The Mauger desk from Avranches

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The Mauger Desk

This article by Richard Stevens was first published in the 1989 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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Manor sold

In 1958 Doctor Elie Marett sold Avranches Manor to The Viscount St Vincent, and soon afterwards an extensive programme of restoration and improvement was begun. At the time of the sale Doctor Marett had sold furniture from the manor to a local antique dealer, including an escritoire, which was noticed by Lord St Vincent and bought back for £15. He wanted it solely for the sake of four knobs which were identical to four missing from a contemporary, but far superior, chest-on-stand which had been brought over from his house in England.

The desk was locally made in solid oak, about 1700-10, and the design is very similar to that which is found in England, except that there it would be about 1690, and made in walnut veneers or marquetry. It may have been made from a drawing sent over, but more likely copied from an imported piece. No other Jersey-made escritoire of this kind has yet been identified. Although it is not of the highly sophisticated craftsmanship of the English versions, it is well made, and all the drawers which one can see are nicely dovetailed; by contrast, I know of a Jersey chest-on-stand of the same period of which the drawers are nailed together.

When the desk was brought back to the manor, the keys were missing, and the oak inside the fall-front was found to be unexpectedly pale and clean. The pristine gilding on the six drop-handles gave them the appearance almost of being new. The desk had evidently been closed for a long time, and Doctor Marett told Lord St Vincent that it had been at Avranches when he inherited the manor, and that it had always been on the first floor landing.

Some while after Doctor Marett's death in 1962, Lord St Vincent came upon the various secret drawers in the desk, and the sliding base to the top half, which revealed a well containing a large collection of papers. Shortly after this discovery, in early 1966, he contacted my mother, the late Mrs Joan Stevens, to ask her opinion of the papers. She found that they were a collection of legal as well as personal papers, mostly dating from the decade 1720-30. She thought that, although in themselves they were not of great importance, they had some significance as an example of what a man of that time might have kept in his desk, and which had been frozen for nearly 250 years. All the papers were collated by Mrs Stevens according to type and date, many were annotated, and some translated. A list of them is provided below.

Pierre Maugers

The owner of the papers was found to be a Pierre Mauger, or possibly a father and son so named. Payne gives five Pierre Maugers in direct descent in the Saint Lawrence branch which intermarried with the Marets of Avranches.

We are concerned with one who was at Josue Cabot's school in Southampton in 1723, and the most likely is the Pierre Mauger who would have been 16 at the time. It is possible that the desk was made for Pierre's father who was in his thirties when it was made, in which case Pierre would have inherited it from his father and kept some school books and legal papers of his own in it. It could also have been bought by the son at any time in his life, or it could have been made for him c 1728, if it was made later than the style suggests. There are no papers in the secret drawer dated after 1733, and why Pierre's son did not add to them after that date remains a mystery.

In 1743 at the age of 36 he married Marie Luce, who was probably of the Luces of La Chesnaie, Saint Lawrence. Their daughter Marie Mauger married Philippe Maret, the Seigneur of Avranches. It is likely that she, being older than her brother, inherited the desk from her father and brought it to Avranches; she may not even have known of the secret drawer.

Philippe Maret was the grandson of Philippe, who was the third son of the controversial second marriage of Suzanne Dumaresq, Dame de La Haule, and Elie Maret in 1646. Pierre Maret, the eldest son of this marriage, and his descendants, inherited La Haule. Philippe Maret inherited Avranches from his mother, who had in turn inherited it from her step-brother, another Philippe Maret, the Jurat (1628 -76), who had no children.

Avranches Manor is not the Manor of the fief of Avranches in Jersey, nor is it on that fief. It was named so by Philippe Maret after the Dumaresq fief in Trinity whose original name was Fief qui fut a L'Eveque d'Avranches. As an ecclesiastical fief belonging to a foreign priory, this fief had escheated to the Crown in 1415, and had later been sold.

