A Jerseyman's view of change 1873-1963

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Lord Coutanche

In 1963, to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of La Société Jersiaise, retired Bailiff Lord Coutanche, a patron and long-standing member of the organisation, gave a talk at La Hougue Bie in which he looked back at changes in the island over those 90 years.

Fishing and shipping

"When the Société Jersiase was formed on 29 January 1873, the activities which dominated the lives of Jersey folk were not, as today, tourism and agriculture, but cod-fishing, shipping and to a lesser extent, agriculture. For generations the sea and overseas trading had been the backbone of the Island's prosperity. We not only sent out ships and crews to fish for cod off the Gaspé Coast and Newfoundland; we also built the ships and provisioned them and they sailed to Catholic countries in South America and to Portugal, Spain and the Mediterranean to sell the fish. THey brought back from the Spanish Main mahogany of which all our lovely Jersey furniture is made, and from the Mediterranean and Spain and Portuigal they brought salt, wines and a host of provisions for the Island, a good proportion of which was then shipped out to the Gaspé Coast when the ships went back for the next fishing season.
"There was also a considerable import trade for the building and rigging of the ships we built and the Island manufactured many of the things the shipping industry needed. I well remember the man who made the great leather sea-boots which the mariners wore. Jersey-built and Jersey-owned vessels sailed the world and Jersey merchants had their branches or agents not only in North America but in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and many other places. But alas, 90 years ago this lucrative trade, financed by Jersey banks, was for various reasons, declining. This and other reasons led to local bank failures and to the establishment then of the first English bank in Jersey.

Intensive farming

"Already, however, our forefathers had turned to the more intensive use of the land. Many Jersey mariners ploughed and planted the fields in the winter and early spring and then went to sea in the late spring and summer leaving their wives and children to harvest the crops. The Corn Laws were in force in England till 1846 and corn was then grown all over the Island. Orchards took up large areas too, and cider was an important item of export, for we enjoyed, as we still do today, the right under the Charter of Queen Elizabeth (which confirmed much older charters) to export to the United Kingdom the goods of the growth or manufacture of this Island free of all duties whatsoever.
Packing Jersey potatoes for export
"With the decline and eventual disappearance of the Island's cod-fishing, shipbuilding, and shipping activities, we turned more and more to potatoes and cattle. The export of potatoes received a tremendous fillip with the local discovery of that remarkable early variety, the Royal, while the overseas markets for our cattle expanded rapidly. Then, with the turn of the century, came the tomato, first and second crop, and I need not recall to you the profit this new crop has brought to the Island. The progressive destruction of orchards so as to enlarge the area of land for potato and tomato growing caused great sorrow to our forefathers."
"But our great rival at that time was the St Malo region, which was doing that too in order to grow early potatoes. These competed severely against ours in the UK market since in those days there wre no taxes on the import of foreign produce into the UK. An important change in UK policy after the First World War was to prove the salvation of our agriculture, namely the change from free trade to protection and the imposition of import duties on foreign potatoes and tomatoes."
Beresford Street was formerly the limit of St Helier's shopping area

Limited shopping area

"What was St Helier like 90 years ago? It was nothing like it is today. There were few shops outside the small central trading area bounded by King Street, Queen Street, Beresford Street, Halkett Place, part of Colomberie and Bath Street. Immediately surrounding this centre were residential districts. For example, the Rouge Bouillon area, now largely composed of guest houses and hotels, was then inhabited by English residents, officers of the garrison, and Jersey families with business or professional interests. St Luke's was another important and delightful residential area but regarded as inferior by those who lived in Rouge Bouillon. They jokingly referred to it as 'the slum'.
"In those days people who worked in St Helier did not live in the country as so many do today. Many of the great commercial families lived above their business premises and those side entrances alongside the shops in our main streets led to beautiful dwelling rooms on the first, second and even third floors above the shop.
"The life of the high society in Jersey at the turn of the century revolved almost entirely around the military and this was accentuated when, in 1905, the Militia with its artillery regiment and three infantry regiments - West, East and Town - was reorganised and regular officers appointed to command it. Fort Regent was the headquarters of the English infantry garrison, and Elizabeth Castle the headquarters of the Royal Garrison Artillery. The Lieut-Governor then had a large military staff. Its size can be seen in the picture of the Assize d'Heritage, painted by John St Helier Lander just before the end of the 19th century, which hangs in the Royal Court House.
"In the same social set were large numbers of retired officers from the armed forces and from the Indian Civil Service. It was still unusual to meet titled people in Jersey, so not unnaturally the undisputed queen of local society was a titled lady, an admiral's widow. She rode in abrougham with a Dalmation dog following under the back axle. She smoked a cigar held in her gloved hand and she was reputed to shake the ash on to the people as she drove along.
The garrison was the centre of high society in Jersey and military bands played on all important occasions

