A priest takes refuge in Alderney and Guernsey, 1792-93

Les Mouriaux House, Alderney

Extracts from 'Relation du voyage en Angleterre de Monsieur Lefebvre d'Anneville, Curé de Sotteville (près les Pieux)', from Notices, memoires et documents de la Société d'agriculture, d'archéologie et d'histoire naturelle du Départment de la Manche (1924). The author was one of 142 Catholic priests who fled persecution in France and came to Alderney in 1792. The photograph shows the Le Mesuriers' Les Mouriaux House as it is today.

The author of these memoirs was the Norman Pierre-Bernard Lefebvre, seigneur of Osmont and then of d'Anneville, born at La Haye d'Ectot (Coutances) in 1744. He was the son of Hyancinthe-François Lefebvre, Seigneur d'Anneville et d'Aulnez, and Jacqueline Rotot; his family was not particularly well off. He died at Tréauville in 1825.

See also: A list of those who are known to have given refuge to the priests in Alderney; and Edith Carey, 'Peter Le Mesurier, Governor of Alderney, 1793-1803', in the Report and Transactions of the Société Guernesiaise, X (1), 1926, pp. 46 ff.

Lefebvre, who had been persecuted physically and mentally over a long period of time and forced to go into hiding, finally decided to leave France, as other priests had done before him. At Mesnil he sought help from an unnamed friend, who assured him of the protection of the Governor of Alderney. He embarked from Herqueville; with help he negotiated a very difficult cliff path and waited for the boat under the cliffs, expecting to be discovered at any time. The party left France at around ten o'clock, their luggage following on later. Their guide, or Captain, was J. Duh[amel?], who charged them 30 livres each in IOUs, providing they left the luggage behind. The weather was against them, however, and they had to put in at Jobourg to await the morning tide, sheltering under the cliffs against the worsening wind. They put to sea once again, but the weather had deteriorated, and eventually they persuaded the crew to put in for yet another day, awaiting nightfall. Lefebvre found this the most trying part of the whole voyage, tormented as he was by thoughts of capture by gangs of 'patriots', and of having once again to negotiate the perilous cliff paths back to Herqueville:

'As we were short of food, we could not eat much, and anyway our appetites were poor; but we were very thirsty, even though the sailors gave us some of their water and even their beer, which we had to drink out of butter-jars.

Around seven in the evening we arrived back at Herqueville, from where we had originally embarked. No one was about on the strand, and we soon got halfway up the cliffs, where we sat down to rest, so exhausted we could barely stand. However J., who had disembarked before us, above the cliffs, returned laden with provisions provided by that same household that shall be forever blessed for the aid it lavished upon unfortunate exiles. My companions hardly waited to sit down before they tore into the food. But I was more concerned about being back at Mesnil than anything else.

Finally we started out again. I still needed someone to help me keep my footing; back in the wood we feared we might get lost in the dark. We got to the door at Mesnil, only to find no key. Someone went to fetch it. I ate and drank a little while I waited, but Messieurs Pas Desne and la Bel[--] suddenly appeared at the same place looking for shelter, and for a moment we were terrified, but we soon recognised each other as friends, sharing the same misfortunes. At this point the key materialised. I tried to slip in first as I already knew the place and I wanted to locate in the dark a sort of bed made of hay which I had used the day before. I found it and lay down. I was not the worst off, but I was probably most in need of it; my colleagues sorted themselves out as best they could. I managed to get a little sleep like this, and it did me good.

