In common with the rest of Europe, Jersey suffered periodic outbreaks of the plague in the 16th and 17th centuries, and, although it is much less well known, as late at the end of the 18th century. The extent of the problem was recorded in two articles in the Eye on the Past feature in the regrettably short-lived Jersey publication Island Eye in 1992-93. They form the basis for this article.
Unknown to medical science of the time, the plague was carried by the fleas of unhealthy rats and spread like wildfire, especially among those living in crowded and cramped conditions in insanitary towns. It was also possible for humans to become a plague carrier without showing any symptoms of the disease.
There was no cure. Treatment consisted of shutting up the infected people in their own homes, until they either died or recovered. Often during an outbreak an area would become quarantined and travel and commerce to and from that place would be banned.
Despite these precautions the plague reached Jersey a number of times during this period and various associated incidents are noted in the records in the Royal Court.
Officers were appointed to take precautions against the plague and on 25 September 1540 a series of regulations was issued. No court, markets, fairs or assemblies were to be held during an outbreak. Infected people were to wear a red cross on their right lapel and infected houses were to be marked with a white cross on the front door.
In 1563 the Royal Court met in St Saviour's Church owing to an outbreak of the plague in town and in 1592 both the Court and the market were transferred outside St Helier.
In 1606 there was an epidemic in Coutances and the Royal Court passed an order that no boat from there should be allowed to dock in Jersey.
In 1626 the plague reached St Brelade and was particularly virulent in St Aubin, a fair sized town in those days. Residents began to display all the familiar symptoms: convulsions in children or silliness in adults, followed by a rise in temperature, vomiting, headaches and dizziness and an inability to stand bright light. Within a few days sufferers would complain of pain in their back and inability to sleep. Their eyes become red and their tongues swollen, many also suffered inflamed glands.
Initial symptoms were very much like drunkenness. Victims would appear to be "dazed, stupid and thick in speech". Alter two days apathy would set in and the victim would no longer feel inclined to move. Regulations were enforced and the lock-up and quarantine began.
The first recorded victims were Jean and Pierre, sons of Pierre Guillaume. They were buried at the Parish Church on 15 and 17 April 1626.
The sickness spread and the Rector, David Bandinel, soon found himself busy organising burial after burial.
The plague was no respecter of age. Old, young, rich and poor, servants and children were all carried away. Eliza and Noemy, daughters of Nathaniel Steven were next to be buried on 26 and 27 April.
In due course the church must have become overwhelmed, or perhaps the pall bearers and grave-diggers refused to handle what they considered to be highly contagious bodies and many were buried in unusual places.
- 30 April: Du Feu - servant of Elie Guillaume - buried in his garden
- 3 May 3: Mattieu Billot buried next to his house
- 13 May: Marie, daughter of Nathaniel Steven buried with her unborn child in the garden of Maison Bisson
- 27 May 27: Two children of Pierre Hulin buried in his garden
- 4 June: Julien Lorans buried next to his house and next to his wife
- 21 June: Guillaume Louys and his daughter - buried next to their house
- 12 July: Lorans Vibert buried under the bank at St Aubin next to his lodge
- 16 July: The daughter of Gustin Du Bois, chambermaid at La Haule, buried next to his house
Burials in gardens stopped after 16 July and the last person to be buried suspec de contagion in the churchyard was Marie, daughter of Thomas Le Porcq, on 5 December 1627, but there had been only six fatalities since the beginning of that year.
A total of 130 people were listed as buried in St Brelade in 1626. Almost all died of the plague, filling seven pages in the parish registers, compared to total burials in 1627 of 14 and only 6 in 1628.
It is also noted in the Royal Court records that, in 1626, prisoners were released from the Castle to disinfect houses.
The St Brelade outbreak was far from the last. On 6 October 1629 the Court met to consider the case of Charles Fleury. Ignoring published instructions, he and his family had secretly taken in their son, who had just returned from Guernsey, where there was a serious outbreak.
The Constable of Trinity was ordered to confine the Fleury family to their home for 40 days. They were also made to pay the guards set to watch the house, 10 sous per man at night and 8 sous per man during the daytime shift. Charles Durant was placed in charge and was informed that he had to use force to keep them in their home if necessary.
Several times during 1630, for the same reason, the Constables were ordered to arrange a night and day watch to be kept in every parish to prevent Guernsey boats visiting Jersey.
On 31 August 1631 it was ordered that infected families in St Helier should be confined in their homes and all the taverns closed. The Constable and his Centeniers were to place guards to ensure that the order was carried out. The Royal Court moved to the country and was held in the Maison du Roi at Bel Royal.
All Jersey boats were forbidden to go to England or France "for cider, or any other reason". Anyone suspected of "trafficking" between the infected areas would have his boat impounded. No strangers would be allowed to land without the permission of the Bailiff.
On 3 October the Constable of St Saviour was ordered to imprison Aaron Falle in the Castle for evading his guards and leaving, without permission, the house of Jean Falle (his father?), who had died of the plague.
Only such draconian methods could hope to halt the spreading of a dreadful disease which nobody at that time really understood.
18th century outbreak
As late as the last decade of the 18th century the plague remained a problem. The printed proceedings of the States show that, on 15 October 1794, they were informed that a fatal and contagious disease existed among the garrison soldiers embarking on the Island.
Authorisation was issued for three members of the Committee for the Defence of the Island to work together with the Lieut-Governor to ensure that the disease was not communicated to the inhabitants.
The soldiers, from the 82nd Regiment of Foot, were ordered to St Aubin's Fort and were kept in quarantine. Not surprisingly, in such a confined arra, many soon died and their names are recorded in the St Brelade burial registers.
The entries begin in November 1794 and give surnames, Christian names (if known), rank and regiment. The first fatality was a Sergeant Topless, buried on the 12th; the others start in December.
The same month, proceedings from the Ecclesiastical Court show the Rector of St Brelade complaining that the Rector of St John (the honorary military chaplain) was burying soldiers in his churchyard without permission.
The 82nd Regiment lost 73 men, two non-commissioned officers and four soldiers' wives.
Other soldiers who were brought to Jersey in August 1795 also fell victim to the plague, after they were billeted in the recently vacated place of the 82nd. They were the Loyal Cheshire Fencibles (who lost 52 men, one soldier's wife and three children), the Loyal Limerick Fencibles (nine men lost), an Invalid company (three fatalities) and the 58th Regiment (one officer and two wives).
It would appear that officers were billeted elsewhere as few of them died of this terrible disease, in any case, the ratio in the British Army was one officer to 30 men. It is most likely that they were in some of the private homes that lined quay and harbour at St Aubin.
None of the records indicate exactly what they were suffering from and the 82nd Regiment had not come from any foreign parts where they may have contracted something like yellow fever, but straight from England (Lancashire), where they had only recently been formed, as the second battalion, on 12 March 1794. The consensus of opinion is that it was most likely to have been bubonic plague.
The plague continued for a further two years before slowing down and ultimately the last burial is dated 2 September 1799, when Daniel Hanrehan, a soldier of the Loyal Limerick Fencibles, was laid to rest.