John Le Caudey and the export of the first early potatoes from Jersey
Although it is quite possible that the potato had been grown for more than 1,000 years, it was only when the Spaniards went to South America that they found it being cultivated by the American Indians in Equador and Chile; its natural habitat being the warm, moist leaf¬mould of the forest floor in the elevated valleys of the Andes.
There followed explorers such as Sir John Hawkins in 1565, and Sir Walter Ralegh in 1584, who took some back with them to Europe; but although these were planted soon afterwards in some countries, including Ireland, they did not arrive in Jersey until 1772/5, where it was still quite some time before they were accepted by the growers as being anything more than a curiosity on a very small scale.
Gerarde, in his Herbal of 1597, referred to it as the Virginian Potato - "which could be protected by the growing of nasturtiums against the aphid and the whitefly - or an infusion of these sprayed on" - an idea which is now being followed in modern organic fertilizers. As early as 1662 people in England were being encouraged by the Royal Agricultural Society to cultivate potatoes in order to provide food "should there be a famine or a failure of the corn crop"; they were first grown in Lancashire and then, some forty years later, in London, "where there was still not much idea as to their utility" John Evelyn, a diarist and gardener of the 17th century, did not seem to think much of them either, as he wrote "Plant potatoes in your worst ground."
Thomas Quayle wrote in General View of the Agriculture and Present State of the Islands off the Coast of Normandy, Subject of the Crown of Great Britain, in 1818, "potatoes were in common tillage in Scotland in 1732, but through some mistaken superstitious notion were abandoned as a sinful plant because no mention was made of them in the Bible" (although it does not appear that this idea continued for long).
In Jersey Thomas Quayle says that he based his work on information given to him by some of the most important men in the island, and gives full details of the method of cultivation - the best existing account of the times. He says:
- Originally the potato was cultivated more as an object of curiosity than otherwise ... and was roughly attended to ... small patches in the corners of the then abounding orchards were occasionally seen, frequently irregularly planted and the tubers being dug up as required, indeed the whole affair managed, as we see now in the out-of-the-way corner of a garden - a bed ofJerusalcm artichokes; they were large, coarse and knotty; a dirty and ill-eared-for crop ... and largely used for fattening hogs and stock for market.
Replacement for bread
Gradually, as more were grown, potatoes began to be eaten by the people and to take the place of bread and parsnips but, as Quayle says, "the quality was nowhere superior:' Starting in 1807 Jersey began exporting this maincrop produce at the rate of "40 to 50 cargoes in vessels of 50 tons burthen" (per annum; these were being sent to Portugal, the Mediterranean ports, Brazil, and the "mining districts of England" as well as "successive cargoes to Guernsey". In that year they exported 600 tons and, by 1811, had more than doubled that figure. In the Spring of 1812, the States passed an Ordinance forbidding, for a given period, the export of potatoes, and imposing penalties on the contravenor. Happily, however, the Ordinance had expired before the crop of that year was brought to market.
Although they were referred to as 'earlies', they were a crop lifted in August/September and therefore were not the 'earlies' as we know them today (the April/May crop). Of the main crop varieties which were grown at this time, one of the first was known as Les Degenerees, later came Les Jersey Blues and the Stayner (introduced by a gentleman of that name); then a red potato (Philip's Red), one raised from seed at Vinchelez de Haut which was very popular in the Parish of Saint Ouen as, although not large, it had a remarkably good flavour and a good keeping quality; the 'York Kidney' and the 'York Red' were imported from England; but one and all suffered from disease to some extent. Eventually the 'Jersey Blue' gave way to a coarse potato known as 'pink eye' which had come from Scotland and was grown for some years mainly because of its reputed resistance to disease.
The 'Regent', which, though small, was of superior quality, was followed by the 'Late Fluke' - an offshoot of these became known as the 'International Kidney'. Until this time a quarter of Jersey's arable land was under orchard, so much so that Jersey was known as a 'sea of cider' - a large amount of which was exported (the figure given for 1800 was 2 million gallons) - but as the potato flourished, and more and more land was turned over to its cultivation, it became the leading crop of the farmers, with exports steadily increasing: by 1842 over 18,000 tons were exported.
