Les Ecréhous

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The Écréhous - in Jèrriais: Êcrého - are a groups of islands and rocks situated six miles north-east of Jersey (eight miles from France). They form part of the Bailiwick of Jersey and are administratively part of the Parish of Saint Martin.

An official visit by island dignitaries in 1893

The largest is Maitre Ile, 300 metres long and 150 wide. Only two others remain above water at high tide, Marmoutier, which is considerably smaller, and Blanche Ile, smaller still.

There are now no permanent residents on the islands and there is no fresh water there. There are a small number of fishermen's huts, some used as holiday residences, on the largest islets, and one official building, a customs house, on La Marmotière.

The Ecréhous painted by Ouless in 1880

Main islets

  • Maitre Ile - Maîtr'Île
  • La Marmotière - La Marmotchiéthe
  • La Blanche Île - Lé Bliantch'Île
  • Les D'mies
  • La Grand' Naithe
  • L'Êtchièrviéthe
  • Lé Fou
  • La Froutchie

Derivation of names

Hou is a common contraction for the Old Norse holm, an islet. It is found elsewhere in the Channel Islands in Jethou, Lihou, Brecqou, and Coquelihou. The origin of Ecre- is less certain. One possibility is the Old Norse sker, a rock. The Vikings might well have named it Skerholm, the Rocky Island. This would become in French Le Scerhou, and then L'Escrehou; which is the usual spelling before 1607.

The name Marmoutier is an enigma. It apparently means "the monastery by the sea", for moutier is old French for "monastery". But the priory was not on Marmoutier but on Maitre Ile. When sea levels were different it may have been possible to walk from one island to the other, so that may have had a common name.

Stone age remains

Palaeolithic flint implements show that these islets were inhabited in prehistoric time, when they were probably part of the mainland; but they first appear in history in 1203, when Pierre de Préaux, Warden of the Isles, granted to the Cistercian Abbey of Val Richer, near Lisieux, "for the salvation of the soul of the illustrious King John, who gave me the Isles, and of my own soul and those or all my ancestors, the isle of Escrehou, that a church may be built there in honour of God and the Blessed Mary, and the Divine Mysteries celebrated therein daily".

The ruins of this little chapel can still be seen on Maitre Ile. He endowed it with rcntes in St Martin, Trinity, Grouvillc, and St Saviour and St Clement.

An 1882 Ouless painting of the Ecréhous

Priory

In 1309 it was reported that a prior was living in the Ecréhous with one monk and a servant; a navigation light was lit every night. Records show that Jean de Ditton, with John de Fresingfeld and Drouet de Barentin, came to Jersey as Justices-in-Eýre. At the Common Pleas held before them, the Abbot of Valricher was summoned by William de Maresk (Dumaresq), Council for the Crown, to show by what right he held a mill in the Parish of St Saviour and the advowson of the Priory of Ecréhou; and also on what ground he claimed an annual rent of twenty sols from the Kings receiver.(Public Record Office; Tower Assize Rolls, No 41.) The Prior of Ecréhou appeared as general attorney of the Abbey of Valricher, and pleaded that the Chapel of Ecréhou stood far from Jersey on a small, barren and uninhabited rock; that he lived there with a companion and a servant all the year round, burning a beacon nightly to warn mariners of the dangers of the surrounding rocks, and performing masses for the King and his ancestors; and that the Chapel had no other source of revenue but the mill and the rent of twenty sols. It was further stated in the pleadings that the Abbot of Valricher was desirous of resigning the advowson of the Ecréhous owing to the poverty of the endowment. The justices seem to have wished that the Chapel should be maintained, possibly on account of the importance to coasting vessels of the beacon which the monks kept burning there; and they granted to the Prior of the Ecréhou, apparently not as attorney but in his own name, the Chapel with its revenues, during the King’s pleasure. In 1413 alien priories were suppressed and the monks returned to Valricher, and their church and priory on La Maîtr'Île fell into ruins. The chapel measured 10ft 3ins in width and 16ft 6ins in length; the priory accommodation for the monks formed an extension to the chapel.

Fishermen

Jerseymen have always made use of these islets for fishing and cutting vraic. At the Assize of 1309 it was reported that 24 men of St Martin had been drowned while returning from the Eskerho with vraic, and under the contemporary law of deodand the boat that had caused the accident was sentenced to be confiscated for murder.

In due time a number of huts were built on the rocks, especially when the value of vraic ashes as a fertiliser was realised, for it was easier to burn vraic on the spot than to carry it home.

