The history of Jersey has been chronicled by various writers over the centuries, but the total of authoritative histories is surprisingly small, and centuries have elapsed betwen the publication of one definitive work and the next. Several works which are now counted among the main references are simply revisions and enlargements of earlier works. The explosion of communications in the 20th century has brought with it many worthy but short histories, aimed largely at the tourist market rather than the scholar of history, and arguably only two significant new works have been published in over a century.
They were the Rev George Balleine's History of the Island of Jersey published in 1950, and a series of four books published in the 1930s by Arthur Saunders, entitled Jersey in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jersey in the 17th century, Jersey in the 15th and 16th centuries and Jersey before and after the Norman Conquest of England.
Both Balleine and Saunders were Librarians of La Société Jersiaise and had constant access to the organisation's extensive collection of historical records. Another who held the same position at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was the Rev James Messervy, whom many believe to be possibly the island's greatest historian, but his writings were confined to the Annual Bulletins of La Société and various booklets concentrating on genealogy rather than general history, and sadly he never penned a comprehensive history of the island.
The most recent substantial work on the island's general history was published in 1981 at the instigation of La Société. It is not a new work, but a new edition of Balleine's history, updated and enlarged by Société members Marguerite Syvret and Joan Stevens.
Stepping back in time, the first comprehensive histories of the island were all written in the late 17th century.
The Chroniques de Jersey, not to be confused with a later newspaper of the same name, is a diary written by an unknown author in the 16th century. It is regarded as a generally reliable record of many important events in the island's history, although possibly biased towards the de Carteret family. The 1934 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise contains an article by A J Eagleston, which examines the diary in considerable detail and compares it with other historical records, to reach the conclusion that it is generally very reliable.
Jean Poingdestre, an ardent Royalist, Latin secretary to Charles I and Lieut-Bailiff of Jersey wrote Caesarea: Or a Discourse of the Island of Jersey which was written in 1682, but not published until the end of the 19th century, by La Société Jersiaise. It is written in old English, and can be quite difficult to understand. In many ways it is more a statement of life in Jersey at the time than a record of what had gone before. It starts with two sketchy chapters giving a general description of the island, its fortifications and the towns of St Helier and St Aubin, and then becomes very agricultural with four chapters on the countryside, cider, fishing, fences, digging the gound for beanes and pastneps. Then it launches into a series of five chapters about the privileges of islanders, before dealing with the office of Governor and the Kings Revenues. Part one of the book culminates in a chapter with the intriguing title Of things Detrimentall, which the author says he found necessary to redress the balance after relating so much that was good about the island.
It contains information on such fascinating subjects as Jersey's three varieties of fieldmouse and the following paragraph:
- "This Island is noe lesse annoyed by severall sorts of vermine, creeping & crawling things, then damnifyed by the wind & ye water. It is scarce crédible what quantity wee have of toades, Snakes, slowe wormes, rats & mice, with theire Enemyes the Stoates ; but above ail of moles, by whose working in the ground it is opened & blowne up, to the great détriment of corne & grasse, but certainly to ye benefitt of fruité trees
The second part of the book starts with a brief examination of State and Religion before the Conquest before turning its attention to Guernezey, Serc. Arme or Erm, &c. and The Conversion of Jersey & Serc from heathenisme to ye Christian Religion by Maglorus, Bishop of Dol.
Poingdestre's Caesarea has been partially transcribed and published on the Poingdestre family's website but they seem to have given up after Chapter 5. A full copy of the Société Jersiaise publication can be found at
This Caesarea is not to be confused with Caesarea. The Island of Jersey, it's History, Constitution, Government, Laws, Peculiar Privileges, Customs, Mineralogy, Produce, Commerce, and other Statistics - With a tour around the coast and the interior; to which is added the Antiquities and the Biography of Eminent Men, Natives of the Island. This 1840 book, published by Le Lievre, but the authorship of which is unknown, apart from laying claim to probably the longest title of any book written about the island, is actually an informative book aimed originally at visitors, but constituting a valuable historical reference.
Aiming as it does to present the island to the growing number of visitors as sea links evolved in the pre-Victorian ear, this book succeeds where so many other histories of the island have failed in presenting a social history and a comprehensive view of life in the island in the mid-19th century and earlier. It is quoted extensively in the Jerripedia section on population growth and the dramatic changes in life in the early to mid-19th century.
It is possible that the author was William Plees, who in 1924 had published An Account of the Island of Jersey containing A compendium of its Ecclesiastical, Civil and Military History, a statement of its Polity, Laws, Privileges, Commerce, Population and Produce. A survey of the Public Buildings, Antiquities and Natural History, together with some detail respecting the manners and customs of the inhabitants. The two books not only have very long titles in common, but much of the content of the 1940 volume was lifted almost verbatim from the earlier publication. Either both were the work of Mr Plees, who is described as "many years resident in the island", or he can have been less than pleased to see his work reproduced 16 years later.
