The harbours that failed

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This article by William Davies was first published in the Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Having spent five years researching and writing a definitive study of St Catherine's breakwater - the harbour that failed - I came to the conclusion that it was not a viable undertaking in publishing terms.

Consequently, the manuscript rests complacently on my bookshelf; but it is, none the less, a fascinating story of skill, determination, intrigue, ineptitude, and futility, and deserves to be told, albeit in abbreviated form. It is my present decision not to publish the complete work that has prompted the writing of this article.

Last chapter first

On 23 February 1876 the States of Jersey somewhat condescendingly accepted St Catherine's breakwater as an outright gift from HM Government. It was the culmination of 20 years stonewalling tactics by the States, since Government had initially attempted to dispose of this useless investment "at a proper valuation".

So successful was this ploy that one frustrated official at the Board of Trade, endeavouring to elicit at least an answer to his letters, was driven to observe acidly: "In Jersey they take time for consideration". They certainly did, and they did so by design, because no one locally was eager to accept responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of a structure that was generally acknowledged, on both sides of the Channel, to have no practical use or purpose whatever.

Government might have concluded a more satisfactory settlement (though it was satisfactory enough to Jersey), if the people handling the matter had been imbued with faith and conviction in what they were doing: but they knew that they were trading with a fiasco, and they also knew that this was patently obvious locally.

St Catherine was one of several similar undertakings initiated originally by the Admiralty. When the shortcomings of these disastrous ventures came to light, they were passed on to the Board of Trade to be disposed of as beneficially as possible. Consequently, the file on St Catherine arrived one day in 1866 on the desk of Captain Bedford RN, whose first comment was: "It is anything but agreeable to take up and deal with the cast-off works of another Department, cast off, too, because they can find no use for them, though they cost the country some hundred thousands of pounds".

St Catherine was not the only failure that Bedford inherited from the Admiralty, and it is hardly surprising that he attempted to fob these matters off on to the War Office, whence they were smartly sent over to the Home Office, from where they were pointedly returned to the Board of Trade and more specifically, Bedford's desk. This diplomatic carousel inevitably took a long time to complete the circle.

This discourse primarily concerns the Jersey venture. Unable to rid himself of the pest, the intrepid Captain then tried every ruse imaginable to persuade the Island authorities to purchase the breakwater at a reasonable price, if not a proper one, but Jersey's officials were not drawn. For example, when it was learned that the Harbours Committee was proposing to construct the Hermitage Breakwater at Elizabeth Castle, it was suggested that the States could advantageously purchase St Catherine's breakwater and transport it, stone by stone, to the new site.

Failing that, if St Helier Harbour was proving inadequate, Bedford thought that the States might consider moving the Town to St Catherine. Neither proposition - each was put forward seriously - was received with any degree of enthusiasm, but the suggestion of moving the breakwater, as opposed to moving the town, to a new location was not as fanciful as may seem at first glance. There were no practical reasons why it should not have been carefully dismantled and re-erected elsewhere, though the economics of the matter may well have been open to question. Clearly, Bedford was clutching at straws and it is little wonder that he was dejectedly minded to observe: "What a series of blunders these Admiralty Harbours have been".

But the idea of transporting the breakwater caught local imagination. In 1869, one John Le Marquand proposed that Government (certainly not the States) should re-site it at Bouley Bay, where there is constant deep water. It needed an optimist of some stature to think that Government would pump additional money into this already acknowledged folly, and Captain Bedford had the last word in the matter: "When the Island authorities take possession of St Catherine's Pier ... Mr Le Marquand had better suggest his scheme to them". Meanwhile, Government, the States, and St Catherine's Breakwater, remained unmoved. The situation stayed that way until Government capitulated entirely in 1876.

