Jersey Looks Forward - Bread riots
Extracted from Norman Le Brocq's Jersey Looks Forward, published after World War 2
- "On Monday morning, very early, St Helier, usually so calm and busy, was thrown into alarm by the news that all workers had downed tools and that everything pointed to a serious uprising. This was borne out by the reports of the determination and violent character of those who seemed to be the workers' leaders. The news, which at first was hardly believed, although on Sunday a rumour had circulated that an uprising was planned for Monday, soon acquired a positive nature. The Constable was seen making for the Royal Square accompanied by his four Centeniers. This place was assumed to be the rallying point of the troublemakers.
- "Soon all the police of St Helier were gathered around their chiefs; but at half-past six the Square was still empty, although already a band of three or four hundred persons was abroad, compelling all workers to leave their work."
So opened the report of the activities of May 17 1847, as summarised by one of the local newspapers. This uprising was the climax of a series of riots by the town workers and the Gorey oyster fishers over a period of 25 years. The year 1822 had seen the first popular rising in Jersey over the high price of foodstuffs. That year was notable for the fight made - and won - by the Island States Assembly, backed and urged on by the populace, against the imposition on the island of the British Government's Corn Laws.
In spite of the fact that this battle for the free importation of corn into the island was won, the price of corn rose sharply in the years that followed. In 1828, after another easily quelled riot, the States passed a law forbidding the export of any type of grain. This eased the position somewhat, but did not bring bread prices back to a reasonable figure as compared with the local workers' poor wage.
During the years 1821-1851, the population of the island almost exactly doubled. This large increase was partly due to an influx of English workers employed on the extension of St Helier's harbours, the building of St Catherine's pier and other large constructions.
This infiltration of English workers with their more militant outlook woke the Jersey worker to the fact of his extreme misery. They tended to settle here after the work that brought them was finished and they were well to the fore in fighting for better conditions.
The immediate cause of the May uprising is shown by the events of the five months preceding it. In January 1847 the shipwrights and carpenters employed in the shipbuilding yards left their work, complaining of the high price of foodstuffs. They took possession of several loads of potatoes which were being shipped for export. The Jersey and Guernsey News complains that on this occasion "the police looked on, and allowed this to be done. Not one of the rioters was seized or punished".
On 1 February the States decided to open a bakery to sell bread to the working poor at 2d per lb. The market price of bread at this time was 2½ d per lb. By the beginning the market price of bread had gone up to 3½d per lb, while the States bread had advanced to 2½d.
On 15 May the Constable of St Helier made a statement to the press that "as the Committee of the States would shortly discontinue selling bread at a cheap rate, a meeting of the constituents of St Helier would be held on Wednesday 19 May to open subscriptions for the relief of the working class", and concluded by saying: "it was a fact which should not be concealed that a great number of workmen had been compelled to put their effects in pledge to supply the wants of their families, and that their resources were entirely exhausted"'
The excuse made for stopping the supply of cheap bread was that work was now plentiful - at 12s 6d per week - which fact was disputed by at least one of the local newspapers. This statement of the Constable's reported in L'Impartial de Jersey, Le Constitutionel and Le Chronique de Jersey, caused a feeling of unrest amongst the town workers on the Sunday. It would seem by the magnitude of the rising on the following day that plans were made then for the morrow.
The townsfolk went to bed that Sunday night wondering if there was anything in the many rumours circulating concerning approaching trouble.
The workers employed in the building of St Aubin's Road arrived at their place of work as usual at 5 o'clock that Monday morning; but instead of proceeding to their normal work they gathered together to the number of about 150 and discussed their plans. They sent a delegation to ask for an increase in pay. This was refused. It was then decided to march to First Tower and call on the carpenters and other workers at Deslande's building yard to come out and join them. This went off according to plan.
The next step was to march townwards about 200 strong. Along the Esplanade came this ragged army calling upon all workers to join them. They turned up Hill Street, gathering force all the way, and here were joined by a group working at the laying of a main drain. Not attempting yet to force their way into the Square, they continued their march down Roseville Street to the shipbuilding and other yards at Havre des Pas. By this time there were over 400 in their ranks. They proceeded to call out all the workers in these yards. Some came willingly, others were reluctant. Threats and arguments were used to bring the Clarke, Valpy and Allix employees out.
