William Carr Beresford - Last Governor of Jersey

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William Carr Beresford

Last Governor of Jersey


William Carr Beresford

This article by Rosemary Mesch was first published in the 2010 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

In March 1821 William Carr Beresford was sworn in as Governor of Jersey. He turned out to be not only the last, but also the longest serving Governor of the island, holding office for 34 years. So why is it that, apart from Beresford Street and the fish market in St Helier, he is almost unknown in Jersey? Was it because he was unseen by and unknown to ordinary islanders? Or had he simply outlived his office? Or could it possibly have been his personality, so often described as harsh?

As a much decorated war hero, a personal friend of the Duke of Wellington, and a prominent supporter in the House of Lords of successive Tory governments in the 1820s, Beresford was well-placed to further the island's interests in Whitehall. Furthermore, he knew Jersey well, having spent two years in the island.

Arriving in Jersey for the first time in 1797, he was ordered to reorganise his regiment, the 88th Foot, the Connaught Rangers, which had been almost destroyed by a huge storm on its way to the West Indies. Later, writing to his friend Major-General Hugh MacKay Gordon, Lieut-Governor of Jersey in 1818, Beresford admitted that he did not think anyone would remember him, but continued:'I think you will like the place. I thought it a delightful island'.


Marshal of Portugal

After leaving Jersey in 1799 Beresford had taken part in campaigns in India, Egypt and Argentina.He became Governor of Madeira in 1807. Promoted to the rank of major-general, he returned to Englandthe following year, after the retreat at Cornuua. In 1809 it was agreed that British operations against the French in Portugal would continue and that the Portuguese Army would be led by a British officer.

On the basis that he spoke the language, Beresford was appointed Marshal of the Portuguese Army, thoughhe later admitted that 'I was not then very much master of Portuguese'. At the time of his appointment the Portuguese Army was in chaos, and it was here that Beresford was to prove his organisational skills.

Resentment simmered among officers senior to Beresford, but placed under his command in Portugal. Nor was thishelped by his liking for 'riding about Lisbon with much pomp and many attendants'. By the imposition of ferocious discipline he managed over time to create a fine army that, when fighting alongside British troops, was generally acknowledged tohave acquitted itself with distinction.

During the war Wellington had made it clear, significantly, that should it become necessary, Beresford should become commander-in-chief:

'He took a broad view and understood the strategic and political aspects of war'.

Governor of Jersey: The good years

Even though Beresford's obituary in the Jersey Times of 13 January 1854 declared that the office of Governor was a sinecure, it is evident that Beresford did not see it that way, at least not initially. In 1821, typically thorough, he immediately set about informing himself about the island and planning a visit. As he wrote to the Lieut-Governor, Sir Hugh Gordon:

'I shall be glad to learn all I can of the State of Jersey as well politically, and financially, as militarily. I do not wish to seek openly for such information, yet I would be glad if the Lt Baillie could get me the various charters of the island.'

The visit duly took place in June 1821, amid much local enthusiasm. The Chronique de Jersey reported that many people in St Helier illuminated their houses in the evening, and that the Governor;s arrival was celebrated with many huzzas by a great crowd of people at the port and a salvo of artillery. Beresford Street was named in commemoration of the event.

Beresford was never to visit Jersey again, carrying out his duties as governor from London and, latterly, mostly from Kent. He continued throughout his governorship to be an important point of contact between Jersey and Whitehall, busy for the next three decades with the minutiae of Jersey's affairs at the Home Office, at the War Office, and with the Crown

During that time there are several glimpses of Beresford's frustration at his inabilit to interfere either with the States, or with any of the seven lieut-Governors who served during his period of office. But he was able to use his influence in government circles, combining that with commonsense and good advice. Colonel John Le Couteur (1794-1875), ADC to the King and Adjutant-General of the Militia, always called on Beresford in London and notes their many conversatons in his diaries.

As late as 1842 on his appointment as Viscount, Le Couteur noted that the Home Office had wanted to appoint 'an Englishman, Irishman or Scotman' to the post. But, he said, Beresford's recommendation 'had carried great weight'. On an earlier less happy occasion in 1830, discussing Militia affairs with Beresford, Le Couteur was outraged by the Governor to be very much on my guard as to what I said to the King'.