On the morning of the 6th of September, we all hurried to get up; washing did not take long, as can be imagined; we all said our prayers or recited our office. We had hardly finished, at about 7.30 or eight, when someone came to tell us that some residents of Jobourg had spotted us the previous evening resting on the cliffs; some of us were wearing red clothes and they assumed it was an English raid. This was what it was like in France at that time, a lot of nonsense spread either through stupidity or deliberately to get the people worked up. On hearing the rumours, officials came to interview our captain. They found nothing incriminating, but he feared we might be seen again in the evening and so he thought it better to risk embarking in daylight. We had to agree to it. We gathered up all our provisions from the night before and set out again for the village. This time we avoided the heights to escape observation. They took us via the Mill, and below the cliffs, on the shingle. We had posted people on the cliffs to keep a lookout. We walked in small groups and were approaching the departure point slowly and carefully, when the lookouts signalled to us; we had to go back and hide. This proved to be a false alarm, as they had mistaken some of our crew for local officials. They signalled to us to go on. To reach our skiff we had to step into another one moored in front of it, and in the scramble I nearly broke my legs and almost fell in. But (thanks be to God!), I did not sustain even a scratch, something I in particular had to worry about. Monsieur F[erey], whose coat was reddish in colour, had to swap it for a waistcoat because people harvesting barley on the clifftops had gathered round yelling that they were going to shoot us, but they had no weapons and they were so far away we could hardly hear what they were shouting.

It was 6th September 1792. The sailors were in a hurry to reach the open sea. Meanwhile we said our Itinerary. They told us afterwards that the people on the cliffs who were baying after us got even worse when they saw us bareheaded and praying. That shows you what state of mind they were in. Our boat still kept going, though, even though the NW wind was against us; it was less breezy than the day before and the sea was very calm. None of us was sea-sick that day! We said our petites-heures and ate out in the open water with no sense of fear. We made slow progress because of the contrary wind, and occasionally they had to start rowing. It was especially hard work as we neared Alderney, because of all the conflicting surrounding currents; the wind meant that we had to go past the island and nearly right the way round it before we could land. On the voyage we had noticed that our captain and his crew based their steering more on experience than science, using the Tower at Jobourg and the mills of Alderney as their guides. Finally, that day, after a pleasant voyage of about six hours, at about four o'clock in the afternoon, we reached the shore and disembarked, not at the harbour, but at one end of the island near Longy, at a place called Saint-Aquièse.¹

We scrambled over the rocks with some difficulty. Even though he was due to leave on the next tide, the captain got out of the boat and took us part of the way. We paid him what had been agreed, made him promise that he would bring our things on his next voyage and bid him adieu.

Waiting for us on the shore we found Monsieur Bitouzé des Roqueries, priest of Urville near Valognes, who had been in Alderney about a week, and he offered to look after us. Our captain had anyway entrusted us to the care of a certain J., whom he had told to approach the Governor on his behalf, since he was in a hurry to leave and could not therefore go himself. So we set off for the town which is a good half a league from where we disembarked.

We first went to Elbery or Every's inn; he provided food for almost all the priests. From there we visited Monsieur des Roqueries rooms, and he took us straight to Madame Ollivier's house, at the corner of Les Ec[a]lles. This widow, who sympathised with the French priests, put them up and spent a lot of her own time looking for lodgings for the new arrivals who fetched up in the island. She had as a result become known as 'the mother of the priests'. We asked her if she would find us somewhere to stay. She was very good to us, explaining everything, and and then having someone take us to Henry Le Barbenson's house in St-Martin's Street; he was a cooper. He offered us a room with a small one en suite, which was perfect for the three of us - Monsieurs la Motte and Ferey, and myself. We decided that the other two would sleep in the bedroom, and that I would take the little room; but as the bed could only be made up the next evening and since the little room had some furniture in it, they persuaded me to sleep on a mattress on the floor that night. It cost 4 sous each a day. which came to 6 French francs a month; but in Alderney they always charge by the day. We were to have our meals with the others at Every's, for 22 sous a day.

All this was sorted out pretty quickly. We then had to pay our respects to Monsieur Peter Le Mesurier, who was acting governor in place of his father, who was paralysed and infirm; we went straightaway. We apologised to him for our unwashed appearance and the state of our clothes, and explained that we had only just arrived in Alderney, but that the necessity of obtaining his protection and leave to remain in the island as soon a possible had meant that seeing him had had to be our priority above all else.

