A new century

A writer of 1901 imagines the New Year of 1801, at the dawn of a new century. There are some interesting historical tidbits in here!

The Star: Guernsey, Thursday, January 10, 1901

Guernsey at the Close of the 18th and Opening of the 19th century

What was this Guernsey of ours like when 1801 opened upon her? Our Governor was Earl Grey, our Lieut.-Governor was Sir Hew Dalrymple, our Bailiff Robert Porret Le Marchant, the Dean, and Rector of the Town parish was the Very Rev. D. F. Durand; but what are those bare names compared with what we want to know of the life our ancestors lived a century ago? If only journal keeping had been more general, we might be able with such help to picture our grandfathers and grandmothers in their everyday life, the clothes they wore, the hours of their meals, their religious life, their occupations, their studies, their parties,—but we have only a few scattered hints from which the main fact we glean is that a marvellous change has come over everything.

Berry,1 writing in 1815, when the century had run 14 years of its course, says:

The Town of St Peter Port, of which we have now to speak, has of late years been much extended in several directions; it seems formerly to have been confined to the range of houses running parallel with the sea from what is called Glatney to the upper part of Horn-Street. Several very ancient dwellings are still to be seen in this range with overhanging floors, which must nearly have met the opposite buildings; the streets being still narrow, though no doubt greatly improved, consisting now of good and mean houses irregularly intermixed, private dwellings, and some handsome shops. The whole is but ill paved, not wide enough to admit a footpath, with a channel down the principal street, draining the suurounding steps, which proves a great annoyance to the ladies who have no alternative but walking; the few English carriages that are kept seldom venturing down the steep declivities into the Town, and the insular vehicles being too unwieldy and and sluggish in their motions for Town purposes.

They are indeed rude structures, truly grotesque in appearance—a kind of chariot body, or rather more like a hospital chair with long shafts, without springs or perch, with only two wheels, placed far behind, drawn by one led horse (there being no seat for the driver) and incapable of being moved at more than a foot pace. The want of carriages is a serious inconvenience to the ladies attending the Assembly Rooms, who, rather than forego the sprightly fascinating dances, or more sober games of whist and quadrille, often brave the storm in pattens and great coats, with lanterns and umbrellas, to the great discomfiture of all the paraphernalia of ball dresses.

Will it then be believed that when Sir John Doyle, in his speech delivered in the Church of St Peter Port, Sept., 1804, on the question of levying a tax for the formation of new roads, combats the various objections arrayed against roads, he mentions the following: 'It is said that carriages will be introduced'!!!

Talking of roads, there is a story that a Le Mesurier of Plaisance, St Peter’s, made a wager with his cousin, the Le Mesurier who was hereditary Governor of Alderney, as to which would reach St Peter-Port first, starting by agreement at the same hour. The St Pierre-du-Bois man was so delayed by the muddy lanes, that Alderney won the day!!

When the Mr Guille, the Seigneur of St George at that day, broke his leg, the doctor had to live in the house, so as to avoid the frequent and difficult journeys from Town. And, when Mr. John Elisha Tupper went to live at Les Côtils during the summer months, his winter residence being what was afterwards Marshalls’ Hotel, his Hauteville nieces said they could not spend the evening at Les Côtils, unless they stayed to sleep, the roads being too bad and ill-lighted.

French was spoken in many if not most households; and was the tongue of the Church and Court House. Hear Berry again:

There is one inconvenience the English people feel in this Island:—the regular Church service is invariably performed in the French language, so that the numerous English residents, and others occasionally visiting the Island, have only the opportunity of attending the garrison service, read every Sunday between morning and afternoon French service.

(Apparently there was no evening service.) He goes on to say, that as the inhabitants of the town Parish are well acquainted with English the service might be held, at any rate alternately, in that language—but that the English residents would have no seats, as the pews are private property.

