A French view of emigration to Jersey

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A French view of emigration to Jersey


Breton farm workers in Hilgrove Street, their traditional St Helier meeting place on their day off work

Michel Monteil l’Emigration Francaise vers Jersey 1850-1950

At a meeting of the States of Jersey in 1897 the Bailiff of the island pointed out that sooner or later the Deputies would have to examine the question of immigration in detail. It was a matter of regulating as dispassionately as possible the problems raised by the substantial French presence.

The political response: The report of the 1906 committee on immigration to Jersey

Committee appointed

Wishing to provide a political response to the numerous questions posed by immigration, on 9 February 1905 the States appointed a committee, which was instructed to consider the whole question of foreign immigration. Evidently its remit would be to examine the problems raised by the massive arrival of French people in the island.

The committee published its conclusions in a report presented to the States on 21 March 1906, which was to serve as the basis for discussion and the drafting of new legislation.

The 1906 report

This report is essential for the history of French immigration in Jersey. In fact, it was the first official document to deal with the question. It tried to answer at the same time the two questions that concerned the coming of French immigrants to the island.

On the one hand, how were the movements of seasonal workers to be regulated to avoid inconveniences for them, and to prevent problems in the host country? And on the other hand, since it was apparent that these workers were increasingly eager to stay in Jersey for a long time or even settle there for good, the report studied the means of controlling this immigration, which a growing section of the population was inclined to find increasingly `invasive'.

The report began by stating that movements of population were an everyday occurrence in both France and the United Kingdom, and that the arrival of immigrants was not to be regarded in isolation, as a unique one-way phenomenon.

“The United Kingdom and France, although they attract immigrants, themselves supply a large number of emigrants who go in search of work or seeking to better their conditions beyond their frontiers in overseas countries.”

Jersey, too, was in both these situations, since it welcomed immigrants while it was itself a country of emigration. In fact, it made a large contribution to the flow of emigrants to England and the Colonies, which removed from it a large part of its most capable and most enterprising young people. Moreover,

“... it receives a flow of foreign immigrants, numerically proportional but relatively less advanced, who threaten to overflow it if measures are not taken to regulate and assimilate these immigrants and turn them, as far as possible in the circumstances, to Jersey's profit and advantage.”

The French presence was felt to be necessary, but it was not without consequences for the daily life of the country; in particular, from the introduction the report referred to the possible political implications of the presence of a large foreign community on the island's soil.

“As long as French immigrants find better working conditions here than in France, we must expect to see them continue to come, and we must also pay serious attention to the consequences and the influence they will have on the future of our island, all the more so since foreigners and their children now form a very significant part of the whole population. In short, we need them, but at the same time we have to keep a close watch on the political consequences of their presence here and that of their children.”

Population figures taken from the census of 1901 were then given and commented on at length. The gross figure for 1901 was 52,576 inhabitants, or 51,540 residents after deducting the English soldiers in the garrison on the island. Of these 51,540 persons, 38,189 had been born on the island, and 13,351 came from abroad. The latter included 7,065 British subjects not born on the island and 6,286 non-British foreigners, among them 6,011 French people, or 12 per cent of the total population.

This figure, of course, did not include the seasonal labourers, who could be estimated at about 3,000 persons. In the month of June, in the middle of the early potato harvest, when the influx of seasonal farm labourers was at its peak, there was a purely foreign population of nearly 10,000, `not counting their children born here', the report adds.

The report went on to analyse the percentage of foreigners by parish and found that, because of the nature of the immigration, the population of French origin was concentrated above all in the rural parishes. The figures ranged from 9 per cent for the parish of St Helier (2,538 foreigners out of 27,145 inhabitants), to 19 per cent in the parish of Trinity (374 foreigners out of 1,969).

Committee’s anxieties

Besides the problems of the large number of non-British foreigners who were permanent residents of the island, the committee was also alarmed by a comparison of the birth rates of the three communities present on the island.

Table 19 reveals the demographic dynamism of the foreign population, principally French, which in 1901 had almost as many children as the British group, even though the latter was 15 per cent more numerous.

Table 19

Comparison of the birth rates of the three communities present in Jersey in 1901

Year Jersey % English % Foreign % Total
1881 616 45.6 537 39.7 198 14.7 1,351
1901 426 37.4 360 31.7 351 30.9 1,137
Source: Report on immigration, publications of the States of Jersey, March 1906, p. 13.

One must not forget to relate these figures to the numerical weight of each of the communities present on the island. For example, it must be noted that the English community comprised 7,065 persons, while the French numbered `only' 6,011.

In 1901 births to foreigners practically equalled the births of English origins, a fact the official report does not fail to point out, certainly with alarmist concerns at the back of its mind, as the following remark suggests:

“Everything indicates that these movements will continue, and experience over the 20 years since 1881 shows us the extent of the changes that will have taken place by 1921, and forces us to reflect seriously on a situation that threatens such a marked reduction of the purely Jersey and British elements in the island.”