He was kindess itself. He sympathised with our misfortunes and promised us his protection. He warned us that we might find Alderney lacking in some respects, as the islanders were not used to looking after strangers, but that he would do his utmost to ensure that we did not go without any necessities. He also told us that we could practise our faith in private in our rooms, as long as we did not assemble in too large numbers; this did not bother him, he said, but the islanders might not like it. We gave him our names and addresses, and after more open discussion we left him, very satisfied indeed with our reception, and despite the bitterness we felt, we could not help but feel a secret pleasure in having found civilisation again.

We returned to our lodgings. We said vespers and then went to the inn to eat with about thirty of our colleagues. [Originally it was thought 124 French priests took refuge in Alderney: 112 from the diocese of Coutances, almost all of whom originated in the Cotentin; 8 from the diocese of Bayeux, 3 from Lisieux, and one from the diocese of Evreux. It was later calculated to have been more like 142 in total.] Even though we spent out time talking about our misfortunes, we ate with a hearty appetite; and then went to bed, as we really needed a good rest.

The next day we sorted out our rooms and visited some of our colleagues with whom we were already acquainted. We intended to dine at Every's again, but there were too many people, and it was rather inconvenient to have to go out at night, so we asked our host to provide us our meals. He was not too keen at first, but eventually agreed at a price of 24 sous a head per day, which added up to 28 sous a day for board and lodging. We discovered that Monsieur le Mière, the cure from Taillepied, also occupied a room at Mr Le Barbenson's, so there were four of us there.

The food in the island was very simple fare, young beef and very little of it available; mostly we ate local lamb; salted fish on days of abstinence; and that is as far as it went. The bread was quite good, because it was usually made of English flour, rather than the island's own which was not of very good quality. We had quite good Guernsey cider to drink. We had to ask our hostess to cook our meat right through because in Alderney they like their meat less than half-cooked, like the English.

Thes arrangements contunued until mid-January 1793, except that Monsieur le Mière, who could not get on with Mrs Le Barbenson and could not stand the food, left around All Saints' Day; there were still four of us, though, because Monsieur Le Barbenchon, my curate, who arrived about ten days after us, ate with us although he slept elsewhere. Around the beginning of November we negotiated a reduction in charges, down 2 sous to 26 for the day.

On Sunday the 7th September we could not celebrate Mass, because no-one yet had a chapel ready for us, but on the 16th we could attend, or rather say the Mass, at Madame Ollivier's house, which were the lodgings of Monsieur Jeanne, tutor of rhetoric at Valognes, and Monsieur Quesnel, priest at Digulville and curate of St-Vaast-la-Hougue. I had sent for my accoutrements upon my arrival, but despite the lack of distance I did not receive them until the middle of November, because French customs authorities made sending over even the smallest thing so difficult. I borrowed some from Monsieur Hébert, curé of St Martin d'Omonville-la-Petite, who lived nearby and who wanted to celebrate the mass in our rooms with us. He took the mass then and I began on the 14th October and continued so to do; it was my only consolation, to be able to pray for my parishioners and my family and friends whom I had been forced to leave behind in that seemingly God-forsaken place.

My sister wrote to me occasionally, and despite all the red tape and customs examinations most of her letters reached me, and she received most of mine. This exchange of letters helped relieve some of the resentment and boredom I felt. But God soon willed that this consolation too should be taken from me and this sacrifice added to the list of those so many others he had demanded as punishment for our sins. The last letter I received was dated 6th January 1793, and the last I wrote left the island around the beginning of Lent; N. le M. [Nicolas Le Mesurier?] took it for me.

I had not written to any of my parishioners while I was at Alderney, even though I wanted to, for fear of compromising them, because so bad was the persecution that people were held responsible for the content of letters they received. But since in my place of exile I was far from subject to any such tyranny, I was rather surprised that not one of them wrote to me even once. That was just too much for me to bear. My solace lay in learning that the great majority of my parishioners were determinedly adhering to the faith of their fathers. Please God that they stay with it to the end and even to death, if needs be! All my prayers and all the sacrifices I offer to God on their behalf are for this one thing.

As soon as war with England was declared at the beginning of 1793, all communication between the two countries ceased, whereas before, despite all the restrictions and persecutions, there would always be some vessel or other bringing news.

