Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Jersey Workers - The Victorian Age to the Great War

Here, as promised, is another transcript from Norman Le Brocq's history of the working class in Jersey. For those who were born after 1971, as with England, Jersey had a monetary system of pounds, shillings and pence. Within this system:

£1 = 20 shillings (sometimes written as 20s or 20/-)
1 shilling (1/-) = 12 pence (written as 12 d).

So 15/6 = 15s 6 d which would be 15 shillings and 6 pence.

Coins came in crowns (5/- coins somewhat rare), half crowns (2/6), florins (two shillings), shillings, sixpenny pieces, threepenny pieces (pronounced "thru-penny", pennies, half-pence (also called ha'pennies) , and farthings. Notes included not just £1 and greater but also 10/- (ten shilling notes). Sometimes items would be priced in "guineas", which was equivalent to £1 1s. I still remember ten shilling notes and half pence coins, although farthings had ceased to be legal tender by that time.

A moment's thought will show that the old pence were not equivalent to today's decimal currency, introduced in 1971. In fact 6 d would be the equivalent of 2 1/2 p, and 1 shilling would be 5 pence.

When looking at prices though, bear in mind the inflation that has taken place, and note how Norman Le Brocq places prices of food etc in comparison with wages.

If you really want to see what it means in terms of today's prices, Mark Forskitt has very cleverly done all the hard work for you! Read Norman's history first, then go to

This story continues just after the bread riots:

The Jersey worker was forced into the above violent method of making himself heard because of the lack of interest taken in him by the island authorities. He was beginning to realise that until he made his presence felt no notice would be taken of his sufferings. The Jacobin clubs and " corresponding societies" did not touch the island and the Owenite and Chartist movements passed it by.

The local politicians were divided into "Charlots" (=Carlist) or. Conservatives, and "Maggots" (-baboons; slang. For plebeians) or Liberals, and later into "Rose" and "Laurel", the equivalent of the English "Whig" and "Tory". Neither of these bothered their heads about " the rabble." In fact there was really no political strife between these " parties," for all the elections were run on individual merits and not on party programmes. Apart from this, out of the 36 members of the States Assembly prior to 1857, twelve were the Rectors of the parishes who were not elected, while twelve more, the Jurats, though elected, were members for life. Only the Constables were elected at regular intervals. After 1857, 14 deputies elected on a very limited franchise found a place in the Assembly. (This number was later increased to seventeen.)

After 1857, then, out of 50 (and later 53) members of the Assembly, 12 were clergymen, while at least 22 (11 each of the Constables and Deputies) represented the farmers. This excludes the Jurats, who may have been elected by a preponderant country vote. Of course there was no hope of the working man getting any representation in the Assembly, and indeed at this time very little chance of the town businessman being represented.

This latter fact is not so important as it at first seems, for the local bourgeoisie had been largely of a special type. This is the farmer-company director. The importance of this class seems peculiar to these islands. They are farmers who have " gone into business" while still owning and often managing their farms. The directors of most local firms in the nineteenth century were of this type and of one other: the lawyer. Not that there is any real dividing line between these two groups, for the lawyers' offices are supplied with clerks-and therefore with lawyers and advocates-in the form of the farmers' younger sons.

So we may say that until the turn of the century, at any rate, the farmer ruled the island aided by the clergy and the feudal seigneurs.

The feudal seigneur? To understand the part he played we must remember that during the nineteenth century Jersey was still in a pre-capitalist state of society. Feudalism was still a force in the island with its staunchly Conservative tradition. This tradition still. exists and goes far deeper than party politics. It is the foundation of all local life. The Jerseyman's motto
has long been and still is: " What was good enough for my grand-father is good enough for my son."

On the subject of feudal remains in the island society of that day I will quote a contemporary historian:

"The feudal rights which still exist in Jersey, the many fiefs or seigneuries which still share the soil of our parishes, the seigneural judges or seneschals who still judge according to ancient custom, all that is the phantom which I have just mentioned, all that appears alive and strong, all that frightens and makes dupes of us; and yet it is nothing but a mist that one puff of wind can dispel...It is to he hoped that before long Jersey will be freed of all these feudal remains which were never reasonable, and which only continue to exist through the apathy of those who suffer under them." (J.P. Ahier, Tableaux Historiques de Jersey 1852, translation)

And it was not only the educated historian who saw the need for the abolition of the remaining feudal rights. Two mass meetings were held, one in 1843 and the other in 1858, calling for abolition. At the 1843 meeting, one Elie Le Geyt proposed:-

"Mr. Chairman, in France all seigneural rights have been abolished; it should be the same in this country. As for me, I think the parishes of this island should buy all the fiefs, so that they would enjoy for a year and a day the property of those who die without heirs of their own flesh and blood, until all feudal rights are abolished. (Applause.)