The Jurats: A never-ending dilemma

Beresford made no secret of the fact that he shared with many others the common dissatisfaction with the Jurat system, an opinion that was held both in London and in certain quarters in Jersey. As early as 1821 the result of an election for Jurat provoked Beresford to write to Gordon thet the result 'went against the good cause'.

'The democracy (the left-wing Rose party) have there got possession now for many years and the strange this is that it is given to those by the aristocracy (the right-wing Laurel party): if we can say there is such a thing in the island.'

By 1830 the Jurat problem had not gone away. Le Couteur lamented:

'It is impossible to have a worse notion with some degree of truth, too, that his lordship entertains respecting our court. It is unfortunate that he thinks so, as this opinion delivered with great warmth must influence the Council more or less. But Beresford recognises that reform must come from ourselves.'

Sixteen years later the Commission of Inquiry of 1846 failed to resolve matters. And by December 1853, just two months before Beresford died, a hearing before the Committee for the Affairs of Jersey andGuernsey reported that it could not decide if the Crown could legislate for Jersey without the concurrence of the States. We can be certain that Beresford, had he been consulted, would have had no doubts on the matter. It could not.

The 1830s - loss of prestige

In 1828 Beresford became Master-General of the Ordnance in the Duke of Wellington's administration. But the next two years would see the end of the Duke's Tory administration and of the cosy arrangement which Beresford had enjoyed at the centre of government. The 1830s were to be the last turning-point in his career. His capacity as Jersey's fixer in Whitehall was curtailed when, in November 1830, the Whigs were elected under the leadership of Lord John Russell. In his diary Le Couteur recorded that Beresford declared indignantly:

'Do you not call that opposition when the King's representative in the island is denied every single thing he applies for?' Later on Beresford grumbled to Le Couteur that his power of appointment of the clergy had been removed from him by Russell.
A painting of Beresford at Albuera


Beresford's reputation had been severely compromised in the mid-1830s by the publication of Sir William Napier's History of the War in the Peninsula, in which Beresford was accused of making serious blunders in the war, particularly at the Battle of Albuera (1811). Ordered by Wellington to lay siege to the city of Badajoz, Beresford had been surprised by the French coming up behind his lines to relieve the city. On turning round, Beresford's retreat was cut off by a storm which destroyed a bridge over the rieve Guariana. He was thus forced to confront the enemy at Albuera.

It is said that there had been an occasion in Beresford's childhood when he panicked to the point of breakdown at the sigh of his elder helf-brother jumping from one battlement to the next on top of the square tower of York Minster. This tendency to panic in the face of imminent catastrophe was evident to many witnesses during the battle. In fairness, though, Beresford also had a run of bad luck.

The British were allied with the Spanish under the command of the Spanish General Joachim Blake, together with Portuguese and Hanoverian ofrces. But Blake refused to obey Beresford's orders and Lieut-General William Steward, commanding the second dividion, disastrously decided to act on his own initiative. Then Brigadier-General Robert Ballard Long, commanding the cavalry, 'fled before the advancing guard of the enemy: this error was so completely of a piece with his conduct upon more than one occasion that it became imperatively necessary to relieve him'. Last but not least an order carried by a Portuguese ADC was sent to the Hanoverian commander Alten. Believing that the order had been mixed up in translation, Alten refused to move.

Beresford ordered a retreat, at which point Lowry Cole, commanding the fourth division, also decided to advance on his own initiative, saving the day, but at very heavy cost. Having written a gloomy, but honest, despatch after the battle, Beresford was ordered by Wellington to 'write me down a victory,. The French, after all, had left the field, so technically it was a victory for the allies. But the truth was that 6,000 allied soldiers and 7,000 enemy had been killed.

Napier's criticisms of Beresford's performance were taken up by Charles Long, nephew of thehaplass cavalry commander RObert Ballard Long. A long public argument followed, with Beresford ponderously defending his actions in three long pamphlets, which did his cause very little good.

