Jersey: Not quite British - The character of the people

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Peter Heylin

The Rev Peter Heylin visited Jersey in the early 1600s. Afterwards he reported that 'the peasants were inclined to a kind of melancholic surliness, living in poverty and marrying within themselves like conies in a burrow'.

Those were the days when there were no doubts in the minds of reverend men of God and those of high estate. The Almighty had ordained that there should be differences and distinctions between them and those of the lower orders such as the peasants.

The two, while all of the human race, were separate. The one was superior, the other inferior, as it had always been and would be. And although it was the clear duty of their betters to make the inferior classes happy and contented with their lot, it was by no means the wish of the Almighty that they should strive to regard the peasant as being their equal. The attitude deserves momentary emphasis since it has coloured the reactions of so many writers, all necessarily educated men, to the less educated countryman of old. It is a view that has softened over the centuries.

Now it is not as it was in Heylin's day. But it still remains, a mere grain which nevertheless casts a vast shadow over our perception of the country dweller in days gone by.

R C F Maugham

The shadow is clearly evident in R C F Maugham's The Island of Jersey Today. Published in 1939 and revised as late as 1950, there is nothing in it to suggest a sympathetic understanding of the rural population in the place where he chose to live. Maugham, pictured on the frontispiece in uniform with cocked hat, sword and much gold braid, came to the Island in the 1930s as what is now called a wealthy immigrant. While he loved Jersey, approved of the 'official, professional and commercial classes', and no doubt of the golfing, bridge and cocktail party society he mixed with, he had not one kind word to say about the native farming stock.

'With regard to physiognomy, the expression on the countryman's face is rather stolid and his manners not very ingratiating,' he reported. The women 'though occasionally comely, are not, as a rule conspicuously well favoured ... nor are they outstandingly endowed with natural grace and movement.' They also tended, like the men, towards 'steatopygy', which is to say big behinds.

Concerning their character, said Maugham, 'the lower classes cannot be described as temperate,' while 'as in country districts on the Mainland morality is a virtue not very highly regarded. Illegitimacy I understand to be common.' Basing his views on sketchy details of ancient migration patterns, he argued with the contempt accorded to the Jews at the time when he wrote that the inhabitants must have been of Semitic origin. 'If any additional reason for such a supposition be needed,' he remarked, `it would be found in the Jerseyman's deep-seated attachment to money-making.'

Maugham reserves some of his most scathing criticisms for the difficulty he obviously had of finding reliable domestic servants 'of Jersey birth'. No problem, of course, for those who could bring staff with them when they moved to the Island or among those for whom 'the sordid details of household management are confidently left to the housekeeper'. For others less fortunate 'it is possible, however rarely, to obtain the services of more or less uncouth country damsels; but the continuity of their engagement is always rendered uncertain, not to say improbable, on the approach of the potato and tomato seasons.' Then, or if a better offer arrived than the £2 10s a week they might get as domestic servants, 'they often absent themselves without even the almost empty formality of the usual week's notice, leaving their overwrought employers stranded and helpless.'

He was obviously upset also by their lack of deference to their employers, likened by another author writing some time before Maugham to the take-it-or-leave-it attitude to be found among the employed in the United States. Maugham was a product of his background and the climactic era of a dominant and absolute British Empire. He was one of many who, on retirement after serving overseas, decided to settle in Jersey. Although it was a part of the British Isles, despite the lack of servility among the natives it still provided the satisfying feel of the distant dominions this ruling class had grown used to.

Holiday resort

Right from the period in the 1800s when steamships, unlike sail, began to provide reliable links with the United Kingdom, the Island's differences, its beautiful coastline, its rurality and its cheapness made it an increasingly attractive holiday resort for a growing middle class with money and time to spare.

Add to its other attractions a lack of oppressive laws on taxation and inheritance, and the absence of the kind of worrisome social and political problems to be found in the rest of Britain, and it becomes clear why many also saw Jersey, as Maugham did, as an ideal place to live permanently in retirement. Not surprisingly, the numbers grew and developed into the kind of enclosed colonial coterie of Englishmen and women one might have found in some far-flung British dependency. Indeed, for a time the Island was noted for its impressive corps of retired Navy and Army officers, as well as former officials who had served in distant places.

It is estimated that as early as 1840 there were 5,000 English residents. They lived apart, refusing even to speak French, still the language commonly used by many of the more educated of native Islanders. As one guidebook writer of the mid-1800s put it: The English society is quite different from the native society.

I do not say they never mingle, but the intercourse is limited and infrequent.' Maugham himself sums up in awful detail the daily lives of these wealthy, ageing immigrants — one might almost say refugees — as it was in his own day.

'A visit to St Helier in the mornings to lay in cigarettes or fill up the petrol tank, followed by a call at the club; a cinema, bridge or a round of golf in the afternoon as the prelude to a cocktail party, and finally, dinner, more bridge, and so to bed.'

