The ‘Harbour Wall’ at Commercial Street
by Stuart Fell
It might be said that research on a tightly-focused subject such as this can have only limited relevance to a proper understanding of the history of St Helier — and to some extent this view is justified. However, a close scrutiny of detail can often reveal evidence that would be missed by a more superficial examination, and such detail can often have broader relevance. For example, the discovery of a diagonal line in the jointing of a granite wall can not only reveal evidence of the gable of an earlier building at that location, but also confirms a broader point that in the interests of economy, builders in earlier times would routinely build on top of pre-existing structures rather than clear them away and start again, as is the current practice.
Moreover, the forensic examination of a small area of an historic map can reveal a great deal about the degree of accuracy that was attained in its production, especially where the area in question survives and can be surveyed. This insight is clearly important to the study of other parts of the town that are covered by the map.
The relationship between material drawn from documentary sources and that derived from physical evidence is not always clear, and the analysis of the often abundant material can take on the characteristics of a jigsaw puzzle — usually stimulating, invariably frustrating, but ultimately rewarding when the pieces fit together. A major difference, however, is that in the case of research there are always pieces left over, and these will often be of use elsewhere.
This paper reviews the documentary and physical evidence relating to a surviving granite wall of substantial size that can be seen on the north side of Commercial Street, St Helier [Fig. 1].
It is variously referred to as a ‘harbour wall’ or ‘sea wall’, and is a protected Grade 4 listed building. The likely origins of this structure can best be understood in the context of the historical development of the surrounding area, which comprises the block of buildings bounded by Broad Street and Charing Cross to the north, Commercial Street to the south, Castle Street to the west and Conway Street to the east.
The gradual expansion of properties on the south side of Broad Street provided the focus for continuing development over centuries, stimulated by the need to service maritime trade and also by the rapid growth of the town and its population from the early 19th century. Until the end of the 18th century, St Helier was a town of modest size, and its layout followed a linear form along a roughly east-west alignment stretching from La Colomberie to the east as far as Charing Cross to the west. Broad Street, known then as Grande Rue, was the principal thoroughfare. Charing Cross marked the western end of the town centre, though there was some early development beyond this.
The fact that the construction of the prison at Charing Cross in the late 17th century adopted the visual form of a town gate must have reinforced the impression that this was a significant boundary to the town, further emphasised by the presence of the Grand Douet watercourse that flowed across the road on the town side of the prison.
There are many historic maps depicting the town centre, prepared for a variety of purposes and with varying degrees of accuracy; a selection of these is discussed below. Although somewhat contradictory in respect of detail, these maps indicate a progressive intensification of development over time on the land south of Broad Street. On some of these maps the line of the surviving harbour wall is highlighted to assist with orientation.
A map of St Helier in 1691 [Fig.3] whose origins and purpose are unclear, indicates the extent of the town at this date. The prison at Charing Cross is shown at the extreme left hand side of this map extract and the Town Church is at bottom right. There are no buildings shown on the south side of Grande Rue, or Broad Street, but the town wall (La Muraille de la Ville) is indicated between Grand Douet and Grande Rue. [Cox and Garthwaite, in A Chronological View of the Growth of St Helier cite evidence of earlier buildings.] Because of the vulnerability of the town to wind-blown sand, a matter often referred to in early documents, walls and other structures were apparently built on the shore near Broad Street to protect the buildings and the town Centre. The nature and construction of such features is not described in detail, but they could have provided the physical core for subsequent building work.
A map of 1700 provides another somewhat diagrammatic sketch of the extent and layout of St Helier [Fig. 4]. The watercourses at Faux Bie and Grand Douet can be seen, as well as the prison spanning the road at Charing Cross. The frontage on the south side of Broad Street, also known as Grande Rue and Rue D’Egypte, is now shown partly built up. If these maps can be relied on then this suggests a spurt of building activity in the last decade of the 17th century. The way in which the sea edge to the south of Broad Street is depicted on this map suggests that this part of the foreshore was regarded as useable land fit for development, even though it would have been subject to some degree to tidal movements.
By the early 18th century it is clear that there were substantial building incursions into the land south of Broad Street, in the form of fingers of development extending over the shore. The use of these structures is uncertain, but one may speculate that some would have been warehouses facilitating the inward and outward transit of goods by sea, with associated jetties and paved areas. The profile of the mean high water line south of Broad Street is not known with certainty, but many of the historic maps depict its undulating form, suggesting that small boats could be beached on the shore close to Broad Street, or alternatively that goods could be brought over the shore at low tide from ships anchored and beached further out in the bay.