Another Ouless picture, this one from 1883

Smuggling

But at the end of the 17th century a new industry developed. Les Ecrehous became notorious as a smuggling centre. In 1690, while the war with Louis XIV was raging, the Privy Council complained: "The inhabitants are sending ammunition to St Malo. The trade is carried on in the Ecrehou, encouraged by the fact that lead is in Jersey but two pence a pound, whereas in St Malo it is sold for 2S. 6d a pound."

The following year another report said: "The French come to the Ecrchou and make great fires, which is the signal for boats to come from Jersey. The Lieut-Governor grants passes for these boats. When a Trinity Centenier stopped a boat going to the Ecrehou, he was ordered by the Court to beg pardon of the Lieut-Governor on his knees.

On information that a quantity of lead was going to the Ecrchou the Constable of Grouville stopped it. For this he was called a dog and a rogue by the Lieutenant-Governor and his commission as a Major taken from him." The quibble apparently was that, since Les Ecrehous were part of Jersey, there was nothing illegal in taking goods there, and no Nosey Parker need inquire what happened to them afterwards.

Voters kidnapped

During the ferociously contested elections of the 18th century, when Charlots and Magots, the nicknames of the two contending political parties, were struggling for the mastery, each found these islets a convenient dumping ground for voters kidnapped on election day so that they could not vote.

Philip Pinel, photographed on the Ecréhous in about 1885

French claim

Towards the end of the 19th century Frenchmen began to cast covetous eyes on Les Ecrehous and to suggest that they were either no-man's-land or even a dependency of France. But in 1883 Earl Granville, the Foreign Minister, wrote firmly to the French ambas¬sador: "These islets have always been treated as a dependency of Jersey; the soil belongs entirely to Jerseymen, and the islets for administrative purposes form part of the parish of St Martin."

Yet the French still hankered after them, asserting that they once formed part of the parish of Portbail. But in 1953 the dispute was submitted to the Hague Tribunal. In this case, which equally con¬cerned Les Minquiers, the reef to the south of Jersey a most distinguished part was played by the then Attorney-General, later Bailiff of Jersey, the late Cecil Stanley Harrison,

After a most lengthy hearing the sovereignty of both groups of islets was decided in favour of the United Kingdom. The case was in fact of greater importance in international law than the size of the islands concerned might suggest.

Another 1883 Ouless painting of the Ecréhous

In 1993 and again in 1994, French 'invaders' landed on the Ecréhous and raised Norman flags. This was done partly in protest against Channel Island fishing regulations and partly because they wanted the Ecréhous to be recognised as part of France. The 1994 'invasion' was monitored closely by police from Jersey, and the Union Flag that had been pulled down in 1993 was guarded by policemen. In the end, after only minor trouble being caused, the French had lunch on the islands before going back home.

A priest who was part of the expedition said mass on the islands for the first time since the ruined abbey was in use. He created an outline of a church and altar using vraic he collected from the sea.In the 19th and early 20th centuries there were several occasions on which nominal control was displayed - eg flags and buoys, and there were several occasions on which the British government indicated to the French government that it wished to settle their ownership dispute.

Philip Pinel

In 1848 a Jersey fisherman, Philip Pinel, built himself a cottage on La Blanche Ile, in which he lived for nearly fifty years, catching lobsters and burning seaweed to ashes, and doing quite a flourishing export trade to Jersey. He was humorously named the King of Les Ecrehous and when Queen Victoria visited Jersey in 1859, the two monarchs exchanged gifts. He sent her a three-tiered basket that he had woven out of dried seaweed, filled with different kinds of fish, and she in return presented him with a blue coat.

In the 1960s and 70s Alphonse Le Gastelois found refuge in the islands from unfounded public suspicion of being a notorious sexual attacker of children.

La Marmotiere is depicted on the 2010 issue Jersey 50 pound note.

An aerial view of the Ecrehous

Pilotage and Sailing

Entrance to the island can be difficult. However, it is possible to visit at all states of tide with the main entrance from the southwest.

References

  • The Bailiwick of Jersey by George Balleine
  • Files on the ICJ case can be found in the National Archives, mostly in the FO 371 sequence.
  • Les Ecrehous, Jersey: History and Archaeology of a Channel Island Archipelago (ISBN 0901897213) by Warwick Rodwell.
  • Histoire des Minquiers et des Ecréhous. Robert Sinsoilliez. Editions l'Ancre de Marine.

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