Daniel de Lisle Brock and the Corn Bill, 1835

Daniel de Lisle Brock and the Corn Bill, 1835

'The depression in the price of agricultural produce may be ascribed to various causes: pretty certain it is, however, that neither legal or illegal importations of foreign corn are of the number and still more certain it is that the Channel Islands can have no connexion with any of these causes.'  From a Letter from the Deputies of Guernsey and Jersey to Lord Verulam, Colonnade Hotel, Charles Street, 6th May, 1835.

On Thursday March 26, 1835, The Star published a letter from Jersey’s Bailiff, Jean de Veulle, to the Bailiff of Guernsey, Daniel de Lisle Brock.1 De Veulle had enclosed another letter, one that had been sent from London by Thomas Le Breton, King’s Procureur of Jersey, the shocking contents of which had been immediately debated by the States of Jersey. It transpired that while in London, Le Breton had read in the newspaper that the British minister Alexander Baring, President of the Board of Trade, intended to move forward a Bill for the future regulation of the corn trade between the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, and Great Britain. Le Breton raced down to the Board of Trade to try and get a look at the Bill. After waiting quite some time he managed to obtain an interview with Baring.

He entered very fully on the subject, and finally told me that Government intended to place the Isle of Man on exactly the same footing as Great Britain, and deprive the Channel Islands of their right of importing their grain into Great Britain, duty-free. The Government appear to do this to satisfy the landed interest, which is extremely powerful on both sides of the House, although they admit that the quantity of Corn imported from Guernsey and Jersey is so trifling that it cannot have the slightest effect on the English market. I am really quite at a loss what measures to have recourse to, to obtain a respite; I shall do my best, but I very much fear that our cause is a hopeless one.

De Veulle explained that the news had caused a 'great sensation' in Jersey, and asked whether Brock would consider co-operating in 'endeavouring to preserve inviolate the privilege, which we have always possessed, of exporting our Grain to England free of duty'; he suggested that the islands should ask to be heard before the Counsel at the Bar of the House of Commons. Thomas Le Breton was waiting for instructions in London.

Brock addressed the States. He arranged an extraordinary meeting for the 1st April, to debate the matter.  He explained that there was a great difference in economic significance between this projected bill, where a principle was at stake, albeit a principle of major importance for the islands' relationship with the British government, and the notorious bill of 1821, which had prohibited the importation of foreign corn into the islands for local consumption and 'would in the course of a very few years have had the effect of reducing their population by one half, and eventually involving them in utter ruin.' Guernsey did not then produce enough corn to feed itself. That Bill had actually been passed in the case of Jersey, but Brock and his Jersey colleagues had managed to persuade the authorities to overturn it, as it would patently have been catastrophic for the islands. However, as he said,

at the present period, which is so disastrous a one for the English farmer, and beset as are His Majesty’s Ministers with complaints from every quarter, we cannot feel surprised if they seek by every means in their power to appease the dissatisfaction which prevails.

Very small amounts of corn were actually exported to Britain from Guernsey. In fact, Brock suspected that the imputation was that Guernsey traders were mixing in foreign corn with their own produce.

In Guernsey, the producer of any amount of corn for export, no matter how little, had to swear an affidavit before the Court2 that the corn had been grown on their land, and the certificate had to be countersigned by the Governor; this could easily mean up to forty certificated signatures for every shipment of corn, as well as the shipper’s own certificate; in Jersey, where far more corn was produced, the system was more lax.  Unless perjury was being committed, smuggling was the only other way that Guernsey corn, or 'rebadged' foreign corn coming via the islands, could reach Britain; but, Brock pointed out, the cost would far outweigh the income and risk. Although a few years earlier flour had been smuggled from Guernsey into England, more profit could be at the present time made on two pounds of smuggled tobacco than on two hundredweights of smuggled corn.

Looking, however, at the question frankly and honestly, we cannot feel surprised if Government, in order to ally the murmurings that have been called forth, has found it necessary to place some limit on our exportations.

Brock pointed out, quite reasonably, that as Guernsey produced no more than one-third the quantity of corn necessary for its own consumption, islanders could hardly complain if they were not allowed to export any.  (Guernsey bread was made of a mixture of wheat and barley, so relatively less was needed by the islanders than might have been expected.) He stressed, however, that they were

bound to do their utmost to preserve the privilege which England has granted and confirmed to us ever since we had the honour of belonging to it – we owe this to ourselves and our descendants, and we owe it to the islands of this Bailiwick which are capable of producing more corn than they can consume. It is certain that the Government has many powerful motives to conciliate the suffering agricultural population of England, and to give way to some extent to its interests, and even prejudices.

