19th century immigrant Army and Navy officers

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This article by Margaret Mesch was first published in the 2014 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Tax exiles

Jersey's first tax exiles, many of whom were retired officers on half pay, were not the super rich of today. They were attracted by a tax regime, free of excise and customs duty, which, in contrast to the United Kingdom, which raised 70% of its revenue that way, enabled them to live the gentle life which they could not have afforded on the mainland.

Taxes on consumption are always especially challenging for the less well-off. And 19th century Jersey was able to turn the unpopularity of the excise — the 'hateful tax' of Dr Johnson's dictionary definition — to its advantage in attracting immigrants from the UK who both increased its population and boosted its economy, with particular impact on St Helier.

There were other advantages for these new settlers, many of whom had made their careers in the tropics. “The weather in Jersey”, wrote St Helier resident Dr Robert Eckford, late president of the Bombay Medical Board, “is similar to the hills of India”. Eckford had returned on retirement to his native Scotland, but after only two years had declared he “could not endure it on account of the cold and the east wind” which hurt his eyes.

The Island's benign climate was central to many choices, but almost equally important were the good medical facilities. There was a surgeon, for example, who could remove a limb in three and a half minutes, and the fact that Jersey (unlike India) had no noxious or dangerous animals. For expectant mothers and others with young families, Jersey was a safe place to raise children.

Napoleon's defeat and exile in 1815 caused the Navy to shrink from the 713 ships in service in 1815 to just 134 five years later. Likewise in the post-Napoleonic era there was no need for a large standing army. For the redundant officers there was the system of half pay which, though it was described as a retainer payment subject always to the possibility of recall, in effect was a combined pension and redundancy package.

Many retired and half-pay officers settled abroad, but in 1824 everything changed when drawing half pay was prohibited 'outside His Majesty's dominions'. By chance, that new ruling coincided with the beginning of a regular steamship service to and from the Islands, making Jersey — newly accessible and alluringly tax-free — a popular place to settle ‘after long service in pestilential climates’.


It was not just retired officers who settled in Jersey, for other ranks also were to find their way to the Island, where they followed a variety of trades. Among them were Chelsea 'Out-Pensioners' - men who had performed meretricious army service and had been awarded a tiny pension, paid at the Picquet House in the Royal Square.

In 1851 there were 56 of those Royal Hospital pensioners living in Jersey, mainly in St Helier around Garden Lane. Their numbers gradually decreased as the century wore on.

Although the penurious half-pay officer is ubiquitous in Victorian Jersey, by no means all the retired officers were on half pay. Major-General Henry Savage, late commandant of the Royal Engineers, who was living in Grosvenor Terrace in 1861, had served in Jersey earlier in his career.

He enjoyed a household that included a butler, cook, nurse and housemaid. And senior officers of the Royal Navy, with its tradition of taking prize, were often wealthy. Captain Timothy Scriven CB ( -1824) had taken prize during the wars from 11 enemy ships. He settled in Jersey after an adventurous career that involved imprisonment, yellow fever, personal injury and courts martial; all in the course of continuous active service in the Navy.

The ties of family and friends have always been powerful determinants in the choice of a retirement destination. Picture four young people travelling from India in 1816 on the East Indiaman Carmarthan. As reported in the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany, they left Bombay in February and passed Gravesend in August. Among the passengers were two Mrs Brackenburys, a Mrs Fraser and their husbands, junior officers in the Indian Army.

As the journey took them more than six months, they had had plenty of time to get to know one another. Now scroll forward 30 years, and in William Place (St Helier) — now Rouge Bouillon and always a popular address with the immigrants — the Frasers and the Brackenburys were near-neighbours.

There was also a wider social imperative for choosing Jersey. Almost without exception and whether on half or full pay, the military officers listed in the census returns had served either in the Royal Navy, the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers, the Army or Navy Medical Service, or the East India Company — which became the Indian Army after 1858. In none of these services — unlike the fashionable cavalry and infantry regiments — was it necessary to purchase a commission. Consequently, few if any of those officers would have come from wealthy families.

Victorian society

In Victorian society — even more strictly stratified than our own — Jersey's military settlers would have felt comfortable with each other and with the civilian annuitants (many also ex-India) who had similarly made the Island their home.

