The Kingdom of Congers

11th February 2022

From An Account of the Island of Jersey, with An Appendix of Records &c. (1694), to which are added, Notes and Illustrations, by the Reverend Edward Durell, MA, Rector of St Saviour, Jersey. Jersey: Richard Giffard, 1837.

It were strange if an Island so situated [Jersey], near a Continent and amidst Rocks and Shelves, should not be well supplied with Fish, such Places being where they most delight to haunt. And better supplied it would yet be, did our People follow the Fishing Trade as much as in Guernezey, where every Day of the Week Boats come in laden with fresh Provision from the Sea. ... But the Seas about this and adjoining Islands might be stiled the Kingdom of Congers, so great is the quantity taken and brought to Market at all Seasons, some weighing from thirty to forty Pounds. Otho de Grandison, Lord (or Governor) of these Islands in the Reigns of Edward I and II, forced an Impost upon Congers salted for Transportation; and it amounted to four hundred Livres Tournois by the Year, at only one Penny Tournois for every Conger above ten Pounds Weight so salted and transported.* (93)

* This was an illegal Act of an arbitrary Governor, for which his Widow suffered severly in Edward IIId's time. [pp. 109-10]

Note 93, p. 110:

The salting of congers was of so much importance to our ancestors, that it is expressely made one of the Articles of King John's Charter. In those ages when the Islands had but very little trade, the attention of the inhabitants was probably directed to this, as to a most valuable fishery. How long the fishing of congers on that extensive scale continued, is unknown. If the exaction of Otho de Grandison is correct, at one sou for each conger, it would have required 8,000 congers, and taking these at 20lb. each, it would have amounted to the enormous weight of 160,000 lb. or 80 tons! exclusive of the small congers, which could be spanned by the hand, and were not liable to this exaction. The duty paid to the Crown on salt congers and mackerel was called esperkia. It is so fully described in the Extent or the King;s Rent Roll of 1331, for Guernsey, that I hope the reader will pardon me the length of this quotation: 

'Esperkeria. Item habet Dominus Rex de quadam customa piscium omnium insularum ...'

Fishery. Our Lord the King also has a revenue from a certain custom called the fishery of congers, and mackerel, as well from the duty on all the fish of the Island, the whole of which is farmed out for Two Hundred and Sixty-six livres, thirteen sous, and four deniers. It is to be known that the fishery of congers is a certain custom by which some of the King's Tenants and others who fish for congers, between Easter and Michaelmas, are obliged to sell them to the King's traders only, who are especially authorised for that purpose by the King himself to his Tenants, provided they can agree about the price. Otherwise they ought to be valued by persons chosen by both parties, and then it is in the option of the King's trader, either to take them at the valuation, or not. In which latter case the fishermen may sell them to any one they like.

Note. That the same fishermen may do what they like with the congers that are so small, that they may span them round the middle with their fist, and that they may receive, from the large as well as the small fish, according to what they catch, as much as may be sufficient for their diet.

And the duty on mackerel is that the King receives for every hundred of mackerel caught between Easter and Michaelmas by the said Tenants, or by any strangers resroting there during that time, two deniers tournois.

And the duty on fish is, that the King receives for every bushel of fish exported to Normandy, or 'elsewhere out of the Kingdom of England, two sous tournois; and for every salt conger, provided there be an agreement, two deniers, and an obole tournois. The sum amounts ot 268 livres, 13 sous and 4 deniers tournois.

It is not improbable that the conger fishery lasted until it was replaced by that to Newfoundland in the early part of the Seventeenth Century. I should suspect that Mr Falle is mistaken about the illegal conduct of Otho de Grandison, who was lord of the Isles under Edward I when we find the duty on congers recognised as a source of Royal Revenue long after that time in the Extent of 1331. The duty seems to have been levied in a mild and equitable manner. If Otho de Grandison levied 400 livres a year, the Extent estimated the duty to have been worth 266 livres for the fishery in Guernsey alone, to which if we add that for Jersey, it could not be less than 400 livres. Whether the widow of Otho de Grandison suffered severely or not for the exaction is immaterial. A disgraced or dead courtier seldom finds sympathy, and men have never been wanting to plunder under the colour of law their fallen fortunes.