"The Chairman replied that if Mr. Le Geyt's suggestion was put into practice, it would greatly benefit all the inhabitants of this land." (Applause.)

Notice this reference to France. This points to the fact that in those days the islander was far more aware of how matters stood in that neighbouring land than of what was happening in England. Those were the days of the Charter; but the people of Jersey knew it not.

The arrival of the refugees of 1852 carried on this Jersey-French link. These refugees fleeing from the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon included many prominent men of whom the best known was Victor Hugo. They founded a paper L'Homme, which appears to have been widely read in the island and had some effect on local politics, Off course, this and the Jersey Constitutional Reform Association set up in 1861 had very little to say for the " rabble "; neither was the paper Reforme of 1853 nor the magazine Le Voix des Iles of the seventies of more than a progressive liberal nature.

The local worker, after his effort of 1847, remained quiet. His living conditions were terrible while the general prosperity of the island was often remarked upon. Yet he sullenly bore his lot.

That his lot was not a happy one can be shown by the following hypothetical budget showing wages and prices as they stood about the middle of the nineteenth century. These remained much the same right up till the turn of the century. The wage of a labourer of that time was normally 12/6, thought it rose to the height of 15/- in individual cases.

Out of his 12/6 he could buy:



Bread (12 lb.)


Dripping (2lb)


Meat (2 lb.).


Vegetables (including potatoes)


Coal and candles or oil for lighting


Beer, Tea, Sugar, Salt, etc.


Milk (3 pints)




Sundries (including all clothing)




It will be remarked that he is just on or below the subsistence level. Should any calamity-such as illness-strike his family his wage could not cover it. He lived on cheap and often bad food. It is not astonishing that there were two serious epidemics of cholera in 1832 and 1849.

It is interesting to notice the terms of an indenture of a blacksmith's apprentice of the year 1871. Amongst other instructions the indenture ordered that : " During all which time (six years) he, the said apprentice, his said master shall and will faithfully serve, his secrets keep, his lawful commands everywhere gladly obey, and diligently and carefully demean and behave himself towards him... He shall not commit fornication, nor contract matrimony, within the said term. At cards, dice tables, or any other unlawful game, he shall not play. He shall not haunt ale-houses, taverns, playhouses, or any other places of debauchery; but in all thins behave himself during the said term, as a good and faithful apprentice ought to do."

And all this for one shilling per week with an increase of sixpence per week each year.

These were those idyllic years of the reign of Queen Victoria in so far as the local worker knew them. As one person who lived through these years told me: the worker spent his wage on rent, food and rags, there was nothing left over for anything else.

By 1889 the local worker was beginning to get restive once again. It was about this time that the local newspapers began to take notice of the great Trade Union movement in England and the resulting strikes. In Guernsey a branch of the Stoneworkers Society of Great Britain-the Guernsey Stoneworkers Society came into being some time during the eighties and fought a not entirely unsuccessful strike over the employment of non- unionists in August, 1890.

That year, 1890, saw the publication of what is probably the most progressive newspaper Jersey has ever had. It was the Jersey Reformer. In its short life of about two years it engaged in a campaign against the local authorities for better living conditions and Constitutional reform. Its first editor, Reynolds, served a prison sentence in default of payment of damages granted to Stanley Malet, Chief Import Officer, in pursuance of a libel action.

In its first editorial it said: "We expect an uphill fight; progress in Jersey seems almost impossible; folk have been so long accustomed to bear their burdens that they scarcely seem to notice the weight of them now. We like folk to be dissatisfied and shall try to make them as dissatisfied as possible, and we hope thereby to be able to improve them a little," the Jersey Reformer summed-up the policy it carried out for its short but eventful life.

In February, 1897, the first attempt was made to set up a union branch in Jersey. This was a failure, for, the reason that stonemasons and .quarrymen who made the attempt found it impossible to pay their dues from their scanty pay of 3/- a day, and the movement fell to pieces.

It was not till September 18, 1909, that another attempt was made when the stoneworkers met at the Beresford Cafe under the chairmanship of W. Kessell to inaugurate a local branch of the Operative Masons Society of Great Britain and Ireland. It was then stated that 85 per cent of the stoneworkers of Jersey had shown their readiness to join. It was resolved that a request be made straightaway to the Society to send down an organiser.

The next four years were devoted to an attempt to obtain a wider franchise. Political activity rather than industrial seems to have been the order of the day. This was probably a reaction then. against the lack of interest taken in politics by the worker until then. It has always been difficult to get the Jerseyman to understand that the political and industrial struggles must go along hand in hand. He has tended first to concentrate on the one, then on the other, without correlating the two.

