The craft of silver making

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Family tradition

Goldsmithing, in common with other metal-working, tends to run in families, many of which are known to have continued in the craft for lengthy periods. Of the Channel Islands families, the Amiraux of Jersey, 1696-1808, appear to have worked the longest in the islands, though the le Pages of Guernsey, working from 1799, may be of the same family as that established in Rouen by 1542 and still working there in 1697. Several other long-working families of Norman goldsmiths had, or appear to have had, members working in the Channel Islands.

Amongst these are the Toutains, represented in Jersey by two watch and clock makers, who worked largely at Rouen in 1362-1642, the Saints, represented in Jersey by a goldsmith, who worked largely at Saint-Lô in 1600-1800, and the Héberts, represented in Jersey by a goldsmith, who worked largely at Dieppe and Alençon in 1590-1790. A number of other such examples may be made.

These families commonly intermarried. Two of the Amiraux daughters married two of the Poignand sons in the 1780s, but this tendency began much earlier, and served to cement together dynasties of goldsmithing families. It is not always easy to trace such relationships, records seldom being complete, but it appears, for instance, that the le Pages, working in Guernsey from 1799, were connected with the Margas, for Etienne le Page of Rouen, 1645-1663, married Elizabeth Margas, (a relative of the famous London goldsmith Jacob Margas,) who was born at Rouen in 1655.

In the earliest days, a goldsmith could only find lucrative employment through working for the church, which was stationary, or working for the nobility, which was mobile. The early medieval court was peripatetic, and the goldsmith followed it about, gaining a rich reward if successful. For example, we find one Aelfsige, goldsmith to King Eadred, given estates in Wiltshire and the Isle of Wight in 949.


Goldsmiths went where they could reap the greatest reward for their skills, an extreme example being a Greek, who came from Trebizond, a Black Sea port now in eastern Turkey, working in London in 1468. We are aware of this man because he could not write English, and signed a document in his native Greek, but doubtless there were others, equally well travelled.

Like the Greek, fleeing from the fall of Trebizond to the Turks, many families travelled because they could not remain in their native towns, and were fortunate in having a craft which they could pursue elsewhere. Thus we find Huguenot goldsmiths in the Channel Islands following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and also, in the 18th and 19th centuries, we find Jewish goldsmiths whose families had fled from pogroms in Eastern Europe.

Mr Nathan, who traded in Jersey in 1786, probably from Portsmouth, was the first such recorded and he was followed, in 1806, by Henry Ezekiel, who came to Guernsey via Exeter. It is commonly believed that Britain was a haven for the refugee, and this belief can distract us from the fact that there was also a traffic in families out of Britain following the Reformation.

Thus we find a James family of goldsmiths at Rouen from 1553, probably connected with the James family of goldsmiths and clockmakers working in Dorset and Wiltshire from 1426, and a Payne family of goldsmiths at Rouen from 1557, which may be connected with the later Jersey clockmaking family of that name, into which the Mauger family of Jersey goldsmiths appears to have married.

A further reason for travel was to learn new skills, and though an adventurous adult might do this, as did Thomas Naftel who went to London in 1780 to improve his clockmaking, it was more usual for the aspiring goldsmith to be sent elsewhere as an apprentice. Though a boy might be apprenticed to his father, as was common, the advances he could make would be limited by his father's skill.

In places where there were many goldsmiths, such as Rouen, this would be less restricting, for it would be offset by what he could learn from his peers, and generations of Saints were apprenticed to their fathers or uncles. But the father of an aspiring goldsmith on a small island could not improve his son's craft in this way, and so it was necessary to send him elsewhere, especially as goldsmithing was such a potentially rewarding business.

FIrst island boy

Records are fragmentary, but the earliest recorded Channel Island boy known to have been apprenticed elsewhere was John Nicoll of St Sampson, Guernsey, who was apprenticed to Richard Furslond, goldsmith of Exeter, in or before 1421. There were already men of this name at Exeter, and it may be that the Exeter and Guernsey Nicolls were related. More clearly, we find Abraham la Feuille of Jersey apprenticed to his uncle Henry Aubin of London in 1716, and Peter Perchard of Guernsey apprenticed to Matthew Perchard of London in 1746.

Were there not relations in the place to which an apprentice was sent, the tendency was to send two or more boys to the same place at the same time. Thus we find Vydian, son of Rowland Aprichard, husbandman of St Peter Port, apprenticed as a mercer in Bristol on May 19th 1550, and Michael, son of Michael Peretre, mariner of St Peter Port, apprenticed as a smith in Bristol on the following day.

