Guernsey in 1775 and in 1837

By Ferdinand Brock Tupper, in Duncan's The Guernsey and Jersey Magazine III (1837), pp. 233 ff.

Tempore mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.

The first part of the following sketch is drawn from inquiries recently made for the purpose of two or three gentlemen, now upwards of seventy years of age, who perfectly remember the state of the island at the former period, soon after which it would seem that the spirit of improvement began to develop itself, owing to the addition made to the garrison, and the increased intercourse with strangers, during the first American war. Little, however, was done to embellish the town, or to facilitate the communication with the country, until the commencement of the present century.

In 1775, the town of St. Peter's-Port extended northerly to the Long Store, southerly to the lower half of Hauteville, and westerly from Fountain street to Country Mansell, including the Bordage and Mill street. Pedvin street was not built, and the present Market place was a garden. Berthelot street existed almost as it now is, but Smith street was complete only on the eastern side, the western reaching merely to the pump, and from thence to the upper part of Berthelot street, and to New Town, the land was in fields and gardens. Indeed, a gentleman, yet living, remembers shooting a woodcock where the gaol now stands. The houses in Park street, Mount Durand, Mount Row, New Town, Canichers, Paris street, &c &c, have, with very few exceptions, been erected since. The principal streets were paved, but there were neither public lamps, nor sewers, nor flagged footpaths. The lower part of Fountain street was so narrow, and the houses on each side projected so much at every story, that the inmates could almost shake hands across. The parish church was the only place of worship in St. Peter's-Port, and there was neither a dissenter nor a cbapel in the town or country.

From Lord De Saumarez's house, at the top of Smith street, to the Catel church, there were only eight houses bordering the road. St. James' street and Candie road were miserable lanes only wide enough for a cart, and without footpaths; the Grange road was equally narrow, but it had a wide footpath. The house on the Grange road, a little above and facing Doyle road, was built by Mr. William Brock, for his summer residence only, his winter one being in High street, about half a mile distant; and when Mr. Henry Brock built Belmont, he was told that the roof would be blown away by the westerly gales, and that he might as well erect his house on Rock Douvre.

The present site of Fort George and its outskirts contained some of the finest corn fields in the island. Government house was then situated at the top of Smith street, as at this moment, but two or three years previously it was that now called the haunted house at the Tour de Beauregard, between Horn street and the Bordage. The garrison consisted of four companies of invalids, who were quartered at Castle Cornet, as there were no barracks, but many of the soldiers were permitted to live in the town and to serve as porters. One entire and two half regiments of foot were soon after added to protect the island during the American revolutionary war. The town militia was composed of one infantry regiment, of which the grenadiers only were clothed in uniform, purchased at their own expense, and the whole of the privates were compelled to provide their own arms and ammunition. The country militia was embodied into two regiments, the third and the town regiment of artillery having been formed during the American war.

The Royal Court held its sittings in a mean detached building at the Plaiderie, now used as a store, and the public records were kept in the private house of the Greffier, while two cells at Castle Cornet constituted the public prison, both for debtors and criminals, but an insolvent debtor, or a bankrupt, was a rara avis in those days. The meat and vegetable markets were held on Saturday only in High street, from the church to the corner of Berthelot street, and fish was sold in the afternoon, as it was chiefly caught by the town fishermen, very little being brought in from the country parishes. The New Ground existed as a public promenade, having been purchased by the parish in 1764, but, having already described the state of Candie road, we need scarcely add that the avenue from the town to the New Ground was wretched. There was only one master in Elizabeth College, which was held in the house now occupied by the Vice-Principal, but lately much enlarged. A theatre was fitted up in a store near the hospital, and a small company of actors came over every three or four years to perform in it. The shipping of the island consisted of one ship, three or four brigs, and a few sloops and cutters. The square-rigged vessels (none of which were copper-fastened or sheathed) were usually employed in bringing tobacco and staves from Virginia, rum from the island of Santa Cruz, and brandy and wine from Cette and Salou. Wines were occasionally received to be stored for account of the English merchants, and re-shipped when required. There were no pipe carts, and pipes of wine and spirits were conveyed singly on sledges, or slides, drawn by two oxen and four horses. Hogsheads were occasionally slung to poles and carried by porters. Bills on London and Paris were seldom seen, as the trade was very limited, and the incomes of the gentry were derived chiefly from their 'Rentes.' The money in circulation was English and French gold, but principally guineas and six livre pieces, and local bank notes did not exist. There were three or four small breweries and a few insignificant manufactories of rope, tobacco, and candles, but no iron foundries, distilleries, &c.; and many articles, now made here, were imported from Southampton and Bristol. Soap came chiefly from Marseilles. The town parish was assessed at 47,360 quarters, paid by 399 individuals, averaging 118 quarters each. The island possessed neither a newspaper, nor a printing press, nor a single hot or green house, and the inhabitants do not appear to have been very partial to physic, as there were only three medical practitioners, and not a druggist.

There was no government packet or post office, and the communication with the metropolis was carried on by the small Southampton traders, which crossed very irregularly; and during the American war some of the London newspapers were sent to Brixham to be forwarded by the cutters from thence, as these vessels could reach the island with a south-westerly wind, which was directly adverse from the Needles.

