Guernsey, its present state and future prospects: Society, 1846

From the second half of a long but entertaining two-part article from the Dublin University Magazine of 1846. 'Let us now hasten to the proper subject of this paper, the state of society in Guernsey.'

On the social divisions within the island see also: The English Butcher and the Brewer and A Bachelor's Paradise.The photographs are from the Library Collection and show historical interiors of 18 Havilland Street, a Tupper residence, Castel Carey, and Saumarez Manor.

The judgment passed upon Guernsey society by English visitors is, generally, far from flattering. 'Conceited and narrow-minded,' are the staple epithets applied to it. We are told of its ridiculous exclusiveness, absurd distinctions into 'sixties' and 'forties', gossiping tea-parties, affected superiority to the English, &c. &c. All this may contain its modicum of truth, but certainly under a fragmentary form, and therefore suggesting erroneous conclusions.

Society in Guernsey is composed of two classes, kept scrupulously distinct, and known, as above said, by the gentile appellations of 'sixties' and 'forties', the former being the patrician, the latter the plebeian class. The origin of the title, 'Sixties,' is traced to the fact that the Guernsey almacks—the Assembly Rooms—was built by a subscription among sixty of the best island families.1 On what circumstance the title, 'Forties,' is to be fathered, we have not been able to discover; like those whom it designates, it seems to shun all reference to origin.

A taste of the Sixites - 18, Hauteville, home of a branch of the wealthy Tupper family, photo from the Library collection

The 'Sixties' are composed, for the most part, of families long settled in Guernsey, and of respectable lineage, several (as their names testify) being of Norman descent, and tracing back their pedigree to within a brief period of the Conquest; others, again, are the representatives of English settlers or French Huguenots, attracted to the island by various motives, political or domestic, generally in or about the sixteenth century. Possessing the authority of birth, and being, or at least having originally been, the principal landed proprietors, these families have imperceptibly assumed a position, virtually securing to them almost all the patronage of the place, and giving them advantages not dissimilar to the hereditary privileges of an aristocracy. Indeed, they are regarded by the other classes, and regard themselves, quite in that light; nor are they, in their little way, unentitled to do so—the 'Forties' occupying a relative position somewhat similar to that of our commoners, or rather to that the commons occupied with us some two centuries ago. Certainly, no existing aristocracy (unless in one or two of the petty German principalities) opposes so impassable a barrier to the encroachments of the commons, as does this self-ennobled clique. The admission of a member of the 'Forties,' to their reunions, no matter what his education or his actual social position, is a thing almost unheard of; and the stranger who haplessly falls into intimacy with the plebeian class, receives thereby a blot on his escutcheon which 'all the blood of all the Howards' will scarcely efface. The distinctions, both artificial and real, thus attributed to the 'Sixties,' are quite sufficient to account for the strong esprit de corps which exists among them, and which, cemented by endless intermarriages, inevitably manifests itself in exclusiveness. Precisely similar results are produced, proportionately, with us; the difference being, in our opinion, entirely traceable to the greater or less potency of the influences brought into play.

Where the Sixities played: The Ball Room at Castle Carey, from the Library collection

In the moral as in the physical world, effects are always proportioned to causes; ceteris paribus, the exclusiveness of the Guernsey 'Sixties' does not at all exceed that of 'the first set' in every provincial town of England and Ireland. We must concede them, moreover, one praiseworthy distinction, which we would gladly see more prevalent at home: the Guernsey exclusives do not make exceptions in favour of money; they do not open their serried ranks to vulgar ignorance, because it has been fortunate in railway speculations or foreign lotteries, a miserable propensity of ours, which proves, incontestably, the justice of the title bestowed on us by the Imperial Caesar of the nineteenth century—a nation of shopkeepers. In return, the 'Sixties' might take a lesson from our expanding liberality in another direction, and allow education and talent to stand in the stead of pedigree, a forward step in civilization of which they seem, at present, utterly incapable. With regard to strangers, the exclusiveness of the 'Sixties' appears to us, in every way, defensible. Those provided with proper introductions will always meet with hospitality and courtesy; those not go provided have no right to expect in Guernsey what they certainly would never dream of looking for in any part of Great Britain or Ireland. It must be remembered, moreover, that the peculiar immunities enjoyed by the Channel Islands, attracting many equivocal characters to them, render some additional strictness in this respect almost indispensable!

