Jersey: Not quite British - The structure of society

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Jersey's social structure has never precisely matched that of the rest of Britain. That is one reason why it was possible for the system of smallholder farming to continue for so long and why, over the centuries, the Jersey country dweller's character has tended to differ from that of his English counterpart.

Free men

Jersey has not known a time when a few families, inheritors of great estates, could wield almost complete power over mere serfs. Nobody, for example, has ever enjoyed enough uncontested influence to wrest land from others by means of threat, dishonest promise or doubtful law. Through time it became a part of the smallholder's perception of things that he was a free man, that none would willingly sell his own small heritage to another and would resist any attempt to force him to do so. Together, they also wielded enough influence over Island government to prevent such a situation arising in law.

In a community where people tended to be judged rather more on what was visible — namely the land they owned and the house they lived in — than on the money they had secretly stashed away, to sell would have been like parting at one and the same time with status, security and, it goes almost without saying, even one's livelihood. Thus if one man, hoping to increase his holding, wanted to buy land from his neighbour situated conveniently close to his own, his chances of success were slim. The soil lay even more deeply embedded in the Jersey smallholder's soul than cupidity in his heart.

As much to the point — there were no peasants in the condescending sense in which the word might have been used in England, no great chasms of social division, no political tradition whereby the powerful could browbeat the weak. True, the Island had its own hierarchy and was far from being a community of equals. But in the rural areas at least those who were important were not very far removed either in the social order or geographically from those who were not.

Influence in this small, tight community was spread far more evenly than could ever have been found in a nation of many and diverse people. All men had a voice and the population was too small for it not to be heard. While some enjoyed considerable authority and required respect, few of those who had it would have thought to step too far out of line.

There formerly existed in such isolated communities as that in Jersey a strange kind of brake which discouraged individual excesses of any kind. Each had a place fixed by society itself. Any attempt to move from it by bettering one's position (other, perhaps, than by marrying into the right family) would meet with sniffs of disapproval or outright challenge. It is difficult to understand such a situation now. But the consequence of living as one member of a small, distinct and unwarlike group must always be an inclination towards uniformity, a kind of togetherness even where there is hatred. Individuals are cemented together, willingly or otherwise and no matter what their position, by a web of oral history and tradition. It manifests and maintains itself through gossip, by shared experience and the simple fact that through generations of inter-marriage everybody knows everybody else's affairs. The very foundations of Island life ensured the steady presence of a levelling influence. It led to a restraint not just on change of any kind but also on what were judged to be extremes of personal ambition.

Whatever other reasons there may have been, from medieval times onwards there was precious little opportunity for any but a very few to acquire a great stock of land, that most precious Jersey commodity of all, as had been the case in England at the time of the Enclosures. And death and the division of his estate usually put an end to any hopes an individual may have had in life of passing on his wealth entire to others.

Integrated, lacking the sophistication that may be found in cities, developed by the flow of history in its own essentially rural way, the separate layers of Jersey's social sandwich were therefore less easily distinguished one from the other than would have been the case in England.


At the top were the seigneurs. The office of seigneur now has little significance, if any. But at one time they were, quite literally, la noblesse, the cream of local society from whom came many of the notables of the Island, including Bailiffs and Jurats. By reason of the greater income their families enjoyed they were often men of good education and through their position held considerable power in an Island which was insulated from the much greater powers beyond their shores. They were to be treated with esteem although not deference by the ordinary citizen, who anyway was very probably a blood relation through one link or another.

The office of seigneur is an ancient one. Originally it was similar in some respects — although, as it were, on a smaller scale — to that of an English knight enjoying the benefits derived from his sworn duty to the king. In a sense, though, seigneurs in later times could be better likened to chieftains. Within the boundaries of their territories — their fiefs — they had considerable authority. They required a degree of personal allegiance from their tenants (that is, those with holdings in their fiefs rather than renters of land owned by the seigneur, as the title might imply in English).

They also demanded those feudal privileges and dues in labour and kind that came to them by ancient rights through successive generations and from which, directly or otherwise, they obtained a part of their incomes. Both dues and privileges varied somewhat between one fief and another. For example, many enjoyed a right to own a rabbit warren or a colombier (a pigeon loft) whose inhabitants, free to fatten on the hapless tenants' crops, formed a valuable part of the manorial diet. Some owned a mill where their tenants would have to take their corn to be ground and who in turn had to help to keep it in repair by providing materials and labour. Some required from their tenants help at harvest time or the provision of loads of vraic (seaweed) to be put on their land. A few, seigneurs of fiefs nobles, even had a right to maintain gallows — although only the Royal Court had the right to condemn malefactors to hang from them.

It is hardly likely that tenants felt any peculiar sense of loyalty to their seigneurs. Some individuals were good; some were bad. They were a part of the fabric of the Island. Probably most people realised that in terms of good government within their own small domains they had an important role to play, somewhat as Connetables have now in running parish affairs.