Admiral Edward Belcher

The beginning

It is almost impossible to pinpoint a precise date when the rumblings for a deep-water harbour were first heard, but very likely the year was 1831. Rear-Admiral Sir William Symonds, later Surveyor of the Navy, married Elizabeth Mary de Carteret, heiress of Trinity Manor, in 1818.

A visit to various ports in Brittany and Normandy prompted him to write to the Lieut-Governor, Sir William Thornton, on 24 February 1831. The tenor of his letter was to appraise the Military Governor of the Island of the extensive harbour developments then in progress on the adjacent French coast. Being a Naval man with local knowledge - he had resided at Trinity Manor since his marriage - he claimed to be well placed to assess the peril facing the Island. He was, he said, cognisant of the urgent need for a proper anchorage where a naval squadron might remain afloat at all times, and there was no doubt in his mind that the correct spot was Bouley Bay on the north coast. This letter was duly filed in the Government office, and promptly forgotten.

The advent of steam as a motive power for ships changed the whole concept of naval warfare, especially around the Channel Islands. Prior to that, a combination of dangerous rocks, shoals, and an extraordinary tidal range, had provided a natural barrier not easily surmounted. Those with local maritime knowledge could assess with remarkable accuracy whether or not a foray by sailing ships was feasible at any given time: the risk of surprise had been slight in the past, but that was no longer the case with powered vessels not reliant upon wind, and capable of beating the tide.

Jersey's vulnerability to attack always had emanated from its close proximity to a number of substantial French ports - St Malo and Granville in particular - and Admiral Martin White showed that, even in the days of sail, it was feasible under certain conditions for a vessel to depart from St Malo and reach St Aubin's Bay in advance of one leaving Bouley Bay at the same time. If that was possible under sail, what were the prospects under power? The answer can be summed up in one word – ‘disturbing’.

The Royal petition

Luckily, Symonds' early warning had not fallen entirely upon deaf ears in local quarters, and a few forward-thinking States Members agitated for action. The upshot was a Royal Petition dated 26 August 1840. Unfortunately, after it had been received in London, this important document went astray somewhere in the tortuous corridors of Whitehall, which rightly infuriated the Bailiff, Sir Jean de Veulle. He complained as forcibly as diplomatic language would allow, but it was not looked upon as a calamity and elicited nothing more than a modest apology from an Under-Secretary several months later.

It is important to understand that strategic reasoning in the capital and in Jersey was poles apart. In London, Jersey - the Channel Islands as a whole, for that matter - was considered mainly as an outpost for aggressive action against France, should that need arise. In theory, peace between the two countries prevailed, but in fact there was a great deal of disquiet, as the Duke of Wellington stressed.

Locally, the Jerseyman was not all that interested in international politics: he was more intent upon protecting his Island, his heritage, and his property against attack, whether it be provoked or otherwise.

There is a wealth of difference in these points of view, but at least one scheming gentleman - Admiral Sir Edward Belcher - saw a way to placate attitudes on both sides of the English Channel. It was a misplaced and costly opinion which resulted in the construction of St Catherine's breakwater. It also resulted in the construction of the massive breakwater at Alderney, which was an even more costly mistake.

In fairness, though, the entire blame cannot be directed solely at Belcher, since he was aided and abetted by technical advisers who should have known better. Not the least of these was James Walker, civil engineer, whose behaviour in many respects is even more inexplicable than Belcher's. These men will reappear in following pages, but before they do, it is necessary to consider the intent behind the Royal petition.

Having lost the petition once, care was taken to ensure that it was not mislaid a second time. Whether or not it played any significant part in subsequent events is difficult to say. At best, it probably did inspire the Channel Islands Report in 1842; it is unlikely that it did more. The theme of the petition was that the Islanders were loyal to the Crown, they did not much care for the French, and they certainly did not trust them.

