The Village of Les Landes
by Michael Talibard
This is an historical study of the people of the village of Les Landes, in the Vingtaine or Cueillette of Millais, in St Ouen’s, Jersey, from 1841 to 1891.
The census divides Millais into five villages, which I have coloured in on the Godfray Map of 1849: two large ones: Millais (in yellow) and L’Etacq (pink), and three smaller ones: La Robeline (orange), Villaise (blue) and lastly Les Landes (in green), which is my chosen subject. (Ville-la-Bàs, shown in purple, is outside of Millais, but needs a mention later).
The road which runs roughly north-south through the middle of this village is called La Route des Landes. In the 19th Century, there were ten properties in Les Landes, with from one to four households in each, usually with farm land attached. For clarity, I have given these dwellings numbers, from H1 to H10.
I label them thus because although in a few cases the old house names survive — e.g. my H2 is La Landelle — more often names change: e.g. Les Landes Farm (H3) is now Maison du Maresquet. In some cases, no house name was then in use; in others the site is now occupied by a more modern building (e.g. H6) or has been redeveloped out of recognition (H7).
The two outlying properties, H1 and H10, furthest from the spine of La Route des Landes, are included because the censuses do so, and because they relate closely to the rest of the village socially and by intermarriage. As it happens, it is from these two families that I am descended.
The Census anglicises names, (Elias for Élie, etc) but in telling their stories, I have usually opted to give these people their real names. I also refer to their true age, as known from birth records etc, whereas the ages recorded in the census are often inaccurate. I have transcribed all the census information for Les Landes from 1841 to 1891, using my own format. A small section of this is shown here.
Often one can retrieve, from the seemingly bland data, vivid insights into the life of the village. For example, looking at the bottom of my figure, left, an intriguing question arises in 1841. What is a 1-year-old Jean Le Gresley doing there at H8 (Le Pignon) with the Lesbirel family?
The village’s only Le Gresley family live at H3. They did have a child of the right age, as we know from the 1851 census ten years later and from other sources, but he’s missing in 1841, unless this is he staying up the road with the Lesbirels at H8 — as it must be: I think that is a legitimate inference.
In that case, what is he doing there? Well, as you can see, on census night 1841 the Le Gresleys had a new baby, Francois, just 12 days old. So I suggest that the mother had a ‘lying-in’ period, which was common at the time: after giving birth, mothers were advised to take two or three weeks of ‘bed-rest.’ Even if Marie Le Gresley (née Vibert) wasn’t actually in bed, I am guessing that at least she was not expected to deal with her toddler Jean as well as her newborn Francois. So Jean was farmed out to friends up the road. We begin to see a real inter-dependence and trust between neighbours that typifies this village community.
What started me studying the whole of this particular village was the presence there of my own great great grandparents, Jean Le Cornu and Nancy, née Le Ruez (seen here).
In the early stage of my research, I didn’t know for sure which house in the village had been theirs, but by a process of elimination, working from the (varying) sequence adopted by the census enumerators, it seemed likely to be H1 (modern name Heather View). I wanted to be certain — and the Godfray Map of 1849 shows that property belonging not to any Le Cornu, but to a Monsieur C.Vibert.
So I went and rang the door-bell, to see whether the people living there knew anything of its history. I found to my pleasant surprise that they were well known to me as fellow English teachers Alan and Sheila Jones. Happily, they had traced the title back to an 1854 contract of sale between Charles Vibert and Jean Le Cornu. So the property had changed hands (to the name I wanted to see) five years after the Godfray Map was made. What is more, it turned out that Alan (who sadly has since died) was like myself a descendant of Jean Le Cornu. So I had found not only my answer as to where Jean and Nancy had lived, but a long lost third cousin as well! That was an good day!
One of the most telling human stories to emerge from the census data concerns a different Le Cornu family, at La Landelle, or H2 (see below — incidentally, the figures to the left of each box are the schedule numbers, not at all consistent from one census to another).
In 1851, we find Élie Le Cornu, aged 67 (not actually 69), actively farming his 18 vergees; over the years, he has produced eleven children — yes eleven — but only two remain on his hands: Élie and Élise, both unmarried; Élie is a seaman, but clearly still based at home. This persists: in 1861 we find the father still farming 14 vergees, with his wife Anne and the still unmarried Élie and Élise.