He suggested that the Custom-House returns3 of the amounts of corn leaving the island for Britain should be examined, to prove the absurdity of the Government’s claims.

The Star agreed completely with Brock’s sentiments, and stated that

If we do not succeed in preserving the privilege, we shall at least vindicate our national character by proving that the charges brought against us by Mr Baring are utterly unfounded and that to attribute the agricultural distress experienced in England to the exportations of corn from these islands is absolutely chimerical.

The islands' interests were also under threat in other ways. Guernsey growers had planted a mammoth crop of potatoes in the expectation of turning them into 'vodka' for export, but it looked as though the British Government was likely to slap onerous duties on this, effectively destroying the distilling business in the islands. In addition, Guernsey traders had been subjected to the same import duties as non-British foreigners in dealings with Canada, which for island merchants was a most pressing matter and felt by islanders to be exceptionally unfair, as it went against previous agreements.  Alexander Baring was a businessman and financier with interests in North America, and does seem to have been hostile to the islands.4  John Le Couteur wrote a letter to him, illustrating the relationship between the islands and the Crown, pointing out that Jersey had been invaded or repelled invasion eleven times, but this does not seem to have had much effect. However, on the 8th April 1835, the Government of Sir Robert Peel fell, and Baring with him. The new Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, elevated Baring to the peerage as Lord Ashburton two days later, and appointed Charles Poulett Thomson in his place as President of the Board of Trade.

Brock was duly deputed to go to London, meet up with Thomas Le Breton, and plead the islands’ cause, as he had done so many times before. In fact he must have felt a strong sense of déjà vu; his greatest achievement had come in 1822, having successfully undertaken virtually the same mission with the previous Corn Bill. He was this time accompanied by a Jersey Jurat, Colonel John Le Couteur, with the Deputy Greffier, Charles LeFebvre, as secretary.  The text of the ensuing meetings and inquiries can be read in the newspapers of the next few months and in the Report published by the House of Commons in September, 1835. They include a letter from Brock to the Board of Trade, on a theme he seems to have felt very strongly about; that the Government had made elementary mistakes in calculating the amount of corn exported from the Channel Islands, accounts which it had printed and distributed, and thus given the strong impression that the islanders were dishonest, upon which much of the bad feeling against them had been based; that despite the fact that this was known to the Commissioners of Customs, they did not rectify it, and had not been called to account for it. He then writes to Lord Verulam, complaining that Verulam had made a speech at an agricultural dinner in which he had insisted that the Government would proceed with Baring’s bill, even though Baring was no longer in office to promote it, 'because it would not benefit any Government to enable the rogue to enrich himself at the expense of the honest man,' and reiterating his arguments on behalf of the islands and their moral integrity.

The price of corn was in the early 1830s so advantageous to the Guernseyman that any that could be sold was being collected and exported. Brock and his fellow Jersey Deputés were called as witnesses before the Select Committee on Channel Islands (Corn Trade) of the 19th May. Brock, when asked to explain why the amounts actually exported from Guernsey had increased over the past few years, replied that whenever the price of corn in England was very low, the duty on foreign corn went up, with the consequence that the duty on foreign corn in England alone was at that time greater that the price of the very best wheat; whereas the Channel island traders paid no duty. Fear of just such a Bill as Baring had proposed had ironically made the islanders produce and export as much wheat as possible before the trade was shut off; it was, he said, like a run on a bank, with 'hucksters' going from house to house persuading small growers it was their last chance to export to England. But more than this, the currency differentials, as much as 6%, made it worth the grower’s while to sell their corn in England, as long as they were paid in English money.