The 'conceit,' ascribed still more universally, and, we must add, more justly, than exclusiveness, to the Guernsey 'Sixties,' has certainly one cause in the social position above described; but this cause is rather qualificative than originating. The characteristic, in fact, is a national one, pervading the whole structure from apex to base, and is probably, in no little degree, a consequence of the geographical isolation and circumscribed limits of the island, material accidents which exercise a much more cramping effect upon intellect than human nature often cares to acknowledge. A like class of influences has contributed, perhaps, powerfully, to form the 'insular pride' of the Englishman: but in Guernsey these influences are all in miniature, and miniature pride is a synonym for conceit.

The Room of the Marechaux, Saumarez Park, photo from the Collection

Another circumstance, throwing its weight into the same scale, is an idea cherished among the channel islanders, that their little scrap of territory, as a remnant of the ancient duchy of Normandy, is entirely 'distinct and detached from the kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,' whose sovereign is with them 'rather duke than king,' and bound to exercise his authority ''only to the same extent and under the same limitations as the dukes of Normandy were wont to exercise it over their subjects.'! The good folks of Guernsey are constantly dwelling upon these, and other like harmless and waggish phantasies; and we strongly suspect that, at 'select' tea-parties, the Sir Oracle of the circle (the native society ranges itself into numerous little circles each having its oracular centre, around which the lesser luminaries gravitate), in right of Norman descent, styles himself, 'we, the conquerors of England!' Hence, in their newspapers and political confabulations, dignified by the name of 'Meetings of the States of Deliberation,' the inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland are spoken of as 'strangers,' while, in the social scale, they are qualified as, 'only English!,' much in the tone in which we may imagine Athens was wont to snub 'barbarians.' In itself this is a very innocuous bit of vanity, but it is worthy of remark as a characteristic by no means without significance in the civilized development of a community, on which it acts as a bar to progress, no less than it notoriously does with the individual.

One phase of its operation, the religious, must be touched upon. Religion, notwithstanding the universality to which it aspires, is every where subjected to the characteristic influence of the professing community, hence the diversity of creeds; but the 'pressure from without' does not stop here; various elements of the community have also an individuality to assert, hence the diversity of sects. Nowhere are these latter so prevalent, as where vanity is a national characteristic—for no feeling acts so powerfully, as a solvent, upon all massive combination. We suspect few places, of the same size, can produce such a variety of chapels, as Guernsey; while, with the church-party, the prevailing spirit is strongly evangelical, the form in which spiritual pride too often manifests itself.

An opposite course has been adopted in Jersey, the consequence of which is that (exclusiveness being thus thrown upon the individual, instead of upon the class) society, in that island, is split up into an endless diversity of cliques, in each of which the staple subject of conversation is, abuse of all the others.