As bachelor and spinster, their age seems to be an embarrassment to Élie and Élise. Each census is ten years on, so Élise’s true age must go from 15 to 25, but she shaves it to 23; and when she is 35, she is admitting only to 28. It is interesting that her brother is equally keen to hide his real age: he is claiming to be only 39 when he is really 47.
Will either of them ever get married? A census can never tell the whole story. Does their mother fret over getting them married, or is she happy to keep Élise to help out at home? One can imagine it either way, but returning to the facts, it seems the old man knows how to fix things, because before much longer, everything changes. The mother dies in 1862, and the father then retires and divides the farm between the two of them.
Élise gets only one third of the land, but it is enough to tempt a husband, for in about 1867, aged over 41, she marries a 23-year-old Philippe Le Gresley from St Martin’s. Élie gets two thirds of the land, and in 1869 he is married, aged 54, to young Elizabeth Acourt, 3 days after her 17th birthday. The 1871 census shows a 27-year age difference between these newly-weds, but in reality that was a gap of 37 years.
It is difficult for us to see these marriages as love-matches. Much more persuasive is the inference that the younger parties to both of these alliances were essentially marrying the land.
Continuity of Occupation
H2, the Le Cornu property I have just been discussing (La Landelle) remains in that one family from 1841 right through to 1891 and beyond. Study the continuity graphic that follows. The same continuity of occupation is found equally in five more of the properties of the village, making six out of ten; and it is partially true of all the others as well.
So incomers to the village are a real rarity — what social stability! Where could you find that today? What proportion now of our neighbours’ houses have been in the same family for fifty years or more?
Next, what sort of life did these people live? They were nearly all farmers — that is to say, landowner, farmer and farm labourer all rolled into one. Where there was a little more land, a labourer was employed occasionally, but much more generally, these were one-man farms, or one should say one-family farms, since the wife and children certainly joined in. These Jersey farms were tiny by English or French standards, and it is remarkable that they prospered so well on such small holdings.
We can divide their work into subsistence farming and cash crops. Under the first heading, they would have grown their own fruit and veg, including parsnips for winter feed, and enough corn to supply their own bread. Each farm would have kept a few chickens, and a pig or two — maybe more. The pigsties attached to at least one of the properties still survive:
There would also have been five or six cows, sometimes more, and maybe a horse — though one could always borrow a horse from the neighbours, especially if they were family, which they generally were. The cattle would live partly among the cider apple trees, though often tethered to keep them from browsing the bark.
There would be one main cash crop, sold for export, but this crop changed during the period. The trade in knitted goods had collapsed by this time, and the trade in cider was declining: it became insignificant by about 1875. By then, the pedigree Jersey cow had become a good earner, so there were fewer apple trees and more cattle. But the big new cash crop was the potato — not yet the Jersey Royal, but that same type of early potato crop.
At home, everyone spoke Jersey French, and with an accent and vocabulary peculiar to this little slice of St Ouen. Writing as late as 1947, Frank Le Maistre identifies Les Landes as one of the few surviving pockets of Jerriais that still had its own distinctive features; indeed, he singles out Les Landes, calling it “the last stronghold of the Jersey language.”
Therefore we can be confident that a century earlier, they spoke only Jerriais at home, and they learnt their English at school. That is, if they went to school — many didn’t, as the teacher’s log book of the parish school clearly shows. The stories in this log book are very interesting, and will occupy another article.
Not every dwelling was a farm, nor was everybody employed in agriculture: we also find a blacksmith in Charles Vibert at H1, and a shoemaker in Élie Mauger at H8, where the present owner can still identify the old shoemaker’s shop at the side of the house.
From the farms, the young men often went off to sea, leaving their girls behind. This sometimes created embarrassment, as in the following case. Philippe Mauger, youngest son of Jean Mauger of H6, became a mariner, and his first child was born in his absence five months before the wedding, so it is apparent that he had jumped the gun before going off to sea.
He then returned, and the baby was legitimised at his wedding to Anne Le Cornu in 1864, recorded in the standard formula: “Les dites parties ont présenté un enfant du nom de Philippe Edouard, né le 5 Nov 1863, qu’elles ont reconnu et déclaré leur enfant légitime et habile à hériter.” (The said parties presented a child named Philip Edward, born 5/11/1863, whom they recognised and declared to be their legitimate son, able to inherit.)
