An assessment of major histories of Jersey
Comprehensive and accurate histories of Jersey are in short supply. There are probably no more than six authors who could lay claim to such a description for their work, and all fall short in one respect or another:
- Jean Poingdestre
- Philippe Falle
- The Rev Edward Durell
- The Rev Alban Ragg
- A C Saunders
- George Balleine
Poingdestre wrote Caesarea: Or a Discourse of the Island of Jersey in 1682, but it was not published until the end of the 19th century, by La Société Jersiaise. It is written in old English, and can be quite difficult to understand. In many ways it is more a statement of life in Jersey at the time than a record of what had gone before.
An account of the Island of Jersey, the greatest of those islands that are now the only remainder of the English dominions in France, with a new and accurate map of the Island published in 1694, came to be regarded as the definitive early history of Jersey, but was already attracting considerable criticism in the 19th century as more and more historical inaccuracies came to light, when the publication of Caesarea revealed that Falle copied much of his book from Poingdestre’s.
Like Caesarea, another criticism of Falle’s Account is that it was more a statement of what Jersey was like at the end of the 17th century than a history of what had gone before.
Caesarea is quoted extensively in the many histories of Jersey published since, and many of its mistakes continue to be perpetuated. Perhaps modern authors should have paid heed to the words of Edmund Toulmin Nicolle, 17 years the honorary secretary of La Société Jersiaise and a respected writer on the island's history in the 1920s. In The Town of St Helier he wrote:
- "While referring to Falle and his history of Jersey it may be well here to observe that although he has generally been regarded as a writer of high authority, when his work comes to be examined in the light of present-day knowledge, we are forced to the conclusion that it not only contained many errors as to facts, but that it will not bear criticism as to many statements, historical and constitutional. It is superficial, due doubtless to the author's lack of the necessary materials."
Durell is best known for editing and enlarging on the original Falle history for a fourth edition, published in 1835. Although many of the original errors are perpetuated, Durell introduces substantial new content, including many of the references missing from earlier editions.
Many students of island history have lamented that rather than devoting his time to editing and updating Falle’s work, Durell would have made a greater contribution had he written his own history from scratch.
But as Jerripedia revealed when it published the work in full in 2013, A Picturesque and Historical Guide to the Island of Jersey, written by Durell and published 12 years after the Falle 4th edition, in 1847, is his own history, coupled with a guide to Jersey as it was in the mid-19th century.
The Rev Alban Ragg’s Popular History of Jersey, also available in full in Jerripedia, is certainly comprehensive, particularly in relation to the 19th century, but is very much a chronological record of events, and fails to paint a broader picture of what life was like in Jersey at various points in history.
A four-volume history of the island was written by Société Jersiaise honorary librarian Arthur Saunders in the early 20th century. It is divided into four eras. The book dealing with the 18th and 19th centuries was the first to be published in 1930, and it was followed by the 17th century in 1931, the 15th and 16th centuries in 1933 and the period before the Norman Conquest in 1935. A fifth volume, entitled Jean Chevalier and his times, was published in 1936.
Although Saunders covered some of the most important periods in the island’s history, he largely failed to look beyond the major events and examine their impact on the life of islanders. Another criticism is that the reader is expected to take everything Saunders wrote (some of it quite controversial) at face value, because references are virtually non-existant.
George Balleine, also an honorary librarian of La Société Jersiaise, is credited with writing the best history of Jersey in the 20th century, and probably the best of all.
History of the Island of Jersey, which was published in 1950, is now known to most researchers as Balleine’s Hitory of Jersey, because it was revised and updated in 1981 by Société Jersiaise stalwarts Margaret Syvret and Joan Stevens.
Although both editions need to be studied side by side to reveal what was changed and what was added, there was no attempt to change or challenge some of the assertions which Balleine, in subsequent books which drew heavily on his magnum opus, himself questioned.
Sadly, although in a 1941 article on 17th Century social life in Jersey in the Annual Bulletin of La Société, Balleine wrote: ‘Much has been written on the constitutional history and the military history of Jersey, but little on our social history’ concluding: ‘One of our members is studying the agricultural history of the island. We want others to specialise on different subjects … ... when those investigations have been carried right through the centuries, then and not till then will it be possible for anyone to write a real history of Jersey.’ those investigations had presumably not borne sufficient fruit for his work nine years later to include the social history content to make it what he would have deemed “a real history of Jersey”.
Edmund Toulmin Nicolle
Balleine was being less than charitable towards his fellow Société Jersiaise official Edmund Nicolle, who prepared a comprehensive lecture on the Town of St Helier in the 1920s but died before it could be delivered.
However, the length of The Town of St Helier, which was subsequently published in 1931 in book form by La Société Jersiaise, as a tribute to its former honorary secretary, suggests that it was intended as more than a lecture.
This is more than a history of the island’s capital town, which was the centre of island life over the centuries covered in the work. It is a history of the people of the town, and by extension, of those living in the country parishes, and comes closer than many of the better known historical works to exploring the island’s social history.
The importance of this short but eminently interesting volume is now recognised by its addition in full to Jerripedia’s pages, pursuing our objective of making available historical works which are out of print, or have previously had limited availability, to a wider audience.