What were the Corn Riots?

September 21, 2021

On 27th September this year we will all enjoy an extra Bank Holiday to commemorate the Corn Riots. No Bank Holiday is unwelcome, but what were the Corn Riots and why were they important enough to be remembered over 250 years later?

The Corn Riots took place on 28th September 1769. The riots were the culmination of years of unrest associated with a shortage of wheat on the Island as well as grievances as to how the Island was governed.

At the time, Jersey still had elements of the feudal system in force, such as the annual system of rentes which many Islanders had to pay to their respective Seigneurs. Wheat was a particularly important commodity. Not only was wheat important as a source of food, but the right of champart entitled the relevant Seigneur to every twelfth sheaf of corn. Payment of rentes was often made in wheat.

At the time the office of Bailiff was effectively an hereditary position held by the De Carteret family. The 2nd Earl Granville held the office for 48 years, from the age 25 until his death in 1763 (by which time successive De Carterets had been Bailiff for over 100 years). He was succeeded by his son, the 3rd Earl Granville, who retained the post until his death in 1776. Apparently neither the 2nd Earl Granville or the 3rd Earl Granville ever visited the Island. This left the Lieutenant Bailiff, Charles Lemprière (in office from 1750 to 1781) as de facto Bailiff, presiding over the Royal Court and the States Assembly. M. Lemprière used his position to mainly appoint family members into positions and offices of power and responsibility. This was not popular.

Immediately prior to the Corn Riots wheat was in short supply. There had been bad harvests across Europe in 1767 and 1768 and Jersey did not escape. As the quantity of corn available grew scarcer so the prices rose higher. The export of wheat was banned in 1767 but the ban was lifted in 1768 and much of the wheat on the Island was exported for sale in France, where it attracted extremely high prices. The system of rentes meant that it was in the interests of the Seigneurs to keep the price of wheat in the Island artificially high and the export of wheat from Jersey ensured that they did.

Frustration grew among the populace. The imprisonment of a local man for insulting the Deputy Viscount seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. On 28th September 1769, in the northern rural parishes, Islanders gathered and marched on St. Helier. Once in town the protesters forced entry to the Royal Court where they presented their demands to the Cour d’Héritage which was then sitting. Among the demands appears to have been a reduction in the price of wheat and the abolition of the champart. The laws demanded by the protesters were proclaimed, although later (from the safety of Elizabeth Castle), the States sent a report to the King, George III, who struck down the new laws.

The King sent five companies of the Royal Scots to restore order. When the Royal Scots arrived, however, they heard the protests of the Islanders and advised them to set down their grievances in writing to be presented to the King. This they did and the political and legislative reform which followed culminated in the Code of 1771, the 250th anniversary of which we celebrate this year. All the Island’s Regulations, Ordinances and Laws were codified. The Code paved the way for a more recognisable form of democracy. It included rules for the conduct of the States Assembly, the election of Officers and the government of the Island. Importantly, the Code stripped the Royal Court of the power to enact legislation and provided that only the States could enact legislation, subject to Privy Council approval (excepting certain temporary ordinances and regulations which did not require Privy Council approval).

Today, the majority of the provisions of the Code have been repealed as many of the laws became outdated. For example, workmen are no longer required to work from 5am -7pm between 25th March to 25th September or risk suffering a fine not exceeding 20 livres! Parts of the Code still remain relevant and are cited in legal cases today. However, on any analysis, the Code was a momentous piece of legislation which fundamentally changed the way in which laws are made in Jersey and the manner in which the Island was governed, and all of this came about because of the Corn Riots. That has to be worthy of an occasional Bank Holiday!

Whether you spend the 27th September remembering the Corn Riots and celebrating the Code of 1771, or simply having a BBQ with friends and family, BCR Law wishes you and your family a thoroughly enjoyable (and hopefully sunny) Bank Holiday weekend.

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