This is the only such example I have found in the village within my time-frame, but I don’t think it was particularly unusual. In point of fact, sex before marriage was normal in this little society. We know this because we can compare dates of marriage with dates of birth of first children. Two thirds of all marriages produced their first child sooner than nine months after the wedding — so two thirds of all brides were pregnant on their wedding day.
However, these couples were almost certainly betrothed when they began sexual relations: such was the custom. Although pre-marital sex on this accepted basis was quite normal, the same certainly cannot be said of extra-marital sex, which was very rare. There is just one known example in the village: in 1881, Philip Boudier Le Cornu’s birth registration gives him the surname of his mother, Maria Ann Le Cornu; no father is recorded. This baby soon died, and three years later, Maria married a stonemason, Alfred Le Huquet. But who had been baby Philip’s father? Perhaps his name, including that middle name of Boudier, is a clue? The only Philip Boudier on the island at that time was a married man living in St John’s, a former master mariner. But here I am straying into the realms of speculation!
Another interesting life-story is that of Jean Mauger of H6 (house long since demolished), who is a grand character. He comes from remarkably long-lived and fertile stock, and it would seem that he was dead set against the life of a bachelor. He started on married life before he was 20, and enjoyed a 23-year first marriage to Marie Langlois, fathering nine children. Yet when Marie died of consumption in February 1844, he remarried as soon as July of the same year: this was a 15-year marriage to Rachel Misson, but they had no children.
When this second wife Rachel died in 1859, again of consumption, also in February, he was remarried even more quickly, by May 4th. This time he married the girl next door — well, not a girl: it was the 61-year-old Susanne Pirouet (admitting only to 54), widow of Philippe Becquet of H7. Sadly, this third marriage lasted less than two years before Susanne succumbed to asthma, in February 1861. So this was the third time that Jean Mauger had lost a wife in the month of February to a respiratory illness! What’s more, the child mortality in this house had been much above average. Was it perhaps a very cold, damp house? We can only guess: it’s gone now. Was patriarch Jean the only one allowed to sit by the fire?
At any rate, when his third wife died, he reacted as before, by re-marrying rather quickly, but with a certain difference. He hadn’t fathered a child for over 20 years (and 2 wives): so now he marries Elizabeth Vibert, aged only 34, and begins a new family. He begets three more children, making twelve in all — but still not quite equalling his father’s tally of thirteen. However, he set a different record by living to 93, the greatest age achieved in the village in this period. This gave him time enough for that fourth marriage to last 24 years (the longest of all his marriages) and then for him to experience at long last, for a further decade after that, the life of a single man. He died of ‘old age’ in 1895.
Besides such individual stories, the census of course offers general data, the most obvious use and purpose of which is to count population.
The population of Les Landes is not quite stable during this fifty year period — it actually declines a little, which is quite surprising. It first rises from 71 to 76, then falls away to 60 and 64. This is all the more surprising when we consider the birth rate. These are very large families: ten or more children is not uncommon. So why the decline in population?
Is it perhaps explained by child mortality? No, actually it’s not — not in the period I am considering. Child mortality had a more severe (but declining) impact in the first 40 years of the century. Even then it had struck very unevenly: some families lost half their offspring, others none at all. But the worst of the child mortality was all over by the 1840s — earlier than one would expect. In the period here studied, on average only about two children of a large family would die young. This matches a Europe-wide trend of decline in child mortality during the 19th Century, but it must also reflect local conditions of at least reasonable economic prosperity and sanitation.
Average family size declined over this period, as shown on the graph above; nevertheless, some of these Les Landes families were very large by our modern standards: 9, 10, 11, sometimes even 12 or 13. Of course, the oldest left home before the last were born, but still, it was not unusual for there to be 5 or 6 children all living in the house at one time. It must have been a tight squeeze, and it would have been a rare privilege to have a bedroom or even a bed to oneself. So, as they grew up, they moved out.
By way of contrast to these huge families, I want next to look at one couple, the Bailhaches, who had no children at all. Their story is initially a sad one.
In 1841 we find their parents: Jean Bailhache, a farmer aged 70 and his wife Elizabeth, and living with them, their son and heir Jean, 45, with his wife Jeanne Rachel née Hamon, known as Jenny.
