Nicolle history of St Helier - Chapter 24

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General review

The history of a town must differ from the history of a nation in that it is concerned not with large issues but with familiar and domestic details.

With the information available, an attempt has been made to trace the rise and progress of the Town of St Helier, sufficient to enable the reader to form a coherent conception of its development and its social growth.

Major changes

It will have been realised how very different St Helier in bygone days was from the town we know today. How time changing all things has rudely deprived us of almost every memorial of the past. Even with the nomenclature of the streets time has dealt unkindly. Not one of the old names survives and yet some of these were infinitely more picturesque than their modern successors, and they all gave an insight into local history.

But if St Helier has lost its ancient characteristics and old memories, we must console ourselves with the fact that it can point to a remarkable and very rapid development during the 19th century and can claim to have made during this epoch an intelligent and worthy use of its opportunities.

We have seen how the town of St Helier was originally the offshoot of a monastery, how under the shadow of the famous Abbey of St Helier it grew and its municipal institutions with it. We have also seen how the town assumed the name which the Abbey lost, when at the end of the 12th century it was rebuilt to the rank of a priory and became known as Le Prieure de l'Islet.

As in a state the qualifications which should entitle a man to take part in the government of his country have always been the subject of dispute, so the same difficulties and perplexities beset the humble town communities who first attempted to solve the problem of how a society of freemen could best govern themselves.

In the early communities of the village or town, a community which possessed common fields or customary right of common over surrounding meadows, as the inhabitants of St Helier did, and which had doubtless found some regular system for the management of its own affairs, the obvious course was to count the landowners as the responsible men of the town. This is what happened in the municipal history of St Helier. From an early period the head of families les gens de bien, les principaux governed the parish and town.

In the history of English towns in the middle ages the landowners were replaced by the tradesman, the skilled artisan and the capitalist, but in St Helier, owing to its isolated position and the slow development of its trade, the government remained in its primitive form in the hands of the landowner.

Parish Assembly

The Parish Assembly has through all those centuries changed little, if at all, its fundamental constitution, and its members today as in bygone ages are mostly to be found in the ranks of the landed proprietors.

But if the principaux et officiers of St Helier in olden times enjoyed certain privileges, we must bear in mind that their independence was limited. It was certainly not such as that enjoyed by the citizens of English towns, who apparently knew no law and recognised no authority beyond their own. Self-government was in the middle ages the aim of every English town that deserved the name, but so far as any investigations show, the Town of St Helier had made no advance in that direction.

The early municipal administration of St Helier was entirely under the tutelage of the Royal Court. The Island was too small to permit of the existence of municipal life such as towns in large countries could boast of. The States and Royal Court, bodies then having co-extensive powers of legislation, formed the governing body, and the members of the Court contrived to retain their power and authority and did not suffer any encroachments on the part of the people.

The principals and officers, it is true, were often consulted by the States and by the Court as to the advisability of passing any given ordinance, but up to the end of the 17th century the powers of the Parish Assembly were of a very limited nature. The Constable could not convene a meeting unless with the consent of the Jurats.

His position, although he was a member of the States, was a subordinate one, and his office was regarded as an executive one to carry out the orders of the States and Court in matters of police and in the levying of money on the parishioners for States purposes. Falle informs us that even in his day the Constables had to remove their hats in the States and always stood when speaking, from which we may infer that the Jurats and the Rectors did not do so and possessed privileges which the elect of the people had not.


The liberty of the subject was not in those days much respected. Rigidly paternal was the character of the rule of the Royal Court, to which the inhabitants of St Helier were subjected, as is emphasised by many an entry in the Rolls.

An examination of the ordinances which were enacted in those days will show how difficult must have been the task of our forefathers to walk in the footsteps solemnly traced out for them by the legislature and to be loyal to all its precise edicts. To them danger must always have been present, their minds must have been always suspicious of pitfalls, whether it was in a parish assembly. in a tavern or at a friend's house.

The condition of our forefathers was one of toil that knew of little relaxation and less enjoyment. They were not to ape their betters in dress, nor to pretend an easy fellowship with those of greater estate. If a man lived immorally he was summoned before the Ecclesiastical Court, afterwards to be handed over to the tender mercies of the civil authorities.

