Saint Helier

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Saint Helier is one of the twelve parishes and the largest town on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands in the English Channel. It has a population of about 28,000, and is the seat of government for the Island (although Government House is situated in St. Saviour).

The parish covers a surface area of 5,738 vergées (10.6 sq. km.), being 9% of the total land area of the Island (this includes reclaimed land area of 957 vergées (2 sq. km.).

The parish crest is two crossed gold axes on a blue background, symbolising the martyrdom of Helier and the sea.

History

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Hermitage_St_Helier_Jersey.jpg
The Hermitage of Saint Helier lies in the bay off St. Helier and is accessible on foot at low tide

It is thought that the site of St. Helier was settled at the time of the Roman control of Gaul.

The medieval hagiographies of Helier, the patron saint martyred in Jersey and after whom the parish and town are named, suggest a picture of a small fishing village on the dunes between the marshy land behind and the high-water mark.

Although the parish church is now some considerable distance from the sea, at the time of its original construction it was on the edge of the dunes at the closest practical point to the offshore islet called the Hermitage (site of Helier's witness and martyrdom). Before land reclamation and port construction started, boats could be tied up to the churchyard wall on the seaward side.

An Abbey of St. Helier was founded in 1155 on L'Islet, a tidal island adjacent to the Hermitage. Closed at the Reformation, the site of the abbey was fortified to create the castle that replaced Mont Orgueil as the Island's major fortress. The new Elizabeth Castle was named after the Queen by the Governor of Jersey 1600-1603, Sir Walter Raleigh.

Until the end of the 18th century, the town consisted chiefly of a string of houses, shops and warehouses stretching along the coastal dunes either side of the Church of St. Helier and the adjacent marketplace (since 1751, Royal Square). La Cohue (a Norman word for courthouse) stood on one side of the square, now rebuilt as the Royal Court and States Chamber (called collectively the States Building). The market cross in the centre of the square was pulled down at the Reformation, and the iron cage for holding prisoners was replaced by a prison gatehouse at the western edge of town.

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George_II_statue_St_Helier_Jersey.jpg
The statue of George II in the Royal Square is the zero milestone from which all distances in Jersey are measured

George II gave £200 towards the construction of a new harbour - previously boats would be beached on a falling tide and unloaded by cart across the sands. A statue of the king (by John Cheere) was erected in the square in 1751 in gratitude, and the market place was renamed Royal Square, although the name has remained Lé Vièr Marchi (the old market) to this day in Jèrriais. Many of St. Helier's road names and street names are bilingual English/French or English/Jèrriais, some having only one name though, although the names in the various languages are not usually translations: distinct naming traditions survive alongside each other.

The Royal Square was also the scene of the Battle of Jersey on January 6, 1781, the last attempt by French forces to seize Jersey. John Singleton Copley's epic painting The Death of Major Pierson captures an imaginative version of the scene.

As harbour construction moved development seaward, a growth in population meant that marshland and pasture north of the ribbon of urban activity was built on speculatively. Settlement by English immigrants added quarters of colonial-style town houses to the traditional building stock.

Continuing military threats from France spurred the construction of a citadel fortress, Fort Regent, on the Mont de la Ville, the crag dominating the shallow basin of St. Helier.

Military roads linking coastal defences around the island with St. Helier harbour had the effect of enabling farmers to exploits Jersey's temperate micro-climate and get their crops onto new fast sailing ships and then steamships to get their produce into the markets of London and Paris before the competition. This was the start of Jersey's agricultural prosperity in the 19th century.

From the 1820s, peace with France and better communications enabled by steamships and railways to coastal ports encouraged an influx of English-speaking residents. Speculative development covered the marshy basin north of the central coastal strip as far as the hills within a period of about 40 years, providing the town with terraces of elegant town houses.

In the second half of the 19th century, the need to facilitate access to the harbour for hundreds of trucks laden with potatoes and other produce for export prompted a programme of road-widening which swept away many of the ancient buildings of the town centre. Pressure for redevelopment has meant that very few buildings remain in urban St. Helier which date to before the 19th century, giving the town primarily a Regency or Victorian character.

Pierre Le Sueur, reforming Constable of St. Helier, was responsible for installing sewerage and provision of clean water in St. Helier following outbreaks of cholera in the 1830s. An obelisk with fountain in the town centre was raised to his memory following his premature death in office from overwork.

The parish is the site of the Jersey Library and Jersey Museum.

Saint

Major article: Helier

Saint Helier is named for Helier (or Helerius), a 6th century ascetic hermit. The traditional date of his martyrdom is 555 AD. His feast day, marked by an annual municipal and ecumenical pilgrimage to the Hermitage, is on July 16.

Reference

  • Jersey in Figures, 2003 - 2004, published by the States of Jersey
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