Jersey’s extraordinary women

Lucy Layton, Jersey Heritage's outreach curator, investigates some of the Island's history, including its sites, traditions, archaeology and special events. This week she looks at prominent women from Jersey's past.

MONDAY marked the beginning of Women's History Month – a time to celebrate some of the extraordinary women who have left their mark on local history.

Their stories range from quiet philanthropy to heroic acts of wartime resistance, but we begin with a tragic tale of a woman accused of witchcraft in the 17th century.

Marie Esnouf is one of the first female names to appear in the records at Jersey Archive as a result of being convicted of witchcraft in 1648. There were a large number of trials for witchcraft in the Channel Islands during the 16th and 17th centuries, to the extent that the Islands have been described as ‘the witch-hunting capital of Europe’.

Court records show that Marie was imprisoned in Mont Orgueil Castle after a number of people testified that she had used her diabolical spells to cause the sickness and deaths of several humans and animals. She refused to confess to the crime but the unfortunate woman was found guilty and sentenced to public execution in the Royal Square. We now recognise that these witch trials often targeted poor and vulnerable women who did not conform to the expectations of society at the time.

Trusting in God

A rather more heroic tale appears in the Chronique de Jersey, an account of Island affairs written around 1580. It tells the story of Margaret Harliston, the only daughter and sole heir of Sir Richard Harliston, Governor of Jersey in the late 15th century. Margaret married Philippe de Carteret, eldest son of the Seigneur of St Ouen, who was falsely accused of treason by an opponent and imprisoned at Mont Orgueil Castle in 1494. In a bid to save her husband, Margaret undertook a perilous journey by sea and land to plead his case before King Henry VII in Salisbury.

The Chronique describes how Margaret had given birth shortly before she left the Island, but that ‘considering the great danger not only in where her husband was, but also the elimination of the whole Seigneurie and the complete ruin of her children and herself [she] took courage, trusting completely in God’. Fortunately, Margaret was able to secure the King’s pardon and return to the Island in time to clear her husband’s name.

Charitable giving

In more recent times, women have contributed to Island life in less heroic but equally laudable ways, including many acts of remarkable philanthropy. Florence Boot is well known for her gifts to the Island, namely Coronation Park, the Glass Church, and the sports area and workers’ cottages at FB Fields. Her great wealth came from the business empire of her husband, Jesse Boot, of Boots the Chemist, but Florence contributed greatly to the development of the business after their marriage. She oversaw the transition of the Boots shops from pharmacy to department store and introduced lending libraries in 1900. She was also greatly concerned with the welfare of the Boots employees, particularly the many women that worked for the firm, and introduced various initiatives, such as welfare officers, breakfast clubs and social outings.

Community care

The philanthropy of wealthy St Aubin widow Marie Bartlett laid the foundations of the Island’s first hospital. When Francis Bartlett died in 1734, his wife, Marie, took over his import business and proved herself to be an astute and successful businesswoman. In an age when there was little provision for the poor and elderly, Marie wanted to see that the widows and children of Jersey were provided for. Her financial bequest to the Island was used to establish the first hospital and, 200 years later, another woman, former Senator Gwyneth Huelin, as President of the Health Committee, oversaw a £15 million project to modernise the hospital and to give mental-health patients some privacy and dignity during treatment. The Gwyneth Huelin Wing at the hospital was named in her honour.

Other less well-known female philanthropists include Marie Ann Gruchy, who was involved in much charitable work and was, for many years, honorary treasurer of the St Thomas Refuge ‘for Friendless and Fallen Women’. She is one of a small group of middle-class women who felt a social responsibility to come to the aid of those in less fortunate positions than themselves. They did this through regular contributions of their own funds, as well as tireless fundraising efforts.

Support in the Far East

Continuing the medical theme, Jersey’s first female doctor was born in St Helier in 1876 but spent most of her career working overseas. Lilian Grandin attended Jersey Ladies College before studying medicine in London and Dublin. After qualifying she volunteered for a missionary expedition to China, where she spent ten years helping the poor and needy in a remote region of the country. She also trained local women as midwives. Lilian spent the First World War working in a London hospital before returning to China to continue her work as a doctor and missionary until her premature death from typhus in 1924.

While Lilian was a pioneer in the world of medicine, Caroline Trachy was pushing the boundaries of local politics and working tirelessly for women’s rights and social equality in Jersey. She campaigned for women to have the vote in 1919 and was also the first woman to stand for public office. When her candidacy was ruled ineligible on the basis that she was female, she demanded a change in the law. Although she was ultimately unsuccessful in her own campaign for public office, she paved the way for Ivy Forster to be elected as Jersey’s first female politician in 1948.

Acts of resistance

The Occupation years saw some extraordinary acts of bravery among Jersey’s women, including Louisa Gould, who sheltered a Russian slave worker in her home and was punished by the Germans, who sent her to Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she died. Dorothea Le Brocq also took an incredible risk by hiding a Jewish woman in her narrow, terraced house in West Park Avenue. Somehow, Hedy Bercu survived undetected for 18 months until it was safe for her to come out of hiding on Liberation Day in 1945.

Further extraordinary acts of resistance were carried out by Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, better known as artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. They tried to undermine the morale of the occupying troops by writing and distributing short leaflets in German that questioned the abilities of the Nazi leadership. They were eventually arrested in 1944 after four years of planning and carrying out a prolonged and highly organised campaign of resistance against the occupying forces. Schwob and Malherbe were charged with inciting the troops to rebellion and listening to the BBC.

It took a while for their trial to take place because the German authorities simply could not believe that these rather sickly old ladies (which is how they presented themselves) could have carried out such activities without being part of a much wider, male-led group. They were eventually found guilty and sentenced to death for their resistance activities and six months’ imprisonment for listening to the BBC. Reprieve from their death sentences came just before the Island was liberated.

In the post-war years, women have contributed greatly in all walks of Island life. One of those to leave an important legacy is Frances Le Sueur, who dedicated much of her life to studying and championing Jersey’s rich and diverse natural history. A leading member of the Société Jersiaise, her study of local plants produced an authoritative guide in her 1985 publication, Flora of Jersey. As well as her important research work, Frances campaigned passionately for the conservation of the Island’s flora, raising awareness of its importance with local planning authorities. In recognition of her achievements in the field of conservation, the Frances Le Sueur Centre at Les Mielles de Morville in St Ouen’s Bay was named in her honour.

Most Read

Top Stories

More From The Jersey Evening Post

UK & International News