Each seigneur had a right, and perhaps a duty, to hold manorial courts where various matters, mostly of a civil nature and including minor disputes, could be settled. Although important cases came before the Royal Court, quite substantial justice based on Norman customary law was sometimes handed out at these seigneurial courts, frequently through a jury of tenants. Thus in a way these were people's courts, intimate and far removed from the paraphernalia, the immense cost and the distant formality which marks justice today. Nevertheless, the judgments must usually have been fair in a rough and ready way simply because those involved almost certainly had an intimate knowledge of the factors behind each case.

The relevance here of the position the seigneurs enjoyed lies in the fact that it was the title they held, their authority and their privileges, which ensured a seigneur's social standing; rather, as might have been the case in England, than the extent of his estate, which could in some cases have been no greater than that of his neighbour.


The fiefs over which each had control varied in size, and the degree of status they conferred on the seigneur tended to vary accordingly. Some of them had names which ring delightfully to the modern ear and provide further proof of Jersey's historical links with Normandy. There were, for example — and still are - the fiefs du Prieur de l'Islet; des Vingt Livres; de Franche Mauvellerie; de Crapedoit; de Gondbrette; de Ganouaire; de Robelinoys; de Vauguleme . These fiefs, although of course not the land within their boundaries that did not form a part of the seigneurie itself, could also change hands — perhaps through sale or by inheritance — so that one man could be seigneur of several.

There were a surprising number of seigneurs. One authority has estimated that in the early 1600s there were between 100 and 130 of them — probably one to every fief. Even in the 1950s, when such things were listed, a total of 116 fiefs were noted in the Jersey Evening Post Almanac.

Not surprisingly, the high standing in society of so many seigneurs in so small a place tended in former times to make them arrogant, quarrelsome in the usual manner of the Tudor and Stuart periods and, of course, immensely jealous of each other, often disputing before the Royal Court over petty issues in an effort to outrank a rival. An Englishman of good breeding would probably have dismissed most of them merely as oafs and popinjays speaking a barbarous language. That was certainly not how they were regarded by the Island community.

Indeed, for centuries they were an essential part of Jersey society. Apart from dispensing justice within their fiefs and providing many of the Island government's leaders, their presence throughout the community ensured a remarkably democratic diffusion of influence and authority that would not have been found in the United Kingdom. Social restraints meant that few were evil, and many no doubt were good. They set standards. They made it possible for civil affairs to run smoothly and with the least interference from an excessively powerful central establishment, and together they formed an educated elite which was invaluable culturally. One might go so far as to suggest that the true worth of the seigneurial system as it once existed has never been fully recognised. But by the start of the Industrial Revolution the seigneurs' authority and influence, like feudalism itself, was beginning to wane, and with it the power to impose their authority or to benefit from the dues which once went with an important position that was bought or inherited rather than being conferred by Crown, government or vote.

However, the last of these rights was not done away with until 1966. It enabled a seigneur to claim, for a year and a day, the enjoyment of the income derived from the property of any tenant in his fief who died without direct heirs. By its nature, it seems an excellent example to indicate the variety of sometimes unusual benefits seigneurs formerly enjoyed.

The poor

At the bottom of the social sandwich, of course, there came the poor — the landless, the afflicted, the orphan; the hopeless, hapless people to be found everywhere in all ages. The Rev Peter Heylin, who in the early 1600s had referred to the peasants as `marrying within themselves like conies in a burrow', was the first person known to have published a book about the Channel Islands. He found Jersey 'exceedingly pleasant and delightsome'. But he was shocked by 'children who were continually craving alms of every stranger'.

Pauperism was probably the most serious internal problem the Island authorities had to contend with at that extended time in history when a social conscience, even in the Church, was not so tender, compassionate and all-embracing a thing as it is now. The individual, or his family, was expected to look after himself. It was not the duty of society to do so except in an extreme, and then only grudgingly lest the poor began to take advantage perhaps not so much of public generosity as of the wealth of the individual who had to provide it.

Not surprisingly, such a philosophy meant that try as the authorities might, the pauper remained among them. A year after Heylin's book was published an Act of the States ordained that children of the poor should be taken on as apprentices in order to learn a trade, while those too old or too young to work were to be maintained by businessmen who could afford to do so. The aim was good; the results evidently not so, for the regulations had to be re-enacted time after time in later years. Then in 1666 the Governor, General Morgan, devised what he must have supposed was a good idea. He sought the support of the States for a scheme to send Jersey's paupers, willy nilly, to the young British dominions of Ireland, New Jersey or New England, there to make new lives for themselves. He probably reasoned that because the Civil War had left the Island in such a bad state economically, it would be better, or at least more convenient, to export the problem than to deal with it.

The States — of which the 12 Rectors of the Island's parish churches formed a part — agreed 'in all sincerity of heart, and motivated solely by compassion'. But the United Kingdom authorities did not and the plan was dropped. Later, the States passed another Act forbidding the Rectors themselves to marry `persons of the lower orders' unless the couple could prove that they were able to support a family.

