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Guernsey, Channel Islands

Historical Description

Guernsey, one of the Channel islands. It lies in the-gulf of Avranches and in the Bay of Mont St Michael, off the coast of Normandy, 21 miles SSW of Alderney, 30 NW of Jersey, 61 NNW of St Malo, 62 NW by N of Granville, 75 S of Weymouth, 92 SE of Plymouth, and 113 SW by S of Southampton. Its form is nearly triangular, similar to that of Sicily. Its length, north-eastward, is 9 miles; its-breadth, 5 miles; its circuit, including curvatures, about 30 miles; and its area, 15,560 acres. Its surface declines from south to north; is varied with hills and little eminences; and possesses numerous springs, and many fine, clear, gravelly streams. The south coast is steep, bold, and inaccessible; consists of cliffs, rising to the height of 270 feet; and presents rocky headlands, intersected by deep ravines. The north coast, excepting a few rocky hillocks, is commonly low and flat; and the country inland from it rises gradually from a level very little above high water-mark. Few detached rocks lie off the south; but skerries and sunk rocks lie off all the-other sides, for a mile or two, and, together with strong sea currents and high tides, render the approach extremely hazardous to strangers. Yet the roadstead of St Peter-Port is good and safe; and the harbour affords ample facilities for commerce. The rocks of the island are chiefly granite,. sienite, and gneiss; and they are extensively quarried for exportation as kerb and paving-stone, from the harbour of St Sampson. The soils, though lying on such rocks, are generally fertile; the low lands yield very fine pasture, even the higher parts afford plentiful harvests, and the very cliffs are covered with verdure to the water's edge. Yet some waste grounds are in the north and west, and are covered with furze, which is cut for fuel.

The rural inhabitants are generally owners of the land they occupy, and many of them combine farming and fruit or flower culture with some handicraft, or with fishing. Most of the estates or farms are of less extent than 12 acres; yet most of the houses on them are neat and comfortable cottages. Butter of very fine quality, and of bright golden colour, is produced on dairy farms. The Guernsey cow is maintained in rigid purity, by careful exclusion of every foreign breed. Fruit also is an object of care; and peaches, myrtles, and other fruits and flowers, owing to the mildness of the climate, are raised in the open air. Both fish and molluscs, in great abundance and in much variety, are taken on the shores. During the last quarter of a century, and especially within the last ten years, the business of fruit, vegetable, and flower growing under glass for the English market has enormously increased, and gives employment to a great number of persons. It is practically the chief trade of the island. Various crops in succession are grown in very large quantities and sent off daily to England by some of the fastest steamers in the Channel service. The principal articles grown in houses are radishes, salad, green peas, French beans, potatoes, tomatoes, figs, grapes, and flowers of all kinds. At one time sun-heat only was trusted to, but of late years forcing has been introduced by many growers. In addition to the vegetables grown under glass, a great quantity of brocoli is grown in the open air. The great development of the greenhouse industry has caused an increase in the imports of coal, glass, and materials for glass houses. The distilling of spirits from potatoes, for the English market, was once carried on to the average of 24,000 gallons a year; but has been discontinued. Beer is made in three or four breweries. Soap, candles, cordage, biscuit, tobacco, and snuff are manufactured. Bricks and ornamental pottery are made. Regular steam communication is maintained with Alderney, Jersey, Weymouth, and Southampton, and constant communication also with the French coast.