Inventory

An inventory of 1792 on the death of Philippe Maret states that a scrutore de chene was bought by the tuteur (guardian) on behalf of the eldest son, Philippe Maret, who was then a minor. This 19-year-old man's guardian was also his uncle, and a few years later became his father-in-law as well.

Pierre Maret had children by two marriages, and it would be natural for Pierre Mauger, the guardian of his sister Marie's eldest son, to have bought back for him an important piece of furniture which had belonged to the young man's maternal grandfather. James Pipon, the guardian of the children by the second wife, Jeanne Remon, would not have had this particular interest in the desk for her children.

Explanations of kinships in Jersey are always difficult and complicated. A summary of this maze is that Philippe Maret inherited his deceased mother's desk at his father's partage in 1792, and so it stayed at Avranches. He built the new house of Avranches from 1818, and must have put the desk back into the new house, and perhaps onto the landing where his grandson, Elie, first remembered seeing it.

This fine old piece of furniture, a treasured possession of many of its owners, may first have been at La Fontaine in about 1710, and then spent exactly 200 years from 1770 -1970 at Avranches, apart from the few weeks when it was in an antique shop in 1958.

With enormous generosity Lord St Vincent gave the desk to me and my mother in September 1970, and subsequently all the papers, which are once again in the secret drawer. Since then it has been restored over several years, and its charming story has caused much interest.

The desk's secret drawer

The papers in the secret drawer

The papers which were discovered in the desk in 1966 are many and varied, and may not all have belonged to the same Pierre Mauger. However, as most of them are from the 1720s and 30s, we think that they belonged mainly to Pierre Mauger the younger, the schoolbooks being left over from his school days in Southampton, and the documents relating to his early days as a lawyer.

Some of the papers are printed, but the greater quantity are in manuscript.

  • A certificate in French stating that the port of Le Havre de Grace was free of the plague, 26 June 1721
  • Playbill for tragedy of Martyrdom of Saint Eustache, to be performed at College of Sottevast, 24 July 1719
  • The London Post, 17-19 December 1722, including a serialisation of Moll Flanders, and mentioning the brigantine Carteret for Carolina arrived at Cowes 15 December
  • Advertisements for medicines, and a specific for scurvy using scurvy-grass (Cochlearia officinalis)
  • A table of divinity books
  • Many broadsheet stories, ballads, and Garlands (miscellanies) of songs, one from opera Astartus. These were sung to stated or known tunes and are mostly of a pastoral or romantic nature. Mostly in English, with crude pictorial woodcuts, some much handled
  • A book of short airs, probably Peter Mauger's, although one page has his school friend John Goff's name. One piece is called Shore's trumpet, popular at the time. In the Opinion of one early music specialist the fingering suggests that they were wntten for a shawm, cornamuse or crumhorn
  • Broadsheet advertising the 1724 Eclipse, and warnings to be mindful of the day of doom
  • Speeches in both Houses given by George I and by MPs against the Popish Pretender, 1722

The manuscript papers constitute much the larger part of the collection, and range from 1672 -1733. They are in several hands, and merit further scrutiny than has been possible so far. There is, to begin with, a miscellany of scraps of paper written on mostly by Pierre Mauger, which relate to his school days and life as a young man. This is a selection of them:

