Social life at the time of the Battle of Jersey

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Social life at the time of
the Battle of Jersey

This article by Joan Stevens was first published in the 1981 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Jersey

In the midst of all the military details that have come to our notice in this bicentenary year, let us pause to consider the life of the people of the period, and the buildings then in existence or being erected.


The castles and St Aubin's Fort were not so very different from how we now see them; guard houses were built or repaired whenever there was a scare of a French attack. Some, but not all, the Jersey round towers already existed, but none of the true Martello towers, such as Kempt and Lewis Towers, had yet been considered. Over 30 water mills and three windmills were active, not only to grind corn, but also for crushing barley for beer, for fulling cloth, for making paper and for crushing sugar.

The parish churches had for the most part already been enlarged by the addition of parallel naves, and in many cases spires, too, had been added, but they were far from having the light, clean, cared for appearance that they now have. The only church to be built after the twelve parish churches, and before Victorian expansion had called for others, mostly in town, was St Aubin's.

The first effort to have a church there was made in 1715 in the form of a petition to the Bishop of Winchester, but the actual building was not completed until 1749; by 1887 it was considered to be unsafe and was replaced by the present very fine edifice. So at the period we are considering, the chapel of ease, of which no illustrations exist, was but 30 years old and had over a century of service to its small but prosperous community ahead of it.


Harbour facilities were minimal; the small harbours such as Gorey, Bouley Bay, Bonne Nuit, Rosel and Greve de Lecq, had not been constructed; at St Aubin there was the island's best harbour, though even that was fully tidal, and had not then had the east Janvrin pier added to it. The merchants who lived along the Bulwarks had constructed their own pier in 1790. Their colleagues in town waited another 30 years before constructing Le Quai des Marchands, and the only facilities in St Helier were the tiny Havre des Anglais and Havre des Francais under the lee of Le Montagne de la Ville, then innocent of any fortifications.


Building of houses in the town and St Aubin had continued throughout the century; in the former case the expansion tended to be in the Hue Street, Old Street, Dumaresq Street area, where there were fine houses built around 1750, now alas almost all demolished. In St Aubin it was the wealthy merchants who had been building their superior houses from at least 1680 onwards, and some are far older than that.

A case in point is the St Brelade's Hospital for elderly parishioners (now moved elsewhere), bought and given by Thomas Denton and his wife Marie Le Bailly. After her death it was sold, and a larger house, situated opposite, was bought for the benefit of the elderly. Examples of the period in St Helier are the Journeaux property in New Street, built in about 1750, (now de Gruchy's curtain workshop) and Mourant, du Feu and Jeune's offices at 16 Hill Street, bearing the date 1748 and the initials of Jean Perrochon.

In the country a Georgian symmetry and simplicity of design had replaced, but not obliterated, the vernacular style. Up to about 1700 the Jersey house had remained very much as it had been since the earliest surviving examples that we can still examine, such as Chestnut Farm, in St Helier, and Leoville Farm, in St Ouen. It was a very simple 'two up and two down' structure with a cross passage leading to a back door and a tourelle staircase.

It had two or more great granite fireplaces, generally a round arched doorway and uneven fenestration. As time went on, carved decoration became less common, chamfered surrounds to doors and windows disappeared and dated gable stones became rarer. This trend continued during the 18th century and by 1781 the commonest house facade was of two storeys, five bays, a straight topped door and window lintels, a tiled or slate roof.

In the country thatched roofs continued, and there are indications that slate was considered preferable to tile, and so was often used on the main house, if it could be afforded, with tile relegated to the farm buildings. The basic plan of cross passage flanked by kitchen and living room, with fireplaces in the gable walls and a pitched roof, was unaltered. What changed with the years was the refinements: wooden stairs, usually within the house plan, with substantial and well made balusters, newels and handrails, sash windows with wide glazing bars instead of casements, and often the window apertures enlarged, always vertically, never horizontally.

Wood floorboards replaced the beaten earth of former times, the actual boards being very wide in the earliest instances. The fireplace design, in the kitchen at least, persisted and was reproduced well into the 19th century.