The stocks were there for those who spoke disrespectfully of any official or who disobeyed any minor municipal ordinance. Every inhabitant had to go to Church at least once a week under pains and penalties at the discretion of Justice, to retire to rest at such hour as the good pleasure of the Court might ordain. In a word, the Court regulated the whole conduct of life of our ancestors. And they, be it said in turn, maintained a strict discipline within their own dwellings over their children and servants.

Our forefathers were enjoined to carry sticks for their preservation. Threatened by enemies and pirates, the Jerseymn had in those days to bear the whole charges of general defence, as the English garrison was numerically small. Militia service was probably more arduous in those times than even of late, for the men had by turns to mount guard around the whole coast of the Island from one year's end to another, so that an immediate alarm might be given if the foe approached.

More than this, the upkeep of the fortifications as well as all public works was almost wholly at their charge. Such operations were carried out by the forced labour of the community called the douvres. The public purse was empty then and the Ecclesiastical funds known as tresors were generally drawn upon for public purposes, particularly for the defence of the Island.

Coins were scarce. Commodities were bartered or exchanged, rentes were paid in kind, so that the citizen had to give of the work of his hands for the common good, or provide substitutes according to his ability.


The owners of the land ruled. The people were governed by the will of the majority of the principals and officers or "gens de biens". The suffrage was restricted to the only. Those who were not landowners had no voice in election. By the constitution of the Island every citizen was and is liable to be called upon to take his share in the public service, whether the office were high or low. A fine, heavy in those days, compelled the submission of the refractory citizen. Few excuses were allowed.

In the 16th century a Constable remained in office until he asked to be replaced, and then it would appear that an election was ordered rather as a matter of favour than of right. Nor was the choice of a Constable in early times left absolutely in the hands of the parish assembly.

Up to the beginning of the 17th century it was directed that two and sometimes three persons should be designated by the parish assembly and their names submitted to the States. The choice of the States then fell on one of them who was accordingly sworn into office. A similar procedure was adopted for the election of a Jurat.

For the people all the multitudinous activities and accidents of this common life were summed up in the Town Church. This was the fortress of St Helier against its enemies; the place of safety where the municipal treasures were stored in dangerous times; the arsenal for the arms and cannon of the Militia; the storehouse of grain to ensure against the risk of starvation in years of dearth.

From the church tower the bell rang out announcing the opening of the market, or calling the people to arms for the defence of their homes, to assist in putting out a fire, or to a meeting of the parish assembly. In the cemetery on Sundays, and on great feast days after service, the townspeople congregated to hear any news of importance to the community, to proceed to an election, to assist at a sale before the Denonciateur of some debtor's goods and chattels, or to see who would perchance be honoured with a place in the stocks.


The parish church was the centre of popular life. The Rector and church officers were the recognised managers of many interests beyond those of a strictly ecclesiastical nature. The Rector took precedence over the Constable and in the archives his signature is generally the first.

Religion and religious observances formed in those far-off days an integral part of the people's very existence in a way somewhat difficult for us to grasp, when the tendency is to set matters ecclesiastical outside the pale of ordinary wordly affairs. It is useful to bear in mind this change of attitude in any examination into parish life in the olden days.

If we fail to appreciate the intimate connection between Church and people, we shall probably misread many facts upon which a correct judgment of that time must depend. The parish church was the mainspring of the machinery of parochial life. The greatest possible popular interest was taken in the church, for it was the care and pride of the parishioners.

The last quarter of the 15th century in the Channel Islands saw the enlargement, restoration and rebuilding of churches, all carried out by the people, who had only the very limited funds of the tresors at their disposal.

It has been well remarked and may be accepted as a truism that he who would comprehend the present and divine the future must take his lessons from the past. The study of the past is indeed to be encouraged. As reflecting men become interested on behalf of generations to come, they naturally turn with sympathy towards the ages that have long gone by.

The good old days are gone. We venture to think there are not many, all the same, who would care to see their return. Most of us will hardly regard those ancient times with unqualified veneration. But none the less we must study them, and the closer we do so, the greater will be our harvest of experience, the sounder our knowledge.

Nicolle: The Town of St Helier
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