Monday, 2 May 2011

Jersey's Independent Media 1856-1862 - Part 4

"The cause of the common people of all countries is the same - the cause of labour... In each country the slavery of the many and the tyranny of the few are variously developed, but the principle in all is the same... Working men of all nations are not your grievances the same? Is not. then, your good cause one and the same also?"(George Harney)

The Chartist George Julian Harney had arrived sick and unwell in Jersey around 1856. Now editor of the Jersey Independent, he took upon the might of the Jersey establishment, in the person of François Godfray. This was a society in which politics had turned to lawsuits, and the law was used against public opinion. A. R. Schoyen's "A Portrait of George Julian Harney" sets the scene:

Although the franchise was very limited in Jersey, this did not preclude election appeals to public opinion any more than it did in England. During the canvassing period accusations of treachery filled the newspapers; the town, even to the rather odd statue of George II in the Royal square, was placarded with a truly Italian political exuberance; and the Royal Court received a fresh batch of suits for libel--a contingency that seems to have deterred none of the defendants, possibly because so many were also plaintiffs. (One trick fruitful of lawsuits was that of issuing placards which recommended a list of men for office, the majority of whom were notorious local criminals--and among whom, of course, was listed one's opponent.) Yet when the ranks of the old families were threatened, they sank their differences and solidly supported their order.

But if the "radicals" of Jersey were for the most part precluded from direct political action, they were still able to resort to "bold clamour and abuse" (as the staid Jersey Weekly Times put it); and in their new champion on the Independent they had gained a craftsman with a long apprenticeship in this sort of thing. Never hesitant in selecting the largest game, Harney chose for his attack on the vested interests of Jersey the first lawyer of St.Helier, François Godfray, who besides symbolizing the dominant vice of litigiousness on the island was also a great landowner, a prominent member of the States, a banker, and a seigneur with a number of fiefs. Not yet a month in the editorial chair, Harney began baiting this formidable Norman bull by likening those whom he took to court to the unfortunate victims of "Godfray's Cordial", a narcotic proprietary-medicine with which Lancashire working-class mothers had been wont to "quiet, stultify, and ultimately dose out of existence" their fretting children.

The description of the statue of George II as "odd" has to do with the fact that he is dressed in a toga, and bedecked with a laurel wreath, in the fashion of a Roman Emperor, and clutching a scroll; it is, indeed, most peculiar.

But who was François Godfray? Balleine's Biographical Dictionary of Jersey tells us some more:

GODFRAY, FRANCOIS (1807-68), Leader of the Laurel Party, Advocate, and Constable

In Court and Parish Assembly he quickly revealed a wonderful gift of vehement and dramatic rhetoric. With whirling arms and voice of thunder he beat down all opposition. No such oratory had been heard in Jersey for generations. Auguste Luchet, the famous French journalist, who knew all his own politicians, described him as "a splendid man, an orator full of fire and passion, whose burning words set debates ablaze, a man who would -have attained front rank in any Parliament" (Chron. 24.4.61), The Laurel Party. then a minority, looked to this eloquent young man as their hope for the future. When only twenty-three they ran him (1830) for the Constableship of St. Helier's, and to everyone's surprise he beat Pierre Perrot, the Rose candidate, by 33 votes. He had now three spheres of action as Constable, as Advocate, and as Member of the States.

For thirty-three years he was in the States. At first he was full of reforming zeal. He had seen the Bourbons overthrown in Paris. He had watched the efficiency of the French legal and parliamentary system. And he found much in Jersey that he wanted to set right. He secured the admission of the public to meetings of the States. He raised the age for joining the Militia from fourteen to eighteen. He shortened the time during which prisoners had to wait for trial. Then he produced an ambitious plan for reorganizing the Court and the States. Jurats were to be abolished, and their place taken by two paid judges. The States were gradually to be transformed into a Chamber of Deputies. But even the spell of his eloquence could not persuade his fellow members to consent to this. Soon he lost his ardour for reform. The traditions of the Laurel Party were conservative. When A.J. Le Cras and his Jersey Reform Committee began to agitate for the wholesale adoption of the English system, Godfray recoiled in indignation, and became the passionate defender of old institutions.

