George Deslandes and Son, shipbuilders and ship owners

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The First Tower shipyard in 1870

George Deslandes, who was born in St Helier in 1784, built one of Jersey’s largest shipbuilding and ship owning businesses. In this enterprise, he was ably assisted by his son, also named George (1808-1893) but the life of the latter was far from trouble-free.

Family

Three of his first five children died before reaching the age of five and his first wife, who bore him 11 children, died at the age of 44. His eldest son predeceased him, and in the 1870s he saw saw the results of all his and his father`s hard work disappear when the business went bankrupt – an all-too-common fate for major Jersey enterprises at the time.

George lived to the age of 84, and having married for a second time, and become a grandfather at least 24 times, he was able to say that he had reached 25 years of marriage with both his wives.

The origins of the Deslandes family are uncertain. Some believe that the name orginated within Jersey and that the family was named after the Les Landes area of St Ouen in the north-west of the island. This, however, seems most unlikely as there are no early records of the family in that parish. On the other hand, in early 14th century Trinity and in all that parish`s court and clerical records from the 16th century, the name appears, as it does also in St Clement in the 17th century. Lastly, none of more than 350 Deslandes baptisms appear in the St Ouen registers.

The family name is common in Normandy today and is unlikely to have spread there from Jersey. The surname will be derived from any one of a number of places with typically woody heathland covered in gorse or furze. If, as seems most likely, the family did reach Jersey from Normandy, there is no way of knowing which particular hamlet or commune they came from.

George Deslandes’ family were first recorded in 1309 in Trinity. It was in this parish that Pierre Deslandes and Sara Dorey ( -1653) were married in 1623. Jean, their second child, was born there in 1628 and he married Marie Hamon in St John in 1656. Their eldest child, another Jean, was born in that parish in the same year. This younger Jean married Susanne Coutanche (1655- ) in St John in 1683, and their first child Elie (1683-1780) was also born there.

Thirteen years later, in 1696, Jean was one of the signatories in St John of the Jersey Oath of Association of allegiance to William III. Elie married his first wife Marguerite Norman ( -1749) in St John in 1719 and their eldest son, another Elie, was born in that parish in 1727.

Move to St Helier

The family moved to St Helier early in the 18th century. The second Elie married Elizabeth Neel there in 1755 and their eldest child was the third Elie (1755-1803). He and Jeanne Bisson (1758-1847) were married in 1777 and the fourth of their 14 children, who included a set of triplets, was George (1784-1857).

Elie drowned with two of his teenage daughters in 1803 while gathering vraic at Le Dicq. His widow was left with nine surviving children, the youngest of whom was only four.

George was Elie's second surviving son and was nearly 19 when his father and sisters were drowned. His older brother, another Elie, was already married with at least one child of his own. In 1806 George married Judith Noel (1784-1843), the daughter of Francis Noel and Judith (née Payne).

George and Judith had four sons and four daughters over 17 years, the eldest being named George. He was not the only son to enter the family business, his brothers Jean and Philip becoming captains of family ships, as did son-in-law Thomas Vibert, who married George and Judith’s daughter Julia, and later her younger siste Ann following Julia's death.

George Deslandes and Son was founded by George, the father, and between 1824 and 1875 it built 107 vessels with a total weight of over 16,000 tons. By 1864 the shipping side of the business was operating 21 vessels with a combined weight of 4,687 tons. The younger Geroge was to take control of the enterprise after his father’s death in 1857.

George Deslandes (right) and members of his family about 1900

First ship

George was nearly 16 when his father launched the first of the 107 ships, a 107-ton brigantine Aurora , which was built in St Helier Harbour at La Folie.

Most of the ships were to be built at the family’s second yard at First Tower, which opened in 1827 and became their main base of operations, where 80 ships were built and launched.

In A People of the Sea, A G Jamieson writes about the Deslandes business:

”The two George Deslandes, father and son, were second only to Frederick Clarke among Jersey shipbuilders. Building over 100 vessels, the largest number produced by any shipyard in the Channel Islands, they constructed more than 76,000 tons of shipping. Although Deslandes produced some ships for British owners and one, the barque Hertha (257 tons) of 1857, for Hamburg owners, most of their vessels were built for jersey owners. The yard built some large vessels, such as the barque Royal Sovereign (573 tons) of 1848 and the barque Desdemona (581 tons) of 1864, but most of its output consisted of brigs and schooners. George Deslandes Son was the only Channel Island shipbuilding firm to own and operate a large number of the vessels it built, some being managed only until buyers could be found for them, while others were owned for years and were active all over the world in the carrying trade”.

The first ships the Deslandes used themselves were the brigantines Judith and Esther in 1827, and they were retained by the family for four years. By 1842 the Deslandes had the third largest fleet in Jersey with 11 vessels, having a combined weight of 1,490 tons. By the mid-1860s they had the largest island fleet of all, with 21 vessels weighing 4,687 tons.

Specialist ship owner

Jamieson described the business:

”Deslandes was no merchant shipowner, owning both ship and cargo. Nor was he simply building ships on speculation and running them himself until he could find buyers for them, for Channel Island shipbuilders rarely built vessels on speculation. Deslandes was the most successful of a new breed in jersey, the specialist shipowner who ran his vessels solely to carry other people's cargoes. He was not tied to any one trade, and employed his ships wherever the freights were best.
”Deslandes ships generally traded anywhere and everywhere, but by the 1860s it was clear that a number of their ships were being employed every year in the West African trade. Jersey vessels seem to have played a significant part in the shipment of palm oil from West Africa to Britain as early as the 1840s, but Deslandes vessels were not yet strongly represented. By 1855, however, three of the four Jersey vessels bringing West African palm oil into London were Deslandes vessels, as was the sole Jersey vessel which brought West African palm oil into Liverpool in that year. In 1865, four of the six Jersey vessels arriving in London from West Africa were owned by Deslandes as were the two Jersey vessels which arrived in Liverpool from West Africa during that year. Of the 21 Deslandes vessels whose voyages can be clearly identified in the first five months of 1865, no fewer than six, were trading to West Africa. Of the other 15 vessels, eight were bound to or from South Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Far East and Australia: three were in the home trades (stone and coal): three were bound to or from South America: and one was trading to Mexico.
”For most of the Channel Island firms engaged in the carrying trade, the 1860s and the early 1870s were years of prosperity. After 1873, however, trading conditions became much more difficult. The goods freights were now going to the iron steamships, but the Channel Island shipowners did not have the capital to move into steamship owning, any more than the local shipbuilders had the capital to move into the construction of iron ships. The Deslandes firm suffered on both counts. Its numerous ships found it hard to get good freights due to steamer

competition, and its shipyards received fewer and fewer orders. The end came in 1878 when Deslandes, the largest Jersey firm in the carrying trade, went bankrupt.”

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