Friday, 9 February 2018

Jersey Our Island: A Brush with the French – 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: A Brush with the French – Part 1
By Sidney Bisson

ST. HELIER, which lies at the eastern end of St. Aubin's Bay, is the island's only town. Some guide-books elevate the Village of St. Aubin to the dignity of a town and refer to it as `the old capital of Jersey.' It is neither. For a short time at the end of the seventeenth century it looked as if St. Aubin might become the capital, because the tiny harbour adjoining St. Aubin's Fort provided better accommodation for shipping than anything St. Helier could offer at the time. 

For convenience in dealing with their merchandise, a number of merchants built houses there, one or two of which still adorn the High Street. But the seat of government remained where it had always been in St. Helier, which soon built a harbour of its own. This put an end to the pretensions of St. Aubin, which in any case was unfavourably situated for expansion, being hemmed in by the hilly ground that stretches almost to the sea.

The first thing that struck me about St. Helier was the way it had recovered from the trials of the German occupation. When you consider that in May, 1945, every shop was empty except for a few second-hand goods, it is astounding to find that a year later visitors are flocking into the shops to buy all sorts of things that are still unobtainable in England. Jersey owes a great debt to the British Government for the way in which the flow of supplies was organised during the period immediately following the liberation.

Food was naturally the first consideration, but within a fortnight fuel and clothing were being unloaded, to be followed shortly by a variety of crockery and hardware. Three months after the liberation, when I was able to spend a few days' leave in Jersey, I found the shops better stocked than in towns of a similar size in the North of England where I was stationed. The enterprise of the tradesmen completed the revival. 

Women evacuees who had been used to queuing for their meat in Bury or Barnsley nearly fainted when they returned to Jersey and found that the local butchers delivered the weekly ration. Some of the more enterprising even rang up to ask what the housewife wanted ! Those who feared that the occupation had demoralised the population had reckoned without the islanders' remarkable powers of resilience. Trade bounced up like an India rubber ball, with the result that, in spite of five years under the German heel, conditions are nearer normal than anywhere in England.

St. Helier has been variously described as `clean' and `dirty,' `squalid' and `having an air of prosperity,' `picturesque' and `ugly.' So much depends on what the author has been used to ! To the inhabitant of some grimy manufacturing town in the North any seaside resort is comparatively clean. But St. Helier lacks that spick and spanness which distinguishes certain English seaside towns. Whoever called it squalid must have been depressed by the narrow streets in the older parts of the town. Individually the shops look prosperous enough, and some of the residential streets are on a grand scale. Yet it has its back alleys and slums, which the writer of guide-books so rarely sees.

Picturesque in any case an overworked word I cannot agree to in any circumstances. Ugly? By what standard is a town beautiful? Neither in its design nor its buildings is St. Helier particularly beautiful, but ugly is a strong word. If I can produce another adjective without confusing you still further, I should say that the town is rather dull. I don't mean dull in the sense of not animated. There is plenty of animation in summer when its streets are crowded with visitors and queues of lorries laden with potatoes or tomatoes line up around the harbours. But the town is lacking in contrast. One shopping street is much like another, and there are no particularly outstanding buildings.,

As a shopping centre, however, St. Helier compares favourably with towns of its size on the mainland. Most of the big multiple firms are represented, and individual shops are up to date and efficient. The only thing that prevents shopping from being a pleasure, particularly in the summer, is the congestion of traffic caused by the narrow streets. This is not a modern nuisance.

In 1581 the Royal Court ordered that carts should not be driven in the town between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays. In 1878 a law was passed prohibiting the, parking of carts in the main streets. The latest attempt to get over the difficulty is the institution of one-way traffic. But the nuisance continues. Short of wholesale widening of streets or closing the centre of the town to motor traffic, there seems to be no way out. So shoppers will continue to use the excellent shops at the peril of their lives. Woolworth's stands on the site of what was once Government House. Immediately opposite, a short narrow road leads to the one spot in St. Helier that may be said to have any `character,' the Royal Square.

Once the market place and a hive of activity, this square (which is not square at all) is now paved with granite setts and reserved for pedestrians. Here you may retire for a breather from the exciting task of lorry dodging, and (if it is the appointed time) go into one of the pubs at the corner to fortify yourself for the next round. But drinking is not what it was before the war, when statistics showed that we consumed ten times as much spirituous liquor as the average Englishman. And the law of 1873 which laid down that public houses should not open before five o'clock in the morning is now only a legal curiosity.

[ Since writing this I have discovered the best time for viewing St. Helier. On a cold winter's evening its dim deserted streets give it the conspiratorial air of a mediaeval city.]

One of the pubs here is named after Major Peirson, hero of the Battle of Jersey, which was fought on the Royal Square in 1781. An inscription on the wall of the pub commemorates the occasion. It used to read `Here Peirson fell,' but the landlord must have got tired of answering facetious customers who inquired how many Peirson had had before he fell. I notice that it has been changed to `The Battle of Jersey, 1781.'

For over six hundred years, from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, France made continual attempts to capture Jersey, which remained attached to England when the rest of Normandy was lost. At least- a dozen attempts at invasion are recorded, all of which were beaten off except one. That was in 1461, when the island was captured, supposedly by treachery, and held by the French for seven years. The invasion of 1 781 was the last and perhaps the most extraordinary of all until the Germans came in 1940.

As summarised in the guide-books, the Battle of Jersey is just another battle, which the reader skips as a dull bit of history. The interesting things about it are the details that are usually omitted, if you can believe them all.

I should hate to be a historian. Having decided that the story was worth writing, I chose what seemed to be a trustworthy source of information and listed about a hundred facts. As a natural precaution I then checked them against Source No. 2. Did they agree? Half a dozen points of difference would not have surprised me. There were over twenty-five ! I tackled a third source, then a fourth and a fifth. By the time I had finished only three of my hundred facts were fully corroborated: the date of the battle, the death of Peirson, and the fact that after the battle the French troops took refuge in neighbouring houses ! On the order of events and details of what happened, there was hopeless contradiction.

How does the historian sift his facts? If you ask him he will explain how he weighs the importance of each source, and establishes its reliability or otherwise. One author may be disinterested, another biased; one unobservant, another too imaginative; one describes what he has seen, another what he has heard.

An admirable method in theory. But just imagine someone sitting down to write a history of England, or of Europe, or of the World. Would a lifetime be long enough to weigh up every source of information? I doubt it. I spent a week trying to make out what happened in one day in the history of Jersey. At that rate, how many years to unravel the events of twenty centuries in the history of the World? No wonder people keep writing new history books which contradict others that have been written before.

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