The proposition is clear: the fall in the 'purely' Jersey and British components of the population is perceived as a threat by the authors: a social threat, perhaps, a cultural threat without a doubt. The following lines make the nature of this threat clear to the reader:

“In these circumstances we must have no hesitation in recognising foreign immigration as an inevitable element of our social and political existence. Our population will be more and more recruited from foreign immigrants and their descendants, and we will have to ensure that we absorb them, if possible, without altering the British character of our population.”

The problem is stated precisely: Jersey risks losing its British character. This was a relatively recent preoccupation in Jersey and doubtless the result of the growing influence of the English community on the island.

During the second half of the 19th century, many people had reaffirmed their Norman culture and identity, as a reaction to the two influences, French and English, by which they felt threatened. But in 1906 it would seem that only the first influence was still considered a major danger. The anti-French riots of 1900 at the time of the Boer War may still have been present in people's minds, but even more so the arguments over the installation in the island of numerous religious congregations which originated in France.

It must not be forgotten that in 1906 the bulk of the Jersey press was in English, all the daily newspapers being in English from this time. This had a great influence on public opinion.

Furthermore, since 1900, when the use of English in the proceedings of the States was made legal, the French language had lost a great deal of ground, even in the fields in which it seemed invulnerable, that of official publications among others.

The committee also evoked the constantly increasing closeness to the great French neighbour, thanks in particular to progress in means of communication. This closeness could have disastrous consequences for the future of the island community. The committee voiced the fear that if visitors and trippers came to enjoy the island in large numbers, there was a risk that a new category of immigrants would begin to arrive: people whose occupations were connected with tourism, hoteliers, merchants and so on. The committee was wary of them, for they would be much more difficult to integrate.

The view of the official report was that

“We shall see a class of immigrants very different from the labourers and one it will not be so easy to assimilate. (...) We shall see the emergence of a numerous class of `outlanders' who are better educated than the peasant farm labourers and who by their peaceful penetration will create an `outlander question' which is important in a different way from that of the absorption of the labourer and his children.”

Moreover, the report evaluates the number of inhabitants of Jersey who, although classed as of Jersey origin, could be considered of foreign, that is French, origin. The authors refer to the children of French parents, born on the island and enjoying Jersey nationality by virtue of the jus soli which applied on the island.

Their number was calculated from the figures for the foreign population present since 1843, taking into account the fact that most emigrants from Jersey were subjects of Jersey or English origin. The report arrived at a percentage, quite plausible in view of the figures at our disposal, of 25 per cent of the inhabitants counted in 1901 who were of foreign origin (that is, about 12,500 to 13,000 inhabitants).

It estimated that in the countryside, where the French element was strongly represented, the population of foreign origin must have been around a third of the total on average.

One can detect in this a kind of obsession with the purity of the race, reinforced by an unconcealed fear of an invasion of French people and their descendants.

Would these new Jerseymen be as good citizens as those of the old stock? The fear that the new arrivals would cease to integrate seems to have been very real, and was one of the principal concerns of the authors of the report.

“Far be it from us to say that there are not some Jersey people of foreign origin who are just as good Jerseymen and women as those of the old stock and on the same level as them when it comes to their obligations to the country and to the British Empire. Assimilation has been all the more effective for them because the number before 1881 was relatively low, and also because we have seen that births of foreign origin have increased so much since 1881 that 34 per cent of all births are now of foreign origin. Everything leads us to believe that the increase in the future will be in proportion. The island is beginning to be swamped, and assimilation is becoming more and more difficult.”

This is strong language: the island is beginning to be swamped. The report goes on to raise the principal fear of the rural population, more and more impregnated with foreign blood, as well-off landed proprietors became rarer in the countryside.

The allusion here is to the nature of the rural population and the profound transformation it was undergoing under the influence of the installation of small peasants from France [cf. chapter 1 of this part]. The fear expressed could also have been described as cultural: the old stock Jersey people feared being submerged by the foreign population, which was becoming a majority in the countryside.

“... instead of the assimilation of the French by the Jersey people, it is to be feared that the opposite will happen: that is, Jersey people will be assimilated by the French, as the old Jersey influences become less and less effective, and the flow of immigration continues to reinforce the foreign element.”

The other anxiety made explicit in the report is that of seeing the political institutions of the island profoundly affected by an influential foreign group, and above all of seeing all or part of the power pass into the hands of a majority of foreign origin, with all the risks that can be read between the lines of this formula.

Certainly the municipal government of each parish was still carried on under Jersey influences, and power was still in the hands of the local elites:

“... the parish notables and above all the elders are still of the old Jersey stock, but each year sees their numbers diminish and the number of landowners of foreign origin increase.”

