Growth of the town
Today St Helier is undeniably the centre of island life – its capital, business centre, the location of its courts of justice and most government offices, and its major port.
Late 18th century development
But it was not always so. Indeed, although the Royal Court is believed always to have been situated on its present site, and the adjoining market square, now the Royal Square, was the main centre of commerce, St Helier only began to develop as a town in the late 18th century and this process accelerated as the island’s population swelled in the first half of the 19th century.
St Helier’s growth was certainly not achieved through any grand masterplan, and the island’s government, the States, were the last to become involved, well into the 19th century. Earlier development was firstly solely in the hands of entrepreneurial landowners, many having bought up fiefs, and with them large expanses of meadow, dunes and marshland, at bargain prices, having identified their potential for development.
Gradually the Vingtaine de la Ville, which owned Mont de la Ville, where Fort Regent was built, and land stretching down into the embryo town, became involved, and eventually the parish authorities as a whole began to see the need to regulate the development of their town and particularly public spaces.
There are very few records which give an impression of what St Helier was like before the end of the 18th century. The sale and division of individual parcels of land can be traced through transactions in the Land Registry, but it is frequently unclear exactly where these properties were situated.
It was not until 1795 that a detailed map of the island, and of the town, showing field boundaries, was published, after a survey was carried out on the orders of the Duke of Richmond, master of the Royal Ordnance.
Town houses, such as there were, had been clustered around a single road which ran from the east, down what is now Comberie, behind the market square and through to Charing Cross. It was called ‘’Rue de Derrière’’, probably because it ran behind the square, which was then the centre of town life. Today it is known as King Street . See Jerripedia’s list of old and more recent names of St Helier roads.
It might have been thought that when the town eventually began to expand it would do so outwards from this initial concentration of buildings, but that was not the case. Development was affected by disputes over land ownership, and some of the land closest to the existing developed area was too marshy, sandy, or prone to flooding from overflowing streams to be built on.
So rather than a steady spread from the centre, what tended to happen was that the development of a particular area would be followed by more development around it , and spreading backwards towards the town centre. Also, the establishment of access roads was essential to the building of homes. To begin with these roads tended to be private: New Street, was exactly what the name indicates; a new road between Rue de Derriere and Rue du Val, which ran from Charing Cross to the North of the town.
Constructed by John Durell in the very early days of town development in 1718, this was effectively Jersey’s first gated community, and the road was closed off with locked gates at either end, although users did have a habit of losing keys and leaving gates open. However, it was not until nearly 100 years later that this became a public thoroughfare.
It is noticeable that many of the new roads opened in St Helier during the 18th and particularly the 19th century were given English names. More often than not it was up to the developer to create the roads which would connect the new homes they were building to the existing road network (much like building a 20th century housing estate, except the development were to become an integral part of a thriving town), and they commonly named the new roads after their children, which is how Ann, Charles, Elizabeth and Mary Streets originated.
Some landowners are popularly credited with giving land to the parish for the construction of roads, whereas the truth is that they sold their land to developers with a requirement that certain roads be included.
It is far from clear why St Helier (or at least the Royal Court and adjoining market square) should have started out as the island’s commercial and administrative centre, when the vast majority of the population lived some distance away, and it was never the first choice for the construction of a proper port, which Guernsey had had for some considerable time, making it a much more popular trading point.
What triggered the growth?
It is also not clear what triggered the development of St Helier so that it would eventually become the main centre of population. Some historians believe that the influx of the first wave of Huguenot refugees from France in the 16th century, and the second in the late 17th century, sandwiching the temporary flood of Royalists fleeing the English Civil War before 1642, created the demand for housing in St Helier.
It may be that the island was ready to welcome these refugees, but not to accommodate them in the existing populated areas in the busy agricultural parishes such as St Ouen and Trinity; it may be that the relatively flat and sheltered, but largely uncultivated land, around the centre of the existing town of St Helier was viewed as the best place for building new homes but there is no real evidence either way.
