A summary of influences on Jersey's population levels

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By Mark Boleat


Unusually for a small island Jersey has been characterised by large scale inward and outward migration and significant changes in the total population over relatively short periods of time. Immigration has come from Britain, France and more recently Portugal and Poland, while a high proportion of young Jersey people have emigrated.

Long term trends

Human occupation of Jersey first occurred during glacial times, with the earliest reliable dated human occupation going back around 250,000 years. Renouf (1989) suggests that between 4000 and 3000 BC it is unlikely that the population of Jersey was less than 2,000, but may have been double this. This is based on between 10 and 20 separate communities each with a population of between 200 and 250. Renouf then suggests that there was a significant decline in the population largely because of the loss of land to a rising sea level. The population may have fallen to about 500 in the middle Bronze Age (2000–1500 BC).

There was subsequently some small scale immigration, and in the Iron Age the emergence of the Celtic peoples.

In 56 BC the Roman armies defeated a coalition of tribes near Avranches, and it seems that a number of the defeated Gauls took refuge in Jersey. Syvret and Stevens (1998) and Platt (2009) note that while there is some evidence of Roman activity in Jersey there is no definite evidence of Roman occupation. There were further refugees as a result of Roman activity in the 5th century. Also at that time, Britons were under attack from Germanic settlers, and some fled southwards to Brittany via the Channel Islands where some of them settled.

Ford (1989) then notes Norse activity in the adjacent regions of France in the 10th century and concludes that “it would be a foolhardy man that could put hand to heart and say that the Vikings were not present on the Island”. Indeed, Ford argues that the local population would have been outnumbered by the new Norse speaking settlers.

Rybot (1937–40) used the accommodation provided by parish churches as a pointer to the population of the Island. He concludes that in the year 1050 there were not more than 6,000 people.

Platt (2009) notes that in the 13th century the economies of Europe were booming and accordingly populations rose. Jersey and Guernsey both benefited by being close to the sea route from Bordeaux to Southampton; the wine fleets often took shelter in Guernsey and called in at the islands on their return journey to load dried fish and other produce. Platt suggests that even by 1300 Jersey was “becoming dangerously overcrowded”.

Jersey Domesday Book

The Jersey Domesday Book was compiled in 1331. Syvret and Stevens (1998) suggest that there were at least 2,000 houses, and with an average of six persons to a house, at least 12,000 people.

Platt (2009) comments that the average death rate in the black death of 1348-49 was 30-40%, and he suggests that by the early 15th century the population may have fallen to 4,000-5,000.

Nicolle (1991) analysed in detail evidence on the population in the 17th and 18th centuries. A militia roll in 1617 recorded 2,675 men which Nicolle extrapolated to a total population of 9,900–10,000. He suggests that a 1685 housing census implied a population of 16,200 and describes a manuscript copy of a 1737 census in the University of Cambridge library, which combined with other evidence led him to suggest a population of 18,400 in 1737.

The Société Jersiaise Library includes a single sheet of paper giving the population of each parish and a total population in 1770 of 19,788 and in 1788 of 20,025. It is not known how the figures were compiled.

Censuses in 1806 and 1815 were conducted by General Don, the Governor of Jersey, and provide more reliable estimates, and since 1821 there have been formal censuses.

In the 45 years between 1806 and 1851 the population rose from 22,855 to 57,020, an increase of 150%, an annual rate of over 2%. The 1820s and 1830s were periods of particularly rapid growth, around 25% in each decade.

After 1851 the population declined for 70 years before recovering such that in 1951 it was virtually the same as 100 years earlier. From the peak of 57,020 in 1851 there was a 13% decline to a low point of 49,701 in 1921. However, the 1921 figure was artificially inflated as it was conducted in June rather than April. On a comparable basis the 1921 population was more like 47,000, a decline of 18% from 1851.

From 1951 to 1991 there was a second period of very rapid population growth. Subsequently, the rate of increase has been more modest, although still high by international standards.

Net immigration and natural increase

Significant variations in population are invariably explained by net migration rather than by the natural increase. This is the case for Jersey. There was strong net immigration between 1821 and 1851, averaging over 500 a year. Between 1851 and 1881 there was net emigration of over 450 a year, with net emigration continuing until 1921. From the end of the War until 1971 there was another strong period of net immigration, averaging 650 a year, followed by a lower level of net immigration subsequently.

French refugees

From the 16th century to the early 19th century Jersey became the home for French religious refugees. French protestant refugees first came to Jersey in the mid 16th century and there was a particularly large influx between 1585 and 1588. There is no indication of the numbers involved although it was such that it was necessary to have an extra market day each week. Following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the flow of refugees increased significantly. Generally, the refugees were entrepreneurial and industrious, and contributed significantly to the economic development of Jersey. From 1779 there was a further burst of immigration, this time predominantly of Roman Catholic priests following the French revolution. A final burst of refugees occurred in the early 1870s as a result of anti-clerical laws.

