In search of Jersey’s ancient communes that belong to all

In search of Jersey’s ancient communes that belong to all

Chartered accountant Peter Hargreaves and lawyer Advocate John Kelleher say that such a move could also encourage management of ecologically valuable land and contribute to a greater awareness of the historical role of communes in the Island’s landscape.

Their article highlights how little is generally known about Jersey’s common land, although last week Islanders were given a rare reminder of what the authors call ‘remnants’ of feudal times when new signage appeared at the Royal Jersey Golf Course.

The signs – warning about behaviour on the golf course, which is part of Grouville Common – appeared in the name of the Constable and the common’s chef tenants, the administrative body responsible to the Crown for its management.

The Jersey Law Review article highlights the fact that few people today know much about the history of common land in the Island or who is responsible for

‘Given [the] number and historical importance [of communes] in what was mainly an agricultural economy for most of Jersey’s history, this is perhaps a surprise,’ the authors say.

They explain that under the feudal system land was owned by the Crown but held and used by others in return for obligations of services which they had to perform.

In Jersey, the units of land – or fiefs – were held by a tenant from his seigneur, who might be the monarch directly, or an intervening individual with his own obligations to the Crown. But there were also parcels of land, usually those parts which were less valuable, over which tenants jointly had rights, typically being able to graze animals or cut wood for fuel. These were the so-called communes.

Unlike the UK, Jersey has no register of this common land, which means that tracing communes today can be difficult unless the areas are mentioned in contracts for the sale of land. Their details would then be held by the Land Registry.

In search of lost communes, the authors suggest consulting the book Jersey Place Names, which records at least 36 locations which include the word commune, found often on sand dunes, marshes, steep valleys or cliff slopes – all land which was most difficult to take advantage of profitably. However, the authors issue a word of caution: ‘Names can, of course, [be] misleading and the use of the word “commune” to describe property and/or its entry in Jersey Place Names does not necessarily denote that it was a commune.’

Neither, having identified a true commune, is it easy to obtain a public record of the tenants who have specific rights in relation to it.

‘Those likely to understand how a commune operates are those who claim or enjoy rights over it, but such people are relatively few in number, and such written evidence or recollection they may have is not publicly available,’ the authors say.

Over the years, some communes have been sold with the approval of the monarch or the seigneur, and the authors give as an example the commune of Mont de la Ville, which was sold to the Crown in 1804 in order to allow Fort Regent to be built. A law introduced in 1900 sets out the circumstances in which a commune can be sold, requiring the sanction of the Royal Court but also the involvement of the tenants, posing an obvious difficulty if their details are difficult to establish, the authors point out.

Where communes still exist, the authors recommend four sources of information: the PRIDE computerised system which indexes contracts in the Land Registry, rates assessments, notices in the landscape – like the recent signage in Grouville – and information held by the government’s Environment Department relating to the communes which it manages.

But they acknowledge that tracking down tenants reliably from public records is almost impossible. ‘Registration of communes in Jersey would assist in clarifying the position,’ the authors say.

The article is available in volume 24 issue 2 of the Jersey Law Review, which appeared in June this year.

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