It was the kind of exclusive group the better class of inhabitants might be invited to enter, but only a favoured few became a part of; the lower classes not at all.

Maugham's views deserve attention, for they indicate the attitudes of some retired people who came to live in Jersey. Many, although by no means all, of these English immigrants brought with them a sense of superiority, rather as victors will who settle a conquered land.

Divisions in society

And while each may well have done much that was good in his individual life, it has to be said that, as with the Army officers of the English garrisons once stationed in Jersey, they altered Island society and tended to divide it. Although many welcomed their presence, they also left behind a legacy of unexpressed resentment that was particularly evident among the ignored country people. It is a view which lingers on.

That attitude may have been misguided but it was — and maybe still is — understandable. For while such people might have been totally absorbed easily enough into a community in some rural part of their homeland, Jersey was too different for that to be possible. They remained, as it were, foreigners on home soil; as some still do.

Perhaps unwittingly, Maugham himself provides the reason. Although loyal to the Crown 'the people of Jersey', he said, ‘have never regarded themselves as anything but Jerseymen, almost to the exclusion of all else, and to this distinction they have, of course, every right to cling. But however curious it may appear, it may be said that even today it does not seem that most of them look upon themselves as, in every sense of the term, members of the British family, or, if they do, it is as members of a branch of that family somewhat apart.'

Another Englishman, who came to Jersey over a century and quarter before Maugham, formed a quite different opinion of the rural population. John Stead paid a short visit in 1809 and later wrote of his impressions in A Picture of Jersey.

Stead had the arrogance, temper and snobbishness of a true Georgian; yet in his writing he anticipated the cloying romanticism of the Victorian era whose writers, painters and poets so often saw in the countryside and its inhabitants an idyll, an Arcadia, which of course had never existed. In that sense he was like his contemporary, the great William Cobbett. And like Cobbett he seems to have been an endearing, peppery, observant sort of man.

His voyage from Weymouth in the Rover packet took place 16 years into yet another intermittent war between Britain and France, which was to end in Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Not surprisingly, therefore, he noted with obvious satisfaction that the vessel 'carried several carriage guns besides small arms so that neither Row Boats nor Privateers had any chance of capturing it.'

Much of Stead's A Picture of Jersey is just that. It includes descriptions of his various tours, of the homes of the more illustrious residents he passed and of an Island remote in almost every way from anything we can now imagine. Uncritical, he seems to have liked all he saw. He was particularly attracted on his tours of the countryside by the 'innumerable cottages built in that firm style which convinces the observer the erector built not only for himself but for his Posterity'.

Knitting

At the time of his visit to Jersey the cattle trade was in its infancy and the great era of knitting was beginning to die, brought to an end by the Industrial Revolution and changes in fashion. But woollen goods, together with great quantities of cider, were still the Island's main exports. Stead reported admiringly:

'Knitting is the chief employment of the Women. The Dexterity and Expedition with which they dispatch a pair of stockings are almost incredible. To them Light and Darkness are indifferent. A Woman seen walking without a Stocking in her hand is stigmatized with Idleness'.

Ever ready to detect symptoms of rural bliss, even of bucolic jollity, he noted:

'In Summer the women assemble in large Numbers, and sit in a ring under the Trees which make of all the roads a continuous Avenue; and the avocation must be urgent that can call them from the social Party.' Come the winter, groups of knitters gathered at neighbours' houses where 'seated on soft Rushes carefully picked and dried for that Purpose.... from the close of Day to Midnight an universal Activity prevails. Nor let it be imagined that these hours are dull and tedious. They indulge their native Mirth in innocent Recreation and the song of Festivityforbids the intrusion of Melancholy.'

It is easy enough even now to picture these social evenings, veilles as they were called in Jersey Norman-French, then the natural language of the Island and of the rural people in particular. At these gatherings knitters would sit together on the great liets de fouaille — large couches covered in straw or bracken — which were then a feature of many of those homes which had damp earthen floors or floors of cold Swanage stone. They were held in the dim light of a tallow candle or two, or maybe from cressets whose wicks, floating perhaps in the oil from the livers of locally-caught fish, provided an uncertain — and certainly smelly - atmosphere. It is no wonder that country folk in Jersey, as in so many parts of the world, believed implicitly in the kind of tales of the supernatural and of witchcraft that must have been told, over and over again, amid the dancing shadows at social gatherings like these.

Working evenings

They had one particular benefit, these homely working evenings. According to Stead:

'The young Men, returning from their more hardy Occupations of the Day, repair to these cheerful meetings. There, seated in the Middle of the Ring, they pay their Offerings at the Shrine of Beauty and yield their Souls to the Impulse of Love which is here attended with an Innocence and Simplicity unknown in larger Countries.'