The Guernsey aristocracy is condemned also as narrow-minded; perhaps this reproach may be regarded as merely a resumé of the qualities already dwelt upon; for it cannot be doubted that an exaggerated exclusiveness and a baseless vanity are strong indications of a narrow mind. Nevertheless, we have known instances, at home, in which both propensities were united with great political liberality, an apparent anomaly, explained, perhaps, by the remarks already made on the distinct effects produced by the political and the social system on individual character. This distinction, however, can scarcely be said to exist in Guernsey: the island possesses, indeed, a separate constitution of its own, but, for reasons which we shall come to presently, nothing in the shape of politics, properly so called, can be said to exist there; no great interests, no expanded views, are ever brought before public opinion. This fact has a potent reaction in the intellectual development of the 'Sixties:' occupying the position almost of hereditary legislators; monopolizing, by a singular confusion of functions, nearly the whole administrative power of the island, they are naturally led to regard an arrangement so comfortable as the best possible arrangement. With them, as with all privileged classes, the system of government becomes identified, so to speak, with the system of society, and generates equally tenacious prejudices and habits of thought, influencing, directly or indirectly, their views on almost every subject. Regarding the stunted objects round them through a high magnifier, but using the reverse end of the telescope for the more remote, they have made for themselves standards of comparison exactly in accordance with this perverted vision.

A couple of amusing illustrations may be found in the History of Guernsey,² to which we have several times referred in this paper. The author (not, indeed, a native of the island, but writing, after long residence, for native sale) has sufficient faith in the veracity of Guernsey vanity, to offer it the following lump of raw humbug, which has actually been swallowed whole! Speaking of a late bailiff of the island, he says:

The views entertained by Mr. Brock on the subject of the currency, which he first made known in a Guernsey newspaper called the Publiciste, prove the foresight and sagacity of that eminent statesman (!), whose fitting station would have been in Downing-street, were personal merit and usefulness the recommendation to office. Had he presided over the councils of England, she would not now be suffering under the effects of injudicious and short-sighted tampering with the currency.

Poor Sir Robert Peel!

The other illustration contents itself with humbler game, and is altogether more generous in its tone. It beginneth thus:—

According to Mr. C. Le Quesne, of Jersey, whose admirable account of the commerce of that island has placed him in the first rank of political economists, although at the period it was written he was a very young man.' We blush to say that, although somewhat affecting the study of political economy, we never before met with the name of the above distinguished gentleman; but we cannot forbear expressing our admiration of the delicacy with which the writer treats Mr. Senior and Archbishop Whately, in placing 'Mr. C. Le Quesne, of Jersey,' in, instead of above, the 'first rank of political economists.

Jesting apart, however, it would be unjust not to mention that Guernsey has, in one department of excellence at least, the military, supplied its fair proportion of useful citizens. At the head of these stand Admiral Lord de Saumarez, and Major Generals Sir Isaac Brock and John le Marchant; men who, at least, did not regard England as a land of 'strangers,' if we may judge by the gallant readiness with which they fought and bled for her. In the more peaceful, but not less honourable paths of literature and science, Guernsey has very little to show. The Rev. Peter Dobrée, some time Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, was rather a profound than a distinguished scholar, having given to the world only two or three classical works, which are, however, highly prized. Mr. M. F. Tupper, author of Proverbial Philosophy, is also of a Guernsey family; and this dualism, as far as we can ascertain, completes the visible intellectual life of the island; for we can scarcely allow its claim to Dr. John Macculloch, the geologist, a gentleman of Scottish descent, and educated in Scotland, to be a good one. From such barrenness, we may safely infer that the standard of taste is very low in Guernsey, as far as literature is concerned. The island possesses, nevertheless, an excellent circulating library, and a Mechanics' Institute, ³where scientific lectures are occasionally delivered, and a tolerable collection of books, magazines, newspapers, &c. is open to perusal, at a small quarterly subscription. Both of these are, however, of recent establishment: the darkness which they have tended to convert into twilight, was very Cimmerian indeed.

Where literary taste is low, we shall seldom be deceived in expecting a corresponding depression in the kindred department of art. Neither in painting nor music can the island produce a single name distinguished from the rest. As social accomplishments, the former seems to be the more successfully cultivated; the latter rarely surpassing the average school-girl proficiency. In proof of the insular apathy in this respect, we may mention that, not very long ago, the world-renowned Thalberg gave a concert to the good folks of Guernsey, at tickets of four shillings each, and attracted an audience of some ninety people! All this strikes the observer as the more remarkable, because nearly every one of the island gentry have travelled (as who would not, condemned to inhabit a spot of ground barely covering twenty- four square miles!); but as far as expansion of view goes, 'they travel' (we have heard it well remarked) 'with their eyes shut!'