The principal families resided chiefly in High street, with a few in Cornet and Smith streets and the Pollet, and they usually dined at one, took tea at four or five, and supped substantially on meat or fish at eight or nine o'clock. These early hours extended, in some measure, even to company, and notwithstanding, the inhabitants maintained a constant social intercourse, as the money which is now spent in ostentatious entertainments, few and far between, and in carriage hire, was then devoted to more frequent, genuine, and rational hospitality. The public assemblies were held weekly in a large room at the bottom of the Pollet, and the ladies were not the less happy, or the less lovely, because they walked to parties in hood and pattens.

Few or no strangers lived permanently in the island, and very few, excepting the garrison, visited it, unless they came on commercial business. The language of all classes in their own families was, with few exceptions, French or Guernsey French, chiefly the latter, but the upper classes could speak English, as they were generally educated in England.

The roads throughout the island were only wide enough for a cart, but the greater part had a narrow high footpath, and if two carts met, one bad to back into a field, or some chance opening, to allow the other to pass. Those who resided in the distant parishes, and remember the difficulties of the communication with the town, might now parody the well known distich of the Highlands of Scotland:

'Had you seen these roads, 'ere a credit to our soil,/You would hold up your hands, and bless General Doyle.'

In consequence, the inhabitants of the country had so little intercourse with each other or with the town, that their parishes could be discovered by their different accents. Carriages were almost useless, as excursions were made on foot or on horseback, and the few which existed, were gigs, substantially constructed without springs. It was about this time that Lieutenant-Governor Irving introduced the first four-wheel close carriage, with a pair of horses, seen in the island.

In reviewing the state of Guernsey upwards of sixty years ago, we must not, however, forget that even England, the pioneer of European civilization, was then very far behind what she now is in roads, buildings, equipages, literary gratifications, and the other comforts and elegancies of life. The steam engine has since given an impetus to every species of improvement, which might otherwise have lain dormant for another century. One of our informants remembers, when he was at school at Southampton in 1775, that the stage coaches, of which there were only two, set out from thence for London at four o'clock a.m., and only reached their destination at nine o'clock p. m. Even less than thirty years ago the coaches were thirteen and fourteen hours performing the same distance. Now, the journey is accomplished in about eight hours.

But contrast Guernsey in 1837 with what she was in 1775, and how different is her aspect, how changed is the appearance both of the town and country, and how altered are the manners and habits of the people. We have now excellent roads and powerful steam vessels running constantly to England, Jersey, and France; we have a handsome court house, a secure gaol, commodious market places, (a vegetable one excepted,) lamps and flagged footpaths, and improvements innumerable. It would be an act of injustice and ingratitude to omit that the town is in a great measure indebted to the patriotic and indefatigable exertions of Mr. John Savery Brock for its markets and many other improvements. We have a noble college, but unfortunately much beyond our wants and means. There are three churches and two chapels of ease in St. Peter's-Port, and about five and twenty dissenting chapels in the town and country, so that sectarians lack not. We have four newspapers, many printing presses, and several hundred graperies and conservatories. We are 'kept alive' by the presence of six physicians, twenty-two surgeons, and eight druggists, and their host of apprentices. The town has at least doubled in extent and population, and was last year assessed at 156,080 quarters, levied on 820 individuals, averaging nearly 190 quarters each. The houses in High street have been converted into shops, and the upper classes have removed to the environs of the old town or to the country. Numberless strangers either reside here permanently, or visit the island during the summer.

In contemplating these changes, we cannot, however, but regret that a little more of the simplicity of character of our ancestors has not been preserved, as although the tone of society may be more refined, yet there is now far less sociability. Late hours and costly entertainments, immense houses and expensive furniture, are ill adapted to our confined position and equal laws of inheritance. Our establishments have increased, while in many old families the means of supporting them have diminished, and it is painful to think that these families will struggle in vain to preserve their present respectable station. We possess no permanent sources of prosperity, and, in consequence, our commerce is fast decreasing. The large fortunes in the funds must, in a few years, be greatly divided, even if the interest continue to be paid. Unfortunately also the necessity of a larger income to keep pace with this growing expenditure, has of late years induced many improvident investments of capital in Spanish and other equally worthless stocks, offering a high interest with very doubtful security, and the consequence has been the loss of tens of thousands, in some instances the accumulated savings of our more thrifty forefathers. It were wise, then, in the upper classes to return to the more simple and social style of living of the last generation. We have hitherto copied from England, but these things are better managed in France, and a soirée a la Française would become us more than champagne suppers. We know how difficult it is to cast off the trammels of custom—the chained captive is in thought more free than the slave of fashion—but if the higher orders in Guernsey wish to preserve their independence, and that punctuality of payment by which they have hitherto been so honorably distinguished, they must entertain on frugal cheer, and discard the luxuries of profusion. Hospitality ceases to be a virtue when it can no longer be exercised with moderation and prudence, and surely frugality, or even parsimony, as some writers on these islands have termed it, is far more creditable than the embarrassments, mortgages, and insolvencies, so prevalent among the proud aristocracy of their own country. F. B. T.