In 1843 the disease known as blight struck. The United States was the first country to be affected, followed by Belgium and, later, many others, with Ireland, in 1845, being the hardest hit of all. By 1846 three-quarters of their crop had been ruined and, in the famine which followed that winter (1846/47), 1,000,000 out of a total of 8,000,000 inhabitants died of starvation or fever and whole villages were wiped out. This was the worst famine ever known in the British Isles. Eventually, by July 1848, 3,000,000 starving people were being fed daily by the British Government. Although not so severe in other parts of the United Kingdom, much hardship was recorded. Between 1840 and 1850 there were famines in many parts of the world, and these years became known as the 'Hungry Forties'.
The blight was relentless, many things were blamed and many remedies tried but to no avail. "It seemed,' wrote C P Le Cornu, in his article The Potato in Jersey (1870) "as though the potato was doomed to disappear from amongst the fruits of the earth". One glimmer of hope came when someone noticed that crops grown to windward of a copper smelting factory were not affected - thence the beginning of the use of Bordeaux mixture (so called because of its use against mildew on the grapevines in France). C P Le Cornu continues, nostalgically,
- I can remember, before the setting in of the potato disease, having seen the haulms rise above the ground as high as the surrounding hedges, and on the 1st of October, when shooting parties went through the fields, the dogs running completely hidden between the rows (so that not even the tips of their tails could be seen) and when all vegetation ceased, the haulms standing dry like sticks, so that they were able to be collected and used as faggots - and so prolific was the vegetation that no weeds survived."
Blight reached the island by June 1845, encouraged by "a cold snap which checked the flow of the sap, paralysing the plants so that the disease set in with awful rapidity - the leaves blackened and fell, stalks rotted, and, with a most disagreeable smell, disappeared entirely" continued Le Cornu, "in other fields only half of the crop was saved, which, in many cases, did not yield the original quantity used in sets in planting. The disease prevailed for many years, gradually becoming less malignant, but even with some slight improvement, crops were still short, prices high and markets dull. Farmers began turning back to parsnips, and to the fattening of stock, but this was found to answer only as a temporary relief". 1850 was mild and wet; 1852 the wettest year on record. Farmers continued to grow inferior potatoes such as the 'pink eye' for quantity only.
By 1858, following another couple of bad years of blight, the Jersey farmers were in despair and facing ruin when John Lecaudey, a well-to-do farmer in Saint Ouen, pondering deeply on the problem, and feeling that a complete reassessment of the situation was called for, considered again the idea that Jersey, with its warm climate and mild winters, where, as he had observed on his own farm, soil on the south facing cotils was warm, would be the ideal place for growing very early potato crops. These could reach the London market well before the English crops were ready, and would therefore fetch the highest price there. This idea had been mooted a couple of times in the past but never acted upon as, until that time, only maincrop potatoes had been grown and exported. John Lecaudey decided to do something about it. He put his idea to farmers, who welcomed it, and agreed to follow the variations in planting technique (including the very liberal use of guano) which he had suggested.
He then set out for England, Scotland and France, and spent much time and money travelling to buy 'seed', to meet importers and shipping agents and to arrange for the exportation of the new earlies consigned direct to London. The farmers who had been so despondent were enthusiastic about this new plan, and set to work with a will to experiment with the new seed and to grow the very first crop of earlies. The new early varieties used were: in kidneys: 'Ashleaf, 'Prolific', 'Winford' (alias 'Early Fluke'); and in the rounds: 'Cherbourg Trois Mois', 'Dalmahoy' and 'Early Regents'.
The New Era
On 16 April 1859 the first basketful of earlies was sent up to London on the Metropolis which had recently come into service between the mainland and the island; these were a great success at Covent Garden, and demand was so great over the next few months that two additional cargo vessels had to be chartered to supply the London market alone. The first full cargo of the new earlies departed for Swansea on 13 June 1859, followed on 17 June by the first full cargo to London on the Venus.
This, then, was the beginning - the true beginning of a new era - the export of 'earlies' to the London market, all due to the entrepreneurial efforts of this one man, John Lecaudey, who, the delighted farmers considered, had saved the day. He opened the first potato store specifically for packing and exporting the new earlies, and for importing guano, seed and other commodities required by the farmers.
