The Valpy and Young letters

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This article by Philip Stevens was first published in the 1989 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Arthur Young

The friendship between Arthur Young, the writer on agriculture, and Richard Valpy, the schoolmaster and classical scholar, probably started when Young sent his only son, also called Arthur, to Valpy's grammar school in Bury St Edmunds. Valpy had been second master since 1777, and Young, after a tour in Ireland, was living at his farm at Bradfield, Suffolk.

Annals of Agriculture

No doubt Valpy had to write school reports on young Arthur's progress in Divinity and the Classics, and this led on to common interests. When Valpy moved to Reading Grammar School they kept up their correspondence. This is fortunate for us, because it led to Valpy's Tour to Jersey, a series of letters which Young published in his Annals of Agriculture.

Young was undoubtedly fond of Valpy, something which went beyond the usual stereotyped exchange of flattery between distinguished men. He called Valpy "a most learned, ingenious and agreeable man, in so much that I greatly regretted his departure, feeling almost sensibly the loss of his society. I have been occasionally connected with him since, and shall always hold him in great estimation for his learning, his talents, and the sincerity of his friendship".

In search of a wife

Yet from this distance Valpy seems a most unsympathetic character. After his first wife, Martha Cornelius, of Guernsey, died he paid court to a young woman until he found she had no money, and then went for a rich one.

"As we were walking together in your fields, you may remember we had some conversation about a young lady, who I was to marry. Upon nearer inspection I found her attended with such treasurers alone as were peculiar to the age called golden by the figure Antiphrasis, because there existed no money. I then, very naturally, you as a Poet may say unnaturally, sheered off before the engagement. Since I am in Reading, I have been endeavoring to find her a successor here, but in vain. At last stepping on the other side of the Thames into Oxfordshire, I think I discovered one, who will prove a very valuable prize in all respects. I sailed up alongside, hailed her and found her to be the daughter of a Gentleman Farmer, (as I think they call themselves) aged 21 years. She has during several years had the sole management of her father's house, and is most excellently calculated for my employment. She has received the best education, and is reckoned by others (for my opinion would be prejudiced) to be a very fine girl. She has now above a thousand pounds in her own possession, besides what she will have when it will please the Fater (sic) to call her relations from this wicked and perishable world. I have summoned her to strike and surrender, and tho' she is at present reconnoitring my force, I hope soon to give her a warm reception when she comes to close quarters." (Valpy to Young, 24 February, 1782)
Doctor Wackerback

This facetious tone, with its crude humour and naval metaphor, strikes the modern reader as calculating and cynical. As a schoolmaster, Valpy was a tyrant, caning pupils who did not find the classics as rewarding as he did, with such enthusiasm that he earned the name 'Doctor Wackerback'. He did not stand any nonsense from his staff either, as a French professor discovered. In the words of B B Bockett, one of Valpy's pupils: "Other, and those not a small section or class, were so daring as to assert that the very equivocal, not to say barbarous pronunciation of the Doctor, who, it was whispered, had studied the French tongue in some one or more of the Channel Islands, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney or Sark, was so offensive to the fine Parisian of our gifted professor, that he was only too glad to make his bow and retire." Yet, as Balleine says, Valpy revolutionized instruction of the classics and was the first man to teach Latin in English.


Far from having merely studied French in Jersey, Valpy was born in the island in the parish of St John on 7 December 1754, the eldest son of Richard Valpy and Catherine Chevalier. He was educated at Saint Mannelier, before going on to study at Valognes, Southampton and Guildford. At the time of the Young correspondence, he was a dutiful, almost annual visitor to Jersey. In the letter cited above, he added 'I hope in some future occasion I shall have an opportunity of recommending Young's Tour to Jersey & the adjacent Islands. But I shall not be able to go next summer to those islands ... Another summer, however, I hope the next, we shall cross the channel together.' Three years later, in the first of the letters to the Annals of Agriculture, he had not lost hope of persuading Young to visit Jersey, hoping to be his Boswell.

"Still has that foe to liberal enjoyment, local business, deprived me of a pleasure which I long have wished, and many would have envied: the pleasure of travelling with the Author of the Tours through England and Ireland. The sensible part of the world would have thanked me for having engaged you to visit so interesting a spot as Jersey. IIIe te locus mecum postulabat. After reading Johnson's Tour to the Western Islands, I could not help exclaiming: What would I give that Dr Johnson had travelled over, and thus described, the face of the whole earth!"