  • Various poems of a romantic nature in French, two in poor English.
  • A romantic chanson nouvelle signed by Elizabeth Le Gallais, date illegible or in code.
  • Chanson nouvelle des Terreneuuiers, 1725 (transcript below). This may be in different hands. It tells of the hardships which the young men of the islands endured in the cod trade, and of their nostalgia. The Maretts of A vranches were involved with shipping at this date, which is prior to their two marriages with the Maugers.
  • A poem of 1724 from Mary Raynolds to Peter Maugre (sic). The first letters of each line spell out both their names, and it is folded in on itself as a puzzle, like an Eton fag-note. The text seems to urge him to take life a bit more seriously (transcript below).
  • Another love poem by Mary Raynolds, the third verse of which is a garbled version of the Silver Swan!' (transcript below).
  • Many hand-made note-books, mostly containing English/French word-lists, and some saucy stories. Codes using numbers for letters are in evidence. One book belonged to Elie Romeril, who was another boy from Jersey at the school. On the back of another is "For Mr John Raynolds in Bramshaw in the New Forest to be left at Mr Martin's a cheesemonger in Southampton- These", and then "a hancerchief". Is this John Raynolds the brother of Mary? (See page 000).
  • Several frivolous poems, some bawdy.
  • Many examples of lines copied out as punishments.
  • A recipe for Sherbet, or Shrub, a sweet drink, from Arabic sliarab.
  • The last item in this category is bizarre, and hard to evaluate. It is a large hand-made notebook of 28 pages tightly written in French, on a variety of strange subjects.

There are talismans and symbols, cabalism, astrology and dreams. Salamanders, snakes, and mandragos are discussed, and there is advice on how to find buried treasure. There are recipes, herbal cures and ointments, for people as well as horses. There are instructive tales, and diagrams. The mathematical squares described as talismans are known today in schools as exercises, but it would be useful to be able to place these strange writings into a wider context; to know who wrote them, and for what purpose.

The remainder of the manuscript papers probably relate to Pierre Mauger's legal practice, although it is not always clear how some of them came to be in the collection. Some of them may have belonged to his father, whose profession we do not know. It is possible that documents were placed in the secret drawer for safe keeping, and also that the six boxes hidden behind the pigeon-holes were used to hide small sums of money owed by one party to another. This group of papers was annotated in great detail by Joan Stevens, and includes:

  • Many deeds of sales or repayments of wheat rentes, 1672-1733
  • Clameurs par marché de bourse, and some partages
  • Many retrait lignager papers, 1709 -1727; complicated legal arrangements concerning many parties and their responsibilities, the 'widow's lot' being noticeable
  • A Gabourel inventory of 1728
  • Document of 1723 with important details of the inheritance of Morel Farm
  • A bill for work done by Nicholas Gibaut for Pierre Mauger 1732
  • Josue le Quesne accuses Philippe de Carteret fils Charles of stealing beans from a field. He is found guilty and fined
  • Contract between George and Philippe Marett of the sale of Quetivel Mill, dated 1793. These two brothers were the children of Suzanne Maret, nee Dumaresq. This is clearly meant to be 1693, so it is either a mistake or a later copy

Education

What impression then can we gain of Pierre Mauger, who at one time owned the desk and its papers? There is no known portrait of him, but a deeper study of his personal papers might yield a few more details.

He went to school in Southampton to learn, among other things, mathematics, music, and English. His French, though regional, may have been a help to Mr Cabot in teaching the English boys, who may sometimes have pronounced his name 'Mawger'.

He was witty and intelligent, with a good vocabulary. He was either naughty, or indolent; for he was given lines to write out so often that notebooks were made out of the backs of his lines paper. He played wind instruments, and wrote poems, some amorous and bawdy.

He had an English girlfriend who had beautiful handwriting, and probably lived at Bramshaw, a village about ten miles west of Southampton, in the New Forest; but he did not marry until he was 35.

He liked puzzles and codes and may have had an interest in occult matters. His ephemeral papers came both from England and from France at this time. In Jersey he became a Jurat at the age of 49, an office which his son, Pierre also achieved 13 years later. They probably lived at La Fontaine, with its pretty bel, in that most beautiful valley right in the centre of the island. He lived to be 73, but we do not know when his wife Marie died.

Our knowledge of such a person will always be scanty, but we have caught a glimpse of a small period of his life, through the chance discovery of some relatively unimportant papers which in normal circumstances would have been thrown away.

As the desk once stood for a few weeks in an antique shop in Burrard Street, the papers might so easily have been dispersed, and the owners of the desk never indentified.

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