The Peter Meade plan of 1737 [Fig. 5] is drawn to a small scale and some details are difficult to interpret. One feature of note is that Grand Douet is now shown running down the centre of Broad Street, whereas in earlier and later maps its alignment is to the south of Broad Street. Whether this is a temporary arrangement, perhaps while works were being undertaken to the south of Broad Street, or the stream was being culverted, is presently unknown. Another curiosity about this map is the way in which the buildings to the south of Broad Street are depicted. Throughout this plan buildings are generally shown in a solid grey wash, with the outlines entirely filled in, to distinguish them from roads and other open land. To the south of Broad Street, however, the wash only follows the perimeter of each structure, the centre of these shapes being left unshaded. The significance of this is unclear, and may simply be due to an inconsistency in drafting. Alternatively, it may be an attempt to indicate that development here was recent, or was an early form of land reclamation, being a mixture of protective walls, jetties, enclosures and buildings. Whatever the reason, the style of drawing gives these buildings or structures a different character from those shown elsewhere in the town centre. The striking feature of this plan is that there are two substantial structures running southwards from Broad Street which penetrate beyond the high water line, giving them the appearance of quays or jetties, though they are arguaby portrayed as buildings. One of these features, shown highlighted, is on roughly the same alignment as the ‘harbour wall’ that is the subject of this paper.
The 1787 map by Momonier [Fig. 6] provides an impression of greater detail and precision than the Meade map, with the shape and alignment of individual building blocks being carefully shown.
Like the Meade map, it also shows Grand Douet running along Broad Street, and the properties on the south side of Broad Street have rear gardens, which are mentioned in property contracts at this period. The prison is shown (No 15 on the plan), with a cluster of buildings to the immediate south. There are no indications of boundaries separating the long, narrow plots running southwards which are a feature of the later maps, such as that by Le Gros. To the rear of the Broad Street frontage is a substantial parallel block facing the shore, and projecting southwards from this are the two elongated structures seen on the Meade Plan. A third block further to the west lies on the line of Castle Street. The central block (highlighted) appears to be the most substantial, and it can be seen that close to its south-western end are rounded shoulders, which suggest a curved termination of the structure, beyond which is a further rectangular extension. A careful comparison between the Momonier plan and subsequent maps, including the current digital map, indicates that the western edge of this curved feature corresponds very closely to the remains of a curved granite wall that can currently be seen projecting from the ‘harbour wall’. The line of Commercial Street would be very close to the sea edge depicted on this plan.
The Richmond Map [Fig.7], surveyed in 1787 and published in 1795, was prepared for military purposes. It is considered to have a relatively high level of accuracy, but not to the degree that the actual shapes of buildings are always depicted exactly.
The entire south side of Broad Street is shown to be built up, and behind these buildings lies a series of smaller structures set further to the south-west which are presumably service buildings and stores associated with the main properties. There is no indication of individual property boundaries. Beyond these buildings is the shore, and the high water line is suggested by the limit of the dotted texture. As on the Momonier map, the three blocks of building extending towards the sea are indicated — the ‘harbour wall’ is highlighted in yellow [Fig. 7] and purple [7a inset]. Each of these three projecting building groups has a defined rectangular area on its sheltered (eastern) side, distinguished from the shore around it and delineated with a line. This possibly indicates a wall, a change in level, a quay edge, or a hard-standing or working area on the protected side of the building. Given that the Richmond and Momonier maps are believed to have been surveyed at the same time, the differences in style and in the depiction of individual buildings are interesting.
During the 18th century, the delivery of goods to properties behind Broad Street would have been made by small boats ferrying items from ships moored in deeper water in the bay, or brought across the shore in carts at low tide. The early history of harbour development in St Helier is complex, but as the early harbours were located at a considerable distance from the town centre to the south east, the use of the shore on the south of Broad Street must have remained a very practicable means of servicing town centre properties from the sea until the building of the Esplanade, which commenced in 1829, cut off direct access. It was the construction of the Esplanade that led to the creation of New Wharf Street, now named Commercial Street, which can be seen in a largely undeveloped form on the 1834 Le Gros map.
A contemporary impression of the sea edge of the town can be seen in an engraving in The Complete English Traveller, a guide published in 1772, which underlines many of the points made above [Figs 8 & 9].