It is obvious that when Valpy wrote this letter (in August 1785) Young had decided not to go to Jersey, but it is not at all clear whether he ever went there. It is true that when Young was in Rennes in September 1788, during his famous travels to France, he noted: 'Cider made from same pressoirs as those in Jersey and which I suppose are imported thence', but he must have been remembering the Jersey cider-trough which Clement Chevallier installed at Aspall Hall, Suffolk, in 1728 and which he had described. (Young was surely wrong in supposing that Jersey exported cider-troughs to France: most or all came from Chausey.)

First letter

Valpy's First Letter to the Annals goes on to recognise the difficulties in writing about something familiar which has been taken for granted.

"Though a greater part of my youth was spent in the Island of Jersey, I have since seldom failed to pay an annual visit to my native country; yet the scenes which it displays, and the manners and pursuits of its inhabitants, are so familiar to me, that I never viewed the one, or examined the other, with an eye of curiosity. A voyager to the islands of the South Seas, or a traveller in the inland wilds of America, has an ample field for a comparison of the objects before him with those which his readers have daily before their eyes. But a discrimination of the pursuits and character of a people, situated between France and England, and differing originally so little in their habits from the former, but who have gradually adopted the manners, as they have embraced the interests of the latter, cannot but be attended with some difficulty. The state of agriculture in the island, et quocunque Jeret cultus tibi [undus, honores, are, doubtless, your principal object; but your wishes are not satisfied with an account which a few pages would close".

Next the dangers of the passage to Jersey and the uneasy tacking necessary to reach St Helier, are described.

"Arrived within a few miles of Jersey, a stranger will naturally think the voyage is at an end; but the most difficult part is still to come. St Hellier's town lies on the south of the island, and consequently a long and tedious number of tacks must now bear him against that very wind, without which the voyage from England would have been very troublesome, if not impracticable. I would, therefore, advise those who are induced by sickness, fear, or a pressing exigence, to wish for a short passage, to be landed, if possible, on the north side of the island. Nearly half the time, and more than that proportion of the danger, will be thus avoided".

The port on the north coast is undoubtedly Bouley Bay, from where Valpy left on 26 July 1787, for example. But Bouley Bay is

"far from the town, and the access from thence into the country difficult'. On ones arrival at Saint Helier, on the other hand, the landing is free of trouble. Instead of the gloomy faces which greet one in any port where a custom-house is established, only the bateau de santé delays the landing, making enquiries about the ship's cargo and the place it came from to take precautions against the introduction of infectious people and merchandise".
Richard Valpy

Second letter

In his second letter, Valpy describes the beauties of St Aubin's Bay.

"The coast, from the Town Hill to Noirmont Point, a space of four miles, forms a crescent, which incloses a magnificent scenery. At the distance of about a mile from each extremity are situated the Town of St Helier on the east, and that of St Aubin on the west. Equally distant from each town, and within two miles of one another, Elizabeth Castle, and that called the Tower, cover the entrance into both harbours. From town to town extends a level plain of sand, which at low water discovers almost the whole of the bay, opens at half flood a land communiction with the castles, and affords a most agreeable walk or ride. The forests of masts, which rise over the moles of three harbours, and the crouds, which flock to the piers at the approach of a deck covered with passengers, cast a pleasing animation over the picture. The hills, which bound the prospect, are covered with the richest variety. Orchards and meadows diffuse the verdure of the most luxuriant fertility on the vallies beneath, through which flow to the sea, at proper intervals, streams of the purest water.

He goes on to give the evidence that the island once formed part of the Continent.

"The passage between Jersey and Normandy is ... intersected with several ridges of rocks, some of which rise high above the sea, and even afford springs of pure water. In spring tides many parts of the channel are scarcely covered, at low ebb, with a sufficient depth of water for the smallest vessels. St Owen's bay on the western side of the island, it is more than probable, was once a forest. At spring tides trunks of large trees are discovered under the water standing where they grew, and roots have been found buried deep in the sand. Annual rents are still due, supposed to have been originally given to the lord of that manor for the privilege of sending hogs to eat acorns in the wood. The space between Elizabeth Castle and the land, which is now covered every tide, is said to have once consisted of rich meadows. And within the last three years the sea has gained upwards of twenty yards on the east of the island. Nor are its advances less rapid on the opposite coast of France."

Loyal islanders

Valpy was very concerned to tell readers of the Annals about the loyalty of the islanders.