They were greatly disturbed by the extensive harbour works in progress on the Continental coast, which they considered to be an aggressive action, and they needed protection against surprise attack, the more so since steam had overtaken sail. Protection implied a regular Naval presence, but port facilities were seriously lacking while the cost of providing them, because of the extensive tidal range, was well beyond the means of a tiny community. Protection was deemed to be a Government responsibility, and in conclusion, Her Majesty was asked to arrange for the construction of a deep-water harbour without delay.

It seems certain that Symonds had a fair amount of influence with local politicians because they, too, opted for Bouley Bay as the correct spot for a station, though this was not specifically named in the petition. Unquestionably, it did have the merit of being the shortest sailing distance between ports on the south coast of England, and it also possessed deep water at all times, but having stated that, there was little else to be said in its favour and a great deal to be said against.

Admiral Martin White, a hydrographer of high repute and ability, spoke against Bouley Bay, though ironically little notice was taken of this exceptional man. If the Admiral had been heeded, development would have taken place at Noirmont, and in that event there is every likelihood that the port would have served commercial needs to this day and beyond. White also had very grave doubts about St Catherine when that spot was suggested. He warned what would happen time and again to all manner of people, and when the work proceeded, things occurred precisely as he had predicted.

Joseph Hume

The Harbours Commission

The Channel Islands Report of 1842 ostensibly investigated suitable sites within those waters for what were later to be euphemistically called 'harbours of refuge ' - technically, havens for ships to run to in tempestuous weather. In reality, they were to be potential naval bases, and the French were not hoodwinked in the least by this naive disguise.

The Report suggested that harbours of refuge could advantageously be located at Jersey, Guernsey, and Alderney. It is just acceptable that harbours in Guernsey and Alderney might have given succour to shipping navigating the English Channel if weather conditions made that necessary, but to suggest that any spot in Jersey was suitably placed to serve as a harbour of refuge to those vessels was ludicrous. The French thought so, too, and made appropriate overtures at Government level when work commenced on the St Catherine fiasco.

The report commissioned and carried out in 1842 was a joint Services venture, though the findings were submitted solely to the Admiralty. The team comprised Captain (later Admiral Sir) Edward Belcher, Colonel Cardew RE, and Colonel Colquhoun RA. They were assisted and advised by James Walker, Civil Engineering Consultant to the Admiralty as well as other Government departments, but it is fair to say that the body of the report was more or less a fait accompli before Walker was consulted on engineering aspects.

Indeed, it probably would be true to state that the findings were almost exclusively Belcher's. He was a man of strong personality, with access to influential people, and the Army officers were more or less carried along in his wake. Subsequent events surely indicate that Walker also fell under his spell.

The sites named for proposed harbours were Longy Bay in Alderney, Fermain Bay in Guernsey, and St Catherine's Bay in Jersey. These recommendations were not accepted unreservedly: the Alderney harbour was eventually constructed in Braye Bay on the north side of the Island, and Walker had something to do with that decision. It also was deemed unnecessary to have a harbour in Guernsey, but disastrously the selection of St Catherine in Jersey was accepted wholeheartedly against a wealth of good advice and warning - notably from the intrepid Martin White.

There was a further report prepared by a Harbours Commission in 1844, which was much broader in scope since the brief embraced the whole of the English Channel, extending into the North Sea if deemed necessary. Three of this ten-man commission were none other than Colquhoun, Walker, and Sir William Symonds, but suprisingly no reference whatever was made to the Channel Islands in that report. The Commission recommended that harbours of refuge should be constructed at Dover, Seaford, Portland, and Harwich, but it was not unanimous in its view. Symonds dissented on the grounds that in his opinion Dover was unsuitable and that Dungeness was a much better choice.

Why the Channel Islands were not included in this selection is an unsolved mystery, the more so because, less than two years earlier, Colquhoun and Walker at least, had been singing their praises as suitable spots. Whatever the explanation, it is a fact that by the middle of 1847 work was in full swing at Braye Bay in Alderney, and at St Catherine in Jersey. Portland also was developed at the same time, but that has no place in this saga. That is not so of Alderney, which cannot be entirely divorced from the Jersey venture, if only because the works were executed by the same contractor to the designs of the same engineer.