A political crisis was looming in the relatively near future, for as the report went on to underline a little later, once the government of the parishes had changed hands, their representation in the States would fall into the hands of a majority of foreign origin.

The islanders were afraid of the disappearance of their autonomy and of the self-government that they enjoyed within the British Empire. Self-government, in the form of the States, was, the report reminded readers, the heritage of the people of Jersey. They were proud of being different by being Jerseymen, and they wanted the outside world to recognise and accept this difference.

The frequency of the expression `of foreign origin', the agreed euphemism to refer to the French and their descendants, is remarkable; the term is used several dozen times in the report, no fewer than six times on page 15 alone.

Apart from the anecdotal aspect, it also denotes a great degree of distrust of the foreign element and a certain fixed idea, already apparent before, the aspiration for an island with a homogeneous and controllable population.

Evolution of French immigration in the 1900s

The first French immigrants had found it all the easier to integrate into Jersey society since many of them married women from the island, the report notes on page 15.

Their children became altogether Jersey and had no difficulty in merging into the population described as of pure Jersey stock. The large number of marriages between the first French farm labourers and young women from the country can doubtless be explained on the one hand by the fact that the great majority of them were young single men (these were the first to try their luck abroad), and on the other by the shortage of local young people of marriageable age.

The report underlines in the preamble that Jersey was at this time supplying numerous candidates for emigration: above all young men wishing to make a career, if not a fortune, in the navy, commerce or by settling in the English colonies.

Nor is there any doubt that working together in the fields was an opportunity for young people of French and Jersey origin to get to know one another; or that the ability of French Normans or French-speaking Bretons and the local population to understand each other's dialects, made such meetings easier.

But the report is prompt to note that the new trend in immigration (not further elaborated) was for a fall in marriages with people of Jersey stock (the report's expression), and the arrival of migrants of both sexes, among them many who were already married or engaged.

The result was to make them

“... more independent, more inclined to be self-sufficient, and less obliged to mix with their purely Jersey neighbours; above all since the establishment of schools run by foreign priests, who maintain foreign traditions and make it more difficult if not impossible to assimilate the children of foreigners.”

The religious question

The last citation illustrates the attitude of the authors of the report, and no doubt through them of a large part of the population. It was not just the existence of schools run by religious orders that was seen as a threat, but the fact that these schools were from the start established by foreign orders, Catholics into the bargain. From this to assuming Machiavellian intentions on their part was but a short step, and one which the committee was not far from taking.

“The arrival here of so many foreigners, and the birth on our soil of their children have attracted a large number of foreign ecclesiastics, who are distributed throughout almost all the parishes of the island, and whose very obvious aim is to exercise and defend their exclusive influence on all this population of foreign origin.”

The law of 1902 which restricted the establishment of religious orders in Jersey does not appear to have calmed all the tensions between the local churches and the imported churches. One can also detect the powerful resentment of the communities of Jesuits and oblates who had been settled in the island for several years, in the following lines:

“The establishment here of several foreign religious associations has only added to these foreign influences, which have already grown so powerful that the purely British religious organisations which once hastened the absorption of foreign immigrants now only have a comparatively weak influence as agents of assimilation.”

The paragraph under the heading `Education' repeats with some insistence the same ideas on the presence of foreign schools, which was felt to be invasive:

“Foreign schools are found everywhere, under the direction of foreign priests, who may perhaps conform to the letter of our law, but who, maybe without wishing it, contribute materially to delay or prevent the assimilation of the children of foreigners born on our soil.”

To put it in plain language, the committee recognised that the Catholic orders were performing a great work in educating the children of immigrant workers, but there was a risk that the education provided, even though it was within the framework laid down by Jersey law - for it must not be forgotten that many of these schools had enjoyed official subsidies since the Elementary Education Act of 1872 - might be turned against the community which so generously financed it.

What is not mentioned in this section, but appears in the measures proposed by the committee, is the implicit recognition of the role played by the school in the assimilation, or as we would say nowadays the integration, of children of French immigrant labourers. On the other hand, if the foreign orders took such a preponderant place in the educational institutions of the island, it was perhaps because the existing local structures were incapable of providing sufficiently for educational needs.

Practical recommendations

After setting out the problems, some of them serious, for the present and future of Jersey raised by the arrival and presence of a large foreign community, the committee attempted to formulate some proposals.

The question of the legitimacy of this immigration had been clearly answered in the preamble: it was necessary, and therefore it was appropriate to take practical steps to make it easier for immigrants to settle in Jersey in such a way that they would become good citizens, and their children

“are brought up in such a way that there is no doubt of their loyalty to the British Empire and of the use that they will be able to make of [Jersey's] autonomy and self-government ...”

