How 300 men from Trinity helped unseat a Lieut-Bailiff – who was also from Trinity
This article is about a man who was not adventurous and certainly not heroic. His actions instigated a popular rebellion and even led to the creation of political parties in Jersey for a while. His eclipse from power led to the creation of the first written collection of the Island’s laws - the Code of 1771- which was a major advance in the development of our civic society.
Charles Lempriere, eldest son of Jurat Michel Lempriere, seigneur of Dielament, was born in 1714 and was baptized at St Saviour in August of that year. Via marriage at the age of 18 to his first cousin, Elizabeth, he inherited the title of seigneur of Rosel, a title left vacant on the death of Elizabeth’s father.
Little is known about his upbringing or education but he obviously studied law as he was appointed Solicitor-General in 1741, at the age of 27. He spent most of his time as Solicitor-General battling Attorney-General Jean Le Hardy over their respective rights and privileges. The squabbling finally stopped in 1749 when the Privy Council ruled that the Attorney-General was “the superior officer and the proper person to carry on all suits in which the King’s interest is concerned.”
The Lempriere family had been leading democrats (in the old sense of the word, not supporters of a hereditary monarchy) in Jersey. Charles’ great-grandfather had been Bailiff under Cromwell. Charles was, at least initially, a great champion of the Island’s rights. During the time he spent in London while the Privy Council was hearing his case against Le Hardy, he took pains to cultivate influential friends, including the Bailiff John Carteret, Earl Granville. Granville never visited Jersey and appears to have taken little interest in its affairs and so, on the death of Philippe Le Geyt, it was perhaps unsurprising that Charles, a member of the distinguished Lempriere family, should be appointed Bailiff in November 1750, despite the fact that he was not a Jurat.
He presided as Lieut-Bailiff for 31 years. In the following years a number of Charles’ relatives were elevated to important posts. His father and first cousin were both Jurats, in 1758 his brother Philippe became Attorney-General and in 1761 and 1762 two brothers-in-law were raised to the Bench.
As historian G R Balleine observed: “Entrenched behind this family group his democratic sentiments evaporated, and he ruled as an autocrat”. Things were probably not helped by the behaviour of Philippe who, in addition to being Attorney-General was also the Receiver-General and who was assiduous to the point of ruthlessness in extracting the King’s dues, which fell chiefly on tenant farmers. A general sense began to spread that with so many Lemprieres on the Bench, appeal was pointless. The atmosphere was slowly becoming toxic.
Food was becoming scarce and at one point in 1768 the States forbade the export of corn. That pushed up the price of corn (and hence bread) increasing the cost of living for everyone in general but also increasing the value of the rentes that tenant farmers had to pay their seigneurs, as these were based on the value of corn. The next year the harvest was a good one, and the export ban was lifted. However the effect of the toxic political atmosphere was such that people rapidly assumed that it was the Lemprieres who were encouraging the export of corn in order to make it scarce and dearer again.
In Trinity Thomas Jacques Gruchy was between 50 and 60 years old and an elected churchwarden of Trinity, a prosperous farmer and a captain in the North Regiment. Although he was perhaps not an obvious lightning-rod for dissent, on 28 September 1769 he found himself leading a group of 200 dissenters from Trinity into St Helier to confront the corruption they felt ran through the Island’s administration. It is said his wife led another group of 100.
They were joined by groups from St John, St Saviour and St Lawrence, until there were several hundred assembled in the Royal Square, many armed with stout sticks. The crowd forced its way into the Court House, where the Assize d’Heritage was sitting. They made a racket, banged on the benches with their sticks and at one point, according to Charles Poingdestre, an eye-witness, attempted to drag a doorkeeper over the spiked rails on top of a partition, until restrained by Poingdestre and others.
The rebels presented a list of 13 demands. These included a reduction in the price of corn, a reduction of the Crown tithes on land, the abolition of champart (the seigneur’s right to every 12th sheaf of corn or bundle of flax) and the abolition of the right of a seigneur to enjoy for a year and a day the revenue from estates of anybody who died without heirs, and the banishment of all aliens. A terrified Royal Court assented, and three days later Lempriere and the Jurats fled to Elizabeth Castle.
Although the Acts had been duly read out in the Royal Square, they were quickly rescinded and a detachment of Royal Scots under Colonel Bentinck ordered to Jersey to report on the causes of the trouble. From this point onwards Lempriere’s influence began to wane – but he did not give up gracefully. Gradually his relatives either resigned or lost their positions and one of his most active opponents was appointed Lieut-Governor. The power to legislate was completely removed from the Royal Court and entrusted solely to the States.
First political parties
Things became more political. To combat an opponent, Jean Dumaresq, who was canvassing popular support for an end to the political role of the Jurats, Lempriere formed Jersey’s first political party – the Charlots – to take the fight to their opponents, the Jeannots, who later called themselves the Magots.
Possibly the best thing to emerge from the entire sorry period was the decision to collect, for the first time, all the laws of Jersey into a printed code “that everyone may know how to regulate his conduct and be no more obliged to live in continual dread of becoming liable to punishments for disobeying laws it was impossible for him to have knowledge of”.
The Code of 1771 was a huge and influential step forward and was quoted in States proceedings as late as 1950/51. Eventually, Lempriere gave up the fight, retired to Rosel Manor and died there on 27 August 1806 at the age of 92.