And so it went on, with various attempts being made to deal with the effects of poverty although never the cause. For example, in 1768 one of the first acts of the newly-formed Jersey Chamber of Commerce was to buy and import some 40 tons of barley to be used for the relief of the poor. Perhaps members really were motivated by a growing spirit of charity. More likely, since they had to pay for the cargo, by fear that the simmering discontent which was finally to explode into bloody revolution 30 years later might spread from nearby France to Jersey. Either way it is interesting to note that it was private enterprise rather than government which took action, and then only to mitigate a problem rather than to deal with it.


Rebellion of a kind did, in fact, occur the following year. The spark was a rumour that locally-grown corn was being exported, so encouraging artificially high bread prices. True or false, the news led to men from the northern parishes, including 300 from Trinity, going on the march to force changes. Very quickly the demands grew to include not only a reduction in corn prices but also the abolition of certain tithes due respectively to the seigneurs and the Church. By the time an angry mob got to the Royal Square a great many others had joined the original protesters. Together they stormed the Court House where, the Assise d'Heritage being held, the seigneurs were renewing their oaths of allegiance to the Crown. In the 'Welke which followed the poor usher was thrown over the railings and what would now be called offensive weapons were brandished. The disturbances continued for five hours. Although no blood was spilt one man present said later: 'I did not believe that any of the magistrates (Jurats) would escape with their lives.' Needless to say, the people's demands were met.

As late as 1847 — during the dreadful period of the 'Hungry Forties' caused by the appearance in Europe (including Jersey) of potato blight — there was another revolt over bread prices. A labourer's wage, fixed at two shillings a day, was not enough to maintain a family. Action was taken by clearly desperate men and women. The rudders of grain ships were removed to stop them sailing (but were afterwards replaced). Then a large crowd, gathering in numbers all the way, marched to Grands Vaux in St Helier. There, despite the efforts of a brave Centenier, they broke into the Town Mills, loaded carts with sacks of flour and started to make off with them. The disturbance ended when the Connetable of St Helier, showing remarkable courage, jumped on a loaded cart and challenged anyone to move it. Nobody did.

Soldiers from the British garrison stationed at Fort Regent later marched in and recaptured the other cart. But the protest was successful. The States agreed to sell bread at below cost, the country Connetables agreed to be more generous in providing parish relief — and rich residents, evidently scared by the possibility of real violence, subscribed the astonishing sum of over £700 to a relief fund.

Between those with status and plenty and those with neither there remained what can only be described as the middle class. It is a classification fairly new in concept and even now difficult to define. The English middle class began to appear, and be recognised as such, only at about the time of the Industrial Revolution when more and more people enjoyed better incomes and better education and could wield greater influence over all aspects of social affairs.

Middle class

So far as Jersey was concerned, this indefinite 'middle class' might be said to have included such tradesmen as merchants and shopkeepers, and those involved in building and maintaining Jersey's great maritime fleet of wooden ships. But the greater proportion were most likely the smallholders — the landed proprietors — and their families. Right through to the start of the First World War the latter probably formed by far the most significant part of the total social sandwich. As the prosperity of farming increased thanks to cider, cattle and potatoes, so too did their dominance in Island affairs.

Thus, by virtues of its composition and nature, Jersey's society consisted in the main of men and women who enjoyed a sense of cautious equality between neighbours that would probably not have been found in England, and certainly not after the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of that middle class which tended to form a sharp division between the poor and the rich.

There can be no doubt, too, that for the reasons already explored briefly the Island natives had characteristics unique to themselves and which in a number of respects were notably different even from those in the sister island of Guernsey. They knew themselves to be a quite separate people but yet were in part English, even though their history was not of England. In part they were Normans, although for many generations Normandy, as a region of France, had been enemy territory.

Jersey's limited right to self-government, the absence of overlords and the remarkable numbers of men and women who, these days, would be termed self-employed tended to make the Island's inhabitants of former times downright independent, parsimonious and disputatious. They worked hard because they did so for themselves. Despite restrictions on voting rights they enjoyed a strong sense of democracy because it has always existed. They were canny and Calvinistic in a way that often failed to prevent a liking for drink. They were clannish and suspicious of strangers — dour, even. They tended to have a love of money. They were obstinate but at the same time were adaptable, industrious and commercially acute.

However, when it finally comes to an attempt to pinpoint more precisely what even now, when almost too much has changed, are so often referred to as 'the Jersey character' and 'the Jersey way of life', one is left with a feeling of grasping at shadowy shapes glimpsed dimly in the darkness of the past rather than observed clear-cut in the light of the present moment. What definite shapes there are could perhaps have best been noted among the members of the farming community as it once was. After all, in the main they had ancestors of Jersey birth stretching back through the generations. But most have gone now. The Island has altered its course, although that is not to say that the spirit of Jersey has been lost.

Perhaps in the end it must be left to the individual to assess exactly what it is the Island has inherited from the ghosts of its past that still exists within the present generation to make of them an Island community that is different and, in many ways, unique.

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