There followed years of great activity and increasing prosperity. In 1864 nearly 4,000 tons were exported. It should be borne in mind here that, in addition to exports, sufficient quantity was always retained in the island for the use of its inhabitants and for the following year's seed.
Guano was first imported in 1844, from Ichaboe, a tiny island, half a mile wide, off the coast of Africa, near the Canary Islands. It had not really caught on - its worth being much questioned and its use very little known - until becoming extensively employed following John Lecaudey's new plan. An interesting experiment in 1867 was recorded by Le Cornu: "On two plots on the same piece of ground - one dressed with good farmyard manure, and the other in precisely the same manner, but with the addition of 300 lbs of guano to the vergée, and the two planted in fluke potatoes, when a difference of more than 50% resulted in favour of the plot where the guano had been applied."
In that same year 379 tons of guano were imported, and in the following year 496 tons; it was now recognised as being a valued commodity. It was observed that "root crops which had been planted in the enriched ground following the earlies gave some of the heaviest and best returns".
In 1865 it had been decided that, as six varieties of potato were being exported, the barrels should be marked with black tops, with the name of the variety displayed. By 1868 exports had risen to 7,890 tons, their value being in excess of £55,000; and when it is considered that, at about that time, six bottles of sherry cost the equivalent of 62½p and a bottle of brandy about 7½p perhaps the true value of the export figure can be estimated. In 1869 an additional 1,026 vergees were turned over to growing potatoes, and the Board of Trade figures for 1869 show that 6,156 vergées were under potato cultivation.
Le Cornu states that "as a result of his careful selection he was receiving 9d per Ib at Covent Garden on 15 May, whilst the current price there was 2½d to 3d per Ib: In 1870 he observed "This change of plan in the cultivation of potatoes was a great success. New life was again restored to that which, some years before was, as it were, lifeless. Sheltered parts of the south coast of the island were devoted to the plant. Now, not only do we see the early potato flourishing in these exceptionally sheltered nooks, but also the broader fields on the high lands teeming with the luxuriant vegetation of these early crops, and the produce standing pre-eminently with that of the sister isle amongst the earliest and the best in the provision markets in London:'
This was the fulfilment of John Lecaudey's dream. Le Cornu continues: "A new era has taken place in their culture, and, God be praised, plenty smiles again upon our fields: The farmers of the island were so delighted with their new-found prosperity that, in order to show their appreciation, they gathered together on 26 February 1870 to present John Lecaudey with an illuminated address, a beautiful inscribed gold watch and chain, and a purse of 150 gold sovereigns.
The wording on the testimonial, which is now in the possession of the Societe Jersiaise, reads as follows:
- A Monsieur Lecaudey -
- C'est avec un tres grand plaisir qu'aujourd'hui je me fais l'interprete des Agricultureurs de cette lie en vous presentant le temoignage de leur estime et de
Ie reconnaissance pour les services, comme marchand, que vous avez rendue a l'Agriculture. Vous avez contribue largement a l'exportation de nos denrccs au general et plus specialernent a l'exportation de la pomme de terre qui est devenue aujourd'hui une des resources les plus avantageuses de I'Agriculture de notre lie. Vous avez durant I'espece de douze ans ete l'intermediaire pour Ie transport a l'etranger d'une tres grande partie de nos produits, et les bons rapporte qu'on toujours existe entre vous et les differents cultivateurs ce manifestent assez evidemment dans les sentiments qui les animent dans cette occasion, ce qui prove que vous avez su, comme cornmercant, meriter la confiance de public et aussi de commerce dont depend Ie bien etre et la prosperite d'un pays. En consequence nous avons cru qu'il etait pour no us tous un devoir imperieux de vous temoigner d'une mcniere tangible notre reconnaissance en vous presentant cette addresse, accornpagnee d'une montre et chaine en or, avec une bourse de cent cinquante souverains, Ie produit des souscriptions Hites dans les differences paroisses de cette lie, comme aussi des plusieurs marchands d'Angleterre et de France qui, comme nous, ont su apprecier les excellentes relations qui existent entre vous et eux. Nous esperons que vous accepterez cette faible marque de notre estime, comme l'expression vraie et sincere de nos sentiments de reconnaissance pour vos services aussi constants qu'incontestables. Monsieur Lecaudey, je suis convaincu que I' exprime les voeux des souscripteurs sous-nornmes en vous souhaitant tout bonheur, longevite et prosperite.