Such, then, seem to us to be the characteristics of Guernsey society, directly flowing from the peculiar influences to which it is subjected, viz.—an exaggerated exclusiveness, an over-estimate of its own importance, and a certain illiberality of views. In other respects it is, as Inglis4 justly observes, 'whether in dress, manners, appointments, or language, on a level with society of the same class in England.' Its general tone is refined; the standard of education and accomplishments is little below the every-day standard with us; and, where actual personalities are concerned, the solecisms in good sense above spoken of, are never transferred to good breeding; for the 'Sixties' are essentially 'gentlemen and ladies.' To say that there is a tendency to gossip among them, is merely to say that Guernsey is a little island, nine miles by five, where everybody necessarily knows what everybody else is doing. This general knowledge of each other's affairs, however, introduces an element into society which is worthy of notice. Public opinion and social opinion become, as it were, amalgamated, and the censorship over private morality, &c., thence resulting, is a much more potent and tangible matter than the denizens of a wider world can easily imagine. This censorship has also its political bearing, and acts as a check on powers otherwise almost absolute, thus taking the place, to a certain extent, of the influence of the press; a healthy stimulant which cannot be said to exist in Guernsey, and which, indeed, the narrow limits and interwoven social relations of the island would scarcely admit of. We question, however, whether the disadvantages necessarily attendant on this state of things, do not go far to counterbalance the advantages: in the first place, a universal tendency to gossip is by no means conducive to charitable sentiments; in the second, the extreme attention to externals thence generated, is but too apt to come between us and higher considerations; the opinion of our little world usurps the appellative jurisdiction which is the legitimate attribute of conscience alone. That charity which gives alms at the corners of the streets, is very conspicuous in Guernsey; whether the charity of the heart is there also—but this is a question which only the 'Searcher of hearts' can determine.

Of course individual exceptions might be named, to whom the above remarks do not apply. We have already said that, where proper passports to good society are presented, the stranger will meet with every hospitality and kindness. Picnics and quadrille (polka?) parties, precisely in the English style, are the general, almost the only, amusements; for, in the matter of amusement, it must he allowed that Guernsey is in a state of great stagnation. It possesses, indeed, a wretched little theatre, which is as wretchedly supported, and celebrities in the lecture and concert way make their appearance now and then; appearances annually becoming more rare, from the very feeble encouragement given. We have already mentioned the Assembly-Rooms, to which, however, there is some difficulty of access, an introduction, directly or indirectly, from one of the "Sixties," being indispensable. The strictness of this regulation might, we think, be relaxed, without doing away with all guarantee for respectability, a precaution rendered necessary by the low price of tickets. This extreme apathy with regard to the position of visitors in the island is, to say the least, very bad policy in the leaders of society: personally, they are perhaps little interested in the matter; but they should remember that the tradesmen, hotels, lodging-houses, &c., of the island depend greatly upon the influx of 'strangers,' and their 'patriotism' ought to induce them to take some pains to enhance the attractions of 'their country.' As it is, almost all visitors cut short their stay in Guernsey, and hurry off to Jersey, where, if society is inferior in refinement (a matter of comparative indifference to the migratory tourist), there are, at least, facilities for killing time which the more aristocratic island does not afford. Complaints on this subject are universal among the class suffering; but very few of them seem conscious of the true cause to which all this is to be ascribed. Men so highly pleased with themselves as the Guernsey 'Sixties,' are always remarkably quick in discovering a stalking-horse for their own errors; with the assistance of a venal press, they have contrived to persuade the bulk of the trading population that the comparative desertion of Guernsey is entirely due to the discords formerly existing between a portion of the inhabitants and their present governor, General Napier, instead of to their own want of public spirit, and to their own institutions. Into the much quoted question of these discords, it it is not our intention to enter: did we posess all the data requisite for doing so, as it ought to be done, we should hardly presume to forestall the high authority and highest ability by which the subject has been already pre-engaged. [See a note addressed by general Napier to the Naval and Military Magazine, April, 1846.] We cannot refrain, however, from pointing out to the intelligent reader that a collision between men of the confined views above alluded to, and a man uniting great expansion of intellect to great energy of temperament, was morally inevitable.