Bouley Bay

In Jersey Sir William Symonds' unshakeable choice for a harbour was Bouley Bay: "In truth, Sir, nature has formed Bouley Bay for an excellent Port". The States also favoured Bouley Bay: the Royal petition, though not actually naming it, left little doubt on that score. At one time Sir John Le Couteur also thought it most suitable, but Martin White, coupled with a new-born enthusiasm for a railway on the south coast, was later to persuade him otherwise.

Martin White had reservations about Bouley Bay, though he did not condemn it absolutely as he did St Catherine. He set out his very practical objections in a long report to Sir Edward Gibbs, the Lieut-Governor. Gibbs was not enamoured with the idea of a harbour of refuge anywhere in the Island, and repeatedly stated so in his reports to London.

Sir William Napier

St Catherine's Bay

White's protestations about the risk of deposition in St Catherine's Bay went unheeded. It is difficult to understand why this should have been so. He retired from active service in 1846, the year before work commenced at St Catherine, and in a career which spanned almost half a century, had built up a reputation second to none.

In those days it was not an easy matter for someone of humble ancestry to rise to the rank of Admiral, but White achieved it and did so because of his exceptional capabilities as a hydrographer. Between 1808, when he was posted to the Jersey station, and his retirement, he charted no less than 60,000 square miles of ocean; but his efforts were mostly concentrated in the western half of the English Channel and the Channel Islands in particular.

He earned deserved praise from such titans as Admiral Sir George Cockburn when he was the senior Naval Lord; Captains Thomas Hurd RN, and (later Sir) Francis Beaufort, RN, successive Hydrographers of the Navy; as well as Mons Beautemps Beaupre, Hydrographer of the French Navy. His Sailing Directions and his charts were universally accepted as masterly and definitive works.

Yet, despite all this, the men who conducted the 1842 survey did not consult White at any time, notwithstanding that he lived on the doorstep - in Clarendon Road, St Helier. When the details of the report were announced, he explained precisely what would happen, but from the top echelon of Government downwards, no one took any notice of him.

Over a period in excess of 20 years, Martin White had observed that St Catherine's Bay was shoaling as a result of natural causes; he even explained what those causes were. There were other objections that did not require the competence of a Martin White to observe, in the form of several sizeable outcrops of rock in the bay. These were not only hazards in themselves, but also severely curtailed the capacity of the potential harbour. But the crux of the matter was the channel between Verclut Point and the rock named Pierre Mouillee. He noted that this was silting rapidly and foresaw that soon there would be no water between the headland and the rock at any state of the tide.

The originators of this grandiose and disastrous project specifically designed the northern arm - St Catherine's breakwater - to extend from Verclut Point to pass directly over the Pierre Mouillee. It might be claimed that this was done unwittingly because it certainly simplified constructional problems, but White's warning of the consequences was loud and clear, and it should not have been overlooked by either Admiral Belcher or James Walker.

Their decision simply expedited a natural trend that had prevailed for an indeterminate time, and even before the arm was completed, it was seen and acknowledged that the depth of water in St Catherine's Bay, which never was really sufficient from the outset, was reducing alarmingly.

It was this one unacceptable factor, far more than money or a new-found bonhommie with France, that brought about the decision to abandon the project. Consequently, work on the southern, or Archirondel arm came to a halt not so very long after it had re-started, and remains to this day as no more than a stump extending a few yards east of the Martello Tower.

The Lieut-Governor of Guernsey

Any student of 19th century military history must be forgiven if he confuses one Napier with another. So prolific were they that their numbers in the British Army over a period of years cannot be counted on the fingers of one, or even two hands. One of the numerous Napiers, General Sir William, was appointed Lieut-Governor of Guernsey in 1842.