- Josephe Norman, Secretaire (ensuivant les noms des 553 souscripteurs).
The inscription on the gold watch reads:
- Témoinage d'Estime, présenté à Mons John Lecaudey pour services rendus à l'Agriculture de son pays. Fev 26 1870.
Kindly but easy-going man
This day must have indeed been a most rewarding highlight for John Lecaudey; and as there were 557 farms in the island, it seems that almost every farmer must have contributed to show his gratitude, and to wish him well. He was obviously a well-liked and kindly man, though, perhaps, too easy-going where his debtors were concerned. "Don't worry if you can't pay me now" he would say, "pay me at the end of the season". These were the days of trust, of 'a man's word is his bond', of a handshake binding an agreement; but in business the position of a middleman is not an easy one - everything, and everyone, depends on the payment on time for goods delivered. One had to be let down only in one quarter for the whole system to collapse.
Many were the stories told of his kindness and generosity and of his ready response to a hard luck story. One such relates to a Mr Le Gros who asked for a loan of £2,000 to build a seawall at Petit Port. There was a violent storm - the half-built wall collapsed. He got very little of his money back.
He began to give large amounts of credit to the farmers. By the end of that same year he was facing insolvency - en decret - and had to make several appearances before Le Cour de Samedi. A Mr Le Brun wanted his £30. Advocate Vickery pleaded on John Lecaudey's behalf; an unnamed creditor spoke in his defence. The matter was resolved when his wife, Aurelia, took over the tenancy. By the following January (1871) he had cleared his debts, and the decret was resolved, but it must have been a very traumatic and worrying time for him. John Lecaudey lived for another ten years and, when he died, in 1880, his business was taken over by his son, Raymond.
The Annual Report of the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society refers, in 1871, to the potato as being "one of the principal sources of revenue to the agriculturalists of the Island". And at the Annual Exhibition of Corn and Roots, held in the New Vegetable Market on 18 October that year, three of the competition categories for seed potatoes were for 'Early Kidneys', 'Early Flukes' and 'Early Rounds'. In 1873 the RJA & HS referred again to export of the potato as "having increased enormously", and refers to the spring, when it was "immense, and almost unprecedented, notwithstanding the apprehension that had been entertained owing to the late frosts" and it goes on, "farming must have proved a source of great profit to the community". Each year, towards the end of April, even one day in the lifting of the first crops could make a vast difference to their market value, and there was sometimes the temptation to lift a little too early.
Whereas some farmers exported their produce direct to London, the majority brought their loads on to the Weighbridge, where prices were discussed and a bargain struck with one of the merchants; the produce was then taken to his store where it was packed and exported to London with all possible speed to arrive on the Englishman's table the next day fresh and full of flavour.
On the Weighbridge there was an atmosphere of excitement - of keen competition as prices fluctuated continually - the merchants keeping in touch by telegraph with the London market for the latest up-to-the-minute price. As the day wore on, as far as the eye could see along the Esplanade were farmers' carts, drawn by patient horses and heavily loaded with the potatoes which had been dug very early that morning (mostly by bands of Breton workers who flocked to Jersey for the 'season'), moving slowly along, queuing to get on to the Weighbridge, then queuing to get in to the merchants' stores for packing; and then queuing once more to load on to the ships. There were queues everywhere and an air of cameraderie amongst the crowds of farmers, drivers, merchants and clerks who gathered around this lively hub of commerce - the Weighbridge.
Unfortunately, in 1873, a shadow fell upon the island as two of the principal local banks found themselves unable to meet their commitments. This sent ripples of devastating financial hardship throughout the whole community.
