Major Moyse Corbet, Lieut-Governor of Jersey 1771-1881
After returning to Jersey on half-pay as a retired army officer, Moyse Corbet and two colleagues became embroiled in a political dispute with the Lieut-Bailiff, Charles Lempriere and Corbet was appointed Lieut-Governor in 1771. Some reports say that he was appointed by the new Governor, General Henry Seymour Conway in 1772, but this is not correct.
Moyse Corbet was the son of Moyse Corbet (son of Moyse, son of Moyse, son of Moyse, son of Jean, all of St Helier) and Francoise Corbet, daughter of Jurat James Corbet. He was born in St Helier and baptised at the Town Church on 21 January 1758. On the death of his father in 1747, Charles Lempriere, who had married his first cousin, Elizabeth Corbet, found a position for him in the London office of lawyer John Sharpe.
But he did not take to law, and the following year his family bought him a commission in the Royal Fusiliers, where he did well. Twenty-three years later, when he was court martialled for his part in the Battle of Jersey, Lord Robert Bertie said of him:
- "My first acquaintance with him was in 1754, when I was honoured with the command of the Royal Fusiliers. I found him Adjutant and Captain-Lieutenant. He soon afterwards got a company; and, the regiment coming to England, from his very extraordinary merit as an Adjutant, I was induced to solicit the Duke of Cumberland that he might continue in that post. In 1756 he went with me in the regiment on the squadron for the relief of Minorca. After the action the regiment landed at Gibraltar. In 1759 he was obliged to come to England on account of health. The year after I made him my aide-de-camp. In 1761 he was made Major, and returned to Gibraltar, and continued there until the regiment came to England. A year or two afterwards he was obliged to quit the service on account of health after having served more than ten years to my entire satisfaction."
Corbet settled in Jersey on half-pay and became involved in politics. Despite his debt to Lempriere he became a leader of the opposing Magot Party. In 1769 he published a petition calling for political reform, which alienated many members of the administration but attracted considerable support. He turned it into a pamphlet Griefs de l'Isle de Jersey contenus dans une Rqueste presentée a Sa Majesté par Moise Corbet, Ecuyer, 1770, which he took to London.
This was a time of enormous political unrest, which had led the Privy Council to realise that Lempriere and his allies were not presenting a true picture of Jersey's situation. Corbet made a good impression and was appointed Receiver-General in place of Lempriere's brother-in-law. Colonel Bentinck was sent to Jersey with five companies of the Royal Scots to restore order after a riot led to the Royal Court being invaded by a mob and Corbet was promised that he would become Lieut-Governor when Bentinck left.
He succeeded to the post on 4 April 1771, but for the next ten years the prospect of a French invasion was of greater concern to him than the local political situation. When the French attempted to invade in 1779 Corbet hurried to St Ouen with his Highlander troops and the Militia and the French failed to land. Corbet was highly commended for his actions.
Battle of Jersey
Two years later when the French landed at La Rocque on 6 January 1781, Corbet was still in bed when they reached St Helier and three messengers came to warn him. He was not still in bed, as some reports suggest, when the French forced their way into his house.
George Balleine, in his Biographica Dictionary of Jersey relates:
- "Then he made his first mistake. His house, the Manor of La Motte, at the corner of what are now Grosvenor and St James' Streets, was then the last house in the Town. North, south and east stretched open country. He had still a horse in his stable. If he had acter promptly he could have escaped in the dim light of dawn, and by a detour have joined his troops."
Witnesses at Corbet's subsequent court martial disagreed over how much time he had to get away, but Corbet himself said that it had been "little more than five minutes" and by the time he had thought about how to escape it was too late, and he was captured by the French. The French commander Baron de Rullecourt fooled Corbet into believing that he had far more troops than he had and that he would subject the Town to fire and pillage unless Corbet immediately surrendered.
- "Corbet was a St Helier's man. His forefathers for generations were buried in the Town Church. He had known the townsfolk since he was a boy. Resistance seemed hopeless. For a time he refused to sign and said what he signed would have no effect on those who succeeded him in command. He seemed to delay as long as he could in asking to read and making difficulties about the wording. At about 8.30 Corbet signed."
Later in the morning Corbet went with de Rullecourt to try to persuade troop in Elizabeth Castle to surrender, but they fired on the French standing close to Corbet. And to a man the island's troops ignored Corbet's capitulation and assembled under Major Francis Peirson and defeated the French. Ironically, although Corbet was made to stand close to de Rullecourt in the final battle in the Royal Square, and both de Rullecourt and Peirson were killed, Corbet survived, despite two bullets passing through his hat. Within days he was the subject of the most intense criticism from Members of the States and the Royal Court for his actions, and they effectively demanded his removal from office. Others, however, supported him.
On 25 January, nearly three weeks after the battle, Corbet was arrested, and on 17 February he left the island for a trial which began on 1 May at the Horse Guards. He was charged "that he did, contrary to his duty and the trust reposed in him, sign with the commander of the French troops articles of capitulation, although the enemy had become masters only of the town of St Hillier, and Elizabeth Castle as well as the other forts were still in custody of his Majesty's troops; and further that he did endeavour to induce others shamefully to abandon and deliver to the French the several forts and posts committed to their charge".
The trial lasted five days and Corbet is said to have conducted his defence "in an able and dignified manner". The exact outcome of the trial is somewhat uncertain. Some reports say that Corbet was found not guilty of the charge laid against him, but the verdict was: "The Court are of opinion that Moses Corbet be superseded in his commission of Lieutenant-Governor" and a contemporaneous report of the trial (see below) records a finding of guilt. Corbet was dismissed from his office, but the pill was sweetened by his being granted a pension of £250 a year. He lived in seclusion until he was almost 90, dying in 1817, but it is not known whether he ever returned to Jersey, the island of his birth.
There is a full report of the trial published as By authority the proceedings at large on the trial of Moses Corbet, Esq; Lieutenant Governor of Jersey. Tried by a court martial, held at the horse guards, May 1, 1781. Taken in short hand, by W. Williamson, short hand writer, no. 5, Furnival's Inn Court. A comprehensive report was also published in Volume 43 of the Scots Magazine shortly after the trial. The same magazine published extracts from a letter written by Corbet immediately after the Battle, giving his account of the day.
Major Corbet had at least one son, Captain James Corbet, who took command of the 95th Regiment when Major Peirson was killed.