Farming at the time of the Battle of Jersey

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Farming at the time of

the Battle of Jersey

This article by Jean Arthur was first published in the 1981 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Jersey



Little has been written about agriculture in the island in the late 18th century. One can infer much from what is known of later days and from what one is told of le temps passé, but the detail still has to be gleaned from our various records to form a comprehensive picture.

This is as true now as it was in 1870 when C P Le Cornu, writing of the potato, says: "With regard to the exact date of its first introduction to Jersey, we have no information other than that traditionally handed to us by the oldest growers of the present times, from whose accounts we gather that the first coming of the potato to this island must have been about the period 1772-5.

This was not, of course, the early potato "Royal Fluke" which dates from about 1880, but what today would be called a "late" or "main-crop" potato. Quayle, in 1812, refers to a variety called "gros-yeux".

There are, however, two short descriptions in letters which give us a general picture of the state of farming at the time of the Battle, also known as La Batâle.

A Jersey farmyard

James Playfair

The first is dated 13 July 1781, and was written by James Playfair, Chaplain of the 83rd Regiment, to his parents. He writes:

"This island, like Guernsey, is all divided into small enclosures of two or three acres of ground and all surrounded with fail dykes or rather dykes of earth, which dykes are planted thick with trees so that from the roads you can scarcely see thirty yards about you anywhere, and the only view that one can have of the island is from the tops of steeples, from which it appears like a forest, so you see nothing but wood. More than one fourth of the inclosures of the island are planted with apple trees under which the cows feed. The apple trees furnish them with cyder which is all their drink, and the branches of the barren wood serve for fuel. There is nothing of what may be called agriculture carried on here. Every man lives in his few acres, which are generally his own, he labours them with his own hands and keeps a horse and two cows. To feed cattle and swine they make use of parsnips, the root of which I am told grows to the bulk of one's thigh. Having trenched the ground with a spade they sow it with parsnips and beans mixed. When the beans are ripe, they pull them and apply them to the feeding of the swine: and after the beans are pulled they feed their cattle by putting them into the field to eat the straws of the parsnips, and after the straws are done they take out the shoots and give them to the swine. They likewise feed their swine on rotten apples: they sometimes give them sour milk and sometimes oats. Every man has a pig stye. The breed of cattle and swine is large and good, but the breed of horses is very bad. In all their carriages they have an ox between the trams. They have no flax here, but commonly sow a small quantity of hemp to make ropes of. They winnow their corn in a basket in the form of a pearl shell, but about two feet and a half in breadth, and four or five feet in length. They hold the broad edge to their breast, and throw up the corn in the air, which falls down again into the basket and the chaff flies away. I am told the women thresh the corn with two sticks fixed together with a string, and that they grind the corn without drying it, which is the cause that the meal is very coarse."


This division into small enclosures (clios) had been widespread for a century and more. The banks (fossés) were commonly planted with hawthorn, blackthorn, apple trees or forest trees, mainly elm. The orchards required the shelter of banks surmounted by high hedges to protect the apple trees from frosts and winds. There seems not to have been a tradition of "laying" hedges as there is in parts of England. Stock-proofing was not a major consideration as the cows had to be pegged, both to make the most of the supply of grass and to prevent damage to the trees.

Large quantities of cider were manufactured in the 18th century and much was exported. In November 1802 Philippe Le Vesconte wrote to his brother-in-law from Southampton, "Je vous prie de me faire savoir le prix du Nouveau cidre à présent à Jersey, et cy-il ne coute pas plus que 18 livre Tournois par Barrique mis abord, Je vous serai bien obligé de m'en retenir 100 Barrique."

sheep grazing in St Brelade's Bay


Inventories of the period list casks in a wide variety of sizes (a subject that would merit a separate study): "Un vieux Fut de 3 Barriques, 4 Fut de Tonneau au viron vides, 4 Fut de Tonneau, 2 Barriques vide, un fut de Pipe."

Comparatively few animals were kept in the 18th century. The same inventory, which appears in all respects to be representative of an average holding at that date, lists three cows, one heifer and two calves, one sow and two young ones, a five-year-old horse and another of 13. No oxen are given although there was "Un chariot a boeuf et appartenances".

In the "Hogard" of the same inventory, there were stacks of wheat, barley, rye, beans, rushes to thatch the house, hay, manure and ash. This variety indicates both the comprehensiveness of the farming enterprise and its subsistence quality at this time. The people lived by their own effort. They handled very little cash. Such money as there was, mostly came from sources other than the family farm.

Unfortunately, inventories do not give areas of land so that, unless one knows exactly which farm is involved and can find from other sources its extent in vergées, and guess at the size of the stacks and at how much ground was devoted to each crop, one cannot determine how productive the land was. The questions which come to mind are many: how many people did the work, were they young or old, were some of them employees and, if so, how much were they paid?

