Communication with England, 85 years ago

Guernsey & Jersey Magazine, June 1836.

[Compare this with a letter written in 1682, where a one-way trip to England takes about three days, and a voyage undertaken in 1691 by Daniel Messervy of Jersey, who leaves his island on 15th September and arrives at Southampton the next day (Bulletin. Soc. Jersiaise XIII (1888) p. 305).]

So rapid and certain has the communication between these islands and England become of late years, that many will smile when they are told, that scarcely a century has elapsed since a journey from Guernsey to London was a serious undertaking. Now, we may go there and return in three days, of which one day can be spent in London.

The first government packet employed between the Channel Islands and England was a cutter¹ commanded by Captain Sampson, which, soon after the breaking out of the war with France, in 1778, was removed from the station between Dover and Calais, and plied as often as practicable from Southampton, but when peace took place, in 1783, she returned to Dover. Previously and subsequently to this period, the letters for the islands were addressed to the care of agents at Southampton, who paid the postage, and transmitted them by the traders, small sloops of between forty and fifty tons. And even while the packet ran, the letters were forwarded by her in the same manner by the agents, as there was then no regular post-office in either island.

During the two wars with France, commencing in 1778 and 1793, the Southampton traders frequently came under convoy, and the uncertainty and dilatoriness of this mode of communication, both for correspondence and passengers, will be apparent from the fact, that a gentleman now living, a jurat of the Royal Court, was three months on his passage from Southampton to Guernsey. He embarked during the summer of 1793, in a trader commanded by the late Captain Brehaut, and reached Cowes in a few hours, where they were joined the day following by the convoy from Portsmouth. They weighed anchor and sailed several times, but never got beyond Yarmouth, being baffled by contrary winds and calms, and the captain of the convoy being apprehensive of some of the vessels under his charge being captured by French privateers. At length a fair wind came to the great relief of the passengers, and they crossed over in safety!

In February, 1794, two post-office packets, both cutters of about eighty tons, commenced running weekly from Weymouth to these islands; their names were the Chesterfield, Captain James Wood, and Rover, Captain Joseph [Joshua] Bennett: they sailed alternately on the Saturday evening, and, with a fair wind, reached this island on a Sunday morning. In 1811, another cutter, the Francis Freeling, was also placed on the station, and from that time the packets have continued to ply twice a week, leaving Weymouth on the Wednesday and Saturday evenings. The sailing packets were frequently from thirty-six to forty-eight hours reaching Guernsey, and in winter two or three mails arriving together was no uncommon occurrence. Indeed, if the writer does not mistake, he has seen as many as four, or a fortnight's, mails brought by the same packet. He also remembers leaving Weymouth in December, 1810, on board the Chesterfield; the weather, for the first twenty-four hours, was fine and moderate, and the packet was within four or five miles of Guernsey, when a violent south-west gale came on, which drove her back to Weymouth, after being out two days and a half, with the loss of boats, bulwarks, &c. A steamer would have reached Jersey some hours before the gale commenced, and so escaped it.

In 1828, a few years after the introduction of steamers on the Holyhead, Liverpool, and other stations, our three sailing packets were replaced by three steamers, of about eighty horse power each, the Watersprite, Ivanhoe, and Meteor, and, although not powerful enough for the channel, their commanders deserve great credit for the perseverance they have evinced in crossing over in very bad weather, generally reaching Guernsey, in from nine to twelve hours, unless prevented by severe and adverse gales. The arrival of two mails by the same packet, is now as uncommon an, as it was formerly a common, occurrence.

Since the packets commenced running, in 1794, from Weymouth, four have been captured or lost, viz: the Chesterfield, captured about 1811, by a French privateer, and carried into Cherbourg, with some of her passengers and crew killed and wounded; [It is given in The Times of 25 November 1811 that the CHESTERFIELD packet was underway from Weymouth to Guernsey and was taken by a French privateer. In letters received from some of the passengers on board and taken by the privateer, they state, that as far as the French police laws will permit, they are treated by the inhabitants of Cherbourg with great humanity and politeness; but they had orders to be all marched to Verdun in the course of a week after their landing. English banknotes were not passable. The French privateer permitted the passengers to keep their watches and valuables. A British army colonel going to join his regiment was severely wounded; and the Captain and two men of the packet died of their wounds at Cherbourg.]²; the Rover, wrecked on Alderney, about 1825, crew and passengers saved; the Francis Freeling, supposed to have foundered, in September, 1826, in a violent gale, on her passage from Weymouth to Guernsey; and lastly, the Meteor, steamer, wrecked in a thick fog on Portland, passengers and crew saved. The fare in the Weymouth packets is, and has been for some years, a guinea in the chief cabin.