In 1910 the Jersey Working Man's League was formed. It held its first public meeting on December 12, 1910, at which was passed the Resolution: "That this meeting, recognising that taxation without representation is unjust, asks for the extension of the Franchise so as to embody the principle of Manhood Suffrage."

This League merged later with another organisation to form the Jersey Independent Labour Party and Labour League, which affiliated to the English I.L.P. The outstanding leader of the local I.L.P. was Peter Le Noir, a painter, who became secretary. Another name came to the fore-that of Mrs. Trachy - of whom more later.

At a meeting of the Jersey I.L.P., held on February 4, 1912, to discuss the position re the Franchise struggle, it was suggested that a demonstration of at least 5,000 workers in the Royal Square on the occasion of the States discussion of a Franchise Bill, would help things along.

This was commented upon and ridiculed by Ed. Le Quesne, Assistant Secretary of the Jersey Franchise and Workmen's Federation at its second annual general meeting held two days later. "We must just keep plodding along," said Mr. Le Quesne.

So they -just kept plodding-along, for the Jersey I.L.P. did not have mass support enough to go ahead on its own.

Peter Le Noir kept the ball rolling with controversial letters to the press re Socialism, in which letters, incidentally, he pointed out that he was a Fabian Socialist, and not one of those revolutionary British Social-Democratic Federation supporters. He believed in gradual evolution.

And so, to introduce the thin end of the wedge, Peter Le Noir stood as a Candidate for the Deputyship of St. Helier No. 2 district.

Unfortunately the worker still did not have the vote, so that Mr. Le Nair, the workers' candidate, polled 32 votes out of a total poll of 797. Such is the inevitability of gradualness!

During these last two years another of the many comet-like Jersey newspapers, which periodically flash across the sky and sink into oblivion, had come into existence. The Jerseyman gives us a hint of what some, at least, of the islanders thought of their States Assembly in an " Open Letter to the States," from which I take the following extracts:

".Pray don't think that you will always be able to sit down contentedly drawing in your dividends and pocketing your rents, while white-faced women and starving children die like flies in the dirty, filthy slums..And then, eliminate Seigneural rights. But there again, how many of you are Seigneurs? Ah, there's the rub! ...What are you going to do for our overworked and underpaid apprentices, girls and labourers; some men earning the princely salary of fifteen shillings per week, with a wife and six children to keep.

Yes, at this time fifteen shillings was the labourer's wage. How did he live? Well, here is a typical budget:-



Meat (3 lb.)


Bread (16 lb.)


Potatoes (20 lb.)






Tea, , Sugar, Salt, etc.


Cigarettes (50) and Beer (2 pints)


Fuel and Gas


Clothing, Shoes and Repairs, etc.




It must be borne in mind that this 15/- was no minimum wage. The unskilled worker often drew less than that and even the skilled drew very little more. The carpenter's wage, 3/- a day in 1880, had risen to 3/6 a day by 1909; while the stone-masons complained that though a good master was known to give 4/- for a 13 or 14-hour day, the more usual rate of pay was 3/- for a day of twelve hours. Thus the skilled worker would receive anything from 18/- to £1 4s 4s. for his week's work.

That is so, if he were lucky! For he lost all "wet time" and was only paid for the actual hours he put in. And, although there was some talk of accident benefits in the States during those years, it was not until 1935 that any compensation was actually paid.

The Jerseyman points out that it was quite possible for the working-class family to manage on that 15/- per week. If they use "a little care, a firm hand on the milk jug, a measuring of half-spoonfuls of sugar, a spreading of the butter as if it were gold leaf, a man, wife and three children can pay rent, (sic!) keep a small fire, and avoid hunger on 15/- per week. They may even run to a shilling or eighteen pence for meat ('cuttings') on Sunday, and make a currant pudding during the week. But what are they to do for clothing? They 'manage' as we say in Jersey. They either sink their pride and apply to the parish for clothing, or else emulate the idyllic attire of our first parents."

These were the conditions of life that made the Ronez Quarrymen decide to form a local branch of the Amalgamated Union of Quarrymen on February 3, 1914. A Guernsey branch had been running for over two years and quarrymen coming from Guernsey had brought the idea with them. A meeting was arranged by the Guernsey President and Secretary, and 54 men were signed up on the spot. J. H. Pinel was elected local President.

The Stonemasons' Union had remained quiet all-this time, and seems to have been very inactive. Whether this A.U.Q. branch would have woken things up more remains a ground for speculation, for the First World War intervened and put a brake on the developing Union movement in the island for the next four years. With the outbreak of war the Operative Mason's Union, the Union of Quarrymen and the local I.L.P. branch collapsed, leaving Jersey without any labour organisation until 1918, when the Jersey worker at last found his voice once more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for remembering Norman and reviving his work