Stead writes of the rural inhabitants of Jersey with a sympathy that was quite unusual for his time, although with that cloying sentimentality that outdoes truth itself.

'Amongst the native Inhabitants conjugal and domestic Blissfulness exists in all its primeval excellence. Unions are founded on Affection and cemented by an unceasing Earnestness to promote the Interest and Enjoyment of each other. The Welfare of the Family is the predominant study of the Parents...and...the Children love each other from the Example of their revered Relatives.'

Stead's book has been described as the first tourist guide to the Island. As Jersey became more accessible, other books followed. Some, like Henry Inglis's The Channel Islands, published in 1835, are investigative, factual and interesting. Others, like Maugham's, were handbooks written almost exclusively by English people for the benefit of English people thinking of visiting on holiday or settling in Jersey.

While it is true that there exist many documents written by Islanders which help to provide a picture of ordinary life in former days, it is only in recent times that some have appeared in published form. Moreover, they were the product of those who had the benefit of enough education to read and write, and the time and inclination to do so. So far as the many very ordinary Jerseymen who made up the bulk of the population of an essentially rural Island in former days were concerned, that was rarely the case.

So it might seem that if there was at one time what interested readers could regard as a reliable and consistent source from which to learn a little about the country people as they were in the 1800s and even before, and the kind of lives they lived, it should surely be from books such as these. After all, one might suppose that the authors could not avoid making some friendly contacts with the inhabitants on their travels. But clearly, like Maugham, they did not. If one had to pass judgment now merely on what most of them had to say, the country folk enjoyed few redeeming features. Yet it was the attitudes of these authors which formed the basis of a general view of the local population. As history knows, rightly or wrongly once formed these opinions tend to become permanent fixtures.

Impressions of country people

To quote some impressions of the country people gleaned from the books by English authors writing in the 1800s, they were generally 'unprepossessing in their physical appearance'. They were short, even squat. The women 'by reason of continual toil from the cradle lacked the elegance consonant with their sex'. As for the men, they had the gait of ploughmen, ungainly manners and the 'coarse features so frequently found among those who work the soil'.

They were dressed without thought for style. 'Somehow or other — it is difficult to say why — their clothes generally look as if they were cut out with a pick-axe and put on with a pitch fork.'

Much of their clothing was fashioned at home, the country tailors being, not as elsewhere, men but women who worked for 5d a day. The tailor was not always called upon, of course. 'The dress of men and women is of worsted which has been subjected to the knitting needle ... not only stockings and shawls but petticoats and even small clothes.'

The women's apparel was usually sombre. 'Through inter-marriage a great proportion of the population is constantly in mourning, many of the females in the country always wearing black bonnets to be ready to meet the oft-recurring season of wearing black.'

They worked unendingly. Several reports make this dedication seem not so much a virtue as a deadening fault. While in England men were still abed, complained one writer, in Jersey lights could be seen early every day in the houses throughout the countryside. Not only were they industrious. Even worse, their industry was said to be accompanied by a lack of merriment and jollity. The only exceptions, it would seem, were at the appointed seasons of vraic (seaweed) gathering when numerous groups, often using small boats, set out to harvest the weed attached to inshore rocks. Then something approaching a picnic atmosphere prevailed, as it did at the corn harvest when, it was said, the harvesters sang les chansons de moisson which were described as 'repetitive and inappropriate' songs.

They were mean; not so much careful as plain miserly. 'A Jerseyman will do anything but put his hand in his pocket,' protested one writer. Another remarked: 'I have heard it said that a sick man would rather remain ill than enjoy a broth made from one of his best chickens which he might sell in the market for ls 6d.' A third wrote pointedly: 'Where there is independence of character and action there may be found avarice and parsimony.'

Food

Judging from reports, their food was simple in the extreme, easily prepared, unendingly the same at every meal and entirely home grown. It consisted — or so it was claimed — of bread usually baked every fortnight and soupe a la choux or soupe a la graisse.

The ingredients of the former were cabbage, parsnips, turnips or potatoes, the latter also containing fat pork, all boiled in a cauldron suspended over a fire, often of dried vraic, smouldering in the kitchen's open fireplace. Maybe now and again there would be a little fresh or salted pork or perhaps conger eel soup.

While they were honest — about the only good trait generally remarked upon by writers — by implication they were surly, inhospitable and uncivil to strangers.

None of the authors of these old books, not one of whom appears to have been born in the Island, seems to have understood Jersey Norman-French, still the universal language of the countryside, or wished to. It was described either as 'that terrible jargon' or a 'barbarous dialect of French'. Nor did many of Jersey's townsfolk speak the ancient language of the Island. By the time these books were written most spoke English or French rather than the language of their forebears which provided a living link with a past that stretched back to the time of William the Conqueror and probably before.

