Popular History of Jersey Chapter 19

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Knitting, taxes and a prison

Charles II died, as is well known, on 5 February 1685, being succeeded by James II, who only reigned four years (1685-1689). But before entering into those matters that concerned the Island during that short period of anxiety to Jersey, it is desirable that we should dwell, at any rate, for a short time longer, on things pertaining to its internal economy, otherwise much that is highly interesting and important must naturally be omitted; many items concerning which, and these perhaps some of the most vital ones, we only glean, as it were, in a negative way.

Food shortages

There was a time, for instance, as can be readily imagined, when Jersey, so far as concerned its food supply, was self-contained. But we learn from Acts of the States of Jersey passed in the 16th century that times were undoubtedly changing in this respect, for laws were then passed restricting anyone from exporting many products of the Island. In 1527, for example, the exportation of poultry, geese and wheat was prohibited under pain of confiscation, and in 1534 the same restriction was placed on hemp and cordage. In 1532 a person was fined for exporting oxen, and in 1560 another for exporting sheep; each item interesting as giving not only a slight insight into the commercial pursuits of the place, but also as pointing to the fact that there could not have been a very great surplus stock of such in the Island at the time.

Then during the reign of Charles II, in 1673, the fact that the Island did not produce corn sufficient for its own consumption, combined with the fear that events might arise which would render the importation of corn difficult or impossible, together with the knowledge that the number of houses was rapidly increasing in the country districts, so worked upon those in authority that an Act of the States was passed whereby the building of new houses was prohibited, except at St Aubin and St Helier, unless they had not less than twenty vergees (about nine English acres) of land attached to them; the same Act forbidding the planting of new orchards otherwise than for the purpose of replacing old ones.

Knitting industry

Once again, as to what was the chief industry of the Island during these earlier times. This comes out a few years later in the form of a complaint addressed to His Majesty (Charles II) in Council, to the effect that whereas the said King in the 12th year of his reign had by an Act of Parliament allowed 2,000 tods, about 28,000 lbs English weight, of wool to be transported from Southampton to Jersey, there to be manufactured and exported by such as were licensed to do so by the Governor or his deputies — the Governors (Lord Jermyn and his lieutenant, Sir John Lanier), instead of doing this, had only allowed 1,500 tods to the inhabitants, reserving the other 500 for themselves and the officers and soldiers of the castle, and, moreover, had been privately making extra profit to their own benefit through the illegal transaction by selling such wool to the Islanders at a high price, "thereby crippling the principal industry of the place".

The fact was that a1l this period, and for some little time subsequently, quite one half of the inhabitants of Jersey depended for a livelihood on knitting stockings (men, women and children employing all their leisure time in the occupation), though it was a thing not by any means countenanced by the States, that body looking upon it as both dilatory and idle, and having a strong tendency to withdraw men from husbandry. So much so was this the case, indeed, that earlier in the century laws had been enacted condemning all over the age of 15 to a confiscation of their belongings should they be found knitting during vraicking seasons (specified times for cutting and collecting seaweed for manure and the like), or during harvest, whilst men were bound to work for reasonable hire during harvest under a penalty of three days confinement in Mont Orgueil Castle, when they were to be "fed on bread and water only".

First prison

Another great item of the time was the building of the first prison in St Helier — for it must be remembered that up to about this same period, though the Royal Court had from a very early date held its sittings in the town, the main prison was at Mont Orgueil Castle, to and from which place the taking of prisoners fell upon those who, by their tenures or holdings, were obliged to undertake this duty free of charge. But where did the money come from to build a prison in St. Helier? Thereby hangs a tale, and a somewhat remarkable one, too.

For some little time prior to 1679, and even, it would appear, ere Sir John Lanier's day, the then Governors of Jersey had, without authority and for their own private advantage, imposed a tax of 5s per ton on all French vessels arriving in the Island; and against this illegal custom the inhabitants made great complaint during his Lieut-Governorship, setting forth, and justly so, that the tax became a burden upon Jersey rather than upon the French; for that, though the tax in question was paid by the latter, whose vessels brought salt, corn, and other commodities to be consumed on the Island, "yet upon the sale thereof they made the inhabitants of Jersey repay double what had been so exacted".

This matter was finally settled, though in a peculiar manner, by an Order in Council of 17 December 1679. The matter of the legality or otherwise of the tax was never gone into. It was simply set forth that it would be detrimental to the King's customs if the tax were remitted, and it was therefore to continue to be levied. The proceeds, however, were not to go into the pockets of the Governors, but to be devoted in particular towards the repairs of the castle, the building of a prison in St Helier, and the pier.

A site was selected for the prison "at the bottom of Broad Street (now Charing Cross), which at that place was 45 feet wide, an arch being left for the passage of carts", and this chosen site was purchased by the Bailiff and Jurats in 1685 out of the reserve fund arising from the 5s tax on the French vessels.

James II

Then coming to the reign of James II (l685-1688), we find it chiefly of note in the history of Jersey for four things:

During the year of his accession (1685) the St Aubin's pier was at last really commenced; the same year brought over from France, after the edict of Nantes, many refugees, including divines, merchants, and others, some of whose names, as du Val, Bisson, Quesnel, still exist on the Island; the Royal Court in 1687 approved the plans for the (then) new prison, which was begun forthwith; and perhaps, chiefly for the illustration the reign as a whole gives of religious zeal or bigotry — according to the side it is viewed from — altogether blotting out past recollections. For though His Gracious Majesty must have gleaned during his stay on the Island as Duke of York the great strength of Jersey's attachment to the reformed Church, and its utter dislike of anything connected with Roman Catholicism, he seems to have worked hard to bring about a retrograde movement in this respect by endeavouring all in his power to bring the people under the rule of his own ideas.

Island for sale

A Lieut-Governor was appointed, who professed the faith of the Western Church, and the troops of the garrison and the colonel in command were also changed for men of like belief, whilst numerous priests of the same creed were allowed to proselytise with, as it seems, royal sanction, so much so, in fact, was the case that the fears of the people were raised for the consequences, added to which came also the dread lest in his emergencies and his desperate need, whilst a fugitive in France, the King should part with the Island to the French for the sake of gain, as Charles II was once rumoured to be on the point of doing, according to Whitlock; in fact, Jermyn and Grenville were actually sent to Paris to advise about the selling of the Island to France in the year 1531, in which case, with a Lieut-Governor and the garrison on his side, there seemed no chance of resistance.

The civil authorities, happily, appear to have acted with the greatest prudence on the occasion ; for — though it was after much difficulty - they finally persuaded the Lieut-Governor and those in authority to allow a number of inhabitants equal to the garrison to take charge of Elizabeth Castle, thereby dispelling the fears of the people and restoring tranquillity. During the last year of his reign, it must be added, James II granted a charter to the Island, containing provisions to the effect that Jersey men "should and could" not legally be sued outside the limit of the Island itself.

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