During the greater part of the war with France, from 1803 to 1814, and until the establishment of steamers, the communication between Southampton and Guernsey, was maintained chiefly by three cutters, of about eighty tons each, the Diligent, Aeolus, and Brilliant, which had no fixed days for sailing, but crossed as often as their cargoes and the winds permitted. These cutters were fortunate enough to run, during and after the war, without loss or capture. [The Brilliant was captured in 1814, on her way to Southampton, by an American privateer, and dispatched for a French port; but the prize-master, mistaking Alderney for the coast of France, gave charge of the helm to a seaman of the Brilliant, who, happy to escape imprisonment, wisely kept up the deception, and steered the cutter Into the harbour of Alderney, where she was immediately retaken.]4 And now two fine cutters, the Aeolus and Princess Charlotte, sail from Southampton and Guernsey every Thursday.

In 1823, two steamers of about 80 horse power, the Ariadne and Beresford, commenced running from Southampton to Guernsey and Jersey—the former leaving Southampton on the Tuesday, and the latter on the Friday, and their fares being a guinea and a half, in the main cabin. These vessels, like the Weymouth packets, were not large and powerful enough for the station, but as they only ran from the end of March to the end of October, and as steam navigation was then in its infancy, their insufficiency was the less felt and understood. In fine weather, however, they performed their passages, to Guernsey, in from twelve to fifteen hours. The Beresford was replaced late last year by the Lady De Saumarez, a beautiful vessel of 100 horse power, which ran weekly during the whole winter, being the first steamer which has done so from Southampton. In moderate weather, she completes her voyage to Guernsey in less than eleven hours, and, when the railway from London to Southampton is finished, we doubt not that a journey from the metropolis to Guernsey will be accomplished in about sixteen hours—even now, it is frequently done in twenty-one. The Ariadne is shortly to be also replaced by the Atalanta, represented as a very superior vessel. The fares between Southampton and Guernsey may now be stated at a guinea, which we consider a fair and reasonable charge. [See The Steam Packets, a review of cross-channel travel on these ships, written the following year.]

In 1831, the Lord of the Isles, a noble steamer of 120 horse power, commenced plying between London and these islands, calling at Brighton; but the trial proving a losing one, she was soon withdrawn from the station, as was the Liverpool, even a larger vessel, which made a similar attempt last summer, and failed.

While on this subject, it may not be deemed irrelevant to add, that sixty years ago, the Guernsey sailor, who had been at Cette and Salou, Santa Cruz, Virginia, and Rotterdam, (the foreign trade of the island being then confined to those places,) thought that he had seen much of the world. Now, our young men visit almost every part of the globe, and there is living here a lad, who is or was, probably, the youngest circumnavigator in existence.5 He was born in 1828, of Guernsey parents, in the harbour of Rio de Janeiro, on board the ship Wave, which his father commanded, and the infant returned to Rio de Janeiro, round Cape Horn, before he was nine months old, having been at the Cape of Good Hope, Hobart Town, Sydney and Monte-Video.

ERRATUM In our last number, we mentioned that a letter to London was sure to be answered in eight days, and that the London newspapers arrived here in forty-eight hours, and sometimes in less time. Instead of eight, we should have said five days, and now an answer can be received from London in three days, to a letter forwarded by the Lady De Saumarez, on the Monday and Thursday mornings. The London evening newspapers are received here in thirty-six hours by Weymouth, and the morning newspapers in twenty-four hours, by Southampton.