As was his habit, he interfered in matters that did not concern him, since Jersey quite positively was not within his jurisdiction, and Sir Edward Gibbs, as well as most other implicated people, soon crossed swords with him. Without question, he was exceedingly unpopular to the extent of eventually being relieved of his post in 1848. When that happened the Guernsey Star made no attempt to disguise its feelings: "With the certainty of the Island being relieved of General Napier, we are not curious as to minor matters".

Napier may have been piqued by the fact that Fermain Bay in Guernsey had been shelved, but his comments on the limitations of St Catherine were valid and cannot be discounted.

His main criticism was not so much the shortcomings of the bay itself (White had taken care of those), but more especially its location relative to those French ports from whence an attack was most likely, compared to the obvious spot for a landing in Jersey. The ports were reckoned to be St Malo and Granville, and the landing place St Aubin's Bay, or thereabouts.

This was logical thinking and one of the prime reasons for Martin White's favour of Noirmont for a deep-water harbour. Sir John Le Couteur wrote a paper, which he submitted to the Lieut-Governor, showing how simple it would be for an enemy to form the Noirmont peninsula into a bridge-head, easily supplied from the sea.

We already have seen that White pointed out that vessels leaving St Malo could reach St Aubin's Bay in less time than those leaving Bouley Bay. Now Napier added his own sound objections to St Catherine's Bay: "a line drawn from Coutances in France to Seymour Tower off the south-east point of Jersey crosses a range of rocks which cannot be passed from south to north, nor from north to south at low water without great danger. Capt M White says there are not half a dozen pilots who could conduct a vessel through".

Furthermore, even with the required skill, there would have been no question of doing so during the hours of darkness so that the risk of surprise, notwithstanding a naval presence, would still prevail. The range of rocks includes La Grande Arconie, the Anquettes, and the Chausee des Bouefs: St Catherine's Bay lies to the north while the passage from either St Malo or Granville is to the south. Napier's point was a most valid one, since the ability to intercept might well be in jeopardy, particularly at night.

When confronted with this objection, Sir Edward Belcher is reputed to have said: "Yes, but I have discovered an inner passage between Seymour Tower and the land". If he did say that, then he was a liar, but there is no doubt that he said something very similar to that effect. This was a most irresponsible statement from a high ranking officer, but it was accepted at face value in London, and St Catherine's Bay received the stamp of approval. The fiasco had begun.

James Walker

The civil engineer

Why James Walker should have supported Belcher so enthusiastically in regard to St Catherine's Bay is another mystery in this saga. As a civil engineer, Walker's reputation was second to none in the land: he acquired all of Telford's work when that great man died in 1834, but even before then he had built up a substantial practice in his own right.

At the age of 22 he was entrusted with the development of the East and West India Docks in London: he specialised in maritime projects and was also responsible for the design of the Victoria and Albert Piers in St Helier, which were more or less contemporary with St Catherine. In Alderney, Belcher favoured Longy Bay, saying that no pier could withstand the exposure of Braye Bay on the north side of the Island. Walker disagreed and won that argument, but time has shown that really the Admiral was right and the engineer wrong.

From an engineering point of view, the problems and conditions at St Catherine and Braye were very different, yet Walker produced an identical design for both projects. He soon had to change his ideas, since at first the Alderney works were destroyed by the savage seas as quickly as they were built. That situation did not pertain at St Catherine where conditions were much calmer, and construction virtually followed the original concept, excepting that it was not completed.

On the other hand, a much larger tidal range prevails in Jersey, so that to some extent the ventures were six of one and half a dozen of the other. But engineering achievements do not alter the fact that in both cases the sites were wrongly chosen, though for different reasons, and the two men - Walker and Belcher - must share that responsibility in large measure. In total, the cost was about £1½ million at a mid-Victorian valuation.

