Nicolle history of St Helier - Chapter 18

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Superstitions and social regulations

In common with other places which are shut out from much intercourse with the world around them, it is not surprising if among our forefathers great ignorance and superstition prevailed. The belief in a fairy race, both good and evil, in diablerie, or the bodily appearances of the devil and in witchcraft, occupied their profound attention.


In the 16th Century the Royal Court legislated on the subject of witchcraft, and our judicial records only too abundantly evidence the sad and melancholy results of that wave of unreasoning credulity which spread across the civilised world and affected almost every class of society. The mania for burning witches extended to Jersey, the scenes of such executions being generally the Market Place of St Helier, unless the crime had been committed on the fiefs of St Ouen or Samares, which possessed gallows rights. The land and chattels of the miserable creatures were then declared forfeited to the Seigneur.

In bygone days the Royal Court must have been an exceptionally busy body. The Bailiff and Jurats took upon themselves to regulate the course of everything and the manners of everybody. The price of food, the wages of labour, the value of the coinage, the export and import of merchandise, how people should dress, what they should wear, and what they should not, when they should marry and when they should not, all this and a deal more occupied their particular attention.

Let us cite a few examples culled at random from the Rolls:


Here is one matrimonial. In 1587 a young lady named Susan Gavey was betrothed by her parents to a young gentleman, Simon Bisson. She had evidently conceived an aversion to her lover and when the day came, refused to marry him. She was dragged before the Ecclesiastical Court and excommunicated; but the terrors of the Church did not frighten her and she would not yield. She was therefore handed over to the secular authority and

brought before the Royal Court, which in turn tried its hand at match-making. On 22 August 1593, six years after her betrothal, Susan was ordered to be present at Church on the following Sunday and there after service to ask pardon publicly of her lover and to beseech him to take her as his wife. In default of so doing she was to be whipped as incorrigible. Rebellious Susan obeyed and became Mrs Simon Bisson.

Here is another on a different topic. On 22 September 1636, a Sumptuary Law was enacted forbidding anyone male or female to put on garments not befitting their social condition and forbidding women to ornament their bonnets with lace costing more than 15 sous a yard, or to put on silken hoods, the wearing of which was reserved for ladies of quality.

An Act of the States of 26 March 1647 relates how many young persons got married without considering their ability to maintain a family. Such were to be presented before the Court and the Ministers of religion were requested not to unite in matrimony any persons who were not in a position to marry unless they obtained the permission of the Constable, principals and officers of their respective parishes.

This legislation was doubtless an attempt to deal with the problem of the poor and unemployed, a difficulty probably considerable in those days, if we may judge by the numerous references to the subject in the Acts of the States. The problem was met by many devices. Sometimes the poor were granted permits to beg in their parishes, at others they were quartered on the inhabitants and if these refused to take them in, the Constable was directed to distrain their goods and chattels and the Vingtenier to sell them after Divine service on Sundays for the benefit of the poor.

It is an undoubted fact that the misery and poverty prevailing in the 17th century amongst the lower classes in Jersey were great.


An Act of the States of 25 September 1666 recommended emigration as a means of relieving pauperism and a great many Jerseymen, particularly from St Helier, took advantage of the opportunity offered by Sir George Carteret to embark for New Jersey, where many of their descendants still exist.

With comparatively little trade, the burden of a surplus population seems to have been keenly felt. In attempting to gauge the condition of the masses in those days we must bear in mind that the means of communication throughout the island were exceedingly defective. The fine main roads of today did not exist and the roads which our ancestors were accustomed to travel by were hardly better than beaten and, in many cases, rutted tracks. When snow was on the ground, so impassable were the roads, that the Royal Court could not sit, as two Acts dated 21 December 1588 and 12 December 1607 inform us.


The means of locomotion were also very primitive; coin was scarce; rentes were paid in kind, so that in bad years all the produce of the land went to the rente-holder. When cereals were scarce and consequently dear, the poor farmer could not benefit by the increase in value of his crops. He was bound to pay in kind, while in abundant seasons, when he had produce to sell, he would only be able to obtain low prices.

To add to these evils, the Court and the States became possessed as we have seen, of that fatal mania for passing ordinances regulating the prices of food and merchandise in imitation it must in justice be admitted, of the example of other countries. The theory that necessaries of life should not be esteemed at the seller's will held its ground and a fixed price was set on all provisions.

Victuallers were closely watched lest in selling meat, eggs, butter and other commodities they should take more profit than the Court had ordered. Even farming was grievously interfered with. For instance, a person could only plant a certain number of apple trees on his land. With such prohibitions and restrictions as the order of the day and with such ideas prevailing on matters of political economy, one must not be astonished if trade languished and if farming did not pay.

The people, denied the right of free disposal of their goods and of the produce of their labour preferred idleness to work, and lived on charity.


The evils from which the Island suffered arose from the arbitrary and absurd legislative enactments of the day, but their existence was attributed even by far-seeing men like Lieut-Bailiff Philippe Le Geyt, to an entirely different cause.

It was then thought that the great distress prevailing was due to the excessive division of estates and opinion seemed inclined to favour the introduction of the system of entail thus to ensure, as Le Geyt says, the perpetuity of families. The States went so far as to petition the Crown to grant the Islanders liberty to entail their property upon their heirs to remain impartible. The States alleged that "the children of the better sort depending upon their partitions give not themselves to trades, and so by suites for portion an idleness and inundation of beggary diveth upon the Island".

The Crown acceded to the request, but stipulated that the greatest entail should not exceed the annual value of 100 quarters of wheat. A certain number of estates were entailed, but the practice has long ago fallen into disuse.

Apart from the unquestionable fairness and justice of our system of dividing estates, it cannot be gainsaid that it has contributed considerably to the prosperity of Jersey. Not only does our system imply a combination of the landowner, capitalist and labourer, but it spreads through a large class the pride of ownership, the feelings of citizenship and the sense of equality.

Nicolle: The Town of St Helier
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