The Corn Riots of 1769 and the Code of 1771
Back in 1769, Jersey had some 25,000 people. The Lieutenant Governor, Thomas Ball, was a sickly and weak man. The Bailiff was Lord Granville, who lived in England and never visited the island. That left Lieut-Bailiff Charles Lempriere in charge.
Lempriere already controlled many fiefs, or areas of land. He also filled the important positions with his relatives, like brother Philip as Attorney-General and Receiver of the Revenues. His father, father-in-law, cousins and brothers-in-law were Jurats and this was a time when Jurats were much more important than they are today.
The owners of the Fiefs, the Seigneurs, could demand payment from anyone that lived there; these payments were called tithes. Every year, most Islanders had to pay to their Seigneurs so many chickens or apples as a rente. They also had to pay in wheat or corn, which most families needed themselves to make bread.
The Lemprieres would fix the value of the 'wheat rente'. When wheat or corn was scarce, the price increased, so the Seigneurs stood to receive more money and poor people couldn’t afford to pay, either in cash or in wheat if there was a bad harvest. Even in a good year, Jersey did not have the land to meet the needs of the islanders for wheat or corn; 1768 was also a very bad year for harvesting. Prices went up as wheat was scarce, so many faced starvation.
The Jersey Chamber of Commerce arranged for two shipments of wheat to the island to help the poor in the face of terrible starvation and food shortages. It wasn’t enough, but it was a start. Then Lempriere stepped in.
Lempriere had gotten rid of the law banning wheat exports. The Lemprieres actually arranged to take wheat out of storage to ship to France in order to sell it at a high price, and they even organised for shipments from Southampton to be diverted there under false papers. Many people were killed at Cherbourg and other places in France in riots for this food.
Back in Jersey, 14 women were arrested in June on the quay for allegedly trying to ship small quantities of wheat in the vessel. Soon afterwards, several hundred more rushed to the harbour to prevent this or other ships from sailing and the Lieut-Governor, who had turned up with troops to calm matters, was actually persuaded to unload the wheat cargoes for sale on the quay, so that the Island women had something to feed to their families.
It was a breakthrough – but it wouldn’t last.
The Lemprieres were not impressed; Charles declined a Chamber of Commerce request to travel to London and discuss various matters with the London government, claiming 'ill heath' as his excuse. And the wheat rent was then fixed at an exceptionally high 44 sols per cabotel. Prior to this it had been 30 sols.
Charles and his brother also had a long running feud with Nicholas Fiott, a successful merchant and their former partner in the “Charming Nancy” privateer and other ventures. On one occasion they sold his one sixth share in the vessel without even telling him, and when he complained about their behaviour to the Privy Council, they locked him up for Contempt of Court. Fiott was no friend of poor people, but they shared a common cause in the struggle against the Lemprieres.
The summer of discontent continued during 1769 until Philip Larbalastier was arrested in St Saviour and sent to the grim prison near Charing Cross for a month on bread and water on 23 September. He had been found guilty of insulting Deputy Vicomte George Benest. This seemed to have been the last straw for many residents and before sunrise on 28 September they began to assemble in the Country parishes, and some carried sticks.
In Trinity about 200 people gathered together behind Thomas Jacques Gruchy whilst at St Martin, Amice Durell from St Helier, carrying a long stick with a lantern, was leading another group of about 100 into the capital. Within a few hours between 400 and 500 hundred “revolutionaries” arrived in St Helier and passed by the hospital, then under construction. The workers closed up the site and they all marched to the Royal Court.
The protesters went to the Court House and forced their way in, compelling the Governor and Court, then sitting, to sign an order consisting of 13 Articles. Lempriere and many of the Jurats ran off to Elizabeth Castle out of reach of the protesters and put themselves under the protection of a military force.
Five companies of the Royal Scots at Winchester were ordered to Jersey to quell the protest.
to ban the export of corn, bread and flour, and only allow imports as needed.
a general rate for the whole Island for the repair of high roads and that rich and poor might contribute according to their circumstances
the rates of wheat tithes should be consistently applied and be subject to appeal to the court,
that parish Constables should consult with their parishioners before laws and regulations were changed
Constables should be elected every three years
that market regulations be properly applied
His Majesty should appoint a King’s Advocate
Taxes should be applied to improve the harbour
For reasons not clear, the rebels wanted Philip Larbalastier released from prison. His arrest had clearly been a catalyst to revolution!
Various Acts against Nicholas Fiott, including his Contempt of Court, were also to be reversed and he was to become Constable of St Helier.
However, the Lemprieres were not finished yet. Having spun a story in England, they returned with troops under Lt. Col Bentinck. It was also agreed that the grievances of the islanders should be sent directly to the King as a petition.
Lempriere returned, offering a £100 reward for capturing the leaders of the ‘revolt’. The Lieutenant Governor also decreed that petitions should go to him, not the King. For some residents, the fear was that the petition list would be used against them, to arrest any rebel, or anyone even mildly unhappy.
Several of the key figures were arrested over the next year. Lempriere wanted them hanged; Privy Council in England said no and issued a full pardon. Lieutenant Governor Ball then died, leaving Colonel Bentinck in charge. The Colonel soon discovered that there was good reason for much of the public discontent and eventually those involved received the King's Pardon.
Bentinck gathered together what regulations, laws and ordinances he could find, and massively limited the powers of the Royal Court. It also stated “that no political ordinances should be passed except by the whole Assembly of the States”. This would be later known as the Code of 1771.
Lempriere would still carry on increasing wheat rentes, and clung to power until 1781, when he agreed to step down…so long as his son could take over. After his death, the first formations of political parties on the island started; it really was the beginning of democracy on the island.