The contractor

Thomas Jackson was nearly 40 years of age when work commenced in the Channel Islands. He was the son of a navvy, and he too became one as soon as he was strong enough to wield a pick and shovel. Clearly he was an ambitious youngster, and it was not long before he was entering into canal-building contracts on his own account. Then, he became interested in railways but knew little about them, so he went into partnership with Alfred Bean.

Like James Walker, they developed a thriving business extending the length and breadth of the country. In general terms, Jackson handled the canal works while Bean took care of the railways. Walker, Jackson, and Bean, despite their different origins - Walker aristocratic, Jackson rough and uneducated, and Bean middle-class - got on very well together. They satisfactorily fulfilled numerous and sizeable contracts, extending from the Caledonian Canal in the north to the Channel Islands in the south. It is important to note that the Jersey and Alderney projects, although futile in the outcome, were nevertheless great engineering masterpieces.

It is a measure of Walker's respect for the practical skill of Thomas Jackson that he should have recommended the firm of Jackson and Bean to the Admiralty, when the St Catherine and Braye projects were under consideration. Any similarity between canals and monumental piers in tidal conditions is hard to find, and Jackson did not warm to the prospect at all. He pointed out that he had "no practice in constructing breakwaters, and that he hated the sea".

In the end he was persuaded at the insistence of Sir Robert Peel, but he must have rued that day, for he was later to discover that he was an appallingly bad sailor. Frequently, he was too ill to attend to his work for several hours after landing.

The fact that he was uneducated made Thomas Jackson's achievements all the greater. His ingenuity in devising machinery and methods to overcome problems never before encountered is a study in itself. When the shortcomings of the design for the Alderney breakwater came to light, Walker quickly learned to heed his opinion. Bean visited the site from time to time but only as a matter of academic interest, and really they were Thomas Jackson's own accomplishments. Both partners were able to retire in opulent comfort while Jackson was still in his fifties and Bean a good deal younger.


In March 1847, Jackson and Bean, civil engineering contractors, ensconced themselves in Alderney, and three months later, on 30 June, they took possession of the site at St Catherine. In Jersey, there were to be two quarries: one at Verclut to service the northern arm, with the other at Archirondel to supply the southern arm. There were forseeable but previously unnoticed problems at both of them.

In the north, Jackson and Bean were all set to start blasting the headland, that being the nearest point to the base of the breakwater. Officers of the Ordnance protested, explaining that they required the high ground at that point to mount their protective guns. Why a 'harbour of refuge' should need protective guns has not been explained, and certainly nobody had warned the contractor of this requirement. After a short delay, quarrying commenced further inland on either side of the point, resulting in the horseshoe ravine that exists today, isolating the headland.

Things were rather more serious at Archirondel: the proposed quarry cut across public roads causing them to be diverted. Then the stone was found to be useless, making another source unavoidable, and the spot finally selected was in Rozel Valley, a half mile away. This necessitated the building of a railway to transport the stone to the base of the breakwater which, among other things, resulted in the building of bridges and the diversion once again of the roads that had so recently been diverted. The opening weeks did not augur well for the venture.

By February 1848 the southern pier had progressed almost to the Martello Tower, and a year later the works extended slightly beyond. On 31 July 1849 construction of this arm was suspended without warning, the reason given being that it was desirable to do so in order to expedite completion of the northern arm. That was a hollow argument since there was labour available in abundance, while the Jersey Times mentioned a rumour that the real reason was because of "insufficient depth of water". That was no rumour: it was the truth, though it was not admitted at the time, nor for several years after. Work never did restart at Archirondel.

Meanwhile construction at Verclut plodded on to its designed length of 2,300 feet or thereabouts, which was completed after much trial and tribulation towards the end of 1855. The final act, the placing of the lighthouse, occurred in the spring of 1856, and marked the end of the entire venture so far as it was allowed to go.

The constructional cost was £234,235 16s, exclusive of land and other purchases which further amounted to more than £100,000. The breakwater is a great boon to rod and line fisherman, but so far no one has found any real and useful purpose for this splendid example of Victorian engineering skill.