Wherever the truth lies, the 1924 work also offers a significant insight into life in early 19th century Jersey, and greater reference to both volumes would have significantly improved the scholarly histories which were to follow them and to which reference is made below.
The Rev Philippe Falle's An account of the Island of Jersey, the greatest of those islands that are now the only remainder of the English dominions in France, with a new and accurate map of the Island was published in 1694. Falle was the founder of the Jersey Public Library and is probably Jersey's most revered historian, although 19th century genealogist J Bertram Payne had some very unkind things to say about him in his Armorial of Jersey. Nineteenth and 20th century historians drew heavily on Falle in the production of their works.
The publication of Poingdestre's Caesarea was to reveal that Falle's work was far from original, but was heavily reliant on Caesarea, written a few years earlier.
Philippe Le Geyt
Born in 1636, Philippe Le Geyt wrote his Privileges, Lois et Coutumes de l'Isle de Jersey and Manuscrits sur la Constitution, les Lois et les Usages de Jersey some time around 1700, but it was not until 1846 that they were published by no lesser a body than the States of Jersey, so important a reference to the island's constitutional position were they considered.
The Rev Alban Ragg wrote a comprehensive Popular History of Jersey, published in 1895, which appears in the bibliographies of 20th century historians but is rarely quoted. It is, in fact, a very scholarly work, and the 19th century, through which Ragg lived, is covered in considerable detail.
A C Saunders
A C Saunders' four volumes, and a fifth which deals with the diaries of Jean Chevalier, were very well received when they were published by Bigwood in the 1930s, partly because it had been so long since any major historical work had been published in the island. As do most of Jersey's histories, Saunders' tend to concentrate on French invasions and disputes between Governors and Bailiffs requiring the Privy Council's intervention, and other great traumas afflicting the island, but this is due entirely to the relative abundance of references on these subjects and the paucity of sources about everyday life in Jersey in centuries past.
George BalleineGeorge Balleine, another Rector and another honorary librarian for La Société, published what is undoubtedly the most comprehensive history of the island to date. His History of Jersey follows other works in being heavily biased towards political upheaval, as can be judged from chapter headings The Hundred Years War, first stage, The Hundred Years War, second stage, The Wars of the Roses, The eve of the Civil Wars, The Civil War begins, and The Battle of Jersey. In their 1981 update and revision of the 1950 work, Stevens and Syvret have attempted to achieve a better balance, with more reference to commercial and domestic life.
E T Nicolle
Edmund Toulmin Nicolle was honorary secretary of La Société Jersiaise from 1912 to 1929 and was a regular contributor to the Société's Annual Bulletin. After his death a draft of a comprehensive work on the history of St Helier was found among his papers and published in book form by the Société in 1931 in his honour. Described in the preface to the book as a draft for a lecture, the work appears much too long to have been intended as such and we believe that it was the author's intention that it should be published much as it eventually was.
The book is more than just a history of the town, and covers the life of islanders from Norman times to the end of the 18th century. When published it was probably the best social history of Jersey ever written, and arguably still is. Although quoted much less frequently in subsequent years than works such as Falle's history, it is arguably a far superior history of the people of Jersey. The book's 24 chapters, although not the appendices, are now available in full in Jerripedia:
- Nicolle’s Town of St Helier Added 2016
David Le Feuvre
A farmer turned journalist in the latter part of the 20th century, David Le Feuvre would probably not spring to most people's minds as an eminent historian. However, his short book, Jersey: Not quite British, is one of the most perspective social histories of Jersey ever written. Indeed, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that it is the only work on the island which is solely a social history, as opposed to a chronology of events. It is a history of the Jersey people.
We believe it to be such an important work that we are pleased to reproduce substantial parts in Jerripedia.
Biographies of historians
- George Reginald Balleine, historian
- Jean Chevalier, English Civil War diarist
- Jean de la Croix, journalist and historian
- Edouard Dauvergne, historian and clergyman Added 2016
- Philippe Falle, historian and founder of Jersey Public Library
- Frank Le Maistre, linguist and historian
- Edouard Le Vavasseur dit Durell, historian and controversial Rector
- J A Messervy, genealogist and historian
- J Bertrand Payne, genealogist and historian
- Jean Poingdestre
- Arthur Charles Saunders
- Philip Ahier
- Ralph Mollet
- Francis de Gruchy, soldier and historian
- Norman Rybot
- Joan Stevens
- Humphrey Godfray, lawyer and historian
- Philip Morant, clergyman and antiquarian
See Jerripedia's bibliography for lists of books and links to titles available on line.