Jean and Jenny both come from large families, but they are childless — which is unfortunate, since they seem to love children. The evidence for this starts with the fact that they often act as godparents to their nieces and nephews. Also, in 1841, they have 8-year-old Betsy Le Cornu living with them, borrowed, so to speak, from next door — from Jean’s sister Susanne, who is certainly not short of a child or two, with 7 others in her house.
The old man dies in 1848, and son Jean inherits over 31 vergees, quite a large holding by local standards. Having no children, he now employs his younger brother Daniel and his niece Marie Le Cornu; he also houses his nephew Charles Hamon 13, a carpenter’s apprentice. They’re not his own children, but he has managed to gather a fair-sized family around him, which brings this story to a happy ending.
As I suggested above, the cause of the level or falling population of the village is the constant exodus of grown children. But the traffic was not all one-way: people moved into, as well as out of the village, by way of marriage. To show this, I shall compare two families of sisters.
In 1869, as I have already shown, Elizabeth Acourt, then only just 17 (the ages in the census, as so often, are wrong) marries 54-year old Élie Le Cornu, soon after he had inherited most of the land at La Landelle (H2).
By 1881 she has five children but still plenty of room to spare in this large property, since her father-in-law has died and everybody else from that large gathering occupying various parts of the property in the 1871 census has been moved out. Now a well established matriarch, she sets about finding her kid sisters husbands in the village.
In December 1881, Louise Acourt marries Élie Mauger, the shoemaker at H8, and two years later, Jeanne Acourt marries Élie’s cousin Thomas, also a shoemaker; Jeanne and Thomas move into some of the free space at La Landelle and start raising their own family.
Here Elizabeth is reaping the benefit of her teenage marriage bargain, and this reaches full fruition in 1890, when her old husband Élie dies of congestion of the lungs and exhaustion, aged 76. She is left in full possession — a widow at only 38, with three children still at home, and surrounded by her own people.
That is a story of sisters moving in to the village, but it is more typical, of course, to see them moving out. Jean Le Cornu of H1 raised a string of seven daughters. The oldest, Anne, we’ve already met: she was that not-yet-married mother, and she remained in the village.
But it was never likely that all those Le Cornu girls could marry locally: Jane found her husband in St Peter, a shoemaker named John Victor Henry; and Betsy married a Henry Tucker from St Helier. Rachel really broke the mould by landing an out-and-out Englishman, the first ever to live in the village — John Silvester, born in Pimlico; this couple end up as a labourer and a charwoman in St Helier.
The sixth daughter, Élise or Eliza, also married a foreigner — but hers was a Frenchman from St Brieuc, called Pierre Olivier, a migrant farm labourer, and the first Breton ever to arrive in the village. This couple later settled in St Peter — Élise was my great grandmother.
Les Landes seems not so much a village as two or three big extended familes. Inter-marriage between the core families is constant, but there seem to be distinct sub groups — the Le Ruezs mingle only with Le Cornus and Maugers; the Le Gresleys with Viberts and Luces.
The village’s main Le Gresley family lived at H3, (Les Landes Farm, now La Maison du Marasquet), and they descend from Luces and Viberts. Elizabeth Luce, born 1779, had two husbands, both called John Vibert: she must have liked the name. This Elizabeth Vibert née Luce was the offspring of another Luce/Le Gresley marriage back in the mid 18th Century.
In 1850 her grandson Philip, only 18, marries another Elizabeth Luce — so the same combination of names keeps coming round. On his marriage, young Philip is set up in his own farm at Portinfer Road, Vinchelez, where he shares the house with a gaggle of Luce in-laws, including his wife’s two younger sisters, Mary Luce, 19, a dressmaker, and Jane Luce, 16, a teacher of infants. Therefore when his wife Elizabeth dies, he does not have to look far for a replacement, and by 1861, he is remarried under his own roof, to his sister-in-law Mary.
As for Philip le Gresley senior, he had done something very unusual, in fact unique for a farmer in this village: he went off to run a pub in St Helier, and did so for 20 years, leaving the farm to his son Philip, who retains his own land as well, and so is now farming 40 vergees, the largest holding in the village.