This tendency is repeated at later dates, Matthew Perchard of Guernsey being apprenticed as a goldsmith in London in 1717, and Jean Perchard being likewise apprenticed there in 1720. Once a boy had been sent to a particular place, and the placement had been successful, others followed, and John Nicoll was succeeded at Exeter about 1433 by another Guernsey boy, Simon le Cave, who in his turn became a freeman of Exeter in 1440. Unfortunately the apprenticeship records of the nearer English and French cities have not survived from such early dates, for those of Rouen, Caen, Saint-Lô, Southampton and Winchester would doubtless have proved revealing.

The Southampton records, which survive from circa 1600, show 20 Channel Island boys apprenticed in 1611-1630, 13 from Jersey, six from Guernsey, and one from Sark, and it is clear from the names of their masters that many Channel Islanders had been apprenticed there and had settled before that. None, however, are known to have become goldsmiths, though the Guernseyman, Paul Priaulx, merchant and shipowner of Southampton in 1616-1623, may well have been the grandfather of the Salisbury goldsmith Paul Priaulx, and the Lisle family of Southampton goldsmiths might have originated from a Channel Islands apprentice.

Girl apprentices

Exceptionally, girls might also be apprenticed, and Elizabeth Stockwell, a pauper, was bound in 1617 to Thomas Sherwood, goldsmith of Southampton, her parish presumably paying the fees. There is no evidence that any Channel Island girls were formally apprenticed, and Elizabeth Naftel presumably learned her trade from her father, Nicholas Blondell, and must have played a large part in teaching her sons, Nicholas Andrew and Thomas Andrew.

Two languages, English and French, have been spoken in the Channel Islands at least since the 16th century, and in addition to sending a boy with others, or sending him to a place where he had relations, there was also some effort made to send him to a master who could speak the same language, or who had at least some common background. Thus Louis Ourry of Jersey, probably the son of a Huguenot refugee, was apprenticed in 1730 to Augustine Courtauld of London, who had, according to family tradition, been carried out of France as an infant, concealed in a basket of vegetables.

If apprenticeship records of Caen, Saint-Lô, and Rouen prior to the 16th century still existed, Channel Island boys of French stock may have been found bound in those places, but the issue is confused in the later periods by the tendency of these families to send their children to England, when possible, in order to be Englished.

Sending a boy elsewhere to be apprenticed was a two-edged sword, for he might not come back. Of necessity, he was sent to a richer place, where skills were more advanced, rewards correspondingly greater, and where on completion of his term he would have the freedom to trade.

Some Channel Island boys apprenticed in London did return, as did Pierre Maingy of Guernsey, but others remained, or went elsewhere in England, as did Jean de Gruchy of Jersey who went to Oxford. Some did extremely well: Matthew Perchard, for example, became Prime Warden of the London Goldsmiths' Company in 1777. Such men doubtless appeased parental desire for their return by attaining greater wealth and position than could have been achieved at home, and by taking younger relations apprentice in their turn, as did Matthew Perchard and Henry Aubin in the 18th century, and the Renoufs, Jersey shoemakers in Southampton, in the 17th.

Difficulty with records

A difficulty in tracing these men can arise when they are not known to have taken up the freedom of the place in which they were apprenticed, and the fate of several of them remains obscure. From the surviving records, it cannot be determined whether a boy was simply a failure who dropped out before the completion of his term, or whether he did not take up his freedom simply because he intended, in time, to return home. Whole groups disappear in this fashion: several Irish boys were apprenticed as goldsmiths in Bristol in the mid-16th century, and we simply do not know what happened to them. Some may have died, some may simply have run away, as did the apprentices of the London goldsmith Gilbert van Steyndorp who ran away to Bristol in 1350.

Something of the circumstances of the earlier apprentices can be determined from the apprenticeship records of Bristol and London. The objective of the system was to ensure that boys were properly trained, and, when an apprenticeship of seven years had been served, a man would obtain the freedom to work in the place in which he had been apprenticed.

This could only be attained at the age of 21, so apprenticeship supposedly began at 14. However, the records show a number of boys to have been bound very much younger than that. Rowland Aprichard of St Peter Port, for example, was apprenticed in 1550 for 10 years, suggesting that he was only 11 when the agreement was registered. Much younger apprentices are frequently encountered in the records.


