The History of St Helier
The area on which St Helier, the capital of Jersey, now stands is thought to have been occupied since Roman days, though the settlement only became a significant one in relatively recent times.
A 6th century Christian martyr, Helerius or Helier, gave his name to the future town. Helier came to Jersey in about 525, and lived the life of a hermit on a small rock (líIslet) just off the coast of the main island, warning the islanders of raiding ships. In 523 he was brutally murdered by pirates or Vikings , miraculously able to pick up his severed head and walk ashore after they had beheaded him, or so legend has it.
In 1155 Henry II founded an Abbey on the rock where Helier had lived. At this time what had been a tiny fishing village in St Helier the martyrís day had expanded somewhat, being provided with a chapel. That chapel became part of a larger 14th century church famed like St Helier earlier for warning against raiders, though by that time they were French ships seeking to attack English territory.
Henry IIís Abbey was fortified in the 16th century, such military development a continuous thread through the townís history. Walter Raleigh was Governor of Jersey between 1600 and 1603, and it was he who named the new stronghold Elizabeth Castle . A court house was constructed in the town in 1647 as it continued to grow, but it was not until the 18th century that it began to develop more significance: George II granted £200 towards a harbour that turned St Helier into a port rather than somewhere boats were beached; St Helier and Jersey, once prey to pirates, now became a centre for their semi-official cousins the privateers, who grew rich by attacking French and American vessels during the War of Independence and the French Revolutionary Wars.
Such was the impact of the privateers that the French government in 1780 sanctioned an invasion of the island, albeit with a skimpy cover story that the troops involved were deserters. On January 6 1781 the Battle of Jersey took place in and around St Helier, the fiercest fighting in the Royal Square at the very centre of the town. Had the French been more serious about the attack, and sent fewer drunks and criminals in the force, it would almost certainly have succeeded.
The French Revolution brought new blood, and some new money, to the island, a haven for aristocrats fleeing the guillotine. The British garrison on the island was also beefed up, and Fort Regent built to strengthen St Helierís defences: work started on the new fort in 1806, but it was only completed in 1814.
Movement of troops garrisoned at Fort Regent was facilitated by the building of military roads around the island, work that also made movement of agricultural produce to the port at St Helier easier, bolstering the trade with England in the rest of the century.
Peace with France made Jersey, and St Helier in particular, more attractive to English incomers, their numbers added to by soldiers who finished their duty in the town deciding to stay on. The town expanded to accommodate them in new colonial style houses built back from the coast towards the hills; and much of the older settlement was also redeveloped during this period of prosperity.
During WWII the Channel Islands were occupied by Germany: Jersey fell on July 1 1940, the island undefended by Britain. It remained under German control until May 9 1945 . By the end of the war conditions in St Helier, and the rest of the Channel Islands, had become desperate, as German supply lines had been cut long before, but the German garrison (about one soldier for every two islanders) remained as a drain on resources and preventing supplies arriving from the Allies. There is a museum dedicated to the occupation on the Esplanade in St Helier.
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