Today in Jersey is a Public Holiday!
But it's not one we usually celebrate, this is a 'one off' bank holiday in Jersey- for just this year!
This weekend we've been celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Jersey Corn Riots, which led to major legislative reforms and a fairer society!
We've had a four day festival where there have been lots of public events not just so we can have a great time and a day off work, but also so we may learn more about why the past matters and have an opportunity to cherish our heritage and thank our forefathers, and mothers, for the change they made happen which allows US to live in a fair community.
So ... what were the Jersey Corn Riots all about?
I've been doing some research and I learn that back in the 18th century, power in Jersey was concentrated in just a few hands, and particularly in the hands of one family ... specifically the Lemprière family. In the mid 18th century, the two 'top jobs' in the island were held by Lemprières. In 1750, Charles Lemprière was appointed Lieutenant-Bailiff while his brother Philippe was named Receiver-General. Political as well as economic power lay with just a few influential individuals.
There were those in the island who resented and opposed the concentration of power in just one family and one man in particular, Captain Nicholas Fiott, a businessman and sea merchant who had a long standing feud with Charles Lemprière, was determined to bring them to account. Fiott wanted to take the Lieutenant-Bailiff to court but so powerful was Charles that no lawyers would represent the sea merchant. Eventually Fiott DID take his claims to litigation but instead ended up being prosecuted by Lemprière for insulting members of the Court. Fiott received a fine and was ordered to get down on his knees to pray for the forgiveness of God, the King and the Court (a sentence called ‘amende honorable’) which was just humiliating. Fiotte refused, was sent to prison and then left the island in disgrace.
Jersey in those days (and some would say has been down the centuries and still is to some extent) an island of 'haves' and 'have nots' - rich and influential people holding power and not really bothered about those further down the chain who effectively were just there to 'serve'.
During the mid to late 1700s, across the world there was a spirit of 'revolution'. Think the American Revolution which included the United States Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. And in Europe there were the seeds of revolution ... just across the water from Jersey in France, the French Revolution (1789 - 1799). People everywhere were beginning to realise that life was just too unfair and they didn't like it! They wanted change, not just to law and privilege and equal rights, but to ensure everyone could enjoy the simple things like a decent wage and a roof over their heads and the ability to put food on the table. The rising cost of living and costs of housing and food was causing great dissent and while some lived in the lap of luxury and lauded it over others, many lived in poverty and for them there appeared to be no justice in law or life.
In 1767 here in Jersey, anger was simmering and people began protesting about the export of grain from the Island. Anonymous threats were made against shipowners and just a year later, a law was passed to keep corn in Jersey. However, in August 1769 the States of Jersey - the Government of Jersey which was populated by rich and influential men - repealed this law, claiming that crops in the Island were plentiful. Rich merchants were missing out on the export of the crop. Vested interest reigned supreme in the Jersey government and the courts!
But the feeling in the general population was growing that actually this was all a plot to raise the price of wheat. And this, of course, would only benefit the rich, many of whom had ‘rentes’ owed to them on properties that were payable in wheat. As major landowners, the Lemprière family stood to profit hugely from the change in law.
There were food shortages, rising prices and an unfair taxation system and in that summer of 1769, the defiance began. A ship loaded with corn for export was raided by a group of women who demanded that the sailors unload their cargo and sell it in the Island,
On Thursday 28th September 1769, a group of very unhappy islanders from the parishes of Trinity, St Martin, St John, St Lawrence and St Saviour marched towards the main town of St Helier ... they were joined in great numbers by residents of the town and they descended on the main government buildings. It's reckoned that around 500 islanders stormed the Royal Court - the seat of power - on that day!
A Court called the 'Assize d’Héritage' was in session at the time, hearing cases relating to property disputes. The Lieutenant-Bailiff, Charles Lemprière, was sitting as Head of the Court when the crowds gathered outside. The Corn Rioters were ordered to disperse but instead they stormed the building and forced their way into the Court Room armed with clubs and sticks. Inside, they ordered that their demands be written down in the Court book. What they wanted went to the heart of fairness and equality for the 'ordinary' people of Jersey ...
• The lowering of the price of wheat to a set price
• Foreigners to be be ejected from the Island.
• That the King's tithes be reduced
• That the value of currency be set
• A limit on the sales tax.
• Seigneurs (those rich and influential men who ruled the 12 parishes) to stop enjoying the practice of 'champart' (the right to every twelfth sheaf of corn or bundle of flax).
• That seigneurs end the right of ‘Jouir des Successions’ (the right to enjoy anyone’s estate for a year and a day if they die without heirs).