As Advocate, he was for nearly forty years the leading man at the Bar. He and Pierre Le Sueur appeared on opposite sides in every big case, 'but always on party lines. Laurel litigants engaged Godfray, Rose litigants Le Sueur. There were tremendous verbal fights between these two men, and Godfray's temper often got him into serious trouble. His own paper, the Constitutionnel, which he controlled for thirty years, confessed after his death:.-- "He could not endure any opposition or submit to any restraint". He was responsible for 'scenes' in Court of amazing violence.

Godfray had shifted from being a reformer to a hardened and fiery reactionary, and it was in this later period that he became a subject for Harney's Jersey Independent to look at, and not just by satire, but also on serious grounds over the injustice of a legal system that robbed tenants of their immediate inheritance. Schoyen notes that:

This sport did not divert Harney's attention from the existence of a serious grievance, however. In Jersey law, the feudal lords and the Crown retained a claim to a year's possession of land and its corn-rents when a tenant died without direct heirs; and cases involving payments for inheriting or alienating property were decided in the court dominated by seigneurs.

Against this system the Reform League and Harney tirelessly inveighed; and after the omnipresent Godfray had "stultified" some poor tenants in what they regarded as a particularly outrageous fashion in 1858, their clamour reached a peak. Shedding its skin, the Reform League emerged with fresh vigour in the apt guise of the "Anti-Feudal League"--an appearance which caused Godfray's Le Constitutionnel, the most conservative paper in a scarcely radical press, to hint darkly of the rougées, demagogues and followers of Voltaire behind it. The seigneur was no better than Dick Turpin, Harney replied with gusto, and he would label Godfray's action theft, if called before the Royal Court. The. opportunity was almost immediately offered him: hauled into the court by the irate feudal lord on a charge of calumny, he was unable to convince the bench of seigneurs that he had merely referred to Godfray as an "abstraction", and the suit began its tortuous journey through the antique Jersey legal machinery, to be quashed a few years later. But despite this irrepressible element of low-comedy, the end to which the "bold clamour" of the Independent and the Anti-Feudal League continued to be directed was achieved by the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the Jersey land-laws in 1860.

The book "The Channel Islands: A Guide to Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Herm, Jethou" by Frank Fether Dally, published in 1860, also comments on this matter:

It seems that, by a recent decision of the Royal Court, there was an indirect recognition of these obsolete seignorial claims: acting upon which, the leading seigneur, an advocate of the Royal Court, and constable (synonymous with our mayor) of a large and influential parish, seigneur of a fief named "Collette des Augres" attempted to compel the tenants to do homage, in the shape of making their aveux, that is, a servile declaration of the state of their private affairs, that he, the lord of the fief, might profit thereby. Three courts having been held by him, and the contumacious tenants having been menaced with pains and penalties if they failed to attend and do suit and service at the fourth, public indignation was aroused, and the '' Reform League" - for Jersey boasts of such a body - convened a meeting at the assembly rooms in November last to consider the whole question.

Lawyers, ship-owners, merchants, shopkeepers, manufacturers, mechanics- all classes, Jersey and British, of town and country, attended or were represented at this meeting ; and a resolution was unanimously adopted denouncing the pretended "Seignorial Rights" as abuses founded in violence and usurpation, and pledging the meeting to oppose, by all legitimate means, the unjust claims and exorbitant demands of the seigneurs ; and a committee was appointed to organize an ''Anti-Feudal League". Since that time the seigneur has not ventured to convene his fourth court !