As I have said, we were kindly received in Alderney by the residents and in particular by the Governor, Mr Le Mesurier. Not content with having received us at his residence and looking upon us sympathetically, assuring each of us of his protection upon our arrival, he visited us all in our lodgings to look in on us. When French sailors, who often visited the island, taught the local children to shout at us 'Down with aristocrats, to the lamp-post with you!',² the Governor took the trouble to visit their houses and forbid anyone to insult us in any way, telling the parents that they would be held responsible for their children's behaviour. He had even arrested a sea-captain from Cherbourg called Le Roux, who had mistakenly thought he could speak as freely in Alderney as in Cherbourg. The Governor was kind enough to send bottles of wine to any priest he heard was ill. Every Sunday he invited five or six priests to dine with him. He sometimes invited us during the week, although less often, as on workdays he dined at two rather than at midday as he did on Sundays, because he never missed a service unless he was indisposed. We were treated with perfect politeness at his house. He even bothered to give us Frenchmen napkins at dinner, even though he and his family never used them, as is the English way. At his table you could drink cider, wine, beer or water, as you chose. The meals consisted of three courses. For the first course, there were always large cuts of beef, or lamb, or pork, or turkey, accompanied by other meats and dishes of vegetables, such as cabbage, or potatoes. The second course consisted of a choice of lighter roast meats, for example rabbit, and lots of different sorts of pies. Soup was not usually served, instead for the first course it was replaced by a large bowl of salad placed in the middle of the table. Eventually, though, he began to offer soup, probably for the benefit of his French guests, as the English do not often serve it. For dessert they removed the tablecloth and served the food straight onto the table itself. At this point they set out five or six labelled decanters of wine, and each of us could choose their own wine and pour it our for himself; this is the English way.

The table was cleared at two, when Mr and Mrs Le Mesurier went to Church, but Mr Le Mesurier never left without encouraging his guests to stay as long as they liked, or take a walk in his very well-kept gardens.

Alderney is nothing more than a rock of about three miles in circumference. There is a small harbour called Brais, which is somewhat popular with English smugglers who are constantly loading up with a type of gin called locally Caine, and with French smugglers, who take away large quantities of the tobacco which is manufactured in two factories on the island. The island is defended by batteries of canon. The houses are almost all to be found in a sort of town, or large village, with about 1000 to 1200 inhabitants, including women and children. The soil is very rich, but the people do not really like work; they do, however, like money. A large part of the island is uncultivated and is just used as pasture for a poor lot of sheep who remain outside the whole year.

It is a great hardship for the islanders to be prevented from trading with France, whence they derive almost all their livelihood in peacetime. Most Alderneymen spend all their time making small barrels of around a dozen pots [pot=2 litres] in volume, which are used for smuggling Caine, and they ship out countless numbers every year. The wood and the hoops for these barrels comes in the most part from Holland. A good workman will sort out his wood and make about six barrels in a day; some are self-employed, some not, and they earn about nine sous per barrel, any waste being borne by the cooper. They use this waste wood to light the coal they use for fuel; there are really no trees to speak of in the island.

The island hardly produces any of its own food, except for a small amount of wheat, and even the best harvests are never enough to satisfy the needs of the whole island, so food is dear, especially when nothing is coming from France. There often is no supply of fresh meat.

Beef usually costs from 10 to 12 sous a pound, but I have seen it as much as 16, lamb 9 and 10 sous. Fresh butter 20 to 24 sous. Cider sold by the piece costs 8 sous a jar, but wholesale it fetches 18 pounds for a 120-pot barrel. Bread was 5 sous a loaf and a sack of flour, weighing, I believe, 260 pounds, fetched 48 to 56 pounds. You rarely see fresh fish, as the fishermen usually keep them for themselves. Cod fetches 3s 6d. Potted butter 16 to 18 s. A bushel of turnips costs 1 pound 12 s, fresh butter goes for 24s per pound; wine 24 s, 30 s, and 36 s a pot. A shirt costs 4 shillings to launder; 1 s a handkerchief; stockings 2 s. Coal usually costs 26 shillings a bushel, but sometimes it gets as high as 36 s, because it can get scarce; there is no coal merchant on the island. Snuff cost 16 shillings a pound, but Mr Robilliard the tobacconist used to let us have it for 12 shillings.