The Neuf Havre, on the site of the present French Harbour, is evidently distant from the town, as can be seen on the right of this view, requiring goods destined for the town centre to be transported for some considerable distance by wagon or cart.
An enlargement showing the town centre illustrates the density of development in the properties to the south of the town, and shows what appear to be wharfs, jetties and walls on the edge of the shore. One might expect some degree of artistic licence in views such as this, but the purpose of this engraving is clearly to provide a reasonably accurate representation of the character of the town.
A watercolour [Fig. 10] showing a west view of the town by G Heriot, dated 1789, provides a different perspective on this part of the town centre; the town harbour is to the extreme right.
Once again, the remoteness of the town harbour is evident, and the immediacy of the connection between the town and the sea is apparent. In the enlargement of this watercolour [Fig. 11], a substantial structure can be seen in the middle-ground just to the right of the town church.
A careful assessment of the image indicates that the wall or building portrayed must be in the vicinity of the wall that is the subject of this paper. The likelihood is that this image is indeed a late 18th century representation of the centre section of the wall that still survives — no evidence has yet been found of any other structures of such a substantial scale in the land to the south of Broad Street. A comparison with the Richmond map, which was surveyed 2 years earlier than the date of the Heriot watercolour, shows a building in the position indicated in Heriot’s view [Fig 7a].
An unattributed map of 1800 [Fig.12] is sketchy in appearance, but for the first time an attempt is made to show the individual plots to the rear of the Broad Street frontages. Grand Douet is shown running on its familiar route through the land to the south of the Broad Street properties. In the centre of the Broad street plots a structure can be seen (highlighted in red) which projects across the high water line, and the southern end of this building terminates in a curve. This echoes the shape that can be seen on the Momonier map, also on the Le Gros Map, produced 34 years later, and on mid-20th century maps. The poor level of accuracy of this map makes direct comparison with later maps unreliable.
By the time of the publication of the Le Gros map in 1834 [Fig. 13], the Esplanade had been constructed and New Wharf Street, later to become Commercial Street, had been laid out to the north.
The work commenced in 1829. The Broad Street properties had been cut off from the sea, and the boundaries of the individual plots are now shown clearly defined, the long boundaries reaching to New Wharf Street. Whilst most of these plots were roughly rectangular in shape, with the north-south boundaries running parallel, the western edge of the plot bounded by the ‘harbour wall’ is noticeably off-line, with the result that the two plots further to the west have a pronounced taper towards their southern end. The position of the wall that survives on the site is highlighted in yellow.
By overlaying the current digital map of St Helier on the Le Gros map at the same scale, it can be seen that the distinctive shapes of the curved walls on the highlighted structures coincide almost exactly, allowing for some tolerance in the accuracy of the older map. It therefore seems very likely that the outer (western) wall of the highlighted structures shown on the Le Gros map is the same wall structure visible on the site today. The fact that these same shapes have also been identified on the Monomier map provides a strong indication that the surviving wall was in place by the late 18th century, and may be several decades earlier.
Over the next century after the publication of the Le Gros map, the area between Broad Street and Commercial Street continued to be developed with a wide range of commercial, light industrial and warehouse buildings. Development was undertaken on an ad hoc basis. Many buildings were constructed on the boundary walls separating the plots, and faced inwards towards open courtyards or passages that were eventually overbuilt. Elsewhere, the individual plots were separated by tall granite boundary walls, against which buildings were subsequently erected. Few of the commercial buildings were taller than three storeys and it is clear that many of these had lightweight superstructures built over granite substructures. Examples of this can still be seen. Access to these backland properties was provided via passageways through the buildings fronting Broad Street and Charing Cross, as well as directly from Commercial Street. An almanac of 1870 indicates that land uses in this area included merchants, stores, manufactories of tobacco and snuff, as well as stables, offices and residential properties.
Although no 19th century photographs of individual buildings or street scenes within Commercial Street have been found in public collections, an aerial view [Fig. 14, above] taken from Pier Road in the mid 1860s gives an impression of the densely-developed and industrial character of the area at this time. This is in marked contrast to the more urbane character of Broad Street, which can be seen in the contemporary view in Fig. 15:
Many of the buildings on the land to the north of Commercial Street survived until after the Occupation, when pressure for improvement of the town gathered pace. The 1934 Ordnance Survey map [Fig. 16a] shows how this area had been intensively built up, and the supporting aerial photograph of 1933, which unfortunately is of low quality [Fig. 16b], gives an impression of the roofscape.