Legal changes were slower in Jersey than in England, and yet Harney was at the centre of any change, even though he was also subject to attacks for his religious belief. The "age of the enlightenment" was feared by those in power in Jersey society, as it was seen as an intellectual part of the wave of revolutionary change also seen in America and France, and they wished to have nothing to do with it:

Such teapot-tempests were a far cry from the revolutionary days of 1838-39, yet in a sense Harney was playing the same role as a catalyst for the forces of discontent. It is almost necessary to be a glacialist to discern movement of any kind in the Jersey society of these years, yet movement there was, and Harney was almost invariably involved in it. Certainly there was no lack of survivals evocative of the Ancien Régime to serve as objects for satirical attack. English conservatism of the time seems feverishly Jacobinical when compared with its Channel Island counterpart. In the matter of religion, for example, while the secularist lecturer, Charles Bradlaugh, had his slight difficulties with British audiences, in Guernsey his appearance was sufficient to cause a mob to pursue him to the quay shouting, "Pitch the infidel into the sea!" And echoes of a yet more distant past are to be heard in the accusations of witchcraft made by local citizens against a neighbour in a trial before the Royal Court so late as 1862.

Little wonder, then, that Harney was considered "un grand Sans-Culottes anglais" and worse in this semi-medieval (and rather endearing) society, where the term "Enlightenment" connoted opprobrium. Usually the attacks on him were merely verbal, though one editorial opponent "demanded satisfaction" after a particularly virulent interchange in which he had been bested by Harney's exposure of his past travels in France with a boa constrictor. The tack generally taken was to condemn him as an atheist - one local journal triumphantly revealed to its readers that Harney possessed Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary--and a Chartist evolutionary. His dangerous friends of the past and his trial for seditious conspiracy at Lancaster in 1843 were sufficient proof that he was plotting, through the medium of the Independent, to establish on the ruins of the Jersey constitution and Norman nationality a social republic à la Marat, declared the editor of Le Constitutionnel in 1858 -- ingenuously revealing the reason for his pique in concluding: "Hitherto his impostures have succeeded only too well in making dupes."

The attack from Godfray's own newspaper, Le Constitutionnel, was aimed at diverting attention away from the arguments about legal injustice, into a personal attack on Harney's religious beliefs, and by implication, the kind of reprobate he must be, and Harney responded vigorously:

Harney was not mollified by this indirect compliment, and his reply may serve as an example of the virile polemics by which he had so quickly made himself one of the most controversial figures on that strange island. La Prostitutionnel, he began roundly, had raised the religious and Chartist questions in order to obscure the issue of Godfray's thieving and usurious conduct. Even if it were true that he was

"a Mohammedan, a believer in Brahma, Vishnu and Siva; a Buddhist, a disbeliever in the blessed miracles of 'Brother Peter', and an atrocious atheist to the gospel according to St. Pusey. . . . That he was with FROST at Newport, with SMITH O'BRIEN at Ballingary, with ROBESPIERRE in the Jacobin Club, with JACK CADE on London Bridge, with WAT TYLER on Blackheath . . ., in the 'sedition of the Gracchi', and the revolt of the Ten Tribes when that 'Chartist' shout was raised, 'To your tents, O Israel!'",

this had nothing to do with Godfray's spoliation of his victims. That was the "damn'd spot" which was not to be washed out by the "filthy contents of his utensil, the Constitutionnel". Bronterre would have been proud of his pupil's dismissal of the rival editor as a "lying and scurrilous Jesuit, a disgrace to the profession to which he belongs, a sacerdotal ruffian who exhibits all the instincts of a Spanish inquisitor".

It is interesting to note, in these days of bloggers, where aspersions are cast as to the rough but robust turns of phrase which are sometimes used, that this is, and has always been, part of Jersey's heritage, even if we are now perhaps to genteel to acknowledge it!

In the next segments, I will tell the story of the how Harney moderated his outlook, but also of the divisive international matter which caused Harney's proprietor to fall out with him, and how he finally left Jersey and the Independent.

Works Cited
The Chartist Challenge: A Portrait of George Julian Harney. A. R. Schoyen, 1958
Balleine's Biographical Dictionary of Jersey
The Channel Islands: A Guide to Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Herm, Jethou by Frank Fether Dally (1860)

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