Indeed the questions are endless. Some of the answers can no doubt be found, and will be, when time is available to search for them.


It is a curious thing that those inventories so far studied for this period, do not list sheep. Earlier ones give, "douse pieces de bercail: 351bs de layne telle quelle est avec les poches" and "un rouet a filler", but references to sheep, wool and all the paraphanalia connected with an export trade in knitted woollen goods are unexpectedly rare.

We know that there were sheep on most holdings, certainly those with cliff land, and that there were in the 18th century official registers in the parishes of the marks used by each farm. In St Mary, Le Livre des Marques de Bercail shows that the number of marks in use in the parish was 103 for 1748, but that by 1773 there were only 84 marks. Numbers of sheep must have fallen off quite sharply thereafter, for there are no later lists.

The marks belonged to the farm rather than the farmer and were occasionally tranferred. For instance, the mark listed in 1748 and 1773 for Mr Philippe Vibert ca ux fille de Mr Jean Arthur fs Jn, fs Jn, fs Nic was given in 1846 to Nicolas Arthur de la falaise pour I'usage d'un fermier. Clearly, the heirs of Philippe Vibert no longer kept sheep but Nicolas Arthur needed an extra one for a tenant.

The Arthur family at La Falaise must have kept more sheep than most people, but they were not the best of employers, as will be seen from the following extract in which Elizabeth Robert sues two brothers for payment due to her for the shearing of 120 sheep in two successive years:

"Jean Arthur et Nicolas Arthur son frère en deffaut vers Elizabeth Robert leur demandant payement por. ... Item: luy payer la tondaison de Cent Vingt pieces de Bercail dans les annees 1739 & 1740 sur Ie pied de Six deniers par piece .... "

Valpy letter

The second letter, dated 15 December 1785, gives us the opinion of a Jerseyman, Richard Valpy, after a visit home to Jersey in the summer of the same year. He writes:

"In the most plentiful years, the island yields little more than half the corn sufficient for the maintenance of its inhabitants. This will appear evident if we consider that it does not contain the proportion of one acre of land to every individual. (A footnote says the figure is 7 acres per person in England). In the beginning of the last century, the produce of the island was more than adequate to its consumption. But the increase of its population, and the conversion of a great part of the arable land into orchards, render a supply from England absolutely necessary, even though bread is constantly made of barley for the use of labourers."

Here is an attempt at analysis from a man who must have known the situation well. He was born in 1754, the eldest son of Richard Valpy and Catherine Chevalier. Born and brought up on his father's farm until he went away to school at the age of ten, he must have been familiar with the farming scene both as native to it and as a Jerseyman coming home on frequent visits, able to assess the situation with a broad perspective.

One wishes that he had written at greater length and depth. What he says in this short paragraph is no doubt true: there was a high proportion of the poor needing help, there was increasing unrest and the political factions of Chariots and Magots raised their bitter heads while the poor grew hungrier. Wheat, as Richard Valpy says, was a scarce commodity at this time, it held a high value beyond the reach of the poor labourer for making into bread but it provided a nice fat income for the holder of wheat "rente". The value of wheat "rente" varied annually according to the market price of wheat.

Farmers at sea

It has to be remembered that during the 17th and 18th centuries many of Jersey's farmers spent either part of their lives or some time each year at sea. Whether they were on the Newfoundland cod banks, privateering, trading or occupied in any or all of these activities, one may deduce that, while the active, enterprising young men of the period spread their wings abroad in search of fortune and adventure, the farms were often left in the hands of the oldest and the youngest members of the family, or a wife who had both to rear the children and run the farm.

It is likely, as a result, that there was a degree of stagnation in farming at this time. Perhaps this was what led James Playfair to state in 1781: "There is nothing of what may be called agriculture carried on here."

Shortly, however, and certainly from the earliest years of the 19th century, this was to change under the influence of such keen agriculturalists as Sir John Le Couteur, who kept detailed diaries of his experiments.

Call to arms

Such then is an outline of the farming scene in the island in January 1781 when Jean VIbert received the sudden call to arms. He took his sword from its place on the wall, set out hastily to join his fellow militiamen of the 1st or North West Regiment, and marched to Town to repel the invading Frenchman.

His thoughts, his hopes and fears on that fateful day one can but guess at. On his return home he must have been weary but thankful at the outcome of the day's skirmish and hopeful that there would be no more calls to arms. Jean Vibert died many years ago but his sword lives on and hangs on the wall with gleaming hilt and rusted blade to remind us of that day we must not forget, 6 January 1781.

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