History of the Channel Islands - Economic history and legislative control

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The legislative control of the Islands

The legal system of the islands was based on the Norman Grand Coutumier and many aspects of Norman law remain to the present day. Even after Normandy was lost to France and the islands came under the effective control of England, they still managed to maintain their own legal system, customs and privileges, these rights having been confirmed by successive monarchs since the 13th century. The system was however uncodified in Jersey until 1771 and from the 13th century islanders have maintained that such customs and privileges are theirs of right. The most important of these charters of ratification were granted by Edward III in 1341 and by Elizabeth I in 1559.


The islands comprise two Bailiwicks: the first consisting of Jersey, the Minquiers and Les Ecrehous; the second Guernsey, Alderney and Sark. The Sovereign was originally represented in the Channel Islands by a Lord of the Isles and, on one occasion in the mid-15th century, by a Lady of the Isles. The Lord of the Isles was replaced by a Warden or Governor exercising the supreme authority of the Crown. The post was more often than not a sinecure with the Governor appointing a Lieutenant-Governor as his resident deputy. The position of Governor was abolished in Jersey after the death of Lord Beresford in 1854 and subsequently a separate Lieutenant-Governor was appointed by the sovereign for Jersey and Guernsey.

The Governor in Jersey initially resided at Mont Orgueil Castle, moving, at the end of the 18th century, to Elizabeth Castle. In Guernsey the Governor resided initially at Castle Cornet, later moving to St Peter Port. Since 1290 separate Bailiffs have been appointed for Jersey and Guernsey, their constitutional positions being quite unusual. As well as having held the King's seal since 1279, the Bailiff is chief judge, first citizen and Speaker of the House. Initially, the post of Bailiff was also often a sinecure with the incumbent appointing a locally resident Lieutenant-Bailiff.

Royal Court

The first Jersey assembly was the Royal Court presided over by the Bailiff and Jurats. The Jersey States Assembly emerged in the late 15th century and comprised the Parish Connétables, Parish Rectors, Jurats and Deputies. Gradually a system developed whereby the States Assembly provided the legislative control and the Royal Court the judicial control.

The political system in Guernsey developed broadly in the same way with the States of Deliberation emerging from the Royal Court as the legislative body, and the Royal Court retaining only its judicial role. The island’s officials being the Conselliers, Peoples Deputies, Parish Douzeniers, Jurats, Procureur, Comptroller, Sheriff, Greffier and the Sergeant.

The islands' position as dependencies rather than as colonies was reaffirmed in 1801 when the British government separated matters relating to the Channel Islands from those of the colonies. The Home Office thus became responsible for the islands.

The economic history of the Islands

Perhaps the most important factor in the understanding of the development of silversmithing in the islands is the tremendous economic changes that took place from the start of the 17th century. The prosperity that emerged from the changes in the financial circumstance of the islanders was to provide a greatly increased demand for plate.

Up to the end of the 15th century, islanders were very poor indeed, living largely at subsistence level. But at the start of the 16th century, their circumstances gradually began to improve. The Papal Bull of 1483 had established the neutrality of the islands. In 1559 Elizabeth I reaffirmed this Bull and the islands' status as a free trading area, theoretically allowing their shipping entry to any port.

The islands had been exporting and trading goods on a small scale since the 12th century when Guernsey was involved in the wine trade between England and Gascony. Later conger-eel oil was exported to the continent. The Papal Bull greatly improved the prospects for trade and established the foundation of the great sea trades that were to evolve.


The first industry of note was knitting. Sheep were extensively grazed throughout the islands and their wool together with wool imported from England was made into stockings, gloves, caps and waistcoats and exported to France and Spain. The production of woollen stockings was so extensive that much wool had to be imported to supplement local production. An indication of the size of the industry that developed was the Jersey 1608 Act banning knitting during the harvest so as to provide sufficient agricultural labourers.

Later, as trading routes developed, the wool production was exported throughout Europe and the New World. Jersey and Guernsey woollen goods were much prized and it is noted that Mary Queen of Scots owned six pairs of Guernsey gloves and even wore a pair of the finest Jersey stockings at her execution ! The woollen industry reached its peak in the first half of the 17th century providing an income to islanders until the emerging competition from machine-made goods in the 19th century out-priced local production.

Fishing had always been a primary occupation in the islands, salted and dried conger-eels having been exported both to the Continent and England. The discovery of the tremendous cod fishing banks off Newfoundland in the 16th century led to the development of a very substantial sea trade that was radically to affect the financial circumstances of many island families.

Triangular Route

The trading route that developed as a result of the discovery of these reserves became known as the Triangular Route. Merchant mariners sailed from Jersey with French wine and brandy and Jersey-made stockings to the coast of Newfoundland. Cod caught there was salted and transported to the West Indies where some was sold or exchanged for sugar, rum, spermaceti and molasses. The mixed cargo was subsequently sold in Europe, the salted cod being much sought after in Catholic countries for use on fast-days.

Local families established salting stations in Newfoundland and many islanders left to man these stations. The sea trade further expanded to Virginia in the 18th century and to the Gaspe peninsular in the 19th century to include trading in tobacco, snuff, tea, coffee, brandy and rum. The islands at the time were regarded as world centres of trade and a number of very substantial local fortunes were accumulated. In 1837 the value of cod imported into Jersey exceeded £40,000 .