Some apprentices who were very young or from isolated areas had to be taught to read and write, not simply in English but also in Latin, and to manage simple arithmetic. There is some evidence in the Bristol records that the parents bore at least some of the cost of this, as, should the boy return to the family business, it was in their interest to do.

In 1487 records show a boy from English Bicknor in Gloucestershire, whose master, a goldsmith of London, was bound in the sum of £10 to teach him before Pentecost 1491 to read with his tongue (aloud) and write English or Latin with his own hand competently the presence of at least three of the wardens of the craft, it being contrary to the regulations of the London Goldsmiths' Company to take on illiterates.

Odder restrictions are also found, and an ordinance of the Bristol Goldsmiths' Company in 1462 disallowed the engagement of either bald or poxed apprentices, the bald being proscribed because the grease from infrequently washed human hair was used as a lubricant when hammering out the extremely thin sheets of gold, known as gold leaf, which was used in gilding. The young man may also have been prohibited from shaving on a Sunday and a Bristol regulation of 1665 provides for a master to be fined five pounds should he allow his apprentice to profane the Lord's Day in that way.

As well as receiving any necessary basic schooling, the apprentice was also provided for. In other words, his master had his work in exchange for food, drink a nd a bed, or in early days a pallet. When Philip Mountis of Jersey was apprenticed as a shoemaker in Southampton in 1617, his master was to finde the apprentice apparell and all other nesessaries except lynnen which the apprentice and his frinds are to finde and allowe him duringe the whole terme.

Informal island apprenticeships

No such records in the Channel Islands appear to have survived, and there may never have been any, as such boys were normally apprenticed informally to their fathers or uncles. Thomas Naftel of Guernsey, largely a clockmaker but possibly the maker of a christening cup, is known to have taken some apprentices from outside his family late in the 18th century, and it is likely that the goldsmiths also did this, but it would be impossible to show, in these instances, that the apprentice was not related to his master or his master's wife in some way.

On completion of apprenticeship, the young man would be given clothing, bedding, and the basic tools necessary to his trade. As late as 1622 the Guernsey boy, Thomas Dobrée, apprenticed as a merchant in Southampton, was to receive double apparell, though this might be commuted into cash, and Michael Peretre was to receive 13s.4d at the end of his term in Bristol in 1557, this being the estimated cost of two suits of clothing, one for work days and the other for Sundays and holidays, or holy days.

In addition to attaining the freedom of the place where he was apprenticed, the young man might also attain that of a second place, if his master also traded there, and some 16th century Bristol boys were bound apprentice on the understanding that they would also become freemen of towns in Flanders and Brabant. This may possibly have been the case with the Guernsey and London goldsmith Thomas Coquerel whose effects at death indicated a connection with Flanders early in the 16th century.

Some apprentices were sent abroad by their masters to gain experience, and Bristol boys were not infrequently sent to Spain, Portugal, France and Flanders in the 16th century. Once there, they might transact business for their masters. Conversely, were the master abroad, the apprentice was often expected to maintain his business at home. This may have been the case in the 1680s, for we do not know whether William Young of Southampton brought his apprentice William Pye with him when he worked in Jersey, or whether he left him in Southampton.

Having been trained, and having set himself up, the goldsmith needed customers. In the medieval Channel Islands the church would occasionally require a new chalice or other eucharistic vessel, and the nobleman would sometimes need a drinking cup or a bowl or a seal, and these things would occasionally need repairing: but this would not have been enough to keep a man in business.

The bulk of his produce must have been the very small wares now only found in excavations, such as silver rings, belt and strap ends, fittings for daggers and swords, mounts for missals and purses, buckles, and a range of other such artefacts, whereas in later days his basic fare would have been cups, spoons, rings and buckles.

Middle Ages fairs

The mainland goldsmith could enhance his business by travelling to the fairs that had become established all over England and France by the later middle ages, so densely that almost nobody lived so far from one that he could not journey there and back in a day. It is unlikely that any of the Channel Island silversmiths were in the position to do this, and certainly there is no record that any did, for to attend such a fair necessitated holding a surplus of goods over and above what was required for daily commerce, and being able to afford the gold and silver to do this. Such a reserve could only stem from a volume of business unlikely to have been sustained in the medieval Channel Islands.

The mainland goldsmith could also supplement his income by working for his local mint, but again this opportunity did not arise in the Channel Islands, at least until the 16th century, when Colas Guillemotte of Guernsey, who might have been a goldsmith, was authorised to strike coins in 1553.