Marriage stones

A paractice that not only continued, but intensified around this period, was the custom of putting up a marriage stone in the facade of the house. Similar stones occur in Guernsey, and to some extent in both France and England, but in Jersey they proliferated and few 18th century houses are without any. The typical marriage stone bears the initials, syllabically represented, of husband and wife, usually with an interlocked heart motif and a date. It must be interpreted with caution as it is not necessarily the date of the marriage or of the erection of the house.

What it does tell you is that the couple, who can often be identified, were married in or before that year and that they had a reason for wanting to record it. If all other features confirm the probability, it can be supposed that the facade in which it was inserted was built then. Some properties have many dated stones on wing, dower, barn, gate-post or well.

The bread oven, a vital component, could be a separate building or could be inserted within the kitchen beside the hearth. The actual oven, which was heated by burning furze within it, raking out the ashes and cooking the dough in the residual heat, was lined with brick and so was not likely to have been built before about 1750.

From 1720 (at the earliest) pine panelling was widely introduced. Before that there had been some partitioning in oak or elm dividing room from room, but not many examples of that have survived; simpler clap-board partitioning divided rooms from say 1650 onwards, into the 19th century. The pine panelling reached from floor to ceiling, with fielded panels and with more elaborate pilasters and moulding round the fireplaces; this has survived in some cases, but much of it has been torn down during recent restoration and modernisation work, for fear of dry rot or wood worm.

Examples where it can still be seen are The Old Library in Library Place; de Gruchy's workshop already mentioned; Oak Farm, St Lawrence; Les Ruettes, St John; and Ville es Philippes, Grouville.

Visitors' observations

In our Bulletin for 1932 we published the account of a visit to Jersey, in 1798, not too far removed from 1781, by W T Money (1769-1832). His observations are pertinent. In the market he noticed the large number of French political refugees about, though closely watched as there remained an ever present threat of invasion. He also remarked on the profusion and variety of fruit for sale. Town roads were not flagged or lighted and in the country the roads were so narrow that a carriage needed an avant courier to warn others advancing from the opposite direction.

In riding about the country he found that it was for the most part beautiful and verdant, but surprisingly, for us, he found St Brelade's Bay bleak and forlorn, though in St Lawrence there were avenues of oak 'whose intersecting branches formed one continual bower'. He evidently knew Dr Lerrier, who showed them where Peirson had fallen, so close to his own house, an event naturally still fresh in everyone's mind. Repeatedly, as be rides around the country with his friends, he mentions the military presence, and in Gorey harbour 'a squadron at anchor'. He was interested in the froment trémais the Jersey three-month wheat, praised the cider and said 'No scene in Nature can be more charming than the face of this insular paradise, when the trees lining many of the roads, and the orchards along the banks and in the Vales are in blossom. It appears like one continued Garden with flowery avenues, recreating the Eye and perfuming the air with the sweetest fragrance'.

A letter written in July 1781 by James Playfair, Chaplain to the 83rd Regiment, says ' ... the face of both islands is very much the same only there is more wood in Guernsey'. On arrival he found he had no room in the baracks but rented a room for 2s 6d a week. He also remarks 'We have sometimes reports of intended invasions here but as they always turn out to be false we never disturb ourselves about them. You need not be alarmed at any reports that our Regiment is going abroad; the newspaper accounts are very often false as they mistake one regiment for another.'


But what of the furnishings and mode of life within the houses of our island? They were for the most part very simple and we can best judge them from contemporary inventories and wills. As in earlier centuries, the bed was the most important item. With it went its hangings, bolster (traversin) pillows (anties) and covers. The hangings could be in strong wool material or serge (like those in the Jersey kitchen at the museum, dated at around 1675) in indienne or camelot, both cotton materials.

In Victorian times the hangings were almost always dark red, but at this period they could be blue, green, yellow or red, and the room tended to be referred to accordingly, as la rouge chambre, la bleue chambre. The bed with all its parts was a major item appearing in wills, and was frequently willed to daughters. Then there were cupboards (armoires, presses) chests, chairs and tables. There were no carpets and few curtains, and when mentioned these were usually bed, not window, curtains. The inventories included many kitchen utensils, much pewter and earthenware, but as yet not very much china.

