Abraham Le Cras
Abraham Le Cras (1798-1869)
Abraham Le Cras was born in Salisbury in 1798, of a Jersey family, and was living in the island by the time he was 20.
The early part of the 19th century saw a dramatic growth in Jersey's population with an influx of English families seeking to enjoy the benefits of the island's climate and its low tax regime, something which has not changed to this day. The population stood at about 40,000 by the late 1830s, of which about 15,000 were English.
Many were surprised by the differences they found in Jersey's legal and political systems from what they had been used to and expected to find, and became disillusioned with their exclusion from mainstream Jersey society. In journalist Abraham Le Cras they found an ally, and he was to campaign furiously on their behalf, although when it came to the crunch he received little real support for his views in the way of signatures on petitions or votes for political change. It is perhaps questionable whether the disaffected Englishmen adopted Le Cras or he adopted them in an attempt to further his own extreme political views.
This was a time when Jersey had a strong party system, the Laurel Party and the Rose Party dominating the local political scene. Le Cras held views which left him well outside either of these parties, so he campaigned alone.
He must have had some financial support from those who supported his views because he went from offering lessons in penmanship, arithmetic, English and geography at his "Broad Street Academy" to running a junk shop and selling quack medicines, to founding and editing two weekly newspapers, the English and Foreign News and Jersey Patriot. This gave him a platform for his policies, which were essentially against the whole of the island's legal and political system. His views were condensed in a 1939 book, *The Laws Customs and Priviliges and their Administration in the Island of Jersey , which contained a 52-clause petition to the British Parliament and can be read in full on the Web.
Had he lived 170 years later Le Cras would undoubtedly have had his own political blog and been a regular contributor to the correspondence columns of the Jersey Evening Post, and would undoubtedly have stood for election to the States, but in the 1830s the only elected posts were those of Constable and Jurat, and both would have been beyond the reach of a political agitator like Le Cras.
But however far from the mainstream of politics he might have been, it was not to be long before many of the reforms he called for were indeed implemented - Deputies in the States, a paid police force, a Petty Debts Court - and had the States paid more heed to the views of two successive Royal Commissions sent to inquire into Le Cras' complaints in petitions to the Privy Council, they might have responded even more rapidly. As with many political agitators of the past with apparently extreme views, it seems that Le Cras actually had widespread support for some of his demands but he argued so loudly that it was not felt appropriate to give in too quickly.
The decision on whether to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commissions was left to the States, and despite Le Cras finding support in the UK Parliament, the Government declined to intervene on matters which fell within the remit of the island legislature. It was one of Le Cras' contentions that Jersey did not have the right to self-determination which successive generations had maintained since the days of King John. Even today, while not suggesting that the Island should not have such rights, there are those students of history who suggest that their embodiment in the so called Constitution of King John is something of a myth and that the rights of the island, its Royal Court and States were upheld by successive monarchs simply because island officials told their Commissioners that it had always been thus.
However it became so, Le Cras argued very strongly that the system was corrupt and unfair, particularly towards the island's more recent residents. "The proceedings of the Court are conducted in the old Norman French, and although the British residents comprise nearly half the population, yet when they are parties in a cause, or tried for crime, the proceedings are conducted in a language unknown to them without any interpreter being appointed," he complained in his 1939 petition, one of many with which he bombarded the Privy Council in the next 20 years.
Among his other complaints were:
- The States has become a useless body
- From the immense increase of the population and commerce of the Island the persons and properties of the inhabitants are not sufficiently represented in the Assembly
- The laws have hitherto been unknown to the public, because they have been confined to the breasts of the Jurats, who exercise an almost absolute despotism, pretending to govern their decisions by their conscience, and which being elastic, they are enabled to cover every species of fraud, swindling and crime, that the ingenuity of man can devise, or his wickedness commit. The island being an exempt jurisdiction they possess the power of restraining the execution of certain Writs issuing from the Courts of Westminster, suspending Orders in Council, and also usurp that of nullifying Acts of the Imperial Legislation; by which they place themselves beyond the controul of all ordinary means; so that nothing but the interposition of Parliament with the Crown can possibly remedy it.
- The “existence of great and manifold abuses, both in the one and the other, by which the lives, liberties and properties of 40,000 inhabitants have no security
Judgments written before trials
And he had little respect for the Courts, complaining that "the judgments of the Court are sometimes prepared before the trials are heard, as was the case in the prosecution of the Crown, at the instance of the late Lieutenant Governor Major General Thornton v Le Breton, Colonel of Militia, when one of the Jurats, after pleadings were closed, produced a judgment already written, which was adopted by the Bailiff and Jurats, and rendered against the said Lieutenant Governor". Not only that, but he claimed that the same Jurats who delivered judgments would sit on the panel hearing an appeal against them.
There is little doubt that the implementation of many of the powers held in the island at that time was open to question, and Royal Commissions sent to examine Le Cras' complaints in 1840 and 1846 urged many changes, including the substitution of three paid judges appointed by the Crown for the Jurats. Le Cras won one major point when the English Law Officers ruled in 1840 that the States had no power to naturalise aliens, and the States had to petition the Privy Council to ratify all letters of naturalisation issued since 1771.
But other matters were left to the island to decide, and after being rejected by parish assemblies were quietly swept under the carpet. Le Cras himself went quiet and actually left Jersey in 1850 having dropped both his newspapers following the death in 1848 of his youngest son, Claudius Alphonos Weston Le Cras, who had managed his printing business. He returned in 1853 and resumed his political life, publishing a barrage of pamphlets and larger books, and two petitions bearing a few hundred signatures each.
These led to the appointment of another Commission, before which he gave evidence for five days, leading to 88 recommendations. The States eventually decided to hold a referendum on the issue of replacing Jurats and only 180 people voted for change, which was the final straw for Le Cras, who took little further part in public life.