Cholera and all that

There is a persistent old wives' tale that the construction of St Catherine's breakwater cost a life a day. Over a span of nine years, that represents no less than 3,288 victims and in reality is absolute nonsense. There were accidents, to be sure, and often they were exceedingly painful, if not lethal, but there is no evidence to show that the works accounted for more than two or three fatalities per annum. Even then, death did not always result from toil: in 1848 two workmen were drowned when enjoying their leisure time in a boat that capsized. Pub brawls also contributed, particularly in the many fights that occurred with oyster fishermen, whose calling required a knife from which they were never separated.

Bearing in mind the times, Jackson and Bean were enterprising employers. They set up a hospital in the cottage immediately north of the slipway in the middle of the bay. To this day that house is named 'l'Hopital' and there were two resident doctors in attendance. They did not only deal with the workmen's needs but also took care of the ailments among the wives and many children who formed the colony that had grown in the vicinity of the works, and at Gorey. The company also established a school of sorts.

In the summer of 1849 cholera reached Jersey, and although mostly prevalent in St Helier, it was inevitable that sooner or later it would break out at St Catherine. Dr Padmore of Bath Street assisted the resident doctors during this horrid period, and obviously excelled himself. In January 1850, when the epidemic was over, he was presented with a gold watch and chain "by the workmen of St Catherine's Bay Harbour Works, for his indefatigable services during the prevalence of the Cholera in that district".

But even before this dreadful scourge there seemed to be a certain merit in qualifying for hospitalisation. It is on record that in the twelve months ending 30 September 1847 "there were consumed in the Jersey Hospital 132 gallons of brandy, 112 gallons of gin, 64 dozens of red wine, 38 dozens of white wine, 3,253 gallons of beer and 747 gallons of ale". Presumably, the introduction of anaesthetics put an end to that, which is perhaps a sad reflection on progress.

Injuries usually occurred either in the quarrying or placing of the sizable pieces of granite that formed the structure. The stone was loosened from its natural bed by means of explosives, and this instigated a keen, not to mention dangerous, rivalry between the various foremen responsible for the detonations.

Initially, they were quite pleased to dislodge 5,000 tons of stone in one operation, but it was not long before that quantity grew to 30,000 tons. The Jersey Times advertised forthcoming explosions, and excursion parties from St Helier to witness the event were commonplace. One man who excelled himself in this sphere had the appropriate name of James Heap, and although these activities usually passed without incident, that was not always the case. On one occasion a comparatively modest discharge carried away two cranes and scattered fragments over a distance of one mile, hitting a man on the head, which surely cannot have done him much good. The local press claimed, however, that he "was not severely injured ".


Always, from the time the so-called 'harbours of refuge' were first mooted, there was a background of political bickering. That bickering was not confined to politicians, either: in 1847 the Duke of Wellington, then not far short of 80 years of age, was appalled by the state of unpreparedness in the country: "I hope that the Almighty may protect me from being the witness of the tragedy which I cannot persuade my contemporaries to take measures to avert".

Though his fears possibly were justified, it transpired that they were unfounded.

In Parliament three human dynamos named Joseph Hume, Richard Cobden, and William Williams gave the Home Secretary many trying moments. They complained relentlessly of the vast sums of money being poured into the sea in these ventures, though they were more especially critical of Alderney rather than Jersey. That is easily understood since the Alderney fiasco was several times more costly than the Jersey one.

They used every political wile to starve the projects of money, mostly by way of delaying tactics, and on at least one occasion earned the wrath of a certain Colonel Sibthorpe by so doing. He left his colleagues in no doubt that his sentiments were much more influenced by the demands of his stomach than by the needs of the nation. The affronted Member explained late one night that he had missed breakfast that day in order to be in the House to vote, only to discover that the debate had been postponed. Then, he had been compelled "to make a very hurried dinner" so as not to miss the evening session, and his gastric juices quite positively would not put up with further procrastination.