Militia saddles and accoutrements were clearly of the greatest importance and are usually itemised in the principal bedroom. By the 1780 period mahogany had become, if not universal, fairly common. Furniture in the salle and the principal bedroom generally included some items in acajou and as time went on one sees that the pieces in oak and pine were relegated to kitchen or inferior bedrooms. The large amount of linen listed is somewhat surprising, but perhaps accounted for by the custom of washing at fairly infrequent intervals and in fine weather, in fact le grand netoyage de printemps.

A lady born in the 1860s remembered as a child being sent up on the cliffs to watch the family laundry which was spread out on the grass to dry. There is also the Jersey reluctance to throw anything away, and at least one partage, that of the de Carterets of Trinity, in 1696, mentions in the sale of goods, objects that were clearly in rags, fort ranges par les rats, yet there was someone poor enough to find it worth spending their sous to buy such garments.

Silver, in addition to pewter and copper, is mentioned in wills, partages and inventories. In poorer households it may have been spoons only (rarely forks) and in richer families included cups, mugs and many other items, presumably mostly locally made by the silversmiths that flourished in Jersey and Guernsey at this period, and well into the 19th century.


We can only turn to contemporary inventories to discover what books our ancestors read. Every house had a Bible, and most also had a prayer book, a New Testament and some books of sermons, and little else. However Jean Messervy in 1668 also had a History of Henry VII, Plutarch, Theophilus, Damadis of Gaul, and other philosophical works. In 1703 Anne Sealle of "La Maison du Coin" had Les Chroniques de 1'Ile de Jersey en manuscrit, La Coutume de Normandie, The Pilgrim's Progress and Phrases latines de l'escolle de Winchester. The majority of her collection was in Latin. She was the wife of Francois de Carteret of St Ouen, and mother of the last de Carteret of the direct line. (Philippe d 1712 aged 17.)

By 1752 Pierre Marett of la Haule had several English books, including The Present State of England as well as Lettres de M de Voitures, the Commentary of Calvin, a book of medicine and others, including a gospel in Spanish. At the sale of the effects of Nicolas Richardson of La Ferme at Rozel in 1764, there were but 20 books, mostly religious. In 1763 Thomas Pipon of St Aubin had nearly a hundred volumes in English, French, Latin and Greek, as well as four volumes of The Tatler, and L'Histoire de Jersey, presumably Falle's.

This is the first inventory reference to it so far recorded. In 1772 Francois Remon of L'Aleval also had the Commentary of Calvin with other religious books, and an atlas. In 1792 the effects of Philippe Marett, son of Francois of Avranches, were sold and included a very large number of books, with The Spectator for light relief; they raised £313 (Iivres tournois) out of a grand total for the saie of all his effects of £1322, nearly a quarter of the amount.

It can therefore be judged that all households had a Bible, that most also had some further religious and philosophical works, and that the more educated persons had respectable, if small, libraries which showed a command of at least three languages, often more. This is something that many of us could not emulate today.


As far as I am aware there is no existing 'longhouse', (that is to say man and beast living under the same roof and entering by the same door) in Jersey. That they existed in early medieval times is not disputed and is virtually proved by the remains of a 12th century structure excavated in Old Street. But in existing houses one can find no definite proof of such a mode of life. It is quite likely that the second ground floor room, which became known as le parloir, began more for storage than as a living room. Winter storage was desperately important both for the humans and for animal foodstuffs. It was necessary to store flour, salted meat, cider, apples, dried fish, beans and onions, and also furze and bracken for fuel. The first floor bedroom, with its fireplace, and wood floor, was a cleaner and warmer place in which to receive visitors than the ground floor with the farmyard in such close proximity.

The life of a moderately well-off Jersey merchant or farmer of the 1780 period probably approximated more closely to conditions in 1980 than those in 1880. Gone are the rigidities of the late Victorian era, with set conventions of behaviour in dress. customs, language and even distinct usages of many different rooms; gone is the availability of domestic servants. Around 1800 well-to-do landlords could combine the functions of Seigneur, Jurat, militia officer, attentive husband and father and gay socialite, at the same time as being a working farmer. This impression is clear in the diaries of successive Marett seigneurs of La Haule, Sir John Dumaresq of St Peter's House and his son in law and grandson General and Colonel Le Couteur of Belle Vue.

I think that I should have been happier in a Jersey farm in the year of the Battle than a century later.

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