The de Caen family of St Ouen

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A history by Roland de Caen

Surnames as we know them only started to evolve about the year 1000, and though a number of individuals bearing the name "de Caen" are recorded from Britain and France from the 11th to 13th Centuries, these probably merely connotate that they came from the town of Caen in Normandy or its vicinity.


The protestant Huguenot family of Guillaume and Emery de Caen , from Dieppe, Rouen, and St.Malo were trading from France into Newfoundland and Quebec in the early 1600s. Guillaume was created "Baron of the Bahamas" in 1640 by Cardinal Richelieu.

During the Revolution (1789-91) the prefix "de" was commonly considered to have aristocratic connotations, and the name was elided to "Decaen", in which form it persists today in northwest France. Charles Decaen,who had changed his name from de Caen during the revolution, was the hero of Hohenlinden (1800) under Napoleon, and later was Governor of Mauritius,(then Isle de France). None of these individuals bear more than at most a distant relationship to the family who were contemporary farmers in Jersey.

St Ouen family

There was a de Caen family living in St Ouen, in the northwest of Jersey, in the early 16th Century, and one of them, Johan, was a Constable from 1537 until his death in 1543. A lack of records due to the turbulence of the Reformation obscures the interim period, but by the early 17th Century the family was well established in that parish. They were tenant farmers who held land under the de Carteret Seigneurs. Family income must have been small, but it was supplemented by seafaring, fishing and trade to Newfoundland and the Gaspe region of Quebec at least as early as the 1750s. They married into the families of Slowly, Le Couteur, Le Maistre, Jean, Pipon, Robin and Payn, among others. It was not until some hundred years later, in the early 1700s,that there is any mention of the family in the neighbouring parishes of St Peter or St Mary, or in St Lawrence.


In 1701 Symon de Caen led a revolt against the Seigneur in protest at work obligations which were imposed on the tenants. His family reputedly held considerable lands in the parish. He was the leader of the "Tenant's Revolt" against Sir Charles de Carteret, the Seigneur of St Ouen. As a result of the ensuing legal actions, the Court required a report to be drawn up to record the seigneurial services due from the tenants at the time "Every tenant must do homage to the Seigneur once in his lifetime. Tenants must cut and carry the Seigneur's hay. Each Cinquante must annually provide a four-horse cartload of vraic, and provide a man to dig a vergee of land, repair the Manor and its mills...etc." The case lasted for many years, eventually going before the Privy Council, before it was withdrawn.

This Symon (or possibly his son, born in 1680), was one of the members of a committee appointed by the Crown in 1721 to enquire into which lands were tithal to the Crown, and which to the Parochial clergy. Perhaps due to the confrontational nature of these events, Symon's children, though baptised in St Ouen, moved out of the parish to neighbouring St Peter. Here his son Simon married Rachel Neel in 1735. This may have been a reason for their sons to seek their fortunes at sea, because members of the Neel family were captains of sailing ships in the early 1700s.

Ships' captains

There are many references to members of the de Caen family as ships' captains in the Archives of the Memorial University of Newfoundland. These are drawn in part from the records of Lloyds of London, and in part from newspapers, chronicles and gazettes published in Jersey, Britain and North America. The records of the Seamens' Mutual benefit Society (1835-1880) lists family members from St Mary, St Brelade, and St Peter as well as St Ouen.

The sons of Jean de Caen and Rachel Neel, Jean (born 1738) and Edouard (born 1740) are listed as Captains on ships owned by Nicholas Fiott, ranging from privateers to trading vessels in the cod fishery between Jersey, Newfoundland, the Gaspe and ports in the Caribbean, South America and Europe. By the middle 1750s John Fiott became a partner with Charles Robin, another St Ouen man, and Jean de Caen found himself working for Charles Robin & Co.

The National Archives of Canada have microfilm copies of letters between Robin and his ships' captains, including Jean de Caen and his other officers, which indicate a close working association between all involved (1790-1858)

In 1771 Edouard de Caen married Elizabeth Le Montais,of St Peter. Her relative Clement Le Montais was a brother-in-law of the de Carterets. He was a ships' victular, and sold Prizes at the Court House, now an inn, at St Aubin. Edouard and Elizabeth had six children, and all were baptised in St Ouen. When they grew up, however, only the eldest son Edouard seems to have been married in that parish.

John de Caen and Esther de Caen, née Balleine, in 1866
The window at St Ouen's Church donated by John de Caen

Friendships and marriages

Friendships developed between seafaring associates evolved into ties of marriage between families, and Jean de Caen, Edouard's son, married Marie Dean of St Brelade in 1813. They moved to St Aubin and lived in Market House on Hill Street, which was renamed St Aubin House in 1877. Marie Dean's family had been merchants and shipowners for over two hundred years in Jersey and it seems that her father helped young Jean, because shortly after their marriage he appears as a partner with Dean and Trachy, and later, in the 1830s as an owner in his own right

Jean and Marie appear to have had only two children, the younger of whom died as an infant. Their son John Frederick, born in 1817, was destined to become, in association with his father, one of the principal shipowners of Jersey. The height of this enterprise was probably about 1870, when he owned some ten ships which traded as far distant as Cape Town, India, South America and the Far East.

In 1821 John de Caen married Esther Balleine of St Brelade, at St Brelade. They had a family of eight children. About 1861 the family moved to St Saviour, where they purchased a large house in the style of the Victorian Raj. This house still stands today at the junction of Springfield Road and St Saviour's Road, just at the bottom of the hill.

Though they were baptised and married in St Brelade, John did not forget his parish of origin or his relatives, and he donated a window to the Parish Church of St Ouen which illustrates the parable of the Good Samaratan, and which is inscribed A la Gloire de Dieu et en Memoire de Philippe de Caen 1636 et ses descendants 1793 dont les corps sont deposes au pied de cette fenetre. Laquelle a ete offerte par John de Caen Waverly Villa St Sauveur.


This success story had an unfortunate ending, for on 14 May 1873, John de Caen was drowned in a yachting accident ,while out with his eldest son. The incident was fully documented in the Jersey press, and a poetic eulogy appeared in the Almanach de la Nouvelle Chronique of 1882. Whether this was purely accidental or as a result of financial collapse of his "empire" is open to speculation. The Jersey banks failed in February of that year and the Gaspe cod fishery was in trouble, together with the loss of the Caribbean sugar trade, and the fact that steam was fast replacing sail and the size of ships had become too large to be handled by Jersey ports, may have contributed.

His wife Esther Balleine left Jersey for the Isle of Man, and later Weston-super-Mare in England. His eldest son John Herault emigrated to Ceylon where he married (both deceased at an early age). Second son Charles Orange went to Sumatra where he shortly died. George Frederick (Toody) went to Ireland, where his two eldest sisters had married and settled near Galway. The youngest daughter Blanche went to Ceylon where she married and died childless.

One family left

An analysis of the Parish Registers, and later the Census records for Jersey, indicates that in the first half of the 18th century there were a total of some 50 persons in about 12 de Caen families in the island whose ancestors came from St Ouen. By the second half of the 19th Century the number had halved. Today one family of the name lives in St Ouen. There are also descendants in England, Ireland, Canada, USA, and Australia.

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