A history of Les Arbres, St Lawrence

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This article by Jersey historian Joan Stevens, author of two Old Jersey Houses books, first appeared in Jersey Topic magazine in 1966

Les Arbres, in the Ville au Bas area of St Lawrence, which is soon to be restored, is beautifully situated, looking down a vista of trees above St Peter's Valley, has been altered at many different dates, and one can visualise each generation introducing its own ideas for modern living, and each young wife deciding how she could improve on the conditions of her mother-in-law's time.

1600 house

The first house was probably built in about 1600 and was quite small. Its casement windows have escaped enlargement or other alteration, and so it is among the few examples of a house with the proportions as the builder meant them to be.

The first owner was almost certainly named Mahaut, for the initials IMH can be seen, very faintly, on the right shoulder of the arch. According to the local custom, this must represent a man whose forename begins with a J, and whose surname begins with M, and the second syllable with H.

Members of the Mahaut family were established at Avranches, nearby, in the 1400s and 1500s, and they held the Fief des Arbres until 1597, when they sold it to a Dumaresq. They may have called their new, though smaller, house after the Fief which they used to hold, although it stands on the Royal Fief and not on that named Les Arbres.

Somewhere about 1660 it was decided to erect the splendid arch, with the rounded entrance for vehicles, and a straight topped entrance for pedestrians, which provided the enclosed courtyard in front of the home, so popular at that period. It afforded privacy, and protection from the wind, and made it easier to round up farm animals.

Another generation or two passed, and then a wing running south was added, and remnants of an upstairs fireplace are still in position. It is likely that this wing provided farm buildings, such as the indispensable cider-press house, with dower rooms above.

Much later the owners were Edouard Le Rossignol and Elizabeth Renaut. They died within a fortnight of each other, in 1834, she being 88 years old and her husband a year younger. Edouard's father was Augustin Le Rossignol of St Ouen. In 1742 he married Rachel Mahaut (or Mahauld), daughter of Edouard, who must have been the descendant, perhaps the great-great-grandson of the IMH who carved his initials on the arch in about 1600.

New wing

Edouard and Elizabeth demolished this wing and replaced it with a new wing with the larger sash windows which were by then popular, as glass, previously a great luxury, had become obtainable by everyone.

For their front door Edouard and Elizabeth copied the old round arch, but made it considerably higher, following the fashion of the time. Yet another generation built on a long wing running south, in part of which there was a cider trough until recent years. On the north there is a flight of stone steps leading to the upper rooms of this addition.

At various dates other outbuildings had been added, including a bakehouse, where the delicious home made bread was made.

The most remarkable thing here is the tourelle, but in contrast to that at La Tourelle, St Martin, it is square on the outside, though inside the steps still curve round the central newel.

There are indications that a pigsty was sited in the angle formed by the house and this tower. Juxtaposition of the kitchen and the pig sty had several advantages; the farrowing sow could be watched from indoors (the small window for this purpose, in the kitchen, is now blocked) and she and the piglets were kept warm by the protection of the house.

Inside the kitchen are found extraordinarily ingenious arrangements, which are, I think, unique in the Island. The area in the tourelle, under the stairs, forms a commodious larder. There are shelves and recesses in the thickness of the walls, all in stone, and on the ground level is the large granite trough in which pork was salted for winter provisions.

One aperture, now blocked, is clearly visible on the outside, and must have been a means of passing household scraps straight to the pigs.

Larder and storeroom

One can imagine with what pride the housewife of the time, who, as we have seen, may have been a Madame Mahaut, would have shown her friends her highly organised and convenient larder and store room.

Along the apex of the roof are some little figurines, probably connected with witchcraft, the belief in which was so powerful a force in the life of our ancestors. Were they put there when this wing was built, say in 1850, and have they stayed there through wind and weather, for over a century ?

It looks as if the Le Rossignol family did not own the house for very long, for in 1845 the owner was A Hamptonne, and an outhouse lintel dated 1842 may record this change of ownership, whether it was by purchase or by inheritance in the female line.

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