Sea travel to and from Jersey ports was the only way in and out of the island until the 1930s, but it was not until the early 19th century that these links really began to develop.
Before then the only people to leave the island's shores were fishermen; merchants; those who travelled on government business and the rich, and their sons who were sent to school in England or France.
Things began to change in the early 1800s, largely due to an influx of immigrants from England, many of them Army and Navy officers on half pay in peacetime, attracted to live in Jersey by its climate and low taxation and cost of living. Although many settled permanently and raised families in the island, others wanted to travel backwards and forwards to England. Their presence created a demand for trades and services which had not previously been present, fuelling a further increase in passenger traffic by sea.
Initially there were no regular services, and people wishing to travel had to reach an agreement with the master of a vessel whose primary purpose was the carrying of cargo.
The next advance was the introduction of mail packets to carry the Royal Mail to and from the island, and the provision of passenger berths on these small vessels was an extra source of revenue and a greater convenience for travellers.
Soon shipping companies based in England saw an opportunity to provide scheduled services, although in the days of wooden sailing ships, travel on a particular day to a chosen port could never be guaranteed. Gradually there was more and more competition on Channel Island routes, and the introduction of wooden paddle steamers in the 1830s introduced a greater regularity to the services.
Inadequate vessels and port facilities
The vessels used between the English south coast and the islands were often ill suited to sea conditions in the open Channel, having been built with inshore coastal voyages in mind, and shipwrecks and tragedies were all too common. Harbour facilities were also far from ideal, with the embryo St Helier port - the English and French Harbours - concentrated around La Folie. The jetties were inaccessible at low tied and there was a landing stage at La Collette to which passengers were ferried in tenders to be picked up by waiting horse-drawn carriages.
At this time there was a general merry-go-round of ships and owners. Early services were not profitable and fresh investors had frequently to be sought to join partnerships or become company shareholders. Few could afford to buy new vessels and existing wooden paddle steamers were switched from one owner to another and one route to another.
Thus started a process which would continue throughout the 19th and 20th centuries of ships being switched from one scheduled service to another, from port to port and from owner to owner. During the course the last 200 years Jersey's passenger sea links have been to every major port along the English south coast, from Plymouth to Portsmouth, and even around to London.
And in order to make their operations pay, owners often made Jersey and Guernsey ports of call on routes to Cherbourg and St Malo.
Some operators believed that direct services to Jersey were the best way of making money and routes opened up between Jersey and St Malo and Granville, and direct to Weymouth, Southampton or Portsmouth.
But rarely did these operations pay, and company after company went bankrupt, only for their vessels to reappear under new ownership, sometimes within a matter of weeks. All of this was unacceptable to Jersey businessmen and attempt were soon made to finance new operations in the island itself.
This led to the formation of the South of England Steam Navigation Company, which started by ordering two new ships specifically for cross-Channel routes. The Atalanta operated to the Channel Islands and the Monarch was on the Southampton-Le Havre route, although it occasionally stood in for the Atalanta on CI services. Monarch is one of very few commercial vessels to operate to Jersey of which no photograph has apparently survived.
The British and Foreign Steam Navigation Company, which had been in competition with the South of England Steam Navigation Company, could not compete with the new ships. Other companies tried to keep the route going but once the railway reach Southampton in 1840 the London and South Western Railway Company saw the opportunity to provide onward services by sea to Weymouth, Torquay, Dartmouth and Plymouth, and purchased the other companies' Southampton based ships.
The Act of Parliament under which the railway operated did not permit the company to operate ships, so this was done through the subsidiary South Western Steam Packet Company, which had an almost identical shareholding. In 1845 they won the contract to carry mail to the Channel Islands, and this elevated the status of the island routes, which began to be given prominence over services to France, and attracted better ships.
But so inadequate were the harbour facilities for both passenger and freight traffic in Jersey that there was considerable pressure from shipowners and merchants for the States to develop the harbour and the construction of the Victoria and Albert Piers not only allowed passengers to embark and disembark in greater comfort, but also permitted larger vessels to operate on the cross-Channel routes.
It soon became clear that the South of England company could not compete with the mighty railway company and they merged in 1846. The combined fleet was getting old and new vessels were commissioned. The new paddle steamers Courier and Dispatch started operations in 1847 and 1848. Dispatch was soon replaced on island services by the the older South Western, which operated from Poole and on to St Malo.
In 1848 a new Parliamentary Bill allowed the L&SWR to operate the ships without the need for a subsidiary company, and so began a long tradition of shipping services to Jersey being operated by railway companies.
At first cargo and passenger services operated with different vessels, but 1851 saw the introduction of the 'Cheap Boat' service using the Transit to carry cargo and passengers.
In 1857 the railway reached Weymouth, and because the L&SWR appeared not to want to operate a route from there to the Channel Islands (the port offered the shortest crossing and had always been favoured by islanders), the Weymouth and Channel Islands Steam Packet Company was set up with investment from Jersey, Guernsey and Weymouth.
The railway company could not ignore this threat and started their own service from Weymouth to the islands on 13 April 1857 with Express, followed four days later by their rivals, who had chartered the Aquila and Cygnus.