Many of the buildings and boundaries that are depicted on the Le Gros map can still be clearly seen on the 1934 OS equivalent, exactly one hundred years later. The line of the surviving harbour wall is superimposed on the 1934 map and aerial view to assist identification.
The late 1960s and 1970s saw the clearance of many of the warehouses, sheds and other structures and their replacement with office buildings and car parks, an early example of which was the Barclay Trust House development that lies to the east side of the wall under consideration [Fig. 17]. The top edge of the ‘harbour wall’ is highlighted in yellow, having been revealed when the premised of J. W. Huelin were demolished. Over the next three or four decades redevelopment continued, with large new office buildings and surface car parks replacing the old redundant buildings.
The Physical Survey
The southern end of the so called harbour wall is located approximately 10 metres from the pavement edge in Commercial Street, and runs in a north-easterly direction for approximately 90 metres towards Broad Street.
In this view the eastern side of the wall is readily visible and forms the western boundary of the surface car park behind Barclay Trust House, built in the 1970s, which is located at 39–41 Broad Street [Fig. 18]. The western face of the wall is largely screened by a property at 35 Commercial Street that was occupied until recently by Hunt Bros., a scrap metal dealer. These premises comprise a two storey warehouse and an open yard, which is contained by screen walls, that lies further to the north-east [Fig. 19].
The physical characteristics of the wall have been appraised by means of site inspections made from ground level and also from first-floor level within the former Hunt Bros. warehouse. The visits were carried out in June 2016, updating earlier visits undertaken in 2011.
The first impression of this structure is that it is typical of the many tall, shared granite boundary walls that separate the narrow plots of land stretching from Broad Street to Commercial Street. However, it is unusually tall, being around 7 metres high for much of its length. The wall can be separated into three visually distinct sections. The first, near Broad Street, has been mostly rendered and painted, and is two storeys high. This section appears to be of lesser interest than the other parts of the wall because of the extensive amount of change that has occurred — the granite sections that are visible appear to be of relatively modern construction.
However, there is a rendered panel with this section that retains hints of an earlier gable wall that has subsequently been overbuilt. These indications take the form of fine render cracks and projecting stones [Fig. 20.
The western face of the wall shows this gable feature more clearly [Fig. 21]. The position of this feature seems to coincide with the eastern end of a building shown on the Richmond map, which follows a roughly east-west orientation.
This extract from Richmond map [Fig. 22] shows a building to the rear of the Charing Cross frontage whose eastern gable coincides with the gable feature shown above. It seems that the ‘harbour wall’ was built on top of the gable of this building, which was subsequently demolished to make way for more intensive development of the plot.
The centre section of the harbour wall is about 35 metres long. Its exposed eastern face is constructed in granite rubble bedded in lime mortar with an aggregate of coarse sea sand, though the lower section has been re-pointed in cement. At intervals along the face of this wall [Fig. 23] are projecting piers formed in concrete blockwork that reach a height of about 5 metres.
These represent all that remains of the premises of J. W. Huelin that were apparently last used as a showroom/store for sanitary fittings. The site was redeveloped for offices in the 1970s [see Fig. 17]. Above the tops of these piers at high level are vertical strips of brick let into the granite wall face that represent the positions of steel or metal framing associated with the super-structure of the demolished building.
At a height of approximately 2.5 metres above ground level there is a uniform band of re-pointed masonry about 350mm deep, with filled sockets at intervals, which is consistent with a pre-existing timber floor structure at this level having been removed.
At the upper edge of this band there is a horizontal offset in the thickness of the wall creating a ledge at floor level — this ledge is most pronounced at the southern end, gradually diminishing towards the north [Fig. 24]. There is no evidence for an historic floor at second floor level. The southern end of this part of the wall is marked by the beginning of a large-radius curve on its outer edge which extends throughout its height. Only the start of this curve survives, the remainder of the structure having been demolished, thereby exposing the core of the wall. The wall is approximately 600mm thick above first floor level, but increases to almost 1 metre at ground level [Fig.25].
The fact that both faces of the wall are in finished masonry demonstrates that this is unlikely to be part of a more substantial structure such as a pier or quay that has had its core and one face removed, but is almost certainly the external wall of a building, presumably built robustly to deal with the sea-edge conditions.