There is a picture of a Guernsey home of this period, given by an old retainer, and which I hope I may be allowed to quote. She says,

It must have been in 1805 that my father went to take care of Mr de Beauvoir’s Farm of Les Granges. I remember Mr de Beauvoir quite well. He was a handsome old gentleman, short and stout; it seems to me that I see now his smiling face. He was so fond of children, and used to give us so much fruit. He was always in a light grey suit and buff waistcoat. Mrs de Beauvoir was a Miss Le Marchant, du Bosq. She was mostly dressed in silk with sleeves coming down to the elbows, with quillings of lace or ribbon, and long mittens, the skirt of the dress very wide, the bodice peaked and laced in front. I never heard them speak English. They used to come and stay at the farm every summer, from their house in High Street, for change of air, and Mr de Beauvoir died there.

Another informant tells me that a suite of rooms was always kept handsomely furnished at the Farm for Mr and Mrs de Beauvoir.

Where did our ancestors live? Some of the best houses of that day are portrayed for us by Berry—and we remember the inimitable way in which the late lamented Mr Amias Andros described those truly wonderful plates in his 'Guernsey Institutions' which appeared in the columns of the Star. Eléazar Le Marchant was at the Grand Bosq, William Le Marchant at Havelet, Matthew de Sausmarez at Sausmarez Manor, Isaac Carey at Hauteville, his father-in-law, Elisha Tupper, next door. Peter de Jersey at the top of Smith-Street (that house was pulled down within the last forty years or so). In the same street was Thomas de Saumarez, Queen’s Procureur—Peter Le Mesurier, Governor of Alderney, lived at La Bigoterie, for, in 1803, Thomas Carey of Rozel married his first wife, Mary Le Mesurier, in the Bigoterie drawing room, which was considered the correct thing to do in those days! Balls were not given in these houses, but in the Assembly Rooms, built in 1780, where was generally one, and sometimes four were known in a week. But then suppers were unheard of! Only sandwiches and negus were handed round—and when jellies came in at a later period they were thought a great extravagance! The style of everyday living too, was very simple, only two servants being generally kept, and although there was no stint, a judicious economy was exercised in certain things, e.g. meat was oftener boiled than roasted, probably because of the broth! If fish preceded the meat, the pudding was conspicuous by its absence. The boys of that day were sent to Mr Seager’s Academy, situated where the Gazette-office now stands—the girls to a Mrs Berry’s school, in a lane near the Market, called the Rue Tanquoil. Meanwhile their mothers belonged to one or other of the ladies’ clubs, called the Sociable, the Humdrum, and the Brilliant. Here were to be heard sallies of sparkling wit and fun, and clever repartees, for the men and women of that day were by no means inferior to those of a century later, in spite of the progress of education.

How different Town must have looked from the sea a century ago. There were none of the salient objects which strike the eye now as we approach in the Fast and Powerfuls. As the little cutter of those days neared the Island, the eye did not rest on the Saumarez Memorial, nor Castle Carey, nor the College, nor St James’ Church, nor Victoria Tower. There were no St John’s nor St Stephen’s, nor St Barnabas churches, no Roman Catholic Church, no St Paul’s Chapel (Lord de Saumarez’s Square House stood on this spot), no new harbour connecting Castle Cornet with the Island, no Grange Club, no St Julian’s Avenue nor Hall. Where Doyle’s Pillar now stands was then a Tower called Saumarez Tower, spoken of by Alexander Deschamps in his Sailing Directions, 1818. I think we can safely say we have made progress in many ways, in civilization, in education, in philanthropy, in at least the outward forms of religion, How much we should like to know how they kept the last night of the 18th century! But one thing I am very sure of, had Dean Durand opened the bepewed, badly paved and badly lighted church of St Peter-Port, for a midnight service in French, but few people could have come through the muddy unlighted lanes to attend it—a great contrast to the crowds from town and country who poured in to reverent services at chapel upon chapel, and at our beautiful Town Church on the last night of the 19th century.

1 Berry, William (1774-1851),The history of the island of Guernsey: part of the ancient duchy of Normandy, from the remotest period of antiquity to the year 1814. Containing an interesting account of the island, with particulars of the neighbouring islands of Alderney, Serk, and Jersey: Compiled from the valuable collections of the late Henry Budd, as well as from authentic documents, royal charters, public records, and private manuscripts. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown (etc.), 1815.