Farming in the late 18th century

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A Jersey farmyard

Little has been written about agriculture in Jersey in the late 18th century. The article which follows is an abridged version of an article on the subject written by Jean Arthur and published in the 1981 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise to coincide with the bicentenary of the Battle of Jersey.

She quotes first from a letter written by Army chaplain James Playfair to his parents, in which he paints a vivid picture of the farming scene in Jersey in the months immediately after the Battle of Jersey. Playfair commented on the relatively small size and large number of holdings and the simplicity of agriculture and horticulture at the time, dominated as it was by apple growing for cider.

The potato had probably arrived in Jersey within five years or so of the Battle. This was not the early potato which was to become a major export crop for farmers a century later, but a maincrop potato, sometimes referred to as gros yeux (large eyes).

Jean Arthur says that the division of Jersey's countryside into small enclosures had been widespread for a century and more. The banks were planted with hawthorn, blackthorn and elm to provide the shelter the apple orchards needed. Cider was exported and in November 1802 Philippe Le Vesconte wrote to his brother-in-law from Southampton:

"Je vous prie de me faire savoir le prix du nouveau cidre à présent à Jersey, et cy-il ne coute pas plus que 18 livre Tournois par Barrique mis abord, je vous serai bien obligé de m'en retenir 100 Barriques. (Please let me know the price of new cider in Jersey, and if it does not cost more than 18 pounds a barrel, loaded on board, I would be obliged if you would secure me 100 barrels."

Livestock was not commonly found on Jersey farms at this time. Mrs Arthur suggests that an inventory of one farm which showed 'three cows, one heifer and two calves, one sow and two young piglets, a five year old horse and another of 13' represented an average holding. But she points out that farm inventories do not give areas of land, so that it is very difficult to work out how productive farms were, how many workers there were, what age they were, and whether some were employed. She expresses the hope that eventually some of these questions will be answered.

sheep grazing in St Brelade's Bay

She also expresses surprise that farm inventories do not include sheep, although it is known that they were present on most farms, particularly those in coastal locations.

"Wer know that there were in the 18th century official registers in the parishes of the marks used by each farm. In St Mary Le Livre des Marques de Bercail shows that the number of marks in use in the parish was 103 for 1748, but that by 1773 there were only 84 marks. Numbers of sheep must have fallen off quite sharply thereafter for there are no later lists. The marks belonged to the farm rather than the farmer and were occasionally transferred."

The Bulletin article also quotes from a letter of 15 December 1785 written by Jerseyman, Richard Valpy, after a visit back to his native island:

"In the most plentiful years the island yields little more than half the corn sufficient for the maintenance of its inhabitants. This will appear evident if we consider that it does not contain the proportion of one acre of land to every individual. In the beginning of the last century the produce of the island was more than adequate to its consumption. But the increase of its population, and the conversion of a great part of the arable land into orchards, render a supply from England absolutely necessary, even though bread is constantly made of barley for the use of labourers."

At this time many of Jersey's farmers spent part of their lives at sea. Some visited the Newfoundland cod banks, some served on privateers or trading vessels, and the farms may have been left in the charge of the oldest and youngest members of families.

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