"The majesty of the kings of England is to them sacred and inviolable. So convinced of this affection, and of their determined support of the cause of loyalty, were the fanatics under the usurpation of Cromwell, that a day of public rejoicing and thanksgiving was appointed in this kingdom at the news of the capture of Jersey by a formidable army. This they considered as the fatal blow to expiring loyalty. The last war has proved that the ardor of their zeal is unabated. Unlike the inhabitants of the West India Islands, who, indifferent to what master they belong, provided their plantations are equally productive, and who often surrender at the first summons of an invading foe; Jersey will struggle in the cause of this country, as for its very existence."

He gives three anecdotes to illustrate their loyalty, honour and bravery.

"A Jersey vessel was taken about the time of the last expedition against Gibraltar, by a French man of war. The crew were intreated, by every art of persuasion, and the most flattering promises, to assist in working the guns of their enemy. The failure of this expedient suggested other methods. They were thrown, in chains, to the bottom of the hold, deprived of motion, of light, and of the usual allowances made to alleviate the horrors of captivity. They were given to understand, that, if, on the appearance of an English fleet, they refused their assistance, the first assault should be directed against them.
"The rigors of their treatment were redoubled, and the only impression, which the immediate prospect of death made on them, was a more determined adherence to their principles. The ship was not engaged; but the broken constitution and emaciated appearance, which I observed in them, after their return, remain a monument of their heroic loyalty.

A French ship, sailing from Boston, was so reduced in her complement of men, as to obtain the freedom, and intreat the assistance, of the crew of a Jersey vessel captured by the Americans. They promised to navigate the ship, and so faithfully did they perform their engagement, that, when the weather drove them near the English coast, they disdained to make use of their superiority of force, and, by their exertions, brought the ship safe into a French harbour.

"Before the European powers had thrown their weight in the scale of rebellion, the Druid, of 14 guns, having under her convoy a number of merchantmen, was attacked by the Congress American frigate of 38. In this unequal conflict, Capt Carteret exhibited a degree of bravery, paralleled only by the gallant exploits, which have always distinguished this illustrious family, and more than once preserved the island of Jersey. In the course of the engagement his body was mangled by a cannon ball. Still he obstinately refused to leave his station upon the deck, nor did he close his eyes, until they had seen the enemy fly with all his sails, and leave the object of his cruise, after considerable loss."

French bounty

If this last account refers to Philip de Carteret, the circumnavigator, who indeed was in command of the Druid in the West Indies in 1777, Valpy has allowed himself some author's licence: in fact de Carteret lived on to 1796. A bit further on, Valpy's classical imagination is stirred by thoughts of the islanders' exploits. "The heroes of ancient Greece could not display more skill and intrepidity in their less honourable excursions against the neighbouring maritime states". From their knowledge of the French coast and tides, Jerseymen can run "under favour of the night, into the very harbours of the French, and cut out their ships". One Jersey privateer was so formidable that "the monarch of a great kingdom" forgot his dignity so far as to set a price of £600 on his head. The great object of the French, said Valpy:

"has ever been to have a port in the channel for the reception of a royal fleet. From Brest to Dunkirk, they have at present no place of security for their ships of war. Could they obtain possession of these islands, their expensive preparations now making at Cherbourg, as uncertain in the end, as they are prodigious in the extent, would be unnecessary, and their intended service easily and effectually performed. The island of Jersey in their hands would afford all the advantages, which the English derived, during the last war, from the possession of St Lucia. These may be called the negative benefits of this island to Great Britain.


Readers of the Annals must by now have despaired of Valpy ever coming to the point and discussing Jersey agriculture. His Third Letter, still from 1785, is concerned only with trade. He gives an account of the knitting industry, with an arresting image of Jerseywomen sitting in circles in the shade of trees knitting, making every moment pay; and he ends with an artless commercial for Jersey stockings.

"Four thousand tods of wool are allowed to be yearly exported from England into Jersey, duty free; and, having been finely combed, and perfectly dressed, are knit into stockings, gloves, and various other articles of dress. This is the chief employment of the women. The dexterity and expedition with which they dispatch a pair of stockings are almost incredible. To them light and darkness are indifferent. A woman seen without her stocking in her hand is stigmatized with idleness. So attached are they to this employment, that they have appropriated to knitting the name of work. In summer they assemble in large numbers, and sit in a ring under the trees, which make of all the roads a continued avenue; and the avocation must be urgent that can call them from the social party. In winter, a number of houses send forth their fair ones, nocturna carpentes pensa puellas, sitting on soft rushes, carefully picked and dried for that purpose. There seros hyberni ad luminis ignes pervigilant, and, from the close of day till midnight, an universal activity prevails. Nor let it be imagined that these hours are dull and tedious. They indulge their native mirth in innocent recreation, and the song of festivity forbids the intrusion of melancholy. The young men, returned from their more hardy occupations of the day, repair to these chearful meetings. There, seated in the middle of the ring, they pay their offerings at the shrine of beauty, and yield their souls to the impulse of love, which is here generally attended with an innocence and simplicity unknown in larger countries. The greatest part of the stockings manufactured in Jersey are exported to London, from whence they are sent to Portugal, and various parts of Europe. Their quality is so excellent, that few, who have experienced use of them, will willingly lay them aside".