Economic boom in the first half of the 19th century

The French refugees came to Jersey to avoid religious persecution, but their enterprise and entrepreneurship proved beneficial to the Island. Beginning in the early 19th century there was a very different wave of immigration - economic migrants seeking to benefit from, and contributing to, the booming Jersey economy. To set the context for this boom it is necessary to understand how Jersey’s special status had provided the platform for rapid economic growth, led by a number of different industries and which had its origins before the 19th century.

Jersey had a long-standing favoured tax position, which both benefited goods produced in the Island and also made it a centre for manufacturing. This dates back to 1394 when Jersey was permitted to exports goods to England free of tax. This privilege was extended to exports to the colonies in 1468. The privilege can be seen as a necessary counterpart to Jersey’s strategic importance to England. A strong, well-fortified Jersey was essential to England in the long-running wars with the French. Tax-free status was deliberately designed to contribute to this. Businesses in Jersey could import raw materials and export manufactured goods to England and its colonies without having to pay any taxes or duties.

Jersey’s economic boom was not a single product boom related to a specific natural resource – such as the gold rush in the Yukon in the late 1890s or the oil boom in Aberdeen in the 1970s. Rather, the underlying conditions described in the previous paragraph resulted in the rapid expansion and then gradual decline of a succession of industries. A trigger point was the Napoleonic Wars, which put Jersey in an important strategic position, leading to an influx of both money and people into the Island. There was a reasonable fear that the end of the wars in 1815 would lead to a decline in the Jersey economy as a result of the withdrawal of British forces from the Island and the end of the lucrative privateering industry. In the event, these forces were swamped by the growth in world trade.


The fishing industry dates back to the 12th century. Initially, the catch was congers and mackerel in local waters, both of which were exported to England and France. As early as the 16th century the Jersey fleet was involved in the Newfoundland cod trade, and there were permanent bases in Newfoundland in the 1670s. The business developed strongly in the late 18th century, largely in the Gaspé peninsular. Typically, the fishing boats left Jersey in the spring and returned in the autumn, the fishermen probably working in agriculture in the winter months. At its peak, probably in the 1830s or 1840s, perhaps 2,500 Jerseymen were on board a fishing fleet of over 100 vessels. They may well not have been fully counted in the decennial censuses.

The Atlantic cod trade generated a demand for shipbuilding and for the many support services that fishing requires. It also generated a shipping industry that was related to Jersey’s tax free status.

The cod trade was the key industry in the early part of the 19th century. Ommer (1991) attributes its success to “skilful manipulation of constitutional ambiguities and the institutionalisation of merchant solidarity in the creation of the Chamber of Commerce”, Jersey’s privileged tax position playing a key role. Ommer also concludes that Jersey rather than Canada succeeded in capturing most of the benefits of the trade.

Other industries that played a part in the economic boom were

  • Privateering, which began in the 17th century and was at its peak in the late 18th century and the early years of the 19th century, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. The Channel Islands were a natural centre for privateering, primarily because of their location combined with the strong maritime influence.
  • Informal trading of manufactured goods and alcohol, benefiting from Jersey’s tax status.
  • Knitting had been a key industry, the largest industry before the 19th century, influenced by absence of duties on both the wool that had to be imported and the stockings that were exported and relatively easy access to the port of Southampton.
  • Cider, which, at its peak in the late 18th century, accounted for around 25% of all land.
  • Oyster farming, which began with the discovery of oyster beds in the late 18th century and which peaked in the 1850s.
  • Wealthy immigrants, largely retired military officers and senior officials from the colonies, attracted by the tax regime and way of life, including cheap alcohol. It was estimated that there were 5,000 English residents in the early 1840s.
  • Construction projects, in particular Fort Regent and St Catherine’s breakwater, both built by and financed by the British Government for defence purposes, and a network of roads.
  • Jersey cattle, based on a ban in 1789 on the importation of live cattle. This was partly to prevent French cattle being “laundered” through Jersey and then passed off as Jersey cattle in the British market, and also to maintain the purity of the Jersey breed. Jersey cattle became a valuable commodity.
  • New potatoes, which developed rapidly in the second half of the 19th century.

An economic boom such as that which Jersey experienced in the first half of the 19th century can be sustained only by large scale immigration. By 1841 over 30% of the population had been born outside the Island, the large majority in England. In the next decade there was also a high level of immigration from Scotland and Ireland, mainly to man the booming construction industry. It should also be noted that a significant proportion of children were born to parents one or both of whom were immigrants.

Decline and recovery, 1850 to 1950

The economic boom, which had stimulated the rapid increase in population in the first half of the 19th century, ended abruptly in the 1850s. The primary reason was the collapse of world trade and the cod fishing industry in the 1860s. Other factors played a part –

  • The oyster industry peaked in 1852-53 and within 10 years output fell 95% as a result of over-fishing and health scares.
  • The shipbuilding industry could not make the change from sails and wooden hulls to iron and steam.
  • The cider industry declined by 90% in the ten years after 1865, partly because of competition from English suppliers, and partly because the potato industry offered higher returns.
  • Jersey had ceased to be of significant strategic importance to the UK after 1815 – although with a temporary blip in the 1840s. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 Jersey ceased to have any strategic value to the UK and therefore no longer benefited from defence expenditure.
  • The major construction project of St Catherine’s breakwater was halted and other projects were abandoned.
  • Jersey’s uniquely favourable tax position was eroded in the 1850s and 1860s by a series of measures.