Nevertheless it should be emphasised that the problems of immigration concerned two distinct realities, both in their implications and in their treatment.

First of all, one must consider the seasonal immigrants, the labourers who came for the harvest of early potatoes and hay, and who returned to France after the season. These were classic seasonal workers. On the other hand there were those who sought permanent employment and came to settle in Jersey indefinitely or even definitively.

These two forms of immigration were complementary and even necessary for the needs of Jersey's agriculture. Consequently the report judged them to be worthy of encouragement, as long as they did not exceed the needs of the island.

Two series of measure were proposed, with the aim of improving the conditions and consequences of immigration for migrants and the host country: the first series, `upstream' as it were, that is before the arrival of the foreigners, and the second series `downstream', that is once the French were settled in Jersey and wished to integrate themselves into island society.


The measures proposed to allow Jersey to control immigrants were of three kinds, and they met the fears of disturbance of public order that were felt by a large part of the population, and expressed throughout the report.

First of all, there was a need to make sure that those who came to Jersey, either for a few weeks or for good, were respectable, sober, peaceable and hard working. A kind of check on good morals had to be instituted. One cannot help thinking of the virtues that Victorian society demanded in the ideal labourer.

The committee's next recommendation, which can be seen as the direct consequence of the first, was to remove from the island all the worthless fugitives from justice, without discouraging the suitable people who were needed on Jersey's farms. This point answered the fears of those who dreaded the arrival in Jersey of a population of paupers who would live on public charity. This had been a constant source of concern to the island authorities throughout the 19th century, and several laws had been passed which sought to forbid the disembarkation of the indigent or the mentally ill.

Finally the report advised the creation of a body to find work for good workers, in the form of a labour exchange, registration bureau or other practical means. This was a plea for a centralised recruitment agency for farm labourers, but it did not make it clear if it was to be run by the professional organisations chiefly concerned with French immigration (e.g. the growers of early potatoes) or by the public authorities.

Few genuinely new or original measures to control immigration were suggested. The report in fact advised the hardening of the existing laws, a few improvements here and greater collaboration between different departments there.

Assimilation of permanent immigrants

The measures proposed concerned only the education and assimilation of the children of immigrants. The report's authors acknowledged that it was very difficult to remove them from the influence of their families or churches.

The fault clearly lay with the island authorities, who had allowed the setting up of foreign religious associations, churches and schools run by foreign priests, without asking too many questions about their true motives. One solution envisaged was to ensure that the elementary education of every child who went to school on Jersey (and elementary education was the only schooling obligatory since the Act of 1872), was received in a school run by persons of British nationality. This meant Jersey or English people.

This was no more and no less than urging that the educational system should be taken back - or perhaps just taken? - into the hands of the elements who were regarded as reliable: that is the heads of the English or Jersey establishment, who would guarantee that their pupils learned English and were trained to respect the values and traditions of the Empire and the special characteristics of Jersey. At least, that was what the authors of the report hoped to achieve.


The members of the States were largely inspired by the conclusions of the committee's report when they came to draft the new legislation.

The first practical consequences were the proposal and voting of new conditions for the admission of non-British foreigners.

The laws of 1909 restricted the conditions under which immigrants could enter the island; they were obliged to deposit a surety of 5 shillings on arrival, to prove their identity and good health, and were forbidden to disembark except at Gorey or St Helier.

These measures can be considered the most direct and visible results of the debate of the years 1906-07: they were the laws that earned the admiration of Pierre Galichet (‘’Le fermier de l'ile de Jersey’’, Bibioltèque de la Science Sociale, 1912 ] in 1912.

After describing in detail the regulations pronounced by the States of Jersey to contain and control immigration, he concluded: `thus regulated, temporary Breton immigration renders Jersey's agriculture a service it could not do without, it is a benefit to the country'. But the element he appreciated the most in the controls as a whole was undoubtedly the repressive aspect:

“To guarantee itself Jersey has passed legislation which the United Kingdom may envy: the right to expel foreigners is absolute, and the Royal Court may order them to leave the island when they have been found guilty of a crime which it judges sufficient to entail this penalty, whatever the nature of the offence. This prudence is not without its uses.”

From the same period dates the post of Aliens Officer. This senior official in charge of the question of immigration was appointed on the recommendation of the lieutenant-governor of the island and paid by the States of Jersey. His principal task was to coordinate the activity of the various bodies (chiefly the customs and the police) that controlled foreigners arriving on Jersey soil. And if they wished to settle definitively, it was he to whom they had to apply for the main administrative formalities.

The laws relating to the arrival of foreigners were maintained after the War of 1914-18. Restrictions on the departure of French farm workers were essentially imposed by the French authorities.

Controls on foreigners coming from outside the British Isles were set up by the law of 1920, and amended in 1937, but in both cases these were no more than local applications of English laws.

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