Structure of early farming

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A scene on a Trinity farm
Picking apples
Much of what we know of early agricultural practices in Jersey comes from the writings of Jean Poingdestre. In his book ‘’Caesarea: Or a discourse on the Island of Jersey’’ published in 1682, he describes in some detail the structure and practices of farming in the island.
It is a strange book, part history and part guidebook, written in English in a style which, even for the late 17th century, might be considered old-fashioned. The intended audience is clearly outside the island: it is similar in many ways to a number of books published some 150 years later for the benefit of visitors to the island in Victorian times, yet the only visitors in Poingdestre’s time were the Parliamentary troops who had departed by the time the book was published.

It is such a fascinating account of the island at the time that several sections have been reproduced on pages linked to in the text which follows.

Field boundaries

Poingdestre describes the system of creating field boundaries which he says was unique to Jersey, using high earth banks with a ditch either side. He goes on to describe in some detail the growing of apples and the production of cider, which was the mainstay of farming in Jersey at the time, and for many years later. There was no coffee or tea, little wine and beer manufactured locally, although they were imported, so cider was a very important drink for the whole population. By all accounts the island’s orchards, of which nearly every house had at least one, were highly productive. By 1800 15 per cent of the cultivated land was devoted to orchards.

Cider replaces mead

Poingdestre says that cider was a relatively recent introduction, mead made from honey having been the islanders’ drink of choice as recently as 100 years before his book was published, and bee-keeping having been popular throughout the island then, but subsequently gone into decline. He explains how the traditional granite apple crusher, now popular as a garden ornament, was used to crush apples before they were put in a press to release the juice to make cider. In 1801 the island was producing two million gallons of cider a year.

Making hay
A thatched roof on an old Jersey farm

Lazy islanders

But Poingdestre was highly critical of the growth of the cider industry, putting the trend down to the laziness of islanders who were no longer prepared to till the soil for the growing of corn, preferring to spend their time knitting stockings and Jerseys, or demanding such high rates for labouring in the fields that it had become cheaper to import French corn. Poingdestre suggests that as much of half the island’s requirement of grain was imported, and challenges the official line that it was because of population growth. The collection of vraic (seaweed) from beaches for fertilising the soil was as important a part of island life in the 17th century as it was during the heyday of the early potato industry in the first half of the 20th century. Tracks were created through the rocks so that the carts could get through to the areas where vraic abounded. Such was the demand for seaweed, not only for fertilising farmland, but also for fuel and making soap, that it was harvested from the Chausey isles and brought back to Jersey.

Free grazing

Owners of livestock were permitted to let them graze freely on wheat stubble and grass on any unenclosed land from the autumnharvest until crops were sown again the following spring. This right of ‘’banon’’ was legally abolished in 1771 but continued for at least another 80 years. If animals strayed on to cultivated land in summer they were impounded in an area known as a ‘’verp’’ and a fine was imposed before their release. A good variety of crops was grown in the 17th century, and farmers practiced a system of rotation. They grew mainly wheat, but also rye, oats and barley. The latter was used for making bread and beer. Peas and beans were also popular, a pigs, as well as humans enjoyed parsnips. As the years went by, farmsteads tended to become divided through inheritance. The farmer would invariably leave the house and closest field to his eldest son, with other fields going to younger sons and, sometimes, daughters. If the eldest son could afford to buy back the land inherited by his siblings, the farmstead remained intact, but otherwise it was divided into smaller units.

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