The evidence of a Plymouth corn-factor and customs officials, however, does indicate that the Channel island traders were occasionally doing something illegal. They seem to have sometimes mixed foreign corn with their own, never more than a third (since even Customs officials could have detected it in any greater proportion).  Jersey and Guernsey corn was 'weak,' and when made into bread would not rise as well as 'Danzig' flour from Eastern Europe. Jersey wheat was large-grained, with thick bran. When ground, it was soft and grey. The corn factor was actually willing to pay more for mixed corn than for pure Guernsey or Jersey corn. He claimed he had visited the islands and knew that the Jersey factors would pay double the price for locally grown wheat than for foreign wheat, because the local wheat was certificated and could therefore be exported duty free. Colonel Le Couteur refuted these claims; foreign corn was far more expensive to buy in Jersey than was local corn. The customs official did not believe much mixing of corn went on, and that it was only possible if growers or shippers in Guernsey or Jersey perjured themselves; and most importantly, none of the witnesses agreed that the importation of Channel Island corn made any difference to the market price of corn.5

The Bailiff received positive feedback from the Committee. He was in Weymouth, just about to return to Guernsey, however, when one of the MPs for Plymouth, Mr Collier, produced a sample of wheat that had apparently come from Guernsey but which was, he claimed, hard wheat from Russia or Casablanca. [It was later suggested that it might have been a consignment of the much harder Alderney wheat.] Brock urged speedy investigation in Guernsey; it transpired that this particular shipment of wheat had come from no less than 72 different Guernsey growers, all of whom had signed their affidavits, and not even Mr Collier, who had made the same accusation about the same batch of wheat the previous year, could believe that they had all conspired to perjure themselves. The Bailiff and his colleagues were relieved that they did not have to return to London after all.

On Monday June 22nd, The Star was able to publish a report from the Select Committee, who gave their opinion that no material abuse had been made by the island of their ancient privilege, and that in accordance with the Deputés denials, they had no proof that any abuse had taken place at all: that

it would not be expedient to abrogate or infringe those privileges which are now enjoyed by the inhabitants of those islands, and which were conferred upon them in consideration of the signal services which, at various periods of our history they have rendered to the Crown and people of this country.

Brock arrived back in the island on the 22nd June on the cutter, Princess Charlotte. In a scene very reminiscent of his return from his greatest triumph in 1822, a large crowd came out to meet him at the North and South Piers, but this time he transferred to a small boat rowed by his brother Savery Brock and the Procureur, and landed instead at Fermain, nearer to his house at Bon Air. Despite the crowds’ disappointment, the ships in the harbour hoisted their flags, Morgan's Anna Eliza gave him a 14-gun salute, and the church bells rang out throughout the day (they were usually rung once on the return of the Bailiff to the island).

The island wanted to reward him for his efforts, now and in the past. On 20th July, The Star listed suggested ways to achieve this: a statue in the Market Square, or the planned Botanical Garden, the Bailiff to be dressed appropriately in a toga; a portrait to be hung at the Royal Court; or medals. The Bailiff had refused to discuss the matter in public until the printed report arrived from the Select Committee, only allowing himself to thank the Jersey representatives and Charles Lefebvre, but in private expressed a preference for a commemorative medal (see the picture above). The Report had to be translated into French before it could be submitted to the States, and it was not until September 14th that Lieutenant-Bailiff John Guille was able to bring up the subject.  Finally, the Jurats met at Brock’s house, Bon Air, and were treated to déjeuner à la fourchette, after which John Guille addressed him and asked him to allow a portrait to be hung in the Court House, alongside those of Sir John Doyle, Lord de Saumarez, and Sir John Colborne.  The production of the medals, a photograph of which is reproduced above, was in fact undertaken by a private individual, Peter Bienvenu, Junior, who in a letter to The Star of August 11, 1836, says: 'Two days after the meeting of the States, and without Mr Brock's knowledge, I purchased his miniature likeness on ivory, painted by that talented and respected lady Miss Le Bas, and sent it with the necessary instructions to a friend of mine at Birmingham, requesting him to get a pair of dies executed for that purpose by the first die sinker of the day, in the best style, regardless of the expense.' Gifts were also presented by the burghers of Guernsey to Brock's two colleagues from Jersey.

1 For an account of Daniel De Lisle Brock's political life, see James Marr's Guernsey People, in the Library, and The Eclectic Review 1845. For the silver cup presented to him by a grateful States on 7th August, 1822, see Guernsey Evening Press, February 9th, 1933. For a speech in praise of Guernsey, see May 22nd 1823: Daniel De Lisle Brock praises Guernsey. In their obituary of Brock, the Gazette de Guernesey describes the 1835 crisis thus: 'The eighth and final time that Monsieur Brock took it upon himself to defend our privileges was in 1835, when we discovered that a motion was to be brought before Parliament proposing nothing less than to take away from us a right we have enjoyed since time immemorial, to sell our products in the UK on exactly the same footing as the citizens of the UK themselves. That motion had been formulated with one specific purpose in mind, that is, to prevent the Channel Islands exporting grain to the UK. Lefebvre and Brock returned, after around six weeks, having succeeded totally in their aim and proved to Parliament that the accusations made against us by certain English merchants, that we adulterated our grain in order to avoid UK taxes, were completely unfounded.' 