From the Guernsey & Jersey Magazine, June 1836, pp. 375 ff. This article, itself an updated version of one published in the same magazine the previous year, was elaborated upon by J. M. David, forming the basis of his 'Early Channel Island Steamers, 1823-1840,' in the Transactions of the Société Guernesiaise, XV (5), 1954, pp. 362 ff. Details of all these ships and the background to the early postal service between Guernsey and the UK, with illustrations, are given by Mayne, R., Mailships of the Channel Islands, 1771-1791, Chippenham: Picton Publishing, 1971. See also Trotter, J. M. Y., 'Early Guernsey Postal History,' Transactions &c. XV (1), 1950, pp. 28 ff.; Le Scelleur, K., Channel Island Railway Steamers, Wellingborough: Stephens, 1985; Grasemann, C., and McLachlan, C.W.P., English Channel Packet Boats, London: Syren and Shipping Ltd., 1939; Jackson, B. L. Weymouth to the Channel Islands: a Great Western Railway shipping history, Usk, Oakwood Press, 2002; William, Caroline, From Sail to Steam, studies in the nineteenth-century history of the Channel Islands, Chichester: Phillimore, 2000; Jamieson, A.G., 'Cross-Channel services and island steamers,' in A People of the Sea, London: Methuen, 1986, Chapter 17, pp. 444 ff.; Mcloughlin, Roy, The sea was their fortune: a maritime history of the Channel Islands, Bradford-on-Avon: Seaflower, 1997; Ouseley, M.H., 'Two hundred years of Guernsey mailboats,' Review of the Guernsey Society, Summer 1985, all available in the Library.

1 The Express, according to Mayne.

2 See the Mercure of 16th March 1811 for the loss of the Chesterfield packet. We know the name of one of the passengers captured with the ship; James Budd, son of the late Receiver-General; see the Mercure p. 1156, (and genealogical information available in a Library Budd family file). James Budd is recorded as being in the French camp of Longwy in 1812 (English POWs, Dept. of Longwy, Moselle, France, list in the Library), and having been moved from there to the camp at Verdun. In 1813 he is no longer a prisoner. The Chesterfield, an 80-ton cutter commissioned in 1794, was sold at Cherbourg and renamed L'Agile. It was fitted out with new sails in 1812 under Augustus Black and operated as a privateer off Portland, but was recaptured: One from Vice-adm. Thoruborough, stating the capture, by the Sybille frigate, of the French cutter privateer L'Agile, (late the Chesterfield, Guernsey packet), commanded by the noted A. Black, of 14 guns, eight of which were thrown overboard in the chase, and 61 men, out three days from Bennodet, near Quimper, and had captured, on the 10th, the Alicia brig, from Bristol, bound to Gibraltar [Gentlemen's Magazine 1812].

3 Mayne, p. 8.

4 "The Brilliant, under Captain Belin, on its way from Guernsey to Southampton, was taken Tuesday 15th January about a league past the Casquets, by the Prince de Neufchâtel, an American privateer of 325 tonnes, with 20 cannon and a crew of 180, three months out of New York, which had taken seven prizes. The Brilliant was taken to Alderney, as the American prize-master mistook the island for the Cap de la Hogue, where it was recaptured by the cutters the Assise and the Scout, and brought back to Guernsey." Gazette de l'Isle de Guernesey, 5 February 1814, p. 22.

Original French: [Le Brilliant, capt. Belin, allant de Guernesey à Southampton, fut pris Mardi 25 Janvier, à environ une lieue au delà des Casquets, par le Prince de Neufchâtel, corsaire Americain de 325 tonneaux, portant 20 cannon & 180 hommes d’équipage, sorti de New-York depuis trois mois, & a fait sept prises:- le Brilliant fut conduit en Auregny, île que le maître de prise Americain a prit pour être le Cap de la Hogue, ou les bateaux du cutter de l’Assise, & du Scout, en prirent possession, et est arrivé à Guernesey.]

5 The circumnavigating baby was William George Davey Hide, son of Captain William Hide and his wife Mary Philipps, of "La Porte", Kings Mills, Câtel. William Junior was born in 1828, but only baptised in Guernsey in 1832. A full genealogical study of this family and their links with Australia can be found at Born on the High Seas. David Kreckeler, the Guernsey researcher who aided the author of this prize-winning article, has himself written an invaluable book on emigration from the island, Guernsey Emigrants to Australia, 1828-99, and talks about the Hide family and the Wave, pp. 73-5. Original details are also available in a family file at the Priaulx Library.