History of the Channel Islands - Population and Social system

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The Population

Jersey's population was estimated at 12,000 in the 1330's but fell during the Middle Ages as a result of the plague and the constant French attacks. By 1685, however, approximately 15,000 were resident in the island. In 1800 the population was approximately 20,000 from which point the population increase dramatically to 28,600 in 1821 and to over 36,000 by 1831. This population increase was caused by a number of factors including the arrival of many merchants, skilled craftsmen and artisans attracted by the trading opportunities, half-pay army officers and the escapees of the French Revolution.

The Social System

Having considered the history of the islands and introduced some of the characters who played a part in the story of Channel Island plate, it is worth placing these developments within the context of the social class system that grew out of the islands' economic prosperity. These new merchant classes naturally became the main customers for the local silversmiths.

Islanders, with very few exceptions, emerged from the Tudor period living a very simple parochial life. Their houses were made of stone with wooden partitions and wheatstraw thatched roofs often left open to the sky to allow the smoke from the open central fireplace to escape. Some of these Upper Hall houses were occupied by the farm animals on the ground floor whilst the family lived upstairs, entry to the upper floor being by a first floor external staircase.

The people were sapped of what little money they had on the one hand by the taxes of the often absentee fiefal landowners and, on the other, ravaged by the constant attacks of the French. Farming consisted mainly of the production of grain.

They fished for conger eel from which they extracted oil to light their crasset lamps. Their houses were heated and their land fertilised from the collection of seaweed (vraic). Virtually every aspect of their endeavours bore taxes to the King and the seigneur.

Merchants' class

Gradually however, as a result of the establishment of trade, a new class of merchants emerged. The first were probably the mill owning families. These families had purchased from the seigneurs or the Crown the rights to operate grain mills. The ordinary people were prevented from owning mills and thus the monopoly enabled these milling families to become very wealthy. The control they held on the price of bread later led to riots.

The advent of the knitting industry was to increase the fortunes of the merchants and to provide a much needed income for the majority of the country islanders who produced woollen goods in their homes.

The country people began to come to the central markets in St Helier (established in 1562) and St Peter Port to sell their woollen goods to the local merchants for export.

The discovery of the cod banks off the coast of Newfoundland was to change the whole social order. The local families involved in this industry by the middle of the 18th century were to become very wealthy, and by the mid 19th century, many substantial fortunes had been accumulated. The ancillary industries of rope-making, chandelry and shipbuilding provided the basis of other fortunes. These families also became the owners of the privateer ships thus further enhancing their fortunes. Clearly these families were not prepared to live in humble abodes and the fine merchants' houses of St Peter Port, St Helier and St Aubin were constructed.

St Aubin was established as the main sea port of Jersey by the mid-17th century and it is recorded that the owners of many privateers waited in their houses at St Aubin for the Admiralty to adjudge their prizes. By the close of the 18th century, St Aubin was a very fine town indeed and it was from the vast cellars of these fine houses and those of St Peter Port that both the legitimate export trade and the smuggling trade were conducted at the close of the 18th century. Until the 19th century St Aubin was effectively cut off from St Helier, as it was not until 1810 that a road between the two was constructed.

These newly rich merchant families required fine goods to complement their new found status. Good quality furniture was already being made with mahogany imported from the American Colonies and the Huguenot silversmiths arrived at an opportune moment to meet the emerging demand for domestic silver.

Whilst the economic success of the merchants was undoubted, it should be remembered that this wealth was concentrated in few hands, the majority of the islanders remaining poor. This explains the contrasting picture of, on the one hand, the wealth of the new merchants and seigneurs who were to provide the demand for the silversmiths and, on the other, the occurrence of the currency riots of the early 18th century and the bread riots of the mid-19th century.

Seigneural class

At the beginning of the 17th century it was estimated that the seigneural class consisted of some 2,000 persons. They appear to have lived very much in the manner of the English nobility, many travelling extensively to England and France, often purchasing their goods at the markets of Lessay and Guibray, in Normandy.

They even sent their children to schools in England to be Englished, as it was known locally, and many were Oxford graduates. Some of the noblesse built large manors with elaborate gardens, entertained lavishly and engaged in hunting and falconry. At Trinity Manor the seigneur kept peacocks and the seigneur of St Ouen kept swans.

The emerging wealthy class of merchants was much resented by the seigneurs and in Jersey a 17th century act of the States was passed to stop the abuse committed by many of the lower orders who dress in a manner unsuited to their station. Ladies of the farming class were even prevented from wearing lace caps.

In Guernsey in 1780 the twenty leading local families constructed the Assembly Rooms in order to hold parties and balls. Membership was restricted to the sixty establishment families and officers of the garrison, the new merchant families being firmly excluded. By the 1830s however, many of the merchant families had intermarried with the seigneural families and the class divisions were gradually eroded.

The class divisions, together with the introduction of printing presses in 1784 and the resultant proliferation of newspapers, fuelled the development of the system of political parties in Jersey. The old families supported the Charlots and the new rich merchants, the Magots. This party system dominated Jersey life for over a century and was at the centre of many fiercely contested elections for the position of Jurat and other offices.

From the 17th century, the position of the Militia must also be considered as it greatly influenced the development of the islands' social system. The English officers and men garrisoned in the islands to complement the local regiments naturally influenced islanders, and their ideas and practices quickly became part of island life. An example is the gradual increase, at the end of the 18th century, in the quantity of silver imported from England and the resultant decline in the fortunes of the local silversmiths.

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