2 The Star of February 18th, 1834, reported from the House of Commons thus:

'IMPORTATION OF GRAIN. Mr Cayley asked whether the Board of Trade had any information respecting frauds committed in the importation of grain or flour from Guernsey and Jersey; Mr. P Thompson had no reason to think, after all due inquiry, that any such frauds had been committed. Guernsey and Jersey were entitled to bring their own grain to this country duty free; but if they introduced any from elsewhere, it must, of course, pay the usual duty.'

'That frauds may have been attempted there can be little doubt; that any have been committed by native inhabitants we do not believe. Whether, however, by strangers or inhabitants, it is pretty certain that all attempts at fraud are now at an end. The most scrupulous precaution is taken against them by our authorities, who now require that not only the shipper, but all the growers of corn, should come forward and swear to the quantity which each of them has shipped, and that it is bona fide of the growth and produce of the island.'

Here's how they used to do it—Jacob's Annals, pp. 428-9, with reference to an accusation of corn smuggling made in the Times in February 1820, and refuted in the Guernsey Star on February 15th:

It appeared that no native, but an unprincipled foreigner, had thus transgressed the laws, he having purchased eight quarters of Jersey wheat, added a y to the certificate, making the cargo eighty instead of eight, by which means he added foreign corn to the growth of the island, and exported it from Jersey as such.

In a letter to Viscount Sidmouth of 30th July, 1824, Brock even offered to give up Guernsey's right to export corn to the UK 'so long as it may be the occasion of distrust or jealousy, in order to remove all doubts of the possibilty of such an abuse'. [Annals p. 429.]

3 These were destroyed during the Second War, but a breakdown of these particular records can be found in the printed Report. Other data is available but scarce. In May 1840, however, Daniel De Lisle Brock, via the Customs House, furnished a set of returns to Parliament covering the years 1820-1839. The Returns of the average price of wheat, barley and oats in the island of Guernsey & Quantities of wheat, barley and oats imported to and exported to the island of Guernsey in the same years, specifying the counttires to which it was imported and to which it was exported.  See a letter (and following) in the Star newspaper of October 8th, 1822, re a previous contentious Corn Bill, for statistics of wheat grown in the island.                       

4 The pressure on the islands from these sources was unrelenting, however; in 1842, for example, Robert Peel imposed a crippling duty on confectionery from Guernsey, destroying a very young but lucrative trade and several hundred jobs following lobbying from vested British interests. See Ouseley, M. H., 'Guernsey and Sugar in the mid-nineteenth century', Report and Transactions of the Société Guernesiaise, 1971, pp. 106-114.

5 For a detailed description of the cultivation of wheat in Jersey, see Quayle's General View of the Agriculture and the Present State of the Islands &c., 1815, pp. 82 ff. Here is Jonathan Duncan on wheat in Guernsey, from his History of Guernsey:

The rotation of crops, generally observed, gives two crops of wheat in five years, the usual course being parsnips, wheat, barley, clover, and wheat,—the greater produce of wheat being after parsnips. The average produce of wheat, in England, is stated by Arthur Young, Tull, and Cobbett, and the late resolutions of several agricultural meetings, to be from twenty-three to twenty-four Winchester bushels per acre. Mr. Jacob, in his evidence before the house of commons, calculates it at only twenty-one bushels. Mr. Cobbett, in his preface to Tull, says, that on a trial, in Hampshire, between the broad cast and the drill husbandry, the produce was the same both ways, and did not exceed thirty-seven Winchester bushels per acre; and this was in the best land, in a very favourable year, and with the most careful culture. Now, in Guernsey, a field of exactly two English acres and a half produced one hundred and thirty-four and a half Winchester bushels, or fifty-four bushels per acre. It is well ascertained that other farmers, both in Guernsey and Sark, have occasionally grown fiftyfive bushels, and one respectable farmer asserts that he once grew at least sixty Winchester bushels per acre.