By 1875 the annual importation of guano had risen to 1,000 tons, and Board of Trade figures show that 9,104½ vergees were under cultivation. This was beginning to create a shortage of land for growing other crops, land now used for growing potatoes having more than doubled over the past five years, and it was becoming necessary therefore to import hay and straw. No matter how hard a farmer works he is always at the mercy of the weather and 1876 saw the beginning of ten years of wet, cold weather, with heavy frosts and abnormally heavy rainfalls. Nevertheless, they still managed to make progress: direct communication was set up with Hull 'and other major cities'; John Terry opened up as a merchant.
The dreaded Colorado Beetle made its appearance in 1876; part of a Report from the Canadian Department of Agriculture, printed in the Gardeners' Chronicle is given below:
- The Colorado Beetle, which has come from the United States, having been shipped at ports, the neighbourhood of which was invaded by them. They moved by flying - by navigating smooth water. They travelled into Germany and Sweden, on vehicles, railways, ships, especially in August and September. They could be seen creeping along the sidewalk, on bridges, wharfs, crawling up buildings and occupying fences, lodging themselves in every crevice, penetrating houses, ascending and occupying vehicles of all sorts, finding their way into boats and vessels, placing themselves on any and every article, and being found alive after so long sojourn in situations where there would seem to exist no chance for them to find subsistence.
Potatoes and their coverings being neither more nor less liable to harbour the insect than anything else.
- The remedies are:
- (1) crushing every beetle
- (2) searching for eggs under the leaves of the potato vine
- (3) watching for the presence of the lavae on the buds and leaves to destroy them with Paris-Green, which is the only substance yet discovered to be effectively operative on a large scale for the destruction of the insect in its larval state.
The Royal Jersey Fluke
Twenty-one years after the first earlies were exported to the London market Hugh de la Haye saw two huge potatoes (one having 16 eyes) on the counter at Lecaudey & Co's store on the Esplanade, displayed as a curiosity, having been rejected from a farmer's load brought in for packing and export to London. He asked if he could have them, took them home, divided them up and planted them on his cotil at Bellozanne. When some grew up kidney-shaped and others round, he thought this so strange that he took them to the office of the Nouvelle Chronique where they were displayed in the window, and dubbed by the editor, Charles Le Feuvre, 'the Royal Jersey Fluke'. They were probably an offshoot of the widely-grown 'Jersey Kidney'. De la Haye exhibited his first basketful in 1884 and continued to grow them on until he had enough with which to trade. The farmers, regarding them as a new variety, grew them with increased enthusiasm.
At this time seed was being grown also as 'Wakeham's Special' by Mr T Wakeham of Grouville, and as the 'Benest' by Mr Benest of Saint Brelade.
- Jack, Jack, the horses' quack,
- stole a spud from thefarmer's sack;
- Moved on - sold - and stole again
- Till all farms grew 'Parisiennes'
This jingle of the day, based on fact, but with a certain amount of poetic licence, referred to a man who travelled from farm to farm selling horse medicine and, as he visited each farm, he would produce out of his pocket a seed potato which he had just stolen from the previous farm, and he would say that this was 'a very special potato which had just been sent to him by his sister who worked in Paris' - whereupon the farmer would buy it from him. On his way out the man would pocket another seed potato - and so on to the next farm! These potatoes became known as 'Parisiennes'.
The opinion of the RJA & HS in 1881 was that potato cultivation continued to engage the attention of everyone who possessed the smallest particle ofland, and they laid emphasis on the need for using the best artificial manures; and again, in 1883, they referred to agriculture as being the principal source of the island's prosperity.
In 1885 the society discussed the effect of the increased potato cultivation on general practices, and it was stated that 1,100 tons of hay and 100 tons of straw were imported during the year ending 31 May 1885, evidencing the reduction of the area under grass and corn. The doubtful value of some high-priced artificial fertilizers was alluded to and it was noted that 3,000 tons of manures were imported. Otherwise, all seemed to be going well in 1886 when, out of the blue, disaster struck the agricultural community - not only did the potato trade prove unsuccessful, but the failure of two local banks, one connected with Newfoundland and the other much used by farmers, brought something approaching ruin to many.