Before leaving the subject of society, we must say a word or two about the 'Forties.' This class, comparatively of recent formation, is composed either of retired tradesmen or of the second generation of retired tradesmen, who have entered liberal professions and occupy, virtually, the position of gentlemen. There is considerable wealth among them, and, as might be expected, more ostentation than in the 'Patrician order.' But the tone of society is decidedly inferior; all the faults of the 'Sixties' are reproduced in an exaggerated degree: the exclusiveness, vanity, and illiberality of that class being copied with a coarser pencil and in more glaring colours. The line of demarcation between 'Sixties' and 'Forties' has always been very distinctly marked, so distinctly that the hope of crossing it seems almost too faint to act as a stimulant on the ambition of the latter. But, within a few years, symptoms of unsteadiness have manifested themselves in the interposed barriers. That grand underminer of social distinctions, wealth, has begun to work here also; with many and strong opponents, indeed, to struggle against, but still not without at least one secret but steady ally. The constitution of Guernsey, notwithstanding the oligarchical tendency of its feudal foundation, contains a decidedly democratic element in its laws of inheritance, which somewhat resemble the Kentish Gavelkind.

According to these laws (as modified by a recent order in council), real property, whether purchased or inherited, cannot be devised by will (unless where the testator leaves, in case of purchased real property, no descendants—in case of inherited, no relatives in the second degree belonging to the line whence that property was derived), but descends to the children in the proportions of two-thirds equally divided among the sons, and one-third among the daughters. Before this division, however, the eldest son (except within the town barriers) claims what is termed the preciput, or 'eldership,' i.e., a right to a certain measure of land, varying from fourteen to twenty-two perches, taken on any spot in the estate he may choose to select, and reckoned as naked ground, whatever buildings, &c., may stand upon it. This arrangement of course secures him the family mansion, and is consistently carried out, in the division of personal property, by giving a similar claim upon one-seventh of the household furniture, together with all family portraits, pieces of plate, &c. The levelling character of such a system is obvious. Constantly acting is a disposer of real property, the grand basis of an aristocratic class, while its operation on personal property is scarcely felt, it has a progressive tendency to leave the preponderance of wealth in the hands of the trading portion of the community; and influence never fails, in the end, to side with wealth. It is true that several members of the 'Sixties' are engaged in mercantile pursuits—a position not regarded as equivocal in Guernsey—but this circumstance only gives another blow to the system of exclusiveness. As a consequence from all which, the 'Forties' are gradually creeping into more consideration, winning scanty share in the high places of the island, and must, in the course of time, afford their miniature parallel to the history of the patricians and plebeians of Rome. This result may be regarded as inevitable, but will, doubtless, be tardy; just as the functions of existence are tardy in animals of slow circulation, to which animals the social system of Guernsey may most aptly be compared.

¹ The Library has original material concerning the Assembly Rooms. Please contact a Librarian for more details.

² Duncan's History of Guernsey, Longman, 1841.

³ See T F Priaulx, 'The Mechanics Institution,' Quarterly Review of the Guernsey Society, XXVIII (3) Winter 1972, pp. 67 ff., and J E Moullin, 'A sale in 1841,' QRGS XXVIII (3) p. 72.

4 Inglis, H. D., The Channel Islands: Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, &c : The result of a two year's residence, Loondon, 1834, 1838, and 1844.