There is ample evidence that throughout history few men outside the larger cities have been able to earn their livings as goldsmiths, and since the middle ages, even the goldsmiths of the larger cities have generally also involved themselves in commerce or in banking.

There were of course exceptions, such as Pierre Maingy in Guernsey, whose work was so extremely good and so much in demand that he appears to have been able to live by it. But in general the supply of country goldsmiths seems always to have exceeded the demands for their wares, and was kept going by the prospect of the rewards seen to be obtained by the few very successful men.

The most profitable time for the country goldsmith was perhaps the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when increasing prosperity enlarged the gold and silver-owning classes, and when discoveries in the Americas increased the availability of the precious metals. At this time there was no alternative status symbol for the new rich, and there were few alternative forms of investment other than land or shipping, neither of which were portable or easily encashed in times of need. Banking was in its infancy, interest was regarded as usury, there was no stock market, and the silver on a man's sideboard allowed him to display his surplus wealth.

The very prosperity of this period eventually weakened the position of the goldsmith, for it led to increased security and a decrease in the need to have only those valuables that were instantly encashable. A range of alternative goods slowly replaced silver, so that the 16th century gentleman who could afford a silver bowl or dish rather than the less attractive brass, pewter or pottery, gave birth to the 17th century gentleman who could afford a bowl or dish of Chinese porcelain, or of Delft pottery.

New materials

Gradually, all those things which had had to have been made of silver now became available in other materials, which were just as attractive, and soon nothing was left which had, for those who could afford it, to be made of silver, except the spoon, which is now by far the most common piece of antique silver.

Not only were there alternatives to silver, but there were simply many more things for the rich to buy, a particular example being the clock, owned by almost nobody in 1600, but by anybody with any surplus wealth in 1700.

These tendencies are apparent in the inventory of Jean Messervy of Jersey, taken in 1668. In addition to silver and jewellery, he owned a Danzig coffer, an expensive item from the Baltic trade, a cypress wood coffer from the Near East and guaranteed to keep out moths, four faience or Delft plates and three matching mugs, a blue glass mug or jug at a time when these were rare and expensive, and a quantity of expensive textiles, some embroidered in silver thread.

The same expansion of trade and improvement of the safety of overland and sea routes which brought the alternatives to silver, also made it possible for the richer and better organised city goldsmiths to market their wares effectively in the more remote places, and this dealt a further blow to the country goldsmiths. The earliest substantial evidence of this appears in late 16th century England, where, following the Reformation, each parish was required to have a new type of communion cup and paten.

Most parishes in the south-west were equipped with these in the 1560s and 1570s, and the hallmarks on them show that a very high proportion of them were made in London. It is in the rich man's nature to look towards the nearest and most familiar large town or city for goods better than those that he has, and to go there to buy them.

Imported silver

Locally made goods were often considered a poor substitute, and, from the 17th century onwards, inventories show that Channel Islands churches and richer families owned quantities of imported silver, which could perfectly well have been made locally were the imported goods not considered in some way superior. Many city firms came quickly to depend on such trade for a large part of their income. For example, William’s & Co. of Bristol exported large quantities of spoons and forks to the Channel Islands, America, and South Africa throughout much of the 19th century.

Two pieces of that company's church plate are held in Jersey, and their last commission in the Channel Islands was a silver standing cup in the form of a terrestrial globe, made in 1939 for presentation by the people of Jersey to the new destroyer, H M S Jersey. This may well have been the last piece of importance that they made, for they were bombed out in the blitz of 1940 and did not reopen.

The country goldsmith, unless of outstanding merit, nearly always had to diversify in response to the paucity of his custom, and, in later days, to competition from large manufacturing centres. He could farm, and there is much evidence of medieval and 17th century goldsmiths who owned land, which they presumably worked. Richard Glanville, goldsmith of Launceston in the 17th century, kept pigs and made hats, and a number of Channel Islands goldsmiths may have sustained themselves in comparable ways.

The goldsmith could also use any surplus income to engage in commerce, which some did in startling ways: a 15th century William the Goldsmith of Winchester kept a brothel, and had feather beds and wine brought up from Southampton, though whether these were for himself or for his clients we are not told! By way of contrast, one 18th century Devonshire man ran a Bible repository, and we are told that he took in bibles after the Sunday morning services, returning them the following Sunday morning upon receipt of a small fee, so that they could not be pawned to buy drink during the week.