Privateer ships had been operated under letters of marque issued by Sir George de Carteret in the Civil War period and had been known as early as the 16th century. However privateering began in earnest with William III's abrogation of the Papal Bull of Neutrality in 1689. Privateers were vessels of war owned and equipped by a local individual. The Captain of the privateer carried a Letter of Marque from the King and Admiralty, licensing the seizure and plunder of enemy shipping either at sea or in port. The prizes were split with the owner of the privateer taking half and the remainder being divided between the Captain, the crew and the King.

In 1697 Guernseymen operated 30 privateers and by the end of the Spanish War of Succession in 1713, over 115 privateers were operating, gaining prizes worth over £100,000. In 1800 alone Guernsey made over £1,000,000 from the capture of French and American shipping. Many individual prizes were worth over £15,000 and, during a two-month period in 1807, a famous Breton privateer earned over £290,000 in prizes. This was at a time when the annual wage of an average seaman was £12 to £24.

The zenith of privateering was reached during the Seven Years War (1755-1763). Things were not all one-sided though and, during the first two years of the Napoleonic Wars, 42 Jersey privateers were captured by the French and over 900 Jersey seamen taken prisoner.


On the back of the fishing and privateering business and in additon to those ships purchased in England and Newfoundland a substantial ship building industry developed in both Jersey and Guernsey. In 1800, 35 ships were constructed in Guernsey and between 1830 and 1840 over 300 ships were built. In Jersey 74 ships were registered in 1816 and by 1865 the total exceeded 450. The shipbuilding industry sprouted a number of ancillary trades including carpentry shops, shipwrights, ropemakers, chandlers and sail-makers.

For over 75 years, from the mid-18th century, smuggling became a major industry in the islands. Huge quantities of duty free wine, brandy and tobacco were illegally landed in England and France. The smuggled goods were kept in the cellars of the grand merchants' houses in St Aubin, St Helier and St Peter Port to be transferred into locally produced small kegs and loaded at night onto local ships. It is an indication of the size of the smuggling operations that a petition of 1800 stated that 'the manufacture of small casks employs at present and gives bread to many hundreds of families'. This industry rather amusingly known locally as La Fraude was killed off by the establishment of Customs Houses in the first decade of the 19th century.

The export of illegal goods was in addition to the legitimate export trade to England and France of goods of all kinds. An act of Parliament in 1717 had confirmed the right of islanders to export to England goods of local growth or manufacture without the payment of duty, and, as a consequence, much local production was legitimately exported. The island merchants also took advantage of the taxation system that allowed manufactured articles to be imported into England without the payment of duty and as an example during the 19th century a substantial shoe manufacturing industry grew up importing the raw materials and exporting the completed shoes to England and America.


The early farming crops were wheat, apples, turnips, rye, peas, oats, barley and parsnips. As agriculture improved over the centuries many other crops were introduced to meet local or export demand.

For nearly three centuries apples and the production of cider represented a major industry. Poigndestre stated in 1685 that nearly every house had an apple orchard. By 1800, 25% of all Jersey land and 20% of Guernsey land was devoted to the production of apples, and cider was the main source of the farmers' income. By 1801, 2,000,000 gallons of Guernsey cider were being produced, and in the 1830s nearly 300,000 gallons of Jersey cider were exported annually to England. The granite apple crushers seen today in so many Guernsey and Jersey farms are a reminder of this industry. The famous Jersey and Guernsey cows also became a profitable export, the strains having retained their purity as no live cows have been imported into Guernsey since 1763 and into Jersey since 1789. By the mid-19th century Jersey cows were fetching over £400 on the export market and over 1,100 were exported annually.

The potato exporting industry began in the mid 19th century and the Jersey Royal potato, developed largely by accident in 1880, became a very successful export. Rather appropriately this potato became known as the Royal Jersey Fluke. By 1891 over 70,000 tons were being exported annually.

In Guernsey, grapes and melons were grown in glasshouses in the 1840s and by the 1870s the tomato was being successfully grown.


The port of Gorey in Jersey developed as a result of the growing oyster trade. Local fishermen had for centuries dredged for oysters, but as dredging increased, the beds became endangered. In 1755 the States banned dredging oysters in months containing an R. The discovery of a new bank of oysters in 1797 led to increased commercial interest in the industry and by the 1830s over 1,000 local people and a similar number of Englishmen were engaged in the industry, dredging over 300,000 bushels annually.

As a result the oyster beds were very quickly depleted. In 1838 this situation led to riots requiring the intervention of the garrison and the Militia to quell what became known as The Battle of Oyster Shells. The attempts to restrict dredging proved unsuccessful and by 1850 the beds were virtually exhausted.

Granite quarrying expanded in both Jersey and Guernsey and in the 19th century cut stone was exported throughout the south of England. Most of the Thames Embankment is constructed of Jersey and Guernsey dressed stone and in 1854 alone 120,000 tons of stone was exported.


Communications with England improved at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1811 a twice weekly cutter service began, and by the 1830s there were many regular steamer services from the islands to England. These steamers resulted in the growth of the tourist trade in the islands and by 1835 Jersey had become a popular holiday resort. Telegraphic communications were established in 1858.

By the mid-19th century the island had become a flourishing centre of commerce. A system of private banks had evolved early in the century but in the 1870s and 1880s, largely as a result of fraud, three of these banks collapsed. This caused widespread hardship amongst the business community and some of the largest Jersey companies were forced to file for protection from their creditors or were driven into bankruptcy.

This event marked the beginning of the end for these companies, and by the end of the 19th century the islands' days as merchant sea trading capitals were over. The small sailing ships carrying salted cod were no competition for the new steamers able to meet the demand for fresh fish.

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