Express was wrecked off La Corbiere on her last scheduled service in 1859 and the L&SWR abandoned the route. The company had bigger plans, however, and having been granted permanent powers to operate ships in 1860, they set about expanding their Southampton operations. The port became the hub for the growing holiday trade to the Channel Islands and France and most freight was also carried on their routes.
Reliability of these early steamers was always a problem, and it was necessary to have a fleet large enough to provide replacements in the event of one of the main vessels having to be taken out of service. This was particularly important from 1870 onwards when the Channel Islands service was increased from three to six return crossings a week to provide a better mail service.
Older, smaller vessels operated some of these services, carrying some passengers, but most tended to favour travelling on the larger vessels.
L&SWR also kept two ships in Jersey for the services to St Malo and Granville, using the Atalanta as a coal hulk to keep them supplied.
From 1873 onwards ships were chartered to carry the increasing volume of exports of potatoes and other crops.
Improved steam engines
During the 1870s there were major developments in power and efficiency of the steam engine and between 1873 and 1875 five new screw steamers were built. The days of the paddle steamer were numbered, particularly following a number of serious accidents. The early screw steamers were Honfleur (1873), Guernsey (1874), South Western II (1874), Diana (1876), Caledonia (1876), Ella (1881) and Hilda (1882). Alderney (1875) spent most of her time on French routes and was rarely seen in the Channel Islands.
The Weymouth and Channewl Islands Steam Packet Company soldiered on between Weymouth and the islands, with some financial support from Great Western Railway, but this ceased in 1889 and the GWR decided to operate the service themselves.
They ordered three new, fast twin-screw vessels, Antelope, Gazelle and Lynx, while keeping very quiet about their plans for the Weymouth services. L&SWR was forced to respond, ordering their own fast twin-screw ships, Frederica, Lydia and Stella.
The race was on - literally, as subsequent events would illustrate. But L&SWR had been caught napping and over a period of only two months in 1889 the ratio of passengers between Southampton and Weymouth changed from 3:1 in Southampton's favour, to Weymouth edging marginally ahead. So L&SWR ordered a fourth, larger ship, the Ibex, which first called at the Channel Islands in September 1891.
Not only were the new ships larger and faster, but L&SWR were forced to provide better standards of accommodation, demanded by passengers arriving at Southampton on luxury liners and then returning home to the Channel Islands or France.
The limitations of Jersey's harbour meant that on some tides, the first vessel to arrive in the morning could berth inside, while the loser of the race had to await the next tide in the Roads. Risks were taken and corners were cut, although the rival railway companies insisted that their masters were not racing.
On 16 April 1897 Frederica left St Peter Port, Guernsey, ten minutes behind Ibex but was alongside by La Corbiere. Ibex hit a rock and had to put into Portelet Bay, badly damaged and with her decks awash. The chastened railway company directors began to hold meetings two restrain their masters from racing, but before any agreement could be reached, the Stella hit the Casquets at full steam in thick fog and 105 of 217 passengers and crew lost their lives.
To avoid any further such disasters, the companies agreed by 1899 to amalgamate their operations and share any profits according the the ratio of income between them in 1887 and 1888. Arrivals and departures were staggered to prevent the racing which had still been denied at the Board of Trade inquiry into the Ibex disaster.
There was trouble for the GWR in January 1900 when the Ibex sank outside St Peter Port after hitting rocks. She was not salvaged for six months and did not return to service until April the following year. Two months later the L&SWR's replacement for the Stella, Alberta entered seervice.
At the same time traffic on the routes between England and St Malo and the Channel Islands and the French port increased greatly. Many English people retired to St Malo or neighbouring Dinard, and as tourism boomed in the islands in the years before the Great War, demand for daytrips to the French coast was so high that even the quite large, by today's standards, vessels on the routes frequently left hundreds of disgruntled would-be passengers behind.
As plans were made to cope with demand on all the railway companies' routes, war intervened, and not only were new ships not built, but existing vessels had to be taken out of service and handed over for military service. Some never returned to their pre-war duties. The wartime fate of Channel Island mailboats is covered in the index to individual articles on these vessels. Of those vessels which did survive, several were kept busy well into 1919 bringing back troops and their equipment from France to England.
The war had left the railway companies almost bankrupt and in no position to order new vessels. The whole railway network was reorganised from 1 January 1923, and with it the companies' shipping activities. Great Western was not affected, but L&SWR became part of Southern Railway, with its maritime headquarters at Southampton.
One of the first ships to operate post-war services to Jersey was Caesarea, which had first been seen in 1910, along with her sister ship Sarnia, which did not survive war service. Caesarea sank outside St Helier Harbour on 7 July 1923, returning to port after hitting rocks off Noirmont.
New ships were ordered for the Southampton-Channel Islands routes, but there was insufficient response to Southern Railway's demands that port facilities in both Jersey and Guernsey had to be improved and the ships were diverted elsewhere.
The islands were forced to take action and after improvements were made, the Isle of Jersey and Isle of Guernsey were ordered, coming into service in 1929. Great Western had already had St Helier and St Julien built, entering service between Weymouth and the islands in 1925, and these four vessels, together with the GWR's new relief vessel St Patrick operated between the islands and the UK through to the outbreak of the Second World War.
- Transport: Links to more maritime history articles