As well as his mother-in-law Elizabeth Luce (not to be confused with his grandmother of the same name) young Philip’s household includes his wife’s younger sister Rachel Luce, who now marries his younger brother John Le Gresley. This gives us the classic two brothers married to two sisters, and it is the third Le Gresley/Luce marriage in this generation alone.
Whenever the Luces were not marrying Le Gresleys, they were marrying Le Boutilliers. Of four Luce sisters, three married Le Gresleys, but Jane was different and chose a Le Boutillier. However, this was just as much in the family tradition, since her mother was a Le Boutillier, as also was her paternal grandmother. All these Le Boutilliers were descended from an Aaron Le Boutillier in the previous century.
The long and short of it is that they were all marrying their cousins — not very often first cousins, but that apart, it was open season for in-breeding.
One further intriguing human story emerges from the data, with the help of a little interpretation. It is that of my great, great, great grandmother, Nancy Le Ruez, née Vibert. She keeps turning up (like a bad penny?) in different corners of the village. We see her first (within my period of study) at H10, a property off to the east along Rue de la Trappe, now known as Longfields.
In 1841, as we see, head of household Abraham Le Ruez is absent on census night — probably away at sea, since he was a ship’s captain by trade.
His young wife Jane (Jeanne?) is holding the fort, living with two Vibert relations; but in another part of the same property is a second family of Le Ruezs, headed by the lady in question: 49-year-old widow Nancy Le Ruez Vibert, with three of her children.
I like to imagine a version of events, in which this lady is not very easy to live with, and there develops a game of ‘pass-the-parcel’ as she is moved on around the family. As we have seen just above, in 1841 she was living with her son Philippe, a shoemaker…
… but in 1851, she is living with an older son Jean, who works for her on the farm.
Then in 1861, she is living with her daughter Betsy and son-in-law Edouard Vibert up in Ville la Bàs, just outside the village. (This is shown in purple on the map which I began with.)
Finally in 1871 she has become part of the large establishment at H1, living with her granddaughter Anne Mauger.
Of course, we only get a snapshot every ten years, and for all we know, she moved around even more frequently — it is fun to imagine the family finding excuses to shift her on! But that may be pure fiction.
However, I would argue that imagination is a necessity for an historian.
To sum up: the folk whose lives I have here been exploring impress and intrigue me. I see these people as having a rugged self-reliance: they are both warm-hearted and tough-minded. They farm pretty small parcels of land, but it is their own land and they are proud of it. They work very hard to maintain their traditional way of life and their independence. They are prosperous enough to raise large families.
Indeed, they care very much about family, and family alliances. With farming they combine quite a lot of sea-faring, but the young men who have crossed oceans come home to marry the girl next door — or at least, those who will inherit the land do so; others are not likely to get the chance.
They lie about their age. They are hard-headed, unromantic people, with marriage often linked to alliance between families, and to the ownership of land. They suffer the deaths of children, or of a spouse, with fortitude and realism; they move doggedly on.
I find them very different from us today, but very admirable, and I am proud to be descended from some of them.
It was my intention to accompany this article (a version of which has been published before, in the magazine of the Channel Island Family History Society) with fresh work, comparing Les Landes with a similar village in the East of the island. This I still hope to write, but it has proved difficult — and the cause of that difficulty is itself of some interest, I believe.
It is this: the research at Les Landes was based mostly on the Census returns and the Birth, Marriage and Death records at the Registry. It was possible from these alone to deduce with some certainty who lived where in the village during the period — but that will work only where there is a high degree of continuity of occupation, as there was at Les Landes (see the ‘Continuity’ graphic above).
Searching for an equivalent in the East, I have studied the Census for three candidate villages: Faldouet, Boulivot and Ville-ès-Philippes.
None of these has sufficient continuity of occupation for one to be able to tell who lived where. This is because the Census mostly does not identify houses by name, and neither does it list the properties in the same sequence from one census to the next. The Godfray map shows owners, not occupiers.
The solution may be to study the PRIDE database of property transactions, and this I have started on. But one problem is that, like the map, this tells us who owned the properties: it does not in most cases tell us who was actually living there. I shall persevere.
In the meanwhile, I think my conclusion is re-inforced, that there was at Les Landes a continuity or stability of occupation that is rare indeed in this or any later period.
Michael Talibard 2016