Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

Property and education on Guernsey

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Laws relating to the Descent of Property—Registration of Estates—Formalities relating thereto—Curious Documents in the Greffier's Office—The Elizabeth College—Course of Instruction—An Infant School.

SINCE the ancient laws of Normandy relating to the descent of property, obtain in the island of Guernsey, whereby land descends among heirs male in a species of gavelkind, the whole country is consequently divided into small proprietorships; and the French language, though gradually giving way to the English tongue among the inhabitants, is still maintained in the proceedings of the courts of law. Few people, especially those residing in the country, are found wealthy, and where difference exists in possessions, it is in English and other funded securities.

The tenures of estates, here minutely subdivided, are divested of the ordinary bewilderment attendant upon English landed property by a system of registration that has obtained for centuries, whereby the Guernsey man, freed from the intricacies of title-deeds, to say nothing of copyhold property and manorial rights, is enabled by a summary process, combining security with simplicity, to effect the transfer of an estate for a sum of money in ordinary cases not exceeding from three to five pounds. The said process, from enquiries I made on the spot, appears to be as follows.

The terms of purchase of an estate are no sooner agreed upon between the parties, than the buyer has recourse to the office of the greffier, or general registrar of the royal court of the island; the latter consisting of the bailiff or chief magistrate and twelve jurats. The said greffier, by virtue of his vocation, draws up and enters into the books of register all acts, orders, judgments, and sentences, preserving the records thereunto belonging; likewise all bargains, mortgages, and sales of lands and rents; delivering copies under his signature to whomsoever required. In conformity with the above regulation, at the charge of one shilling, the registry of the estate in question is produced for inspection, which registry lays open and declares all manner of particulars relative to mortgages, or in any way connected therewith; and thus ample insight is at once had by the interested party, since no unregistered transaction is legal or valid. The seller of the estate next produces his mortgage book wherein are entered the acquittances for the interest paid on the mortgages, and the buyer being satisfied on this head, the contract between the parties is immediately drawn up. With this document, usually comprised within the compass of an ordinary sheet of paper, both buyer and seller, together with the wife of the latter if he be married, for according to the law of the land she must be a party to the bargain, appear in the presence of the bailiff and two jurats. These three functionaries now affix their signatures to the contract, which is then accordingly registered in the said greffier's office, and both buyer and seller are provided with copies, bearing distinct reference to the page and folio. An amicable action at law is lastly commenced, for the purpose, by a legal proceeding, of dispossessing the seller, and affording a fuller confirmation of the registered transaction by publicity; the sentence of the court thence becoming an award of appropriation of the property that rivets the bargain for ever and ever.

The royal court representing "the States of the island," by which appellative the civil authorities of Guernsey are distinguished, composed, as before stated, of the bailiff, or chief magistrate, and twelve jurats chosen for life, sits at St. Peter's Port at frequent intervals during term time, and occasionally at sundry periods thoughout the whole year. Three or four jurats together with the bailiff are sufficient to form a court, wherein the solemnity of an oath is restricted to merely holding up the hand; the pleadings are conducted by attorneys in the French language, and the officers of the court are plainly dressed, bailiff, jurats, and attorneys, neither wearing wig nor gown.

There are many curious documents in the greffier's office, of ancient date, and in a state of high preservation; among those that I saw were sundry charters of Henry VIII., Edward VI., and Elizabeth. The most interesting of all, however, is the journal or day-book of the criminal court immediately subsequent to the period of the reformation. Herein may be read at the present day, legibly written as on the hour the ink flowed from the pen, the names and .sentences of martyrs who then perished at the stake. Among the latter entries, is that of the condemnation to death by fire of the unfortunate female, celebrated in history for having given birth to an infant in the midst of the flames.

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Notwithstanding the privileges of the Elizabeth College are in some measure restricted to the sons of natives of the island, many boys are sent continually from England to receive their education at this academical establishment and return home once a year to remain during the midsummer vacation. One of the under-masters on these occasions escorts the juvenile detachment across the sea, landing either at the ports of Southampton, Plymouth, or Weymouth, from the two former of which, packets ply twice a week during the summer,—from the latter, at similar periods all the year round.