Militia reviews

"A great occasion in those days was the Royal Review held on the sands of St Aubin's Bay on the sovereign's birthday. The regular troops and the Militia paraded before the Lieut-Governor and everybody went to see it. It was a general holiday. Another happy memory is the church parade when the whole garrison marched from Fort Regent to St James's, the garrison church) with the band leading. After the service, the officers and non-commissioned officers entertained their friends in the barrack square. Elizabeth Castle had its own chaplain and the services were held in the upper room where the waxworks now are and which was then the chapel. Also, there were English troops at St Peter's Barracks.
"The reorganisation of the Militia which I have already mentioned was carried out at the behest of the War Office who also required it to go under canvas every year. These proposals were not at all welcome in our ruling circles. The States were unwilling to comply and a great controversy arose. The point was reached where the British government said that unless reasonable changes were made the regular forces would be withdrawn from the island. In those days that would have resulted in serious economic difficulties for the island, as well as having sad consequences for its social life, including the loss of matrimonial chances for eligible daughters! The States, therefore, accepted the inevitable and the militia was duly reorganised and subsequently rendered very distinguished service.
Loading a passenger vessel at Gorey prior to departure for Carteret

Naval vessels

"At the turn of the century we still had some of the Royal Navy stationed here, namely a fishery protection vessel at Gorey. I recall the Dasher, the Raven and the Albacore. They were painted white and had a brass funnel. They rarely went to sea. And, of course, we had the two railways, one to the Corbiere and one to Gorey. The train from St Helier that connected with the boat service to Carteret was the Royal Mail train and flew the Mail flag; and Mr Dobin's horse carts took the luggage from the train to the boat at the end of Gorey Pier. If on arrival at Carteret your host was Madame Escoffier, who kept the Hotel de la Mer, then you would get a meal worthy of the great Escoffier himself.
"The tourist industry was still relatively small. It was largely confined to households where rooms were let to visitors who then lived with the Jersey family in their own simple way. Jersey folk themselves indulged in great picnics to country places or to a bay, going by horse and van or by train, and setting out large meals on white tablecloths, perhaps in the corner of a field.
"The spread of education was already having a great effect upon our island in those seemingly distant days. When the Société was formed Victoria College was just coming of age. But there were many excellent private schools and many boys were educated in England or in France; which made us much more bilingual than we are today. The church schools, later to become the States-owned schools, were then very important, too. The children brought their two or three pence a week which, with other contributions, kept the school going. In higher education we own much to the King Charles I scholarships to Oxford funded as far back as 1636, and to various other generous beefactions before and during the past 90 years which, together with grants from the States, have all brought fresh educational opportunity to the Island.
The swearing in of Sir Gresham Nicholson as Lieut-Governor in 1953, by which time relations between Jersey and the British Government had improved dramatically

French to English

"In my own particular fields, namely the Royal Court and the States Assembly, tremendous changes have occurred. Nomination to the Bar used to be the prerogative of the Bailiff and membership was restricted to six. The proceedings were entirely in French and the law dispensed was almost entirely Norman or French, because at that time all legal education for the local Bar was received in Jersey or France. A hundred years ago the Jersey Bar was thrown open and educaqtion with the Inns of Court in London became an acceptable qualification for admission. Gradually English legal principles and practice have crept into the Court, espacially with more and more English legislation being adopted by the States. Gradually, but relentlessly, English has become the language of the Court.
"It was little more than a hundred years ago that the States Assembly was enlarged to admit Deputies. Until then it consisted only of the Jurats, Rectors and Constables. When I entered the States as a Deputy some 40 years ago French was the language largely in use in debate and almost exclusively for legislation. When, however, some years later the Income Tax Law had to be drafted it had to be in English because no one could draft it in French. Whereupon one distinguished but very conservative Jurat asked the Bailiff to rule whether it was constitutional for a law to be passed in Jersey in a foreign language.
"A highly important change that has occurred in this century is the great improvement in the relations between Jersey and the British Government. When the century began they were as bad as they could pososibly be. Today, in marked contrast, they are happy and cordial. One recalls the case of Marie Daniel which arose out of a dispute over the registration in the Royal Court of a Royal order for the release of a prisoner from the gaol; and the long-drawn-out case about the chairmanship of the Prison Board. The States and the British Government were prepared to spend an enormous amount of time and money on such disputes about relatively trivial matters.
"These battles were, however, fought for something which is now conceded as a matter of course. The question in dispute was whether Jersey was to be regarded and governed as a crown colony or should be, as the Island is today, a self-governing part of the Empire and Commonwealth in all matters except its foreign relations. We do well to remember the wisdom and understanding on the part of the many people who contributed to this happy outcome."
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