Education in Jersey 1770-1790

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Education in Jersey


This article by J G Speer was first published in the Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

It is difficult to discover much about either the quality or the quantity of education in Jersey at this time as the first Jersey newspaper didn't appear until 1794 and was a largely political broadsheet, and there was no annual almanac until 1795. However, what education was available seems to have been provided in four ways: at the top there were some university scholarships, provided by the Don Baudains, a trust founded in 1611 by a St Martin farmer, Laurens Baudains, to send poor boys to Oxford and Cambridge to obtain degrees, provided that they agreed to return to "devote themselves to the business of the isle". Then came two ancient grammar schools, that of St Mannelier in St Saviour, founded in 1477 and St Anastase in St Peter, founded in 1496. Besides these, there was a parochial school in every parish and, finally, it seems that most, if not all, of the Rectors took private pupils in their homes. All this was strictly controlled by the Church, although by the time of which we are writing this control was being increasingly challenged and it was finally broken in 1787 by what Mr Philip Ahier has called "the famous lawsuit".

In 1780 St Mannelier had just acquired its most famous head, or Regent, another Philip Ahier, who was eventually to hold that office for 52 years. He evidently had a keen sense of his own dignity because one of the first things he did was to place a new set of granite gateposts at the entrance to the school. Apart from Latin and Greek, the "grammar" of the title, he taught French, arithmetic and handwriting: these generally earned satisfactory reports from the Visitors, of whom more later. Ahier was a great "whacker" but this didn't prevent him from drawing pupils from England, to recruit whom he used to be given leave of absence.

Holidays were scanty, with no long summer break, just the 12 days of Christmas, the main Church festivals and Easter Tuesday, Whit Tuesday and 25 May, Royal Oak Day. St Anastase was in much the same state but seems to have been popular at the time, since in 1767 the Regent reported that he had more pupils than he could manage and asked for the appointment of an assistant. He was also showing a profit on the running of the school, so this reasonable request was granted. Evidently they had modern troubles too, such as affect Les Mielles in St Ouen's Bay today, for in 1776 the Rectors had to have an earth bank made along a public footpath to prevent people straying into a field that belonged to the school.


Every six months or so these schools suffered a formidable inspection from a board of Visitors, consisting of the Dean, at that time the redoubtable Francois Le Breton, five Rectors and the Greffier of the Ecclesiastical Court. It is from the registers of this court that most of the information about these schools comes. Although the records vary enormously from a simple list of the names of the Visitors, followed by a brief statement such as "ils ont trouvé le tout en bon ordre et en bon etat", to those like the report of the visit to St Anastase on 15 October 1781, when the Regent, Philip Sorsoleil, asked to be allowed to retire "on account of his advanced age and feebleness" and Henry Nicolle, the sousmaistre, was appointed to succeed him. On 12 July 1784 Mr Ahier at St Mannelier produced examples of his pupils' handwriting and the boys adjudged the best in the first, second and third classes were each awarded a prize of a book in two volumes. This same visit also found that good progress had been made in Latin, arithmetic and reading.

In general, the records give the impression that the Visitors were more interested in the way the revenue of the schools had been administered by the Regent than in the progress of the pupils. If there was a surplus they often ordered it to be applied to improvements, which were named, to the buildings and their surroundings. The Regents must have been paid in kind because in 1783 Mr Ahier asked permission to build a new barn, or a bigger one, in which to store his rentes of wheat.

It should be emphasised that at this time no one was allowed to teach without a licence, in the case of the grammar schools granted by the Ecclesiastical Court, for a parochial school recommended by the Rector of the parish concerned and endorsed by the Dean, and for that particular parish only. Although the material rewards of these schoolmasters seem to us to have been meagre in the extreme, the position was regarded as a privileged one and was jealously guarded; for instance, in 1763 Daniel Bessin, who was licensed to teach in St Helier, opened a school in St Lawrence. The official schoolmaster here immediately took him to Court and Bessin was ordered to confine his activities to St Helier and not to interfere with Mr Sorsoleil, under pain of ex-communication.