Between 1851 and 1911 the number of Jersey born people in the Island fell modestly while the number born in the rest of the British Isles more than halved.

However, during this period there was substantial immigration of workers from Brittany and Normandy to Jersey. Most probably intended to be short term migrants, planning to return to France. But some decided to settle in Jersey, many of today Jersey’s population being descended from them. The French migrants were predominantly agricultural workers working in the rapidly growing agricultural sector; they were not replacing British migrants, who had largely been working in construction and oyster farming.

Between 1921 and 1931 the population increased by 6.6% and between 1931 and 1939 by 1.5%. However, both figures are distorted by the effects of the end of WW1 and the beginning of WW2. One significant trend from the 1920s was a new wave of wealthy English settlers, attracted by the lifestyle and tax position that Jersey could offer.

The wartime and immediate post-war experience is well covered in the comprehensive report on the 1951 census (census, 1951), which merits reproduction –

In the latter half of 1939 many men left the Islands to join the Forces. In Jersey, these were estimated, on the basis of the reduction in the numbers registered for Social Insurance, at about 2,000 by April 1940. Later that year came the German occupation following large scale evacuations to the United Kingdom, the size of this movement being apparent from the figures given by the count of the civilian population made after the German Military Authorities had installed themselves. This count indicated that the overall reductions between mid-1939 and the latter part of 1940 were about 10,000 persons for Jersey and double that number for Guernsey. In the occupation period itself, 1940 to 1944, there was a steady reduction in the population of the islands due to the excess of deaths over births and deportations to the continent by the Germans. After the liberation the increase in population was rapid. At mid-1945 the population of Jersey was estimated at 45,000 and that of Guernsey at 25,500 representing rises of 1,000 and 3,000 respectively since mid-1944. In the next 12 months the increases were 9,700 and 12,500 respectively. Both islands continued to gain rapidly in population until 1948, and in Jersey the population surpassed its pre-war numbers before mid-1947.” (Census, 1951, P.xi) The report went on to suggest that in the whole of the period 1931–51 there was net migration into Jersey of over 5,000 people.

Rapid growth, 1950 to 1990

The period from 1950 to 1990 was the second period of rapid population increase for Jersey, although not nearly as pronounced as that between 1821 and 1851. Between 1951 and 1991 the population increased from 57,310 to 84,082, an increase of 47%. However, this understates the true position because of the discontinuity in the series from 1981 when resident population rather than census night population was recorded. On a comparable basis the increase was 52%. The increase was most rapid in the 1950s and 1960s, slowing down in the 1970s and 1980s.

As in the boom in the first half of the 19th century this was not a one industry boom, and similarly it depended to a large extent on Jersey’s favoured tax status. Cattle and new potatoes remained significant but were declining in relative importance, and tomatoes and flowers also contributed significantly to the economy. However, the real growth industries, which in turn were closely related with population trends, were tourism and then finance.

Recent years

Between 2000 and 2019 the population increased steadily from 88,400 to 107,800. The rate of increase was particularly high between 2005 and 2008, driven by net immigration. There was a turnaround from zero net immigration in 2003 to net immigration of 1,400 in 2007, closely related to the rate of economic growth. The downturn in the economy from 2008 was reflected in a significant fall in the rate of growth of the population, net immigration falling to 500 in 2012. Subsequently population growth accelerated with record net immigration of 1,500 in 2015. Net immigration subsequently fell to 1,000 in 2019. There has been a sharp reduction in the natural growth of the population since 2011. In that year births exceeded deaths by 390; in 2019 the figure was just 90.


  • ‘’Census 1951, Jersey, Guernsey and Adjacent Islands’’. London: HMSO.
  • FORD, Doug, 1989. “From Langlois to De Sousa – A History of Immigration into Jersey”. Unpublished paper in Société Jersiaise Library.
  • NICOLLE, Jason St John, 1991. New evidence for the population of Jersey in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. ‘’Société Jersiaise Bulletin’’, pp 463-472.
  • OMMER, Rosemary, 1991. ‘’From Outport to Outpost, A Structural Analysis of the Jersey-Gaspé Cod Fishery, 1767-1886’’. Toronto: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • PLATT, Colin, 2009. ‘’A concise history of Jersey’’. Jersey: Société Jersiaise.
  • RENOUF, John, 1989. ‘’Neolithic Jersey’’. Jersey: States of Jersey.
  • RYBOT, NVL, 1937-40. ‘’On the population of Jersey throughout the ages and the origin of parishes. Unpublished paper in Société Jersiaise Library.
  • SYVRET, Margaret and STEVENS, Joan, 1998. Balleine’s History of Jersey. Chichester: Phillimore.

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