Friday, 15 September 2017

Jersey Our Island: One for the Road – Part 3

Published in 1950, this is an interesting snapshot of the Island and its customs as it was in the immediate post-war period, and not without humour. Most guide books of the time give the tourist information, or give the impressions of an outsider to the Island, but this is in "inside view", which is rarer. 

Jersey Our Island: One for the Road – Part 3
By Sidney Bisson

All these relics of the feudal system are not mere pageantry. As the deeds of my house remind me, the lords of manors still have certain seigneurial rights. They may no longer hold their own courts and levy fines on their vassals. Nor can they now compel them to bring grain to be milled at the manorial mill.

But the Seigneur of St. Ouen still has the right to grant taverners' licences without reference to the Licensing Assembly. And whenever anyone dies without leaving a direct heir, the seigneur of the fief on which his property is situated enjoys the income from it for a year and a day.

In practice, this right is usually commuted. Instead of burdening himself with the management of an estate for a year, the seigneur allows the collateral heir to take immediate possession and accepts an agreed sum by way of compensation.

However it is worked, it is a curious survival from the days when a vassal held land from his lord in return for services rendered. If the vassal died without issue it was natural enough for the seigneur to step in until the rightful heir could be traced. Now he has the right to step in even if the heir is on the spot. Truly we have progressed much.

Recent legislation has given buyers of property the option of extinguishing this right on payment of compensation to the lord of the manor at the rate of three or four per cent of the purchase price, according to the nature of the property. But human nature being what it is, most purchasers who have no children prefer to leave their collateral heirs to fight it out with the seigneur rather than burden themselves with the additional payment.

Only when a company or other corporate body buys property is it compulsory to compound seigneurial rights. For as a company cannot die, the lord of the manor can have no expectation of enjoying its income in the absence of direct heirs.

In early mediaeval times, when the feudal lord was also entitled to a kind of death duty known as relief when anyone who held land from him died, the case was met by the corporate body, which was usually the Church, nominating one of its members as homme vivant, mourant, et confisquant. He was officially responsible to the lord of the manor for the payment of his dues, and when he died relief was payable by the body who had nominated him. They then, of course, had to look round for another healthy young man whom they could nominate.

Various attempts have been made to abolish seigneurial rights altogether, and in 1886 the States actually passed a Bill which would have brought this about. But Bills passed by the States must, like those passed by the English Parliament, receive the King's assent before they become law. In this case the Privy Council, which acts for the King in these matters, withheld its assent, apparently because the compensation suggested was thought to be inadequate.

The King, in fact, (or rather, in actual practice, the Treasury) has a special interest in the collection of feudal dues, for many of the fiefs into which the island is divided have in the course of time reverted by escheat or confiscation to their royal overlord. It is not surprising therefore that the Treasury will not accept complete extinction of seigneurial rights without a rate of compensation that it considers adequate.

The lords of manors, as such, exercise no legislative functions, though when a Seigneur of St. Ouen was elected jurat in 1915 he claimed (and was granted) precedence over the other eleven jurats by reason of his `lordship.' Together with the Bailiff, the jurats, who are elected for life, constitute the Royal Court, which deals with both civil and criminal cases.

When I first wrote this chapter they also sat in the States, which, in addition to them, consisted of the Rectors of the twelve parishes (appointed by the Crown), the twelve `Constables,' and seventeen Deputies elected by popular franchise.

The Lieutentant-Governor, who is the King's representative in the island, actually takes no part in the civil government. His right to veto legislation passed by the States does not appear to have been exercised since 1882, when he vetoed a measure for controlling the Public Markets and was publicly thanked by a meeting of the electors of St. Helier for having done so.

As soon as the islanders had begun to recover from the effects of the German occupation, there arose a vigorous demand for the democratisation of the States. Most people regarded the presence of the Rectors as an anachronism and wanted to see them replaced by elected Deputies. Some also wished to remove the jurats from the States, though others would have been content to limit their term of office. It was not long before I discovered that reform was the principal topic of conversation and that the end of my holiday might see a different kind of government in power. How the transformation took place I shall describe in a later chapter.

For the purposes of local government the island is divided into twelve parishes, and anyone who pays over a certain amount in rates can attend and vote at the Parish Assembly. It is surprising how few avail themselves of the privilege, considering that it is the Assembly that fixes the rates.

It would be quite possible for a score of irresponsible ratepayers to swamp an assembly and carry a proposal to halve the rates or even pay no rates at all. What usually happens is that the Constable tells the assembled ratepayers how much he needs to make ends meet and they meekly agree. If the Constable wants to be re-elected at the end of his term of office he will see to it that the rates stay reasonably low.

Not that he gets anything by being re-elected, except the honour and the glory. For like the members of the States, local government officers give their services free, for the good of the cause. Theirs is a complicated hierarchy, starting with the Constable, who administers the affairs of the parish and is the chief of its police. Going down the scale we have the Centeniers, who perform most of the police duties; the Vingteniers, who collect the rates; the Constable's Officers, who assist the Centeniers.

Then there are the Procureurs du Bien Public or Parish Trustees, the Roads Committee and the Road Inspectors, the School Council, the Appraisers (who have certain duties in connection with the partition of real property), and the Experts, who assess the rateable value of property. They are all elected by their fellow parishioners and hold office for varying terms. If we had to pay them all, the rates would go up a hundredfold.

Much of the sting is taken out of your rate assessment notice by its careful avoidance of any reference to pounds, shillings and pence. Later in the year I shall no doubt get one of those pleasant little forms, telling me that I have been rated at so many `quarters' as proprietor, so many as occupier of my house, a reminder that rates were once paid by measure in kind.

Before the introduction of income tax in 1928 rates on real property were payable by the owner, not the occupier. There was, however, an additional rate on personal property with an exemption limit of C12o. So if a millionaire came to live in Jersey to escape English income tax, he would find himself rated not only on the value of his house (if he had bought it) but also on some hypothetical amount representing the value of his personal possessions.

No returns being called for, the assessment for this mobiliary rate (as it was called) was usually generously low. If you found it too high (and as Rate Lists were published showing what everyone paid you could always compare your assessment with your neighbour's), you could get it reduced on providing proof that you were not so well off as the parish experts presumed.

The mobiliary rate was, in fact, a rudimentary form of income tax, although the amount of one's personal property is not always a reliable index to one's income. But in general the rich paid more than the poor and complaints were few. With the introduction of a form of income tax based on the English model, it was felt that mobiliary rate had become redundant and it was abolished.

To replace it, the occupier of a house was brought into line with the proprietor and rated according to its rental value. Fortified by this preliminary cocktail, you will, I hope, be in better shape for the journey that lies before us. Whilst I have been writing this, the glass has gone up, Elizabeth Castle has receded to its proper distance, and the Minquiers have faded out of sight. It looks like being fine tomorrow. If it is, I shall really be able to start my holiday.

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