Havre des Pas now being at a standstill, the recruiting march was continued, as far as the North Pier. Here extension to the harbour was in progress. At first the men remained loyal to the foremen in charge; but after a battle with stones, the majority of these men, too, joined in the uprising.
Next came the turn of the men repairing the ships Peggy and Hebe. These men were persuaded by their bosses to remain at work; but after one of the foremen had been downed with a stone, these men went over to support the side of the uprising.
At Ennis' foundry, the marchers found everything locked and bolted against them. After a vain attempt to break in to release the workers cooped up there and some window smashing, this place was left for a march to Henry and de Garis' sail-making factory. Here all the men refused to strike and the marchers drew off, leaving them to it.
By half past eleven the repairmen on the ships Ringmahon Castle and Speedy Packet had joined them, and the crowd was now well over 700 strong, apart from parties sent about to call out other workers.
March to Square
About noon it was decided to march on the Royal Square. Well over 1,000 strong, they entered the Square, led by Jean Picot, journeyman-shoemaker. As he entered the Square, shouting "Rush in, my boys", he was seized by the police. He was immediately hauled before the Court, which was then in session, and in spite of several efforts to rush the Court building and rescue him, he was tried and sentenced to eight days solitary confinement.
George Sargent, a seaman, was arrested for leading an attempt to rush the Court building steps and capture the Constable, while in a state of intoxication.
Then went up shouts of "To Le Quesne's mill! To the Town Mill". And a band of over 1,000 streamed out towards the north of the town. Centenier Le Bailly made for the mill with part of the police force, while the Constable and the rest of the police stayed to hold the remaining crowd from the Court buildings.
Le Bailly entreated the crowd to go away and leave the mill intact, but with shouts of "Break in" a large band went round to the back entrance. Using hammers and pickaxes they attempted to break open the door, but it was not until they brought up an improvised battering-ram that they burst it open. Flocking into the mill, they opened the main door. Then in rushed as many as could. Bags of flour and grain were carried and thrown into the yard. One man, Elias Selous, was observed to fill his mouth with flour and shout: "That's how hungry I am. I haven't eaten for two days".
Two wagons were loaded with grain and flour and many men gathered as much as they could carry.
Garrison called out
By this time the Governor had called out the island garrison and placed it at the disposal of the Constable. About one o'clock the Riot Act was read in the Square by the Procureur General, and the troops were ordered to co-operate with the police in clearing the Square. Another part of the garrison, the 81st Foot Regiment, was ordered to proceed to the Town Mill. At Robin Hood Corner they met the outposts of the rebels and a short engagement followed, the workers using clubs and stones. The two flour wagons were captured by the troops and the crowd was dispersed. By 2.30 pm the Square also was cleared and many arrests had been made. Sentries were left and the main body of the troops was sent round the town to clear the public houses and order them to be shut.
The crowd had swarmed back to the Square by four o'clock; but though they collected there and paraded the town all the evening, the initial impetus was over and there were no more clashes with the authorities. Police and special constables patrolled the town all night.
At five next morning it was found that a large number of the workers were going back to work. The remainder merely walked about and made no violent move.
At 7.30 the Constable issued the following proclamation:
- "To the Working Class,
All workers are commanded to return to their work immediately. Measures are being taken to assure the distribution of bread to the working class at a reasonable price and to guard against all scarcity of essential foodstuffs.
- "A public assembly will be held in the near future to open a subscription for poor relief; but all aid will be refused to those who do not immediately return to work and severe measures will be taken against them.
- "Imprisonment with hard labour or banishment for five years is the penalty ordered in our Riot Act for all those who take part in riotous gatherings and who do not disperse when ordered to do so by the police."
- "If necessary, the military will be called out to reinforce the police. The deserving poor will receive help; but all those who take part in any uprising will he severely punished."
- Pierre Le Sueur, Constable of St Helier. 18 May 1847.
