It was a happy coincidence that Sir Walter Raleigh, who introduced the potato to Europe from South America after one of his transatlantic voyages, should have been Governor of Jersey, where the plant became the mainstay of the island's agricultural economy in the 19th and well into the 20th century. It was a coincidence, though, because Sir Walter was long gone and all but forgotten before the potato was recognised as an important food crop.
Potatoes were being grown in and exported from Jersey as early as 1807, taking advantage of a beneficial climate and good soil. They had begun to replace cider orchards some 50 years earlier. By the middle of the century it had been recognised by one of the pioneers of the industry, St Ouen farmer John Le Caudey, that a particularly early crop could be harvested from some south-facing, sloping fields.
But the industry was in the doldrums in the second half of the 1800s until one man and two potatoes led to the creation a multi-million pound industry. That man was potato farmer Hugh de la Haye and the two potatoes he discovered in Le Caudey's store one day in 1878.
Two potatoes cut up
They were giants, one of them with 15 eyes, which produce the sprouts of the new plant. He showed them to farming friends over dinner that evening and they were cut up and planted on a cotil (a sloping field) above Bellozanne valley. The crop they produced the following spring was heavy and early, and one plant produced uniquely kidney-shaped potatoes.
De la Haye nutured these and after a few years he had produced sufficient stock to make them available for sale. So successful were they, and so pleased were his fellow farmers, that in time he was honoured at a gathering of islanders and presented with a testimonial and a purse of gold sovereigns.
Growing early potatoes on the south-facing cotils at Gorey, L'Etacq and other parts of the island gives them maximum warmth and sunlight early in the year, so not only do the Jersey Royals, as they had become known, taste much better than other new potatoes, they are on the market much earlier. They became England's favourite potato, and Jersey's most profitable export.
So important was it that the crop was lifted quickly when ready that schools used to close for part of the season so that children could help with the harvest on the steeply sloping cotils where machinery could not be used.
As soon as they had been lifted the potatoes were taken by horse and van to the Weighbridge at St Helier, three columns of farm vehicles converging from the north west and east. The potatoes were weighed and then taken to one of the many merchant's stores along the Esplanade before being shipped out of the island.
Crop worth millions
In 1891 exports of 70,000 tons brought in nearly half a million pounds and after the first world war exports were worth double this amount and kept growing. Many a farmer made his fortune and the best cotils, producing the earliest and most valuable crop, change hands for enormous sums.
The Jersey Royal crop is still important today, but only some 50 growers are involved, and they are no longer owners of mixed farms producing other crops and keeping dairy cattle, but specialise in the one, valuable crop.
Summary of crop's history
- Potatoes have been grown in Jersey since the mid-18th century with potatoes at this time competing successfully with parsnips as a field crop
- By 1810 the once famous cider orchards had vanished from Jersey and growers were experimenting with exporting new potatoes to England for the early summer trade due to their popularity
- The Jersey Royal was first known as the Jersey Royal Fluke due to the circumstances by which it originated
- A farmer called Hugh de la Haye hosted a dinner party at which he showed his friends two potatoes that he had been given. One had 15 eyes (from which new plants sprout) so he decided to plant them to see what happened
- The following spring a crop appeared and whilst most were round, one crop produced kidney shape potatoes, soon to be known as the Jersey Royal
- First arrivals of this new breed of potato arrived on the London markets in the 1880
- Tonnage grew and by the late 1890s, a usual crop export of Jersey Royals would be in the region of 60,000 tonnes
- Eventually the Jersey States Department of Agriculture ordered that no other variety could be exported for New Potato consumption other than the Jersey Royal
- Today, the Jersey Royal is still the first new potato of the season and remains unique in taste and quality
- In 1878 the market price for a tonne of Jersey Royal Potatoes was 140 shillings
This gallery contains a selection of our collection of potato growing pictures. There are many more in our Farming picture gallery. Click on image to see larger picture