Guernsey has only one town, St Peter-Port; and is divided into the ten parishes of St Peter-Port, St Sampson, Vale, St Andrew, St Martin, St Mary de Castro, St Saviour, St Pierre du Bois, Forest, and Torteval. The total area of Guernsey is 16,005 acres; population, 35,243; acreage of St Peter-Port alone, 1499; population, 17,008. The government and the customs present a mixture of the times of Normandy prior to the conquest of England and of the times which have succeeded. The old Norman feudal service still exists in the militia, service in which is compulsory and unpaid for all inhabitants over sixteen. The militia are in a high state of efficiency, and consist of one regiment of artillery and three regiments of light infantry. The government is vested in a lieutenant-governor, appointed by the Crown, a bailiff, appointed, by the Crown, and two bodies called the states of election and the states of deliberation. The states of election consist of the bailiff and 12 jurats of the royal court, eight rectors of parishes, the Queen's procureur, 22 douzaines from the central divisions of St Peter-Port parish, 48 douzaines from four other divisions of that parish, and 130 douzaines from the country parishes—in all 222; and they assemble only to elect the sheriff and the jurats. The states of deliberation consist of the bailiff and jurats, the rectors, the Queen's procureur, 6 deputies of St Peter-Port, and 9 deputies of the country parishes—in all 37; and they enact laws, levy taxes, and regulate all matters of finance; but their deeds, before possessing force, require to have the sanction of the Crown. The bailiff presides in both bodies of the states; and the lieutenant-governor sits in the meetings of the states of deliberation, and takes part in the proceedings, but has no vote. A report by a royal commission says—" The history of the states is involved in much obscurity. It is probable that they were originally constituted on the model of the Trois Etats in Normandy; the bailiff and jurats corresponding with the noblesse; the rectors of the parishes answering to the clergy; and the douzaines, an elected body in each parish, representing the Tiers Etat." The douzaines, as here indicated, are the chosen managers of parishes; they were originally, as their name implies, twelve in number for each parish, but are now in some instances more; they are elected for life, and have control over all the secular public affairs of parishes; and in the case of St Peter-Port, they act also as a police board. The royal court, for executive administration, is both civil and criminal; is conducted by a bailiff and twelve jurats; carries on its proceedings in the French language, excepting when English legal authorities are quoted, or when English witnesses are examined; and forms its decisions by a majority of the votes of the jurats, the bailiff having only a casting vote in the case of equal division. Appeals lie from it to the Queen in council, in cases where the subject is real property to the amount of £10 a year, or personal property to the amount of £200 ; but such appeals are of rare occurrence. A tax for general purposes is levied on all property, real or personal, belonging to natives or to strangers exercising any trade or profession; but it does not touch any stranger not exercising any trade or profession; and it amounts to only about 5s. on every £100 of capital, and it covers every purpose served elsewhere by assessed taxes, police tax, poor rates, and church rates. There are neither customs nor excise duties. The Crown revenue is derived from great tithes, manorial and feudal dues, rents of escheated tenements, forfeitures, court amercements, court fines, wrecks, and gravages; and it bears the expenses of certain salaries, the administration of justice, and the maintenance of the court-house and jail. The revenue of the states is derived from a duty on all spirituous liquors consumed in the island, from licenses to publicans, and from rents of shops and houses; and it bears the expenses of roads, sea-walls, public improvements, education, and disbursements for the militia. The ecclesiastical revenue consists of the small tithes, a certain proportion of the great tithes, and some wheat rents, for payment of the clergy; and a separate fund, derived from wheat rents, for repairing the churches, and meeting incidental expenses. The island is in the diocese of Winchester; and, together with Alderney and Sark, forms a deanery. The episcopal functions used to be discharged by a surrogate. The livings and ecclesiastical parishes are as follows:—St Peter-Port, with St Barnabas, net value, £400 (population 6510); St Michael du Valle, £125 (3947); Holy Trinity, £350 (3946); St Andrew, £160 (1303); St Marguerite de la Forêt, £95 (665); St Marie du Catel, gross value, £134 (1364); St Martin, £140 (2659); St Pierre du Bois, £113 (1322); St Philippe de Torteval, net value, £89 (448); St Sampson, £130 (916). The above are all rectories in the diocese of Winchester. The following are vicarages:—St John the Evangelist, gross value, £253 (4375); St Matthew Cobo, net value, £94 (1062); and St Stephen, gross value, £320. The whole of the parishes have residences. The dissenting places of worship include Free Church of Scotland, Congregational, Baptist, Quaker, Wesleyan Methodist, Primitive Methodist, New Connexion Methodist, Plymouth Brethren, and Bible Christian ; and they are numerous, especially the Wesleyan. There is also a Roman Catholic church. An endowed school is in every parish; and an endowed grammar school, founded in 1563, and known as Elizabeth College, is in St Peter-Port, where there is also a high school for girls known as the Ladies' College.

The natives inherit many of their manners and customs from their Norman ancestors. The rural inhabitants speak a corrupted dialect of the old Norman-French, often intermixed with perverted or ill-pronounced English words. An ordinary article of furniture in the common sitting-room of every cottage and farmhouse is a lit de fouaille, or "green bed"—a wide bed-frame raised about 18 inches from the ground, and covered with dry fern or pea-straw, on which the women knit or sew during the winter evenings.

Guernsey and the other Channel islands appear to have been known to the Romans. Guernsey is thought to be the Sarnia of Antoninus ; and perhaps it is the Granona mentioned by the Notitia in Armorica. It and the other islands "were given to Rolo and his Normans by Charles IV., surnamed the Simple, king of France. From Rolo, after five successions, they came to William the Conqueror, who gave the command of them to his son Robert; but after King Henry I. had defeated his brother Robert in 1108, he annexed Normandy and the islands to the crown of England, to which they ever after steadfastly adhered, till King John, being found guilty of the death of his nephew Arthur, duke of Britain, by the parliament of Paris, called together by Philip, king of France, to examine into it, was deprived of Normandy, which province revolted wholly from him, and never was since recovered, for King Henry III. being taken up with the barons' wars, was forced to neglect its recovery, and at length quit his title wholly to it to rid himself of them. From that time they have continued, firm in their allegiance, and are the only places that were William the Conquerors inheritance that remain in this crown. The French have made divers attempts to re-unite them to that kingdom with Normandy, but in vain. In the reign of Philip de Valois, Hugh Quiriel, admiral of France, made a descent upon Guernsey, and having taken the castle, held it three years, but it was again recovered by the English fleet in 1342. So also Evan, a Welshman descended from the princes of Wales, but then serving the French king, surprised Guernsey in the time of King Edward III., but lost it again soon after. In Edward IV.'s days, while he was contending with King Henry VI. for the crown, they got possession of Guernsey, but were beat off by the valour of Richard Harleston, vadelect of the crown, as he was then called, for which the king rewarded him with the government both of the island and castle. Again, in the minority of King Edward VI., 1549, the kingdom being embroiled with wars, Leo Strozzi, commander of the French galleys, invaded that island, but was repulsed with loss." Guernsey was taken by the Parliamentarians in the civil war of Charles I., was the scene of a mutiny of the 104th regiment in 1783, and was visited by Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort in 1846.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5

Chapman code

The Chapman code for Guernsey is GSY.
Chapman codes are used in genealogy as a short data code for administrative areas, such as county and country names.

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Guernsey from the following:


Old map of Guernsey circa 1848 (Samuel Lewis)

Parishes & places

Catel or St Mary de Castro
St Andrew
St Martin
St Peter Port
St Pierre du Bois, or St Peter in the Wood
St Sampson
St Saviour
St Thomas
The Vale


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