At three o'clock Tuesday afternoon it was reported that the Mont Mado quarrymen were marching on the town. The Constable hurriedly called out the troops and accompanied them to Mont a l'Abbe. Here they met the quarrymen and demanded of them their business. The reply was a demand for bread to be made available at 2d per pound (the existing market price being 3d per pound). The Constable told them to go home and he would do something for them. After the Procureur General had read the Riot Act, the quarrymen were ordered to disperse; which, in face of superior force, they did.
During these two days an appeal had been made for citizens to enrol as special constables, and in all 114 rallied to the call. They were used as auxiliary police patrols and distinguished by white armbands. However, these "specials" saw little activity, for by Tuesday night calm had settled over the island once again.
Over the whole period no one had been killed, though there were a number of injuries on both sides.
What were the results of this uprising?
On Monday, in the midst of the turmoil, a meeting of the States Food Committee was convened and issued the following statement :
- "The year 1847, the 17th day of May. The Committee having assembled in Order to deliberate on the distribution at a reduced price of bread, baked for the States, which is now sold to the working class at 2½d per pound, conformably to the decision of the Committee on April the 27 last; considering the reduced rate of wages and salaries, as well as the increased price of provisions, as also the number of persons who suffer in consequence of the famine and the dearness of articles of food in general, has resolved to adopt immediate means, in order to reduce in a few days the price of bread to 2d per pound, The Committee has at the same time decided, if necessary, to take measures insuring for the provisioning of the island. The Committee has also decided to instruct the Constables of the parishes who have not yet increased the allowance to outdoor poor, to come to an understanding with the churchwardens, in order to give an immediate increase, proportionate to the wants of the present time, and this extraordinary relief."
- Charles de Ste Croix, Greffier.
Poor relief fund
On the Wednesday the Constable of St Helier held a public meeting to set up a fund for extra poor relief. It was suggested that soup, meat, sugar be distributed cheaply besides bread. Subscriptions were called for on the spot and £211 was collected as a start to the fund.
Such was the scare that the uprising caused in the hearts of the authorities and the well-to-do. The workers had asked for a rise in pay or the resumption of bread sold at 2d per pound. The latter was granted by the States Food Committee in spite of their previous statement that the issue of cheap bread would be discontinued. And further, the rates of poor relief were increased throughout the island and a public fund was set up to relieve distress.
This was the first victory of the Jersey working class. By a united show of strength they gained their ends. At what cost? A few were injured in the fighting and 27 were brought up for trial. One, John Picot, the shoemaker, was tried on the spot and sentenced to eight days solitary confinement, as we have seen. George Sargent was released with a caution.
Of the other 25, Thomas Cundy, William Holland, Thomas Connor, Thomas Anthony, Frederick Pyke, Stephen Wilkins, Jean Le Gresley, John Dunn, Elias Selous, George Minton, Joseph Baker, George Carter, Thomas Mouldoun, and Richard Tucker were charged with "forming part of an illegal assemblage of persons, and for having caused a tumult in divers parts of St Helier, and having thus committed a breach of the peace; and also having wilfully and maliciously broken open a certain mill situated on the Trinity Road; as also having taken by force a quantity and flour from the said mill, with any intention of robbery; or having aided or abetted in the same".
Denis Daly, John Gernan, Pierre Voisin, Charles Le Breton George Laing, Benjamin Brown, Thomas Gillam, Philip Gallichan, Richard Blacker and Henry Dell, were charged "with having been participators in the tumult; for having insulted the police while in the execution of their duty; and for having attempted to rescue some prisoners when arrested by the police".
John Merrifield was charged "with having participated in the tumult and for having since his arrest threatened on his liberation to murder the person who took him up".
Sentences of varying terms of imprisonment or banishment (up to five years banishment) were inflicted on these men. And so finishes this page in the history of the Jersey working class.
A sequel, however, can be seen to this day. In the Broad Street cab rank there is an obelisk erected to Pierre Le Sueur, the Constable of St Helier, the man who put down the disturbances, erected by his grateful parishioners in memory of his exertions.