The society's report for 1886 suggests that much of the cause of the trouble appeared to be over-production, which, meeting competition on the English Market, resulted in a fall in prices. As a sequel to the economic crisis and the disastrous potato season of 1886, two public meetings were convened the following year by the Society (as was the way after a bad season 'and which usually resulted in a certain amount of recrimination and the adoption of resolutions which, often, lead nowhere').
A committee was appointed to go into the question of artificial manure. It obtained the assistance of Mr Toms and Mons Laurot, and their report makes highly interesting reading and is worthy of re-printing. Mr Toms suggested the establishment of plot experiments which he carried out later. A committee was named to watch the state of the markets and to obtain daily the prevailing prices. Another committee was formed to communicate with exporters, merchants and farmers to obtain a report on the quality of the potatoes sent. "Whether this very useful programme was carried out is doubtful;' it says, "but in theory it was a forerunner of the activities of the today's States Committee of Agriculture which, having the power of the law behind it, is able to do so much".
The society reported "The cultivation of the potato was still being extended, though, from time to time, growers received setbacks - thus, in 1888, prices fell to 1s per cabot or less, whilst blight wreaked havoc in the fields. The shortage of root crops and fodder in the preceding year caused farmers to make heavy purchases often on credit". This unfortunate system was apparently well established by this time, and was, indeed, a great hazard to merchants and commerce in general. Much the same thing happened in the following year - when the season must have been a very long one. In that year it was stated that "the price was good until the middle of June, when it fell to 2s per cabot; and, further, that during July and August 17,690 tons were exported at an average price of 1s 2½d per cabot:' It was said that, in 1889, the seasons were at least a fortnight later than ten years previously.
In 1890, Hugh de la Haye was presented with a testimonial by friends and cultivators for his introduction of the 'Royal Jersey Fluke'. A total of 66,840 tons was exported in 1891 at a value of £487,642; the highest tonnage and value since 1883, according to Mr P Barbier, in the first Statistical Report, published in 1891.
In 1892 the RJA & HS reiterated the warning on "the risks run by farmers growing potatoes on land unsuited for their cultivation and thus relying on imported fodder". They also referred to a subject which had apparently caused much controversy: 'Bouillie Bordelaise', for mitigating the effects of potato disease, which had undergone thorough trials and had been found to be most efficacious.
Three drought years were followed, in 1894, by more blight. The abnormal snow and frost of 1895 is still referred to, and very cold winters are still compared with conditions at that time. With snow on the ground for several weeks, the planting of the potato crop was delayed and though, when the thaw came, growth was rapid, dry weather had a bad effect on the crop in light soils. Much seed having been frozen, the shortage was made up with the introduction from England of a quantity of 'Myatts' - "Like the 'Majestics' of more recent experience, these proved too late for remunerative export, and were a failure on that account".
By 1897 the Show Committee of the Society had decided that a sum of money should be devoted to the discovery of a new variety of 'fluke' potato. The States Experimental Station was established and developments in research and advisory work were carried out there.
A special committee was set up in 1899 to enquire into the state of the island's agriculture. The report, said to be one of the most exhaustive ever produced, was presented in 1900. It set out the cost of the production of potatoes, "but the conclusions and advice offered as to potato culture were not new, and had been reiterated many times:' It continues In these days, when education is so progressive, the youth of the Island should be stimulated to follow the calling of his ancestors, and not to abandon the fields for town occupations. Technical instruction in our schools would go far to train the mind in the direction of farming, and an elementary knowledge of geology, botany and chemistry, as applied to the farm, would assist materially in rendering the farmer's calling one of peculiar interest and would further the development of science combined with practice.
It is to be hoped, therefore, in the interest of Jersey that instructions of this nature will find its way into our schools, and that the land will remain in the occupation of Jerseymen, to the common advantage of all classes.
On this encouraging note the agriculturalists of Jersey stepped forward into the 20th century, pausing for a moment, as one does at such a time, to look back, paying tribute in thought to those stoic, determined Jersey farmers who braved physical as well as financial hardships to raise the growing and exportation of the Jersey 'early' potato to its premier position on the London market; and to John Lecaudey who, by his vision, enterprise and encouragement for those farmers, revived the agriculture of the island in 1859, and set it on course for its great new era of prosperity.