• That branchage fines could no longer be imposed - this is the fine which, even today, is imposed if your hedge or trees are blocking a pathway or road
• That Rectors (the Anglican parish priests ) no longer be allowed to charge tithes except on apples.
• That the Customs’ House officers be ejected.
As we see, this really all relates to the condition of the people, many of whom were living in poverty and enjoyed no 'rights' at all in law and who were subject to taxes at the drop of a hat, with no recourse for fair negotiation.
But in addition, the Corn Rioters also wanted charges dropped against Captain Nicholas Fiott - that islander who had taken the Lemprières to court and who had had to leave the island as a result. The rioters wanted him to be be able to come home without any repercussions.
The riots were undoubtedly intimidating for the court and those used to having things their own way. After the events of September 28th, the rioters' demands were published in the Market and announced on the Sunday following in all 12 parishes. By the Sunday evening, the Lieutenant-Bailiff and the Jurats (court officials/judges) claiming to feel unsafe, fled for safety to Elizabeth Castle - that's a castle fortress on a small island in the bay just off the coast of St Helier.
On October 6th, a meeting of the States of Jersey was held at the Castle when it was agreed that Charles Lemprière, together with two Jurats, and Philippe Lemprière, would travel to London to present the issues facing them and the island of Jersey to the Privy Council, which advises the Crown and which is still Jersey's main connection with the Monarch.
At first, hearing about the Jersey troubles by those with vested interests, the Privy Council was outraged and commanded that the demands of the rioters be erased from the Court records. On November 1st, a Royal Pardon and a reward of £100 was offered to any rioters who named the ringleaders.
However, once the Privy Council, representing the British monarch, became aware of the full situation - both sides of the argument in Jersey - the protestors were eventually pardoned.
After the Corn Riots, a Dutch heritage military commander called Colonel Rudolph Bentinck was sent to Jersey with five companies of soldiers to bring peace and to start an investigation into the riots and the circumstances surrounding the unrest. What he discovered was that the situation was not as serious as had been reported but changes were still implemented. At the centre of the unrest was wheat so it was once again made illegal to export crops and a committee was set up to examine the distribution of grain. In 1770 Bentinck was named Lieutenant-Governor of Jersey, the Monarch's representative, which gave him even more authority.
Until this time, little in the way of law and order had been written down in Jersey - much was just 'common law' which, of course, invariably benefited those old families who ruled the roost. In September 1770, Lt-Gov Bentinck declared that a set of rules and regulations be written down to make the Law as fair as possible.
So it was that in 1771 'Bentinck’s Code' was introduced which clearly laid down the Laws of the Bailiwick of Jersey. Among other things, the code divided the power to make the laws and enforce them between the States of Jersey and the Royal Court. Although Charles Lemprière remained as Lieutenant Bailiff, he had lost his monopoly on power.
This meant that the general population could not, or should not, be held to ransom by the rich and powerful. As Bentinck's Code said ...The aim was that everyone ‘…be no more obliged to live in a continual dread of becoming liable to punishments, for disobeying Laws it was morally impossible for them to have the least knowledge of.’
As I said before, the Corn Riots started Jersey on the road to reform and a fairer society but we still live in an unequal society ... but for different reasons.
Unfortunately, Jersey is still in my opinion an island of 'haves' and have nots' ... those who have money and influence and those who do not or feel they do not. Although we have a solid government system, there is a still a feeling that the rich and powerful - including the influential finance industry - pull the strings of power. In recent decades, with the very high cost of housing (synonymous actually with London prices) and a higher cost of daily living than many other places in the British Isles and other places on the planet, many people now cannot afford to own property, which is now in the hands of fewer and fewer people. There's resentment in some quarters of rich immigrants who come to Jersey and appear to be allowed to buy up big houses and swathes of land, including land on our coastline, and although many do bring with them wealth via the high value taxation regime, many locals believe it's not worth the payoff.
These days many people do work two or three jobs just to pay the (high cost of) rent and many do believe the government is not acting, by and large, in their interests. They feel that they have no 'power' to effect change, are disgruntled with local politics and feel disenfranchised. Historically people have always left Jersey to seek their fortunes elsewhere but now people are leaving our island because they feel they have no future here!
Some things never change!
I would argue that this weekend, as we have marked the 250th anniversary of events which did bring about change for our forefathers and mothers, has been not just interesting from an historic perspective, but also serves as a reminder that, in fact, Jersey does have a democracy to be proud of.
We can learn from our history and heritage. And if the Corn Riots of September 1789 teach us one thing it's this - Jersey is, or at least should be, about it's people - first and foremost. Those who live and work and have their being here in our lovely island. And it's a chance to acknowledge that when the people get to the end of their tether and decide to speak out and act ... it is possible that things may happen.
Change can come! Maybe we just need to be brave!