By coincidence, in 1842 the same radical Sir William Napier, married to Charles James Fox's niece, became Governor of Guernsey, where he unwisely set about changing the system of government. Inevitably his activities caused uproar and resentment among the inhabitants. Troops were sent from England to quell what was thought to be an insurrection, though Guernsey's loyalty to the Crown was never in doubt.

The affair provoked Queen Victoria's surprise visit to Guernsey in 1846. Beresford, in the circumstances, is unlikely to have had much sympathy with Napier when the Queen refused to receive him or to visit Government House. No doubt the Queen was reminded by Beresford that she needed to be even-handed towards the islands, for her first visit to Jersey followed just ten days later.

A comfortable old age

Over time Le Couteur had become a personal friend of Beresford and made several visits to Bedgebury Park, his estate in Kent. Le Couteur's diary describes, at length, the grandeur of the household; testament to the wealth that Beresford had by this time amassed, partly by marriage to his widowed cousin, but also from verious pensions and stipends.His income from Jersey between 1845 and 1849 averaged around £950 a year.

The accumulation of honours and titles, of which he had many, was clearly a matter of great importance to him. Create Marshal of the Portuguese Army in 1809 and Viscount Beresford in 1823, we wrote (unsuccessfully) to Peel in 1842 asking to be recommended for 'an additional step in the peerage'.

Beresford's self-seeking request may be evidence of a desire to gain ever more legitimacy and official recognition to compensate for the fact that he was born illegitimate. Of Irish birth, it is said that he only discovered that he was the natural son of George de la Poer Beresford, Early of Tyrone and later first Marquess of Waterford, when he was ten. His mother was never identified, although the diarist Creevy notes that he seemed to be a special object of affection of Elizabeth, Lady Waterford, and thought that he might have been her illegitimate child. [He could hardly have been illegitimate if he was the natural son of the Marquess of Waterford and the son of Lady Waterford - Ed]

By the 1840s Beresford, now in his seventies, shared the widely-held view of his ageing wartime generation that the development of steamships had made Jersey potentially indefensible. The Franco-Spanish marriages, the building of a new naval harbour at Cherbourg, the construction of the railway along the peninsula opposite Jersey, and the build-up of forces along the coast had increased anxiety of the French threat to fever pitch in certain quarters both in Jersey and London.


Recorded conversation

It is tempting to think that Beresford supported the Duke of Wellington's well-known opinion of the absolute necessity to fortify the channel defences, and in particular the need to build harbours of refuge in all three main islands. Yet, in a carefully recorded conversation, Le Couteur says that Beresford had asked him 'What is the Duke's opinion supposed to be?' For the fact was that Wellington, like Beresford now also in his seventies, was spending most of his time at this country estate and it seems certain that by this stage the two men were no longer in close touch.

Le Couteur noted Beresford's belief that 'Noirmont Peninsula should have a strong fort or redoubt on it and an outlier of outworks over St Aubin'. Beresford thought that heavy bodies of troops should be stationed around the Island and a line of defence should be established in Grouville Bay. [This had already been done in the 1780s and 90s, during the Governorship of Henry Seymour Conway, reinforced by the work ordered by Lieut-Governor General Sir George Don between 1806 and 1814, before Beresford's appointment - Editor]

And significantly he added, almost as an afterthought, that a harbour at Gorey or St Catherine 'would be useful'. [The exact timing of this discussion is not known, but Gorey was already a busy port and the construction of the harbour at St Catherine had been commissioned by the mid-1840s - Ed]

Le Couteur, for his part, was the moving spirit behind the proposal to build a railway around strategic points of the island and he never lost an opportunity to promote his ambition. Beresford merely commented that he did not see how the railway would pay, although he conceded that it would be useful 'to keep men fresh if moved on it', adding later 'it would do no harm to the defences'.

