Parish administration

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Parish administration

This article by Francis Bois was first published in the 1986 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Nowadays there are many people who refer to 'our unique honorary system' in such a manner as to make it clear that they have little conception of its historical background or of the extent to which during the last 50 years or so the system has ceased to be honorary - not that payment has come to be made to honorary officials, but that work of the type which they used to do without payment is now done by salaried staff.


There are many people who firmly believe that the Jersey parochial system originated in France. A pointer is the recently adopted practice of referring to a Constable as Connétable when writing or speaking in English. No dictionary of ancient or modern French attributes to the word anything like the meaning which it has in Jersey. The office in origin is the same as that of the parish constable in England, and if an English dictionary lacks the appropriate definition, it is because the office was abolished so long ago.

The fact that the term was adopted in England for the lowest rank of officer in the new paid police forces has helped to obscure the original meaning. It has been said, and rightly said, that the system of parochial administration in England (and, by extension, in the Channel Islands) was based on the doctrine of self help; there was little money to pay anyone, so everyone had to do his stint, such as by helping to enforce public order, to repair the roads, to guard the coasts, to practise at the butts and to perform other military services.

The system evolved gradually and not necessarily on the same lines, but in all parishes there was a Constable who, in the words of A Tindal Hart in The Man in the Pew

" ... seemed to be at once at everybody's beck and call, and responsible for pretty well everything that went on in the parish".

The chief distinction between an English parish constable and a Jersey one is that the former was never called on to attend Parliament by virtue of his office. Thus there was a time when Jersey parish administration needed little explanation to an Englishman, but there never was a time when the same could be said of anyone coming from Scotland, France or anywhere else outside England and the Channel Islands.

It is not to be thought that the situation has remained unchanged; it has been a matter of gradual development - progression or regression - and development in different parts has taken different forms, but all against a background of imposing a duty on able-bodied men to do a period of service for the community without payment.

Growth in administration

The great change which has taken place in Jersey during the present century is the growth of parish hall administration. Though parish halls came into being at the instigation of the States so as to provide a place at which to hold public elections (Saint Helier and Saint Brelade excepted), force of circumstances would have brought them into being - circumstances having become more and more forceful during the past 50 years.

Even after the building of parish halls, constables, churchwardens and other parish officers have carried out their parish business from their homes or their offices, but the weight of parish administration has made it more and more difficult for most parish officers to act without paid assistance. Take for example the Constable's accounts, headed (the name of the constable) in account with the parish of X. The parish monies were monies in the Constable's pocket; if there was a deficiency in the parish cash, the deficiency had to come out of his pocker; and if (when banks came into being) he chose to deposit them at interest in a bank, the interest belonged to him.

No one was provided to assist him in keeping his accounts, and before their annual presentation to the Parish Assembly, they were examined by a committee specially appointed for the purpose. Nowadays (certainly in the bigger parishes) the Constable does not have the time to devote to keeping the accounts, and in most, if not all, parishes the accounts are audited by a chartered accountant.

Another change is to be found in the administration of the poor law, a function of the churchwardens now virtually, if not actually, in the hands of the Constables as it falls to them to provide the funds required for the payment of what is now called supplementary benefit (Saint Helier is excepted as there the functions of the Constable, churchwardens and civil and ecclesiastical assemblies in relation to parish assistance were transferred to a commission in 1908).

A third example: in most parishes there is little left for the roads inspectors to do, as road maintenance is carried out by permanent staff of the parish.

The final example is the best known; the parish (honorary) police which is supported by the island (paid) police. In England the rapid increase in population and the growth of towns resulted in the constabulary becoming incapable of maintaining law and order and their replacement in the first half of the 19th century by paid police forces. As a result of pressure from the British Government, a paid police force was constituted for Saint Helier in 1853, and further pressure led to the constitution of the island (paid) police force in 1951.

The big difference between Jersey on the one hand, and England and Guernsey on the other, was that the honorary police force was kept in being in Jersey. However, by way of contrast, the magistrature in England is largely unpaid and in Jersey and Guernsey is wholly paid, though the honorary police are empowered to exercise quasi-magisterial functions, a practice which has considerably increased during the last 30 years and which the honorary police now seek to have extended.

Force of circumstances have brought about these changes, and all (with one exception) undermine the system of honorary service. The exception is the exercise of quasi-magisterial functions by the honorary police. Here a distinction must be made between open-and-shut cases subject to a fixed penalty (particularly traffic offences) and those which call for the exercise of judicial discretion, for in the latter case it is considered wrong that a person should act as both prosecutor and judge.

The course of history passes through ever-changing circumstances, and danger lies in not adapting to those circumstances. To maintain something because of its historical (traditional is the popular word nowadays) background, ignoring the needs of the day which brought it into being, can lead to the good eventually being swept away with the bad. That point is the reason for this note, for while honorary service for the community has ceased to be essential, it is good that it should be maintained. It is good too that there should be participation in government at parish level, but this desirable situation will be imperilled if popular feeling allows itself to be blinded by 'tradition'.

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