A guide book to the Channel Islands, published in 1840, claimed that `the number of English residents in Jersey amounts to at least 5,000 ... of this number, at least four-fifths consist of officers on the half pay of the army and navy’. Yet Jersey's decennial census returns, starting a year later, show that even in the parts of St Helier (Rouge Bouillon and New St John's Road) most favoured by the 'English colony', the great majority of the Island's non-Jersey-born residents (Scots and Irish among them) were working people, either tradesmen and their families or household servants.

Next in numerical order came the people who described themselves either as 'independent' or annuitants. And the military families came last.

It was the military officers who, in the social diary of the the Jersey Juvenile Journal of 1837, were considered Jersey's haut ton. While at no time did the number of officers listed in successive census returns bear out the familiar claim that the majority of Victorian immigrants were officers on half pay, they can still be identified in scores in the graveyards of St Helier, recalling their one-time significance in island life.

That presence would probably have counted for more politically in Jersey had the majority of military families chosen to settle permanently on the Island. In reality, few of them did.

Soldiers and sailors are accustomed to a rootless, peripatetic existence. And that habit of moving continually persisted for many officers in retirement. In census returns between 1851 and 1871 there is only one military family - that of Nathaniel Alves - remaining in the same house in Norfolk Terrace. Few families stayed in Jersey for two ten-year periods. And even those who stayed for just ten years were unlikely to remain at the same address for anything like the whole time.

Col George Sherer

So who were these immigrants? And why did so many of the ex-military leave Jersey after a comparatively short stay on the Island? One of the more memorable was Colonel George Sherer, late commander of the 75th Native Infantry Regiment stationed at Julpigoree - a remote district near the borders of Butan and Darjeeling. While the Indian Mutiny (1857-58) raged around them, Sherer sent his wife to Darjeeling for her safety.

And it is in his letters to his wife and dispatches to his senior officers that it becomes clear that Sherer - exceptionally for those times - managed to keep his Indian troops under control. Despite pleas from his own officers to disarm his men, Sherer (whose genuine love and respect for his native soldiers was clearly reciprocated) steadfastly refused to do so. 'I am the only person here', he told his wife, 'who does not go about with a revolver.'

But the situation at Julpigoree remained fragile, for there were repeated attempts at mutiny. Each time, Sherer controlled the situation, mostly by bribery. But on one occasion, when ordered by his superiors to dismiss a group of conspirators, he did so more conventionally, blowing them apart at the muzzle of his guns. In May 1858 'all continues perfectly serene', Sherer wrote; but then grumbled that because he had successfully avoided a mutiny, no claims for honours or appointments were possible.'

Three years later, the horrors of the mutiny behind them, the Sherers were settled in Windsor Terrace. But the Colonel no doubt found life in Jersey rather dull, for a few years later he moved his family to London, where in 1866 he was rewarded with the Star of India and a knighthood for his services.

Another restless immigrant was Colonel Baldock, who had already moved twice in Jersey before buying 4 Windsor Terrace in 1837. Baldock was a man of considerable fortune, insuring his new house for £1,000, with another £500 for his ‘jewels, trinkets and curiosities’.

After 12 years at Windsor Terrace, Baldock had had enough, emigrating with his family to Australia.


Those who knew the merits of Jersey's temperate climate more than most were the relatively poorly-paid retired army and navy surgeons, languishing near the bottom of the half pay scale and disproportionately represented on the Island. By 1881 fully 16 per cent of the military families in St Helier and St Saviour were military surgeons or their widows.

Those widows, and widowers, played an increasingly important part in the community. High death-rates among Europeans in India cut many marriages short. But there were also grass widows, unwilling to return to the sub-continent. One of them was the young wife of Dr Eckford, the physician, who after only two years in India, returned to England in 1819 and then refused to go back. Eckford himself did not finally leave India until 1832, having spent much of their marriage apart.

While long separations and early deaths were common enough, there were some compensations for the survivors. Officers' widows tended to stick together, there being five military widows living in St Mark's Road in 1871, comfortingly close to the Deanery.

Nor was it uncommon for widowers to find replacement wives soon enough, often decades younger than themselves. One of those was the Mauritian-born Clara, the second wife of Major-General Henry Savage, who was 27 years younger than her husband. With no other ties in Jersey after General Savage's death in 1866, Clara left Jersey for Rochester, the home town of her husband's regiment the Royal Engineers, which was the nearest thing Clara had to a family. Clara would probably also have thought that the serious business of finding suitable husbands for her eight daughters and step-daughters would be better conducted in England.