There are two reasons why remarks of this kind deserve to be used as an introduction to any inquiry into the character of the Jersey people. The first is that they tend to reflect the attitudes of the authors and the times when the Island and what would have been called its 'peasant stock' were first written about in a serious way. The second is that what can now be thought of as judgments biased by those attitudes inevitably played a large part in forming opinion among a wide sector of the British and Jersey public.

Obviously Jersey's farming folk had as many faults in former times as any other. But the mind recoils at the picture which emerges as one reads these books of a community composed of such unremittingly awful, not to say stolid, taciturn, ungracious and unappealing people whose sole claim to approval was honesty.

Careful with money

True, they were industrious. If not an inbred characteristic, it was certainly one upon which their prosperity depended. They were careful with their money, perhaps to the point of being miserly.

It is a trait still attributed by some to the Jersey people. What caused the critics to regard penny-counting as a shortcoming rather than a trait deserving praise is difficult to say. Certainly it was a quality which must have enabled some of the writers to find the funds and the freedom to visit the Island. On the other hand, a dedication to high fashion was not one of their interests. Working people did not — do not — usually worry too much about demonstrating their social standing by means of sartorial elegance, or about the niceties of cuisine.

It may be that they were not much given to frivolity, at least not in front of strangers. The Jerseyman has always borne more of the dour temperament of the Nordic and Teutonic people than the feyness of the Breton Celt or the vivacity of the Latin. Besides, those who know Jersey Norman-French, 'that terrible jargon', will be aware that it is a language well suited to the kind of robust humour usually restricted to intimate gatherings and so not generally recognised by outsiders.

More inclined to the dumpy than the slender, it is very probable that the Islanders' bodies reflected the times when medicine was basic and uncertain, and existence depended on hard physical toil. Even today the life expectancy among people in the poorest countries is still little more than 45. No doubt in past times that was how it was in Jersey, as it was elsewhere.

Beyond doubt they were unresponsive when approached by strangers who seem to have treated them as they would subject members of a lower order who could not, would not, speak their language — and who may blame them?

So, with the benefit of hindsight and that more sympathetic attitude they so obviously lacked, it becomes evident that the authors of many of these books had little understanding of Jersey's farming stock when they expressed such harsh disapproval. All too often they observed them through the eyes of the English town dweller and by the urban standards by which they lived at a time in history when England's rural Hodges and Jorrockses, like the urban labouring class, had become set in the mind of an expanding educated middle class as artless figures of fun ripe for disapproval and mockery.

Country bumpkins

All wrote with unfailing delight about the Island itself. It was entirely consistent with the period in which they lived that they should then go on to dismiss the less educated men, women and children they saw in it as country bumpkins and no more than disagreeable accessories to romantic rural scenes.

As a later chapter will explain, social and economic upheavals in the late 1700s onwards had tended to turn a whole class of English countrymen who had once been cottagers enjoying a degree of freedom into mere labourers. They poured on to an over-crowded labour market. It was not surprising that such people quickly learnt that survival depended on subservience to their betters; and more to the point, that their betters could come to require their servility.

In fairness, therefore, it might be said that it was impossible for the kind of people who were in a position to visit the Island in former times to accept that in Jersey many of those they saw as scruffy, vulgar individuals were not in the least servile — in fact, quite the opposite judging from what was written about them.

Had they made further inquiries they would have learnt that despite their appearance many were landed proprietors and freemen on however small a scale. Theirs was a society based to a great extent on self-employed men and women among whom submissiveness to a master had never been any part of life's experience.

One writer had the insight to remark:

'It must always happen that where men cultivate their own land and labour for their own profit, a certain independence of character will be engendered.'

Thus those who came to Jersey and later wrote about it for the benefit of their own class arrived in the Island cocooned in the false belief that the local community, and in particular the country dwellers — who during the era in which they wrote probably still formed the greater part of the native population — could be expected to be a mirror image of what was to be found elsewhere in the British Isles.

Of course nothing could have been further from the truth. In a sense Jersey was, and conceivably still is, 'an island entire of itself'. Between them, geography, history and history's natural bedfellow, chance, combined to create a population which, though minute, once had characteristics and a manner of living unlike any other; rather as secluded families left to their own devices will tread their own paths and create their own tiny traditions and attitudes that are different from those of their neighbours.

Reading these books, one is left with the amusing but not quite ludicrous image of intrepid Victorian travellers coming in a great forest upon some previously undiscovered tribe of ancient lineage. They stand — men, women and children — in a circle, their arms linked and each facing inward towards the others, entirely self-contained in every respect, in their language, their traditions, their nature; content with what they know and what they are, and quite heedless of those who peer inquisitively and without the competence to understand from outside the circle which they can never enter. As an analog, that is ominously exact. For in the end, as history knows, it is always the tribe, not its discoverer, that is finally vanquished.

And so it happened in Jersey.

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