Friday, 6 October 2017

Jersey Our Island: Methodists, Mermaids and Music – Part 1

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: Methodists, Mermaids and Music – Part 1
by Sidney Bisson

AFTER a lazy week in his bed of grey clouds that reminded me of army blankets, the sun is back on the job today, working with renewed energy. It's a typical Jersey summer's day, which means a clear blue sky but just enough breeze to make walking a pleasure and not a burdensome exercise. There's absolutely no excuse for sawing wood or pulling up docks and dandelions. Let's go somewhere.

But first we must catch a bus. I don't know why it is, but in a small island a mile seems twice as long as anywhere else. In England I should think nothing of walking ten or twelve miles in an afternoon. In Jersey five or six is a long walk.

Visitors sometimes write to the local paper and ask if the Jersey mile is longer than the English mile. It isn't, but the illusion of distance persists. People who have lived in other small islands tell me that it is not a local peculiarity. It applies to small islands everywhere. Probably ten miles seems a long way because it takes you from one end of the island to the other. Whatever the reason, we'll start by taking a bus.

Unfortunately every single visitor to the island has got the same bright idea. Last week the shopkeepers of St. Helier blessed the rain that kept them all in the town. Today the proprietors of country hotels and tearooms have got their own back. For the sun takes everyone to the bays. There they are queuing in their hundreds for the buses that will take them there.

Wily old men who have seen a day like this turn into sheets of rain and have brought their raincoats just in case.' Less jaundiced youngsters just out of battledress, giving their striped blazer its first outing since 1939. Mothers who ought to know better pretending to be their own daughters in orange and violet slacks. And the daughters themselves in the flimsiest `wide open spacers.' (Your elder sisters invented it before the war, you know. Only, their scarves made some sort of union with their shorts. Can't you think of something more original than the same thing with a gap?)

To get onto a bus with all these people about needs either brute force, cunning, or patience. I draw the line at starting a conversation with someone at the head of the queue (even if I know the someone!) then, when the bus comes, pretending I have been there all the time. But there is a way, if you know the ropes.

Visitors to Jersey all seem to suffer from the bay complex, which means that they won't travel on a bus unless it is going to take them to a bay. Naturally the bus companies pander to them as far as possible, but they can't altogether ignore the local inhabitant who does not happen to live in a bay. So now and then a bus sets off on a country run which will bring it no nearer than a mile to the sea. You can get a seat on it without queuing and a leisurely twenty minutes walk will bring you to your bay.

But the visitors will have none of it. Bay or nothing for them. And they will still be standing in queues when I get there. We are soon out of St. Helier and drop into bottom gear to climb one of those stupendous winding hills that have been carved out of the edge of the central plateau that constitutes `the country.'

Jersey owes most of its main roads to General Don, who was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the island in 1806. Before his arrival the island was honeycombed with a system of roads of standard widths, twelve feet, eight feet, and four feet, mostly unpaved and often impassable in winter.

From St. Helier to St. Aubin the only communication was across the beach at low tide. Don was not particularly interested in the needs of the population, though they honoured him later by a statue in the Royal Parade. As a soldier responsible for the defence of the island he saw how utterly impossible it was to move troops quickly from one place to another on the existing highways. So he built his `military roads.'

Don's system did not supplant the old highways, which in modern times have been properly surfaced and often widened, so that today Jersey has probably more roads per square mile than any other country in the world. I still have a vivid recollection of taking a wrong turning on a foggy night many years ago and driving around in ever narrowing lanes for nearly an hour before I struck a main road again.

Yet a glance at the map afterwards showed that I must have been in the same square mile all the time. Obviously I was travelling nearer six miles an hour than sixty. But even six miles of road in a square mile is not bad going. The average in rural England is nearer 0.6.

As we get deeper into the country the old granite farmhouses seem to get older and more massive. We have just passed one with the date `1747' carved on the lintel, and it looks good for another two hundred years.

Which is more than can be said for the dozens of little rough-cast houses that sprang up all round St. Helier in the period between the two wars. Somebody once remarked that the old Jersey farmer built not only for posterity but for eternity. The solid appearance of the farmhouses certainly gives point to the auctioneer's solemn phrasing when they come into the market: `To be sold in perpetuity.'

Many of these farms have remained in the same family since they were built. The old laws of inheritance did not encourage promiscuous bequests. Until the middle of the last century, if you owned a house or land you could not dispose of it as you wished. When you died it automatically went to your heirs.

The prohibition was partly lifted in 1851 when a person who had no children was allowed to bequeath his real property to anyone he liked, unless he had inherited it from an ancestor of his heirs.

But it was not till 1926 that anyone with direct heirs was permitted to dispose of all his realty by will.

Even now, widows retain their `right of dower,' which means that they enjoy until their death a third of their late husband's real property. When it consists of a single house, the widow can have a third of it to live in. Easy enough when a house has six or nine rooms. But if it has seven or eight does the widow take two rooms or three?

Godfrey assures me that the old Jersey folk used to bear that in mind when they built a house, and planned it so that the number of rooms was always a multiple of three !

Dower is a relic of the old Coutume de Normandie on which so many Jersey laws are based. Its origin has always been a subject of debate amongst legal luminaries. According to some of the old commentators, the widow's `third' was intended as a recompense for the dowry she had brought to her husband when they married.

Others regarded it as compensation for the loss of the husband. Others again as a reward for services rendered pretiurn virginitatis aut pudicitiae delibatae. This sounds nearer the truth, for the old Coutume says quite simply, `La femme gagne son douaire au toucher.'

Did I say quite simply? To a lawyer this was a matter of the utmost complication. For example, did toucher really mean what it said or was it just a euphemism? In Brittany they took it literally, and once the wife had lain in the bridal bed she was assured of her inheritance. The more realistic Normans took a different view.

Denis Godefroy, writing in the sixteenth century, goes deeply into the effect of physical incapacity on the widow's dower. It made all the difference in the world, according to him, if the incapacity arose from natural causes or if it resulted from a spell having been cast on one of the parties. Then again it might be permanent or temporary, the permanent variety being `that which cannot be cured without the help and ministry of the levil, for it is never permitted to invoke him or make use of his services under any pretext whatsoever.'

There was also the possibility of wife or husband changing their minds and taking a vow of chastity between the marriage ceremony and the beginning of the honeymoon, as well as the case of the toucher preceding the marriage ceremony and the `husband' dying before the Church had blessed the union.

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