It has been suggested that another reason for the continual movement among the immigrant families was that they were running out of money. On his retirement on full pay from the Royal Artillery, Major-General and Mrs Crawford had installed themselves in 1854 at Egerton Place, Rouge Bouillon. Ten years later, after her husband's death, Mrs Crawford moved with her daughters to what looks on the outside to be a more modest address in Bagot Road.

Nevertheless, the house had a back stair for Mrs Crawford's servants, with a row of bells in the kitchen passage to summon them when required. Downsizing is a more likely explanation for her move.

Legal action

The more financially savvy Jersey immigrants did what they could to exploit their situation for the benefit of their heirs and themselves. Dr Eckford, having fled his native Scotland, determined to take full financial advantage of his decision to settle in Jersey. Thus his favourable verdict on Jersey's climate and his cellar full of wine (there were 200 dozen bottles in his cellar by the time of his death) were both part of the case he brought to court to adopt a Jersey domicile, enabling his estate to accumulate shares in the Paris and Orleans Railway for the benefit of his heirs for a further 80 or 90 years.

Under English trust law, the Thellusson Act would have prevented that accumulation in the longer term. But Dr Eckford successfully achieved his ambition, for his residuary estate was not wound up until as late as 1957.

One of Dr Eckford's difficulties in proving his Jersey domicile was that, in common with most of the other military immigrants of his time, he was not the owner of his house. He had discovered that under Jersey law the owner of the house was unable to dispose of the whole interest in it by his or her will.

Another consideration was the lingering fear, particularly among the immigrants, of a renewal of war with France: acknowledged in Dr Eckford's case by the condition that, in the event of war, the tenancy of his house in Rouge Bouillon would fall.

The 1830s were to see a well-documented building boom, financed by islanders and targeted directly at newly-arrived military families, in the fashionable parishes of St Helier and St Saviour. Apart from the few people who were recognizably developers, most of the new building recorded at the time in the West of England Insurance registers was carried out, not by large investors, but by small-scale local businessmen, having only two or three houses to rent out.

It was noted in a popular guide book of the time that 'the English have nothing to do'. One of the conditions of an officer's half pay was that although he was able to refuse a posting should he wish, he risked his entitlement to a pension if he did so, and must always be ready to take up an appointment if offered. So how did they while away their days?


Emily Shore, the diarist, on a visit to Jersey in 1838, wrote unsympathetically: 'People are continually calling here, and from not one have I heard anything but the most frivolous gossip'.

No doubt the discussion returned frequently to island personalities and to a hectic regime of garden parties, balls, assemblies, picnics (referred to as the 'gypsying system'), race meetings, concerts and dinner parties.

The last ball of the 1837 season took place at the Royal Yacht Club Hotel. It started at 10 pm and continued 'with great spirit' until as late as 8 o'clock the next morning. Numerous clubs and societies were formed, patronised and encouraged by ex-soldiers. One of the first subscribers to the new Philanthropic Society in 1825 was Henry Savage, later to retire as a major-general, but at that time a young captain stationed in the Island.

Among the many clubs and facilities mentioned in the 1820s and '30s in the Gazette de Jersey were a British Union Club, a Caesarean archery club, a cricket club, and a reading room.

Holding boredom at bay, there were day trips to Sark and opportunities for excursions around the Island. A 'band of music' was in attendance on the Lord Beresford for a three-day trip to St Malo in 1824. Before it caught fire and burnt down, the theatre was very popular both for seasonal repertory offerings and amateur productions: an 'evening of theatricals' deserving, as we are told in the Gazette in 1821, 'the warmest thanks for the spirit which induced (the gentlemen amateurs) to break in upon the monotony of the Caesarean hours.

So could it have been plain boredom that induced so many military immigrants and their families to leave Jersey not long after they arrived? Was it the uncertainties of inheritance under Jersey law, or a simple desire to move nearer grown-up children and friends? One obvious disincentive to travel, putting off mainland visitors and still felt today, was the difficulty and expense of the journey from England, even after huge advances in steamship services. 'Jersey is a nice place', wrote the radical journalist George Julian Harney (1817-97), a friend of Marx and Engels, who spent many years in the Island; 'but considering the usually abominable sea passage, I doubt if the game is worth the candle'.

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