the wealthier yachtsmen competed for trophies.

Another benefit of the harbour project was the building of the road around the coast from Archirondel to the breakwater at St Catherine. Much of this road was built in the early 1860s following Jurat Nicolle's 1859 report to the States. The cost was said to be £650, of which the British government would contribute £100, leaving the States to find the balance.

Nicolle pointed out that the road would have the advantage of allowing the military easy access to the new breakwater, but opponents of the proposition pointed out that it would also enable French troops to march on St Helier with greater ease.

This nervousness was born out of centuries of fear of invasion and St Catherine’s Bay, despite being so remote from Town, was always seen as a potential landing spot.

In 1758, during the Seven Years War, only two 24-pounder guns defended the entire bay. By 1786, when the American Wars ended, there were three shore batteries - Verclut, Cotil De Whitley and Le Houguillon - and a round tower. [2]

The breakwater, planned as part of a harbour to provide shelter for the British Navy, has only ever been used for leisure sailing

Tower

This was St Catherine’s Tower, which, unlike the other Conway towers, is built of rhyolite, instead of granite. Armed with a single 18-pounder carronade mounted on a traversing platform on the roof, it was manned by a sergeant, a corporal and nine soldiers. When it became redundant, the War Office sold it to the States for £50. Today it is painted white on the seaward side as a navigational aid, and is often referred to as the White Tower because of this.

As well as preventing enemy landings, the military authorities in Jersey were also keen on being able to gather and disseminate information. In the 1790s it was suggested that a chain of signal stations, manned by naval personnel, be set up around the island. They would not only give timely notice of the approach of an enemy, but they would also announce the arrival of British ships of war, merchant vessels and mail packets.

One of these sites was the large rock at the northern end of St Catherine’s Bay. Because of its shape, largely created by quarrying stone for use in the breakwater, it is popularly called Gibraltar. Before quarrying it was a promontory. The ‘real’ Gibraltar in the bay lies beyond Bel Val Cove towards the tower. The correct name for the rock is Verclut, and it was not the first time it had been selected for hanging things on. In 1550 an Englishman called Wite, who had been captured and tried as a pirate, was executed, and his body hung in chains on top of Verclut to serve as a warning to passing sailors.

It is hard to image the bay as a centre of the industrial revolution, but halfway between Archirondel and St Catherines’s Tower was the site of Le Huquet’s shipyard, where, between 1824 and 1883, over 60 vessels, largely cutters for the coastal trade, although some brigs and schooners, were built. When shipbuilding came to an end in Jersey, Le Huquet and his family emigrated to New Zealand.

RNLI Inshore Life Boat

In 1969 the RNLI established an inshore lifeboat station in an old German bunker in Verclut. In 1984 a new boathouse was built on the harbour quay near the sailing club. In 1991 they moved to their present location by the White Tower.

Lighthouse

The Lighthouse Memorial outside the Maritime Museum originally sat at the end of St Catherine’s Breakwater. It is made from cast iron and was powered by paraffin from 1856 until it was replaced by an electric light at the end of 1976. A lighthouse keeper, who lived in the keeper’s cottage at the top of the breakwater, lit and extinguished the lamps every day.

Further reading

Notes and references

  1. Although, like the island parishes beginning 'St', St Catherine is often given an 'apostrophe s' by many islanders, it is St Catherine, not St Catherine's
  2. In 1797 the bay was protected by a tower and ten batteries armed with 17 canon capable of throwing 240 lbs of shot at an approaching enemy. The three biggest batteries were Les Landes, Le Houguillon and Verclut, which mounted 24-pounder cannon. To put this in perspective, at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 HMS Victory was armed with 30 x 32-pounders, 28 x 24-pounders, 14 x 12-pounders and two x 68 pounder carronades capable of throwing 2296 lbs of shot at an approaching enemy.


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