St Helier’s former high street

In the continuing series by Jersey Archive the What’s Your Street’s Story programme has been adapted to become What’s Your Town’s Story? This month senior archivist Stuart Nicolle takes a look at Broad Street

Broad Street is an area of St Helier which has undergone much change over the past few centuries. It has seen a shift from its position as historically the town’s main thoroughfare and high street, influenced then in part by its proximity to the seafront and harbour, to becoming the slightly quieter neighbour to King Street (previously Rue de Derrière – the ‘back street’) as more shops chose to locate their shopfronts there.

This historic status as St Helier’s high street is indicated by one of the alternative names that the road still bears; La Grande Rue, quite literally ‘the big or main street’, which probably referred not only to its shape broadening out as you approach the Library Place end, but also its standing in the town.

Another name by which this street has been known is Rue d’Egypte, with both this and Grande Rue being used interchangeably with Broad Street in contracts and records up until relatively recently.

There has been some debate over the exact reason for the Rue d’Egypte title however the most popular assertion is that it was given this name because of the presence of sand there, meaning comparisons to Egypt were drawn. Early maps of St Helier show the reason for this sandy situation; before the development to the south of Broad Street, it was effectively where town ended and the sand began.

The narrower end of the street at Charing Cross was the location of the prison. Built during the 1680s, with prisoners having previously been held at Mont Orgueil Castle, it spanned the entire width of the road with an archway through which individuals, horses and carts would have passed before heading up Broad Street onwards towards the Market Square – now the Royal Square.

By the time of the 1834 Le Gros map the prison at Charing Cross had been demolished and buildings can be seen on the north, south and east sides of Broad Street. The south side by this time had increased in depth with buildings to the rear of Broad Street running through to what is now Commercial Street (then New Wharf Street).

One building on the east side, 1 Broad Street, was for over 150 years the location of the British Hotel and now houses Barclays Bank.

During the Occupation the hotel was run by Maud Venn, with her registration card describing her as the hotel proprietress, and her two daughters, Margaret and Maud, both listed as hotel workers.

At the beginning of the Occupation the hotel was used by the Occupying forces to billet visiting officials and some officers, but by May 1941 they took over the hotel completely to be used by German officers as an officers’ club or Offiziersheim.

Jersey Archive holds several scrapbooks kept by Helene Marie Sinnatt, who was friends with the Venn family, and seems to have been a fairly regular visitor to the British Hotel. One page records that Mrs Venn and her daughters, having been given notice of the hotel’s imminent requisition, decided to hold one last evening there with their friends on 14 May 1941. It includes headed hotel notepaper signed by the party’s attendees, along with the words ‘Happy Memories’.

A photo is pasted in the scrapbook dated the following day, 15 May 1941, and shows two soldiers posted outside the front door with a sign now designating it as an ‘Insel Offizier-Heim’.

After the Occupation the hotel continued to operate for a further 25 years before it was sold and renovated to become a bank. A photograph appeared in the Jersey Evening Post in March 1971 showing the old sign coming down for the final time, in what really was the end of an era for this longstanding Broad Street business.

Another prominent Broad Street building is the Post Office. Opened here on 21 June 1909 it was constructed on the site of two previous buildings, 15 and 17 Broad Street.

During the first few years of the 20th century the need for a larger site to serve as the General Post Office for Jersey had become apparent. The Post Office at this time was located at Halkett Place, in the building that is now the Jersey Mechanics Institute, next door to the Jersey Library. Before Jersey gained postal independence in 1969, postal services in the Island were governed by the General Post Office under HM Postmaster General.

In October 1903, the Postmaster General placed an advert in the local newspapers advertising that a site was required for the erection of a new Post Office in the Island. It specified that this site must have an area of no less than 9,000sq ft, with a frontage of about 60sq ft on to a main street and be in a ‘reasonably central and convenient position in the vicinity of the present Post Office’.

The minutes of the Jersey Chamber of Commerce in December 1903 record a discussion about where this site should be and they write that they are ‘pleased to hear that it was proposed to be erected in such a central business situation, i.e. in Broad Street’.

However, the local media did not appear to be as enthusiastic about Broad Street being the location for the new building. An editorial in the Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph, following the Chamber of Commerce’s meeting, suggested that the only benefit of the location would be during the potato season from May to July when there was a large volume of business done in the vicinity of the quays and the banking establishments.

They argued that the Post Office should remain in the Halkett Place area where the bulk of retail trade was conducted and where it was closer to town residents. The piece concluded by describing the opinion of the general public as being ‘repugnant’ towards the decentralisation of so important a building as the General Post Office.

The Jersey Evening Post was in agreement, writing that the relocation to Broad Street ‘would cause great delay and inconvenience to at least three-fourths of the inhabitants of the Island’.

Despite these protestations, Broad Street was indeed chosen as the site for the new building and in October 1905, 15 and 17 Broad Street were purchased by the Crown for the Post and Telegraph Service.

The contract for the building was given to Cubitt and Co of London with an estimated cost of £14,000. The existing buildings were demolished during 1908 and construction began. The front was to be built of Portland stone with terrazzo flooring and it was to be three storeys high. This included space for the public counter, sorting office, cycle room, instrument and battery rooms as well as separate spaces for male and female telegraphists. There were also offices for the Postmaster and Chief Clerk.

One of the new technologies integrated into the building were pneumatic tubes between the instrument room and the delivery room to speed up the dispatch of telegrams.

On the day of its opening, the press struck a more conciliatory tone regarding its new location, with one newspaper report stating:

‘…whatever difference of opinion may exist…there can be none at all as to the vast improvement which the new and up-to-date building just taken over is upon the old makeshift premises. When the dimly-lit and inconvenient character of the Halkett-place Post office is recalled the change to the spacious, airy, loft and well-lighted Broad-Street premises…is indeed striking and St Helier may justly congratulate herself upon possessing not only one of the finest buildings in the Island, but a Post Office which only those of the largest towns across the Channel can surpass.’

This article only touches on some of the stories of Broad Street. To find out more, the Jersey Archive will be hosting a free online webinar on the subject that people can enjoy at home at 7.30pm on Wednesday 21 April as part of the What’s Your Town’s Story? series.

To register for this webinar please visit jerseyheritage.org/athome/listen/live.

There is also a workshop taking place at Jersey Archive on Saturday that will be live-streamed online about how to use the Archives and Collections Online Catalogue. If you would like to attend in person, email archives@jerseyheritage.org as places are limited and booking is essential. To watch the live-stream instead, please register at jerseyheritage.org/athome/listen/live.

Jersey Archive is also open from 9am to 1pm on Saturday on a strictly limited booking-only basis. To book a place to visit and research please call Jersey Archive on 833300 or email archives@jerseyheritage.org.

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