More conventionally, and doubtless more profitably, Pierre Amiraux II of Jersey owned a privateer, The Revenge, as well as being one of the founders of the Jersey Chamber of Commerce, and Jean du Port of Guernsey also traded as a blacksmith.

Other metals

The country goldsmith usually diversified into other metalwork, the earliest exponent of this in southwest England perhaps being a William the Goldsmith who worked on silver cups and the clock at Glastonbury Abbey in 1252-1267, and many of the Channel Island goldsmiths of the later 18th and earlier 19th centuries were both goldsmiths and clockmakers. This connection between clockmaking and goldsmithing has continued into our own day, when many a high street goldsmith sells both clocks and goldsmiths' wares, though he is, usually, no longer capable of making, or even mending either.

Apart from clockmaking, brasswork was a skill easily undertaken by the goldsmith, and most of the forms of antique silverware are also found in brass. This connection has been little researched, but in the south of England it is quite clear that many of the goldsmiths of 17th and 18th century Wells and 18th century Guildford were also brasiers. This may well have been the case in the Channel Islands, for a man who could make a silver buckle or spoon would obviously have no difficulty in making a brass one, and may, in the course of his business, have made many more in brass than he did in silver.

Nicholas Blondell of St Peter Port is known to have opened a shop selling spoons and buckles in 1719, and these may have been of either metal. Thomas Peard of Penryn, Cornwall, made 4 small brass dogg collars with my name on them in 1737, in addition to jewellery, buckles, and an ivory handle for a sword.

In 1699 Jonathan Parfitt of Wells owned a brassware business so advanced as to enable him to design an alloy which successfully competed with Bath Metal (a form of high grade brass), at the same time making silver buckles and the like for his customers, and training his son Samuel, described as a metle man on his marriage, to become the London goldsmith of this name who entered his mark at Goldsmiths' Hall in 1734. Other country goldsmiths also undertook lesser metalwork, and we find William the Goldsmith of St Ives, Cornwall, being paid 1s.9d in 1604/5 in parte of his wage for kepinge the leds on the church roof.


The 18th and 19th century manufacturing goldsmiths, who sold their wares over wide areas, employed representatives to travel for them. These men would not only sell to retailers, as they do now, but to the public, usually in hotels and sometimes by auction. In common with the High Street goldsmith of the day, they would take in exchange not only money, but old gold or silver articles, gold braid, and sometimes pewter.

They are first heard of in Jersey in newspaper advertisements of the 1780s, when at The Duke of York Hotel, a Mr Nathan offered silver watches, new and second-hand silver buckles, and other small items of silverware and jewellery. The country goldsmiths often resented such men, a number of whom were Jewish, and a notice of 1783 in The Sherborne Mercury, a newspaper which served much of south-west England, stated that the goldsmiths and watchmakers of Cornwall, for very substantial reasons, have resolved not to repair watches bought of Jews.

Whether resented or not, these representatives and their descendants became the small retailers of the country towns of the Georgian and Victorian periods, often setting up businesses which still exist, and many established themselves in the Channel Islands, as can be seen from the directories of the period.

They were primarily retailers rather than smiths, and their loyalty was to commerce rather than to craftsmanship. Their establishment enabled the mass-produced silver and gold wares of the English industrial cities, which could be produced more cheaply than local wares, to be marketed in the Channel Islands, and put an end to local production.

Until the 1920s, Jersey goldsmiths overstruck their marks on goods imported in this way, not necessarily to preserve the fiction that they were locally made, but perhaps because they had once felt obliged to do so by the 1771 Code des Lois, and because, in the absence of local hall-marking laws, overmarking was a way of taking responsibility for the goods they sold.

Towards the close of the 19th century the silver-owning classes came to object to the mass-produced goods of Birmingham, Sheffield, and London, and the goldsmiths of the Arts and Crafts and other movements of the period attempted to establish a taste in a better class of goods. These were marketed in the Channel Islands by firms such as The London Goldsmiths' & Silversmiths' Company in Jersey from 1884-1927.

The greater distribution of wealth, and the greater disposable income of the majority since the German Occupation has led to a further increase in the appreciation of hand-crafted wares, and a number of working goldsmiths have established themselves in the Channel Islands.

Bruce Russel of Guernsey, for example, produced a silver punchbowl given by the island to the Prince and Princess of Wales as a wedding present in 1981, that a few years previously would have had to be ordered from London. The work of these men has already found its place in collections of Channel Island silver.

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