Valpy tells us more of the stocking trade in a later letter (Annals, Volume 9, page 466ft). Stung by a claim by Mr Anstie to a select committee that Jersey smuggled wool out of the island, Valpy put the record straight. Jersey, which was allowed to import 4,000 tods of wool duty-free from England, had recently exported never more than 3,445 tods of wool manufactures; besides this, much is made for island use - night-caps, gloves, under waist-coats and pieces, and stockings, and more - called aventures - is destined for the Terreneuviers and for sale to the Newfoundland settlers. It is true that Jersey itself grows some wool, which is made into coarse cloth for poorer people, the combining being turned into coarse stockings, and some of this may find its way into France. But Valpy is quite clear that the island is 'most tenacious' of English wool, and in boats carrying an assortment of smuggled English and Jersey goods and tobacco to France, he never saw an ounce of English wool.

The other main export was, of course, 'Alderney' or 'Norman' cows: 120 were sent to England in June 1785, alone. Imports were uncountable - all the necessaries, conveniences and luxuries of life. "Were I to give you a complete list of the articles imported into Jersey, it would greatly increase the price of your next number", Valpy told the readers of the Annals. Even corn had to be imported, owing to the loss of arable land to orchards in the early 17th century and the population increase, although labourers ate barley bread.

Jersey's great source of employment was the maritime trade.

"In pursuit of this object, they make frequent voyages to England, Ireland, France, Holland, Dantzic, and many other parts of Europe. They employ several vessels in the logwood trade. But the Newfoundland fishery has hitherto been their first consideration. This year, no less than 63 vessels, carrying near 3,000 men, sailed from Jersey for this purpose. They dispose of their fish in the harbours of Spain and Italy, and their returns are in specie".

Valpy records that Jerseymen who had gone to Newfoundland on ships from St Malo and Granville had realised that the western coast of the Island of Newfoundland was an excellent fishing ground and exploited it. The French, having lost mainland Canada, were anxious to secure the coast, and tried to remove the Jersey settlement at St George's Bay, although the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, which ended the American War of Independence, had maintained Great Britain's rights to Newfoundland. Mr Syvret of the Jersey settlement managed, however, to persuade the French commodore of that station of British rights to the coast.

1788 engraving of a smuggler

Smuggling to France

Jersey's great value to England was as an emporium, trans-shipping £200,000-worth of British manufacturers each year to St Malo and Granville. The Jersey-Granville trade was mostly conducted by Frenchwomen, as their menfolk were in Newfoundland for most of the year. These women brought French linen, cambric, game, oysters etc, and took back Jersey worsted stockings, kersies, Manchester velvet, flannel, calico, cutlery and other English manufactures. All the goods they took back to Granville were, however, contraband which was hidden in this way.

"They wrap their goods about them, ingeniously metamorphosing their cloth jackets into jackets of Manchester velvet, flannel etc and their stuff petticoats into petticoats of stockings, calico, kersies etc. Thus equipped, they weigh several hundred pounds, and sometimes must be lifted out of the vessel by means of pullies; and at their landing are carried, or rather dragged, through the town by some of their robust companions."

The French customs officers' hands are tied, because of the clever ruse of a Granvillaise Lady Godiva.

"A few years ago, one of these women, whose name is Barbe Le Roi, and who is still engaged in this traffic, involving herself in these prohibited goods, disembarked at Granville. Immediately on her arrival, she was seized by the custom-house officers, and conveyed to the Douane, where they stripped her of every thing about her, that was illegal; after which there remained nothing but her naked self. The merriment occasioned by this phenomenon was great, and the officers could not refrain from several unseemly jests, and ludicrous reflections... Barbe Le Roi perceived that, with proper management, notwithstanding her present disgraceful situation, she might bring this seeming misfortune to an advantageous issue. Determined to raise a storm of indignation against the officers, she traversed the whole town in puris naturalibus.