Joseph Hume wondered what manner of men had conceived these dreadful and costly blunders. He visited the Channel Islands to discover the facts for himself, and told Parliament that he had been unable to find "a single individual in Jersey or Alderney who did not laugh at the idea of the works being of any utility". He concluded his fiery outburst by adding: "Well, really, there had been some gentlemen's opinions taken who were not in their sober senses".

In retrospect, there is little doubt that the gentlemen he had in mind were Admiral Sir Edward Belcher and James Walker, though there are no historic grounds to question their sobriety.

The breakwater at Alderney still is a costly burden to the British taxpayer: each year the sea takes its toll and essential repairs are seemingly endless. This has not been the experience at St Catherine where, all things considered, maintenance of the structure has been remarkably trouble-free. It was this fear that bothered local politicians when Captain Bedford was attempting, on behalf of the Board of Trade, to unload an obvious Admiralty blunder on to the States of Jersey. From the time the lantern was first lit in the lighthouse at the seaward end of St Catherine's breakwater in 1856, 20 acrimonious years were to pass before the States magnaminiously accepted the structure as a gift in February 1876.

It is true that the breakwater cost the Islanders nothing, since they were also ceded property to produce an income for the maintenance that has proved to be negligible, but it is equally fair to say that it has given them nothing in return, either. The futility of the project, incomplete though it is, poses a poignant question: what was its real purpose?


Belcher was not an idiot, while Walker was a most competent engineer. Gibbs, the Lieut-Governor, was opposed to harbours of any sort at Government expense anywhere in the Island. The States, supported by Symonds, wanted a naval anchorage in Bouley Bay. Sir John Le Couteur and Martin White stated equivocally that Noirmont was the correct spot for such a harbour. Napier said that St Catherine positively was not. The Harbours Commission of 1844 disregarded the Channel Islands absolutely, despite the merits claimed in the 1842 report, but finally a decision was made at the highest Government level to construct a 'harbour of refuge' at St Catherine in Jersey. Why?

It is not a question easily or irrefutably answered, but there is one likely and plausible explanation. Admiral Belcher was an aggressive man; he believed in attack far more than defence, and he looked upon the Channel Islands - Jersey perhaps more than the others - as ideal stepping stones for invasion of the continental mainland. Cherbourg has been named as a potential danger to Jersey at that time, but compared with St Malo and Granville that simply was not so.

It was a much greater risk to the English south coast, and a French fleet based at Cherbourg undeniably was an enormous threat to that. Belcher, almost certainly aided and abetted secretly by the top echelon of Government, saw in Jersey a potential counter measure to this threat, and in geographical terms the most suitable spot for his needs was St Catherine's Bay. It is unfortunate that the hydrographical qualities of the area did not match up to their geographical counterpart, but if they had, the beautiful coastline of St Catherine would have been defaced for all time.

Carteret on the adjacent coast is no more than a dozen miles from St Catherine. If a powerful British force had been despatched from St Catherine and landed at or in the region of Carteret, the Cotentin Peninsula could have been wrested from French control simply by a forceful thrust eastwards to Carentan.

This move would have benefitted the British cause two-fold. Firstly, it would have severed the enemy base at Cherbourg from the remainder of France, which would have greatly reduced the invasion hazard so far as Britain was concerned: secondly, it would have provided an admirable bridgehead, including that great port, for a full invasion of the French mainland. This logic was fundamental to the D-Day landings in 1944, except that the spearhead once ashore in that instance was from east to west.

Both Belcher and Walker were in the confidence of powerful Government officers, and perhaps it was this knowledge of the true intent that obscured their eyes from the practical facts of the matter as they truly existed. If that is so, it is a sad indictment of two highly competent men because between them, most assuredly they nurtured a harbour that failed.

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