Jersey had no real roads until early in the 19th century when a network of 18 military roads was commissioned by the new Lieut-Governor, Sir George Don to allow troops and their equipment to be moved from one part of the island to another in the event of another French attack.
Until this time there was a multitude of narrow tracks, dusty in summer and muddy in winter, linking farming communities with their parish churches and the nearest beaches where vraic could be collected for spreading on the fields. The roads were often sunk between adjoining fields and water drained into them leaving them virtually unpassable in winter.
Guy de Gruchy's Medieval Land Tenures in Jersey suggests that the roads followed the Norman custom of being classified by width - 4, 8, 12, 16 and 24 feet. It is unlikely, however, that there was anything like this degree of formality, or that any of the tracks - for this is all they were - approached even 12 feet in width. Some were just pedestrian routes, for the majority of Jerseymen and women, when they did venture out, walked from home to church. The gentry would travel the same routes on horseback. Other tracks were just wide enough for a single horse-drawn cart, and passing was often an exceedingly difficult manoeuvre.
De Gruchy's work, and his article in the 1934 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise perpetuate the myth - for such it is - that there were 12 perquages 24 feet in width linking the parish churches with the nearest stretch of coast to allow criminals who had sought sanctuary in a church to escape the island by boat. Although various historians have, over the centuries, challenged the existence of these sanctuary paths to a lesser or greater extent, the final nail in the coffin was an article in the 1997 Annual Bulletin which leaves little doubt that there were no such sanctuary paths.
Commonsense dictates that throughout the long period when there were but narrow and poorly maintained tracks, 24-foot wide perquages would hardly have existed for the benefit of escaping criminals.
Gradually the tracks which did exist grew in importance and having previously been under the control of the seigneurs of the fiefs they crossed, they became the responsibility of the parish authorities, which administered the French custom of corvée, which required most adult male parishioners to give six days unpaid work a year maintaining the roads.
It was only in the 1820s, when roads began to be metalled, that the requirement for this work diminished and it was eventually replaced by a parish road tax which was finally abolished in 1938. To this day, however, only a limited number of major roads are the responsibility of the States on behalf of the whole island, the majority remaining the responsibility of the parishes, their upkeep being funded from parochial rates.
The first metalled roads were introduced in St Brelade in 1824 by Constable John Le Couteur, starting with the road to the church. by 1830 St Aubin's High Street had been coated with tarmacadam and the process was spreading to other parishes, with St Peter's Valley one of the earliest roads to be given the treatment.
Le Couteur justified the expenditure by saying that it would lead to a reduction in the corvée:
- "I told my parishioners that if they would allow me to macadamise their small roads, in the course of six years there would not be occasion to call them out three days for repairs of roads, instead of the six days they were then subject to. The result is, as I anticipated, that there is scarcely occupation for two days cartage, and as most of the parishes have adopted the system, we are on the eve of modifying the law, in order to admit of commutations of money, in lieu of personal service and cartage, as efficient work is never obtained by such means."
The roads which are maintained by the States out of general taxation are largely those whose construction was ordered by General Don. There were 18 of them, built between 1806 and 1814, including those from St Helier to Grouville, St Helier to La Haule, the Grande Routes de St Clement, St Martin, Rozel, Faldouet and St Laurent.
A glance at today's map shows that these roads did not connect today's centres of population; rather they linked the town of St Helier and major military installations such as Mont Orgueil Castle with locations perceived to be likely landing places for a French invasion, such as Rozel.
Some writers have suggested that the roads were built in straight lines with military precision, cutting fields in half and antagonising the population in the process. Certainly the routes chosen were often unpopular and some short-cuts were taken across farmland, but essentially the roads followed the route of existing tracks, twisting and turning as dictated by the contours of the land.
Indeed, although General Don ordered the construction of the roads for military purposes, the network was essentially that already proposed by an 18th century Rector of St Martin, the Rev Francois Le Couteur, in the wake of the Battle of Jersey.
The names of Jersey’s districts, roads and town streets are a bewildering mixture of English and French, reflecting the island’s history as a French-speaking community, which gradually became anglicised between the end of the 18th century and the early 20th century.
The situation has been further complicated by a move in the late 20th century to return to the use of French for naming new roads, the apparent object being to allow the island to retain as much of a foreign flavour as possible for the benefit of tourists.
Many roads and streets and some districts have two names, one French and one English, the one not always a direct translation of the other. Other places have yet another name, in popular usage within the community but not necessarily having any official standing. So, heading west from St Helier and avoiding the coastal route of Victoria Avenue, one would travel along what is variously known as Route de St Aubin, St Aubin’s Road or simply, ‘the inner road’.
Unless one knows which side of the island is involved, this could lead to confusion with Grande Route de Clement heading east on the other side of the town, which is never called St Clement’s Main Road, but is also universally known as ‘the inner road’. Similarly, Grande Route de la Cote, which follows the coastline in the same direction, is sometimes referred to as St Clement’s Coast Road, but is known to most people as ‘the coast road’.
An additional quirk is that some French place names have had their pronunciation anglicised while retaining their French spelling. Thus, the majority of islanders refer to the area to the south of St Aubin as ‘Normont’, whereas it should be pronounced Noirmont in line with its French spelling.
The French tradition is still strongly supported by the titular heads of the 12 parishes, who like to refer to themselves as monsieur le Connétable, but they are known to the rest of the island as the Constables. Fortunately the trend for some Contables of St Helier in the 19th century to refer to themselves as ‘the mayor’ was somewhat short-lived.
The names of the 12 parish have now settled firm in their English form, although the original French will still be heard from time to time. The names, with their earlier versions, are:
- Saint Helier; St Hélier in French; references will be found in old English documents and on maps to St Hillary
- Saint Clement; St Clément
- Grouville; Grouville
- Saint Martin; St Martin
- Trinity; La Trinité
- Saint John; St Jean
- Saint Mary; Sainte Marie
- Saint Peter; St Pierre
- Saint Ouen; St Ouen; sometimes anglicised to St Owen in the past
- Saint Brelade; St Brélade
- Saint Lawrence; St Laurent, sometimes found spelt St Laurens
- Saint Saviour; St Sauveur
The French never add the definitive article to street names, although they refer to their country as La France, and their rivers as La Seine, etc. In Jersey, however, it has become common practice to refer to La Grande Route de St Jean, La Route du Fort, etc, although the island’s daily newspaper, the Jersey Evening Post does not. Parishes differ in their policy towards the use of the definitive article. Some have use ‘La’ for years, others have replaced old signs with new ones bearing the definitive article, whereas some parishes maintain the correct French approach without the use of ‘La’.