This raised such anger against the customs officers that it came to the attention of the Queen, who gave Barbe Le Roi an audience, and persuaded the King to stop the searching of the women. Barbe Le Roi re-entered Granville as the local heroine.

Fourth letter

In this fourth letter, Valpy reproduces the petition from John Dumaresq of Jersey and Havilland Le Mesurier of Guernsey to the Lords of the Treasury. Some of these grievances date back to the time before the Navigation Laws which are the main butt of the petition. The Navigation Laws prevented the islands from trading with British colonies except through British ports where, unlike in the islands, there were customs officers. The British Government feared that with direct trade the islands would pass off foreign produce as British and send it to British markets, thus avoiding duties. The petitioners hoped that the Government might relax the Navigation Laws (as they had been forced to do for Ireland) but in the next year (1786) the Laws were made even tighter.

With that Valpy left the 'rugged and unproductive field of politics' into which he claimed he had been 'unwillingly brought'. On 10 February 1787, he wrote to Young to say that he would set about the 'agricultural part' of his Letters as soon as he could, but it was not until 30 September that he wrote his Fifth, and final, Letter. "I fear I have incurred the displeasure of those readers of the Annals, who deprecate the introduction of anything that is not strictly connected with practical agriculture." Even now, he hardly goes into detail on farming, but gives a picture of the countryside which can hardly have changed in the century since Poingdestre and Falle wrote.

"Double rows of trees on each side of the wider roads increase the number of beautiful walks. These trees commonly entwine their boughs over the road, and form a delightful shade in summer almost impenetrable to the rays of the sun. The hedges are composed of large mounds of earth, about six feet in height, upon a basis of more than eight; these are covered with tall elms, oaks, pollards, furze and bushes which still increase the porportion of wood.

Bentinck's 1771 Code of Laws which required that trees should be planted not less than 44 feet (2 perches) apart, to give sunlight to the corn, had been disregarded as absurd, and, as we have seen, the tree-lined roads made continuous avenues under which women shaded themselves while knitting. The roads themselves were generally sodden and in poor repair. 'The cart road in the middle is lower than the foot paths, and receives the water and dirt from each side. The thickness of the shade in many places prevents the free current of air, which would dry the middle of the roads.'

Modern farms

Valpy goes on to give an account of the modernisation of old farms:

"The houses in the island are built with a hard white stone, which is taken from some quarries on the Mont Mado, a mountain on the north of St John's parish. The stone is pricked into a beautiful surface, and is cemented into buildings, that seem to bid defiance to time or accidents. The courtyard of old farm houses is hollowed to a considerable depth, to receive the contents of the drains, for the convenience of dung; and cows, horses, pigs and poultry come up to the very windows. Even the dunghill is not suffered to remain inactive in the yard. It produces in great perfection beds of purslain, and the finest pumpions, which are either baked, or boiled with milk for use. The yard is carefully sheltered from the air by high walls, large gates, and by the tallest trees. Although some gentlemen have lately in their estates adopted the airy style, and easy elegance of the English, the farmers cautiously guard against innovation in this respect. The other side of the house compensates for this nuisance by the fragrance, which the garden diffuses; as there are few people who are not well stocked with bees, they have a parterre well stocked with a great variety of lilies, carnations and roses. The abundance of thyme in these gardens, and the particular richness of the Jersey honey, verify the assertion of Columella: saporis praecipui mella reddit thymus. Even sailors and merchants love to reside in the country, and keep their lands in their own management. The distance from the sea, and from the towns, can never in the island render this fondness for rural employment liable to any inconveniences in the regular pursuit of these occupations. From this circumstance, the English method of engrossing farms cannot easily take place. A large farm is soon formed into several divisions by the members of a large family; houses are consequently multiplied in such a proportion, that the island has in many parts the appearance of one straggling village. Interested in the welfare and preservation of their possessions, the inhabitants form a numerous yoemanry; and as the meanest among them have house and lands at stake, they will on all occasions defend the island with that resolute bravery which their enemies have frequently experienced."

So Valpy comes back full circle to the robustness of the Jerseyman, having avoided telling readers of the Annals very much about Jersey agriculture. It seems that he gave 'several valuable notes' about it to Thomas Quayle, and it is to Quayle's General View (1815) that one must turn for detailed information about Jersey farming at the turn of the 18th Century. In his protracted displacement activity, Valpy may have said very little about agriculture, but he gave a very readable and irreplaceable account of the island at the time.


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