Double the number of homes
What is clear is that at some point St Helier began to grow, and by the beginning of the 19th century it was growing fast. To cope with the dramatic growth in the island’s population in the first half of the 19th century, as many new homes had to be contructed in 50 years as had existed at the start of that period. There were no homes on the south side of Broad Street until shortly before 1814: there are none today, the street being dominated by banks, but in the early 19th century this was the boundary between embryo town and beach, and a protective wall (a few sections of which remain) was built to stop sand from sweeping in on wind and tide. The only buildings along this shoreline were warehouses, some of which may have existed for 200 years or more.
Value of building land
Gradually landowners began to realise that their fields had more value as building sites than waterlogged meadows, and they sold them off to developers or built on them themselves. Land owned by the Hue family after the death of Jurat Helier Hue was sold to the Dumaresqs who created Hue Street and Dumaresq Street to link Charing Cross (variously known as Rue de la Prison and La Pompe au Bas) and Rue du Val. John Seale bought land on the shoreline south of Charing Cross and created Seale Street.
Development to the north of Rue de Derriere/King Street must have started in the 18th century when John Durell bought up most of the fiefs and their land betwen what is now Bath Street and Dumaresq Street, but the process was slow and it was some time before Halkett Place, with its grand terrace houses on one side and new market on the other was constructed.
The development of a real network of roads in St Helier and throughout the island did not really start until Governor General Don decided in 1806 that there was no chance of repelling a French invasion if he could not move his troops and their weapons rapidly to where they were needed. So obstructions like the prison, which formed an arch over the roadway at Charing Cross, had to go.
A new prison was built on land not far from the General Hospital, whose construction on its present site was a magnet for further development in the surrounding area. New roads were not always named after the family of developers. The Parade was used as a drilling area after the neighbouring Hospital was requistioned for accommodation for troops, and Cannon Street on its north side was where the sheds which housed the troops’ cannons had been built.
Vauxhall was a large house at the bottom of what is now Vauxhall Street, and Garden Lane was built around the perimeter of its grounds. Wharf Street was part of the development beyond the Town Church which was given the go-ahead when a dispute over land ownership between the de la Gardes and the Vingtaine de la Ville was resolved in favour of the family.
Wharf Street was not on the waterfront for long, because as a small port began to develop at La Folie, some distance from the town centre, access was improved by reclaiming land at what is now known as the Weighbridge and developing La Quai au Marchands and Commercial Buildings (which now both come under the latter name) in between.
A second access to the first jetties of the port of St Helier was created by building Pier Road (the road to the piers) up to and around Mount Bingham and back down to the French and English Harbours. This was undertaken by the Vingtaine de la Ville, which owned Mont de la Ville, where Fort Regent came to be built. The Vingtaine also created Hill Street (below the Mont) and behind the Courthouse, and sold building plots which were initidally intended to finance a route through to Havre des Pas, which at one time seemed likely to develop from a sheltered anchorage into St Helier’s main harbour.
But the States changed its mind then as fast as it has done ever since, and after construction of a commercial jetty at St Aubin had been completed, money from import duties set up by Sir Walter Raleigh in the time of Queen Elizabeth was diverted to the development of a port between the town of St Helier and its fortress, Elizabeth Castle. Another significant change of mind concerned the Courthouse and Royal Square. At one point the States bought up all the land around the square with a view to constructing public buildings, but then they changed their minds and sold many of the properties back to private owners. What an opportunity missed!
Eventually, as development of the town spread back inwards from Patriotic Street, Cheapside, Rouge Bouillon, Midvale Road, Robin Hood and St Saviour’s Road, land which had been considered to marshy for building was drained, streams diverted underground through culverts, and only the worst sections of marsh such as Springfield, now a sports stadium, remained undeveloped.
Now that the streams which take water from the high ground to the north of St Helier to the sea are hidden from sight it is difficult to imagine how much water thay could carry in times of heavy rainfall. In 1827 a nine-year-old boy called Pieuet fell into the Faux Bie stream alongside Minden Place and his body was recovered on the beach at Gloucester Street where the stream emerged.
"A chronological view of the growth of St Helier", talk given to Archaeological section of La Société Jersiaise in 1976 and published in Annual Bulletin, 1984