Jersey is renowned throughout the world for the island’s breed of cattle, and although numbers in the ancestral home have dropped considerably in recent years, as more and more families have given up farming, the Jersey cow is still the most important farm animal.
It was not always so, however, because in the 1600s sheep were far more important and throughout that century and the 18th, knitting was an important industry. It was not, as many people believe, the fisherman’s jersey, which gave rise to the generic term for a knitted sweater now in common use throughout the English-speaking world, which was knitted for export, but woollen stockings.
Hardly a working class household was not involved with knitting, which caused considerable concern because farming and fishing, the two most important activities for the island were both neglected.
Nobody knows exactly how or when knitting became important in Jersey, but it was perhaps towards the end of the 1500s following the arrival of Huguenot refugees from France, where knitting of patterned stockings was already a speciality.
The industrial revolution brought the knitting industry to an abrupt end, and little or no tangible evidence now remains to prove its earlier existence.
Many people interested in the history of Jersey know about the knitting industry, but few are aware that, although the island was by no means self-sufficient in wool and had to import large quantities from England, Jersey’s own breed of sheep were kept in large numbers to supplement those imports.
The multi-horned Jersey sheep which used to graze the headlands and slopes of the island’s north coast has long died out. Jean Poingdestre in Caesarea, his 1662 description of Jersey, said:”In former times, the females had most times four horns, and the rams oft-times six.”
An earlier literary reference to Jersey sheep can be found in English poet Michael Drayton’s Polyalbion in 1617. He wrote:
- ”Fair Jersey, first of these here
- scattered in the deep.
- Peculiarly that breeds they
- double-horned sheep …”
The six-horned sheep apparently had one horn on each side bent towards the nose, another pair towards the neck and the third upright. It was a breed probably with Viking ancestry and the closest to be found today are the Manx Laoghtan or Soay breeds.
Treated like vermin
Thomas Quayle in his 1815 work General view of the agriculture and present state of the islands on the coast of Normandy subject to the crown of Great Britain deplored the treatment of sheep in the island at the beginning of the 19th century, writing that they were treated like vermin, kept away from fertile land and confined to common land and hillsides.
He probably misunderstood the situation, because this is exactly the sort of conditions in which hardy breeds, such as the multi-horned Jersey was, will thrive. However they were treated, the breed became extinct not long after Quayle’s visit.
St Ouen records
- “Sheep played a very important part in Jersey’s economy from the Middle Ages right up to 18th century days. Some parishes still possess registers dating back to those days, when the various flocks were ear-nipped (or cut or pierced) tgo define ownership. Some St Ouen registers dated from around 1716, for example, give extremely interesting information regarding the marks for each individual farmer, all with good and well-known St Ouennais names, many of them now extinct.
- ”The marking , which at times must have been cruelly inflicted, is carefully described in these registers, and it is almost incredible that, with permutations, no two were exactly alike. And there were some 300 flocks in the cueillettes of St Ouen.
- ”In Jèrriais bèrcas was used for sheep in general, and du bèrcas d’falaise applied to those which pastured on the north and west coasts of the Island, consdquently being of inferior origin. By extension, the expression is still used to designate in a pejorative sense people considered to have inferion upbringing, to be coarse and uncultured.”
In Thomas Quayle’s time the largest flock of about 40 animals was to be found on the coast near St Brelade’s Church. In the mid-20th century there was a flock on rough land adjoining Victoria Avenue between Bel Royal and St Matthew’s Church, and another on Grouville Common, but after these animals died out it would be some 50 years before sheep were again introduced to the island. Now there are several flocks, including one of the Manx Laoghtan, brought to the island by the National Trust for Jersey.
Jerripedia editor Mike Bisson says that he well remembers the flock near Bel Royal. “Sheep must also have been kept in earlier times at the top of Bouley Bay, where I lived for some years, because the road there is Rue de la Bergerie.
Many references to Jersey sheep and knitting can be found as far back as the 16th century:
- ”The women make a very gainful trade by knitting of hose which we call Jersey stokes” – William Camden, 1587
- ”The Soile is very fertile bringing forth store of Corn and Cattle, but especially of Sheepe, that are of reasonable bignes, the most of them bearing four hornes a peece. Their wooll very fine and white, of which the inhabitants make their Jersey stocking, which are ordinarily to be had in most parts of England, and yeeld a great commoditie unto the Iland” – John Speed, 1610
- ”The greater part of the inhabitants are knitters. There are many houses where man, wife and children, beginning at the age of five or six, have no other employment and may be said to make one pair of stocking every week, which must according to my account come to 10,000 pairs weekly” – Jean Poingdestre, 1758
- ”I have even seen women on horseback knitting as they rode to market” – Henry Inglis, 1844