In 1842 Lieut-General Sir Frederick Mulcaster (1772-1846), inspector of fortifications, complained of a 'want of system and of a single authority in the planning and execution of the defence of the islands'. How the decision to build the harbour at St Catherine came to be made is shrouded in mystery and the confused situation that lay behind Mulcaster's comment could have had much to do with it. For Beresford's part he would doubtless have appreciated the site for its strategic importance. [Whatever Beresford may have thought about the building of a harbour at St Catherine, it is unlikely that he had any involvement in its planning. He had long ceased to have any influence in these matters, if he ever did. The decision to build the harbour is not shrouded in as much mystery as the writer suggests. It was constructed at the behest of the States of Jersey, who petitioned Queen Victoria in 1840 to order the construction of a harbour where large navy vessels could shelter. It was seven years before work started, largely because the British Government and its Admirals could not agree on where, or if, such a harbour should be built. When work did start, it came as a surprise to many to discover that a definitive decision had been taken. - Editor]

By 1849 Captain Martin White, who had done his best to publicise the problem of depth in the bay, was 'unwell both now and last year'. And in the same year, on a visit to Bedgebury, Le Couteur found 'the old Marshal fatigued'. and noted that in a game of whist Beresford 'took a lively interest in the game and was quite clear about it'. The commend suggests that by this time Beresford's mind was becoming confused. In 1852 Le Couteur found 'Lord B too poorly to see us. I suspect he is breaking fast'. It is said that Beresford had suffered a paralytic stroke, but he lingered on for another two years.

No replacement

Because of a decision taken 'many years earlier' not to replace the Governors of Jersey and Guernsey, Beresford's office had become redundant. A Home Office paper stated that 'the Crown revenue enjoyed by the governor will be at the disposal of the treasury' and 'the patronage of the Crown livings will also revert to the Crown. The Lieut-Governor will be allowed to recommend when vacancies occur in the livings'.

Beresford, who never forgot his Irish connections, stipulated in his will that he was to be buried at Curraghmore in Waterford. But that never happened and he was buried next to his wife in Kilndown churchyard in Kent. The grave bears the inscription 'General: Field-Marshal: Captain-General of England, Portugal and Spain'. Le Couteur, who once described Beresford as 'the old warrior', would most certainly have approved.

Editor's note

[Although the author of this article suggests that Viscount Beresford had an influence on Jersey's affairs during his long tenure of office as Governor, reading between the lines it is clear that he had little involvement in, nor influence over the government of an island he visited but once, at the beginning of his tenure, and that his appointment was the sinecure suggested by the island newspaper in his obituary. Jersey had long become used to looking after its own interests, and, not only were successive Governors non-resident, and only peripherally involved in island affairs, but so were the Bailiffs of the day. Until the apointment of Thomas Le Breton in 1826, successive Bailiffs had been ennobled members of the (de Carteret/Carteret) family, living in England and never setting foot in Jersey. The island had become used to being run by Lieut-Bailiffs, and they had become used to co-operating with Lieut-Governors, who had primary responsibility for military matters, and, in the main, avoided conflict with the insular authorities in civil matters. With Sir Thomas, his successor Jean de Veulle, and his successor Thomas Le Breton, son of the earlier Bailiff firmly in charge of the island government through the 1830s, '40s and '50s, and Beresford's reputation damaged in the 1830s, and his influence nullified by the election of a Whig goverment in 1830, it is clear that his influence at Whitehall on behalf of Jersey, had it ever existed, had disappeared. It is perhaps a reflection of how little importance the position of Governor of Jersey had come to have that Beresford was left in position until his death, rather than replaced with a Whig appointment, reinforced by the decision not to replace him, thus making him the last of Jersey's Governors. Students of history will discover that the office of Lieut-Governor became less and less important in Jersey over the coming decades. Apart from the duration of the Great War, when military matters gave greater prominence to the role of the Lieut-Governor, the holder of the office became more and more a figurehead. His complete withdrawal on the eve of the German Occupation, and the desertion by the British Government of the island as enemy occupation approached, probably put the final nail in the coffin of the importance of the Sovereign's representative in the island.

It is noteworthy that in this article, which occupied five-pages in the Bulletin, there is virtually nothing which connects Beresford with Jersey, other than the author's supposition about what his views would have been on matters relating to the island, and a brief record of a conversation with Colonel Le Couteur, in which Beresford, by then in his 70s, expressed views about the island's defence which were years out of date, and with which he would certainly have had no involvement. - Editor]
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