In 1786 the St John's master, David Hocquard, actioned Abraham Lempriere for keeping a school in St John without a licence to do so. These men often acted as parish clerk as well as schoolmaster and sometimes as gravedigger as well, eg Jean Dorey, of Trinity in 1763 received approximately £2 for that year as salary and for fetching the bread and wine for Communion.


The law governing all this was the Canon of 1623 of which the relevant articles 40 and 41 read:

1 There shall be a schoolmaster in evey parish chosen by the Rector, Churchwardens and Principals thereof, and after that presented to the Dean to be licensed thereinto, and it shall not be lawful for any to exercise the charge, not being in this manner called into it, and the Ministers shall take to visit them and exhort them to their duty.
2 They shall use all painstaking diligence to teach the children to read and write, say their prayers and answer the catechism: they shall instil into them good manners and shall bring them to sermons and common prayers, observing that they behave themselves as there becometh.

The undertaking to be signed by schoolmasters goes as follows:

Je sousigne ... choisi maitre d'ecole parroisale de St ... pour etre admis en ladite charge souscri voluntier et de tout mon coeur au premier et troisieme article du Canon 36 du Synod celebre a Londres en 1603 et tout ce qu'ils contiennent comme aussi des deux premiers membres de l'Article Seconde du meme Canon suivant qu'il est dirige par le Canon 77 du meme Synod. Temoin mon propre signe et propre ecriture.

In spite of the solemnity of these undertakings, quite a few that have survived are neither signed or dated but, thanks to them, we have the names of many of these parish schoolmasters and it is clear that there was a school in every parish and, it seems, several in St Helier. They were usually held in the Parish Church, probably in a part that was boarded or curtained off. After all, the Church was the only public building at the time and in consequence was used for every kind of public business such as, for example, elections.

However, these parish schools failed to keep pace with the changing times, as from the middle of the 18th century, in response to the great increase in local shipping and overseas trading (the Jersey Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1768) schools that taught navigation began to be opened. Of course, these were challenged by the parochial schoolmasters but once the Court was satisfied that only astronomy, trigonometry, geometry and suchlike subjects were being taught they were allowed to continue.

There is some evidence that the Battle of Jersey actually stimulated the growth of schools and education generally. There is no doubt that it did stimulate the building of fortifications all round the Island, from coastal batteries to, eventually, Fort Regent; and to build these there must have been a big influx of both military engineers and civilian artisans and builders, some of whom would surely have brought their wives and children with them. They would have found the parochial schools inadequate for their needs and a further demand for the opening of private schools was no doubt created.

Monopoly broken

It is not surprising that when, in 1787, the old ruling was once more challenged, the judgement went the other way and the monopoly of Church education was broken for ever.

This case, which Philip Ahier calls "the great lawsuit of 1787" is worth a few lines, since it changed the whole face of schooling in Jersey. Charles Dorey, the "official" schoolmaster in Trinity summoned one George Ahier in the Ecclesiastical Court for conducting a private school in the parish. The Court consisted of the Dean, Francois Le Breton, sitting with three Rectors as assessors. The Dean wanted to interpret the Code as meaning that only licensed schoolmasters could teach and ordered Ahier to close his school. But the Assessors disagreed and a violent argument broke out during which the Rector of St John, Thomas Sivret denounced the Dean's ruling as "nothing less than an attempt to keep the people in ignorance and barbarism".

But Sivret himself took pupils in his Rectory and the Dean promptly summoned him as an unlicensed schoolmaster. His defence, that he did not claim to be the parish schoolmaster but that he had a perfect right to teach such children as were entrusted to him, was accepted by the Court, the Dean, of course, dissenting and so the monopoly of the parish schools was broken, and from this time private schools of various types began to function. 1787 also saw the beginning of Sunday schools, but these largely owed their existence to General Conway, who was Governor from 1783 to 1795.

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