An examination of the outer (north-western) face of the curve shows that this curved wall-face has been filled with masonry so as to facilitate the making of a right-angled junction between the existing wall and the later southwards extension [Fig. 26]. This junction is reflected in an offset in the alignment of the eastern face of the wall within the Hunt Bros. warehouse. There are signs in the colouring and texture of the masonry that the wall above 2.5m high might be a later phase, but the evidence is ambiguous. To the south of the curve, the wall continues towards Commercial Street, and this section was evidently constructed at a later date.
This curved feature can be clearly seen on the 1964 Ordnance Survey map, which was issued at 1:500 scale [Fig. 27]. The curved shape of a structure can be identified, into the end of which an opening has been formed. This curved structure is in the same position and of the same form as the feature of the Le Gros and earlier maps. Just to the south of the junction between the western curve and the plot boundary is the abbreviation ‘Chy’ for chimney, which may be the left-hand chimney seen on the photograph at Fig. 14.
The western face of the wall, which can be seen in the open compound to the rear of the former Hunt Bros. warehouse, shows a uniformity of bonding and colouring over the entire height [Figs 28, 29].
The Commercial Street section
The section of the wall nearest Commercial Street has a length of approx. 18 metres and is relatively plain. Once again it is marked at its southern end by broken masonry, indicating demolition, which also shows the beginning of a curve turning to the east. [Figure 30]. The wall is worked on both sides, and has a maximum width of 1 metre at ground level.
The character of the eastern face of the masonry is similar to that of the centre section, i.e. very carefully constructed, un-squared rubble. The wall is built with large bonding stones placed at intervals so as to improve stability. The lower part of the wall, up to a height of about 2.5 metres, appears initially to be different in character from the upper parts of the wall, though the bonding pattern is similar. The colouring of the lower part is unusually dull — this may have resulted from activities within the buildings that once stood here, or, conceivably, from water action. Further investigation would be needed to resolve this uncertainty [Fig. 31].
The masonry has clearly been brought up to a horizontal line just above first floor level, above which the construction has continued. Below this line the wall is thicker, and the sockets for heavy floor beams remain clearly visible [Fig. 32]. There are also joist sockets at second floor level, now filled with brick. There are two blocked window openings in the wall at first floor level; these are trimmed with brick jambs and have been filled with rubble [Fig. 33].
The head of the wall takes the form of a parapet [Fig. 41], with the wall reduced in thickness to provide a bearing ledge for the roof structure.
At the southern end of the wall are the beginnings of the curve in the masonry referred to earlier; this was heavily damaged when the remainder of the structure was demolished [Fig. 35]. At the lower level, parts of the wall face shown signs of erosion, indicated by a rounding of the edges and surfaces of some the stones. In other areas nearby, however, the stones remain crisp and sharp, indicating that the cause of the erosion was possibly localised and may not have arisen from natural causes such as wind or water action [Fig. 36].
The western face of the wall represents the outer side of the buildings and structures described above, and shows fewer features. For much of its length
it forms the eastern interior wall of the former Hunt Bros. warehouse [Fig. 37], though there are exposed sections in the walled compound at the northern end [Figs. 28, 29].
In 1972, local archaeologist Margaret Finlaison opened a trench to the immediate east of the curve at the southern end of the wall, and discovered a substantial foundation almost 3 metres deep and 3 metres across at the base [see sketch, Fig. 38].
This was noted as being well-constructed in mortar, and contained large stones, especially at the base. This penetrated a thin layer of cultivation soil (100mm), beneath which was 600mm of clay, lying over grey sand. No plan showing the position and alignment of the trench is available. This foundation might relate to part of the building that was demolished on this site. An alternative explanation is that it might represent the remains of the town wall that is thought to have run along a similar alignment to Commercial street in a direction towards Ordnance Yard.
The wall structure described above is clearly of great significance as it provides tangible evidence of the development of this part of the town, and probably dates back to the late 18th century or some decades earlier. This paper offers a plausible explanation of its origin — that it formed the western flank wall of a warehouse that was built over the foreshore in the 18th century, and that the distinctive curve in its southern end was intended to provide a structure robust enough to survive the sea-edge conditions. A second phase of building further to the south replicated the curved shape of the initial structure. Whether this edifice started life as a protective sand wall remains an open question. One thing that seems clear, however, is that the wall is very unlikely to have been built as a harbour or jetty wall, as the nature of its construction does not support this. Nevertheless, unanswered questions remain about the builders of this enigmatic feature, and further work remains to be done to interpret the features that have been described above.
Stuart Fell 2016