Around the middle of January 1793 we began preparing our own food. Our hosts only asked us to cover the costs of our kitchen equipment and of cooking our bread.

We were forced to leave Alderney because of the war. We set off on the 6th March 1793 around 10 o'clock in the morning, on board three ships which were to take us first to Guernsey, there to await a convoy which would carry us on to Portsmouth. This had been arranged by the Governor of Alderney; the cost was borne by the British Government who paid the ships' captains 12 pounds a head for our passage; they were to provide us with bread and water during the voyage, and meat if we wanted it, also paid for by the Government. We left the Alderney harbour on the stroke of midday. The weather was excellent. On the way we met two English warships, which we found reassuring considering the dangers we could have faced from the French.

We arrived in the Guernsey roads about 4.30 p.m. The captains of our vessels went off in their dinghies to report to the Governor and to request permission for us to disembark as soon as possible. After a good hour and a half they were back on board, accompanied by officials who checked our identities, and we disembarked immediately.

It was twilight and we hurried to reach a part of the town known as haute ville. We were to stay there with a carpenter and innkeeper named Matthew Brehaut, to whom our hosts in Alderney had written, requesting that we be lodged on the same terms we had received in Alderney. This man received us very politely, but told us that his rooms had been taken for some time. He suggested however, that we stay with him until he could find us rooms elsewhere, which he promptly did, finding us two rooms on the third and fourth floors of the house opposite his, belonging to a man called Daniel Drillot. But as the rooms were uncomfortable and we realised Drillot was intending to charge us 12 shillings a head per night, we left after two nights for a house in Cornet Street above the pump. The house belonged to Susanne Jehan, widow of a ship's master called Joseph Martin who had drowned the previous year on the coast near La Hague. She let us have two small but quite comfortable rooms, on the first floor. Each room only had a single bed in it, so every night they made a bed up for me on the floor. She provided coal, kitchen tools, and did our washing-up, for seven sous a day.

Guernsey seemed a very well-off place; the town was full of lovely shops, especially on the harbour side; the harbour itself is very pretty indeed. They have just built some beautiful houses in the countryside surrounding the town; the soil seems fertile. There is a very nice abattoir for despatching their cattle. In Guernsey bread cost 4 shillings a pound and cider 4 shillings a pot; the rest was the same as Alderney.

Day after day we waited in Guernsey for our convoy, until the 22nd of March, Easter Friday. We set off at one o'clock and we were taken in to the roads to await the signal from the frigate which was due to escort us; the wind was on the strong side and we were not certain of leaving. But the signal for departure was given at five o'clock; the anchor was raised at once and we were on our way. The wind got up and the sea became rough around seven, until after midnight; the deck was covered in water and pretty much everyone was sea-sick. Towards dawn, it became very calm and we were slowed right down.' [They reach Portsmouth at 4 a.m. on the 23rd March but have to sleep on board on the ballast and cargo because of the lateness of the day; it was very cold. They were allowed to disembark on Sunday 24th March, and travel on to Winchester.]

[DAB. From the French.]

1 According to Raymond, R., Alderney Place-Names, 1999, p.87, this is the Bay of St-Esquerre; it lies to the NE of Longy Bay. Raymond says 'a convent of the Beguines dedicated to this saint (St Acaire) once existed at Mannez and gave its name to the bay north of Houmet Herbé,' whereas A Ewen, in The Report and Transactions of the Société Guernsesiaise XVI (3), 1957, p. 225, says that this chapel was dedicated to St 'Deharius,' probably the same saint.

2 'Aristocrats, à la lanterne!' was a line from the revolutionary anthem, 'Ça ira!,' and referred to a particular lamp-post on the corner of a Paris street where the people liked to lynch their enemies.