The Elizabeth College, founded originally by Queen Elizabeth, was subsequently at the application of the States of the island re-chartered by his late Majesty King George the Fourth. From the cursory view I was enabled to obtain of the establishment, I have reason to entertain a high opinion of its merits, and it has in fact been the means, as affording cheap and excellent education, of inducing many persons with large families, for the sake of obtaining the advantages attendant upon residence, to settle for an extended period on the island. For the sons of persons resident, the college dues amount to no more than twelve pounds a year, for which small sum they receive all the advantages of tuition, boarding at the same time with their parents. The English boarders before alluded to, are received at the house of the principal at a stipend of sixty pounds a year, which includes everything.

Every description of student, without distinction of privilege, is admissible to the institution, excepting as regards the exhibitions annually competed for, two or three of which are restricted exclusively to sons of natives of the island. The rest are attainable by general scholars, who also derive other objects of emulation in the distribution of medals and prizes. A public examination, immediately after the midsummer vacation, takes place every year, which ceremony is conducted by two masters of arts of the University of Oxford, specially elected by the heads of Exeter, Jesus, and Pembroke colleges.

So far as I could learn, boys are qualified for both our universities according to the course of study adopted at Eton and Westminster, and a better system of instruction at the same time is introduced, whereby the attention of the student, as occasion may require, is either directed even exclusively to the Latin and Greek classics, or in like manner even exclusively to other branches of useful knowledge. As is usual in most other schools, the day is divided into three periods of study, and during all these periods the attendance of three professors is regular and unintermitting. One professor attends to the Latin and Greek classics, another to arithmetic and mathematics, and the third to the modern languages; so that an opportunity is afforded to the student of directing his attention, ad libitum , either to one or all these branches of study accordingly as his parents may think fit, or the bent of his own mind incline.

To my old Guernsey friend, I was indebted for an introduction to the principal, from whom, in a few minutes' conversation, I gathered the above particulars; he would kindly have furnished me with more information, but I was unwilling further to intrude on the leisure of one who had so little of leisure to spare.

We afterwards strolled together about the town; having then no particular object in view; however my friend suddenly turned briskly round, and asked me whether I would like to see the interior of an infant school. I acceded immediately to the proposal, and to the establishment we at once repaired; wherefore we saw things divested of a holiday garb, and as they exist every day.

Though the superintendents, a man and his wife, upon whom devolves the care and tuition of at least fifty or sixty small scholars, were by no means in expectation of receiving visitors, we were freely admitted to a clean and airy school-room, in form oblong, in size sufficiently large, and furnished at the farther end with several rows of ordinary wooden steps, falling towards the centre of the room, so as to serve as seats or benches for the little pupils to sit upon, one row above another.

The children were at this time in their play-ground, and almost so soon as we arrived, a little bell rang to summon them to their labour, when it were well if those persons averse to the system of infantine discipline had observed the alacrity wherewith, converting toil to pleasure, and eagerly anticipating a feast of the mind as if it were one of the body, this Lilliputian multitude rushed tottering and tumbling in upon the heels of one another. On they came, some, but few, six or seven years of age; by far the greater number between two and three: old men in miniature, waddling and protuberant, unsteady and straddling, and exhibiting in their own little persons a pathetic analogy between old age and infancy. Even those of declining years and strength might here draw a pleasing moral from a picture thus instructive, and learn, in the anticipation of coming infirmity—that the sprightly impulses of youth exist and are ever compatible with the feebleness of age. However, as I said before, on they came, making their way across the schoolroom with the haste of firemen to a conflagration, each, for its own part, as happy, I really believe, as any earthly being whatever is permitted to be. Its energies aroused—its bodily strength called into action—hustled by its equals, and animated by mutual contention—each individual child here stood forth to vindicate its own privileges, and to buffet the world, mind and muscle, entirely on its own resources. If overset in its course by one, it was immediately picked up by another, and the tear removed from its eye by a third, as it hung smiling on the skirts of a fourth; and altogether they clambered over, and rolled upon their stomachs among the benches at the top of the room, to the discomposure of garments, and exposure of infantine limbs and proportions, till, partly by their own exertions, and partly by the assistance of one another, they all speedily became arranged, seated in order, attentive, and expectant—some half dozen rows of partly serious, partly smiling faces.

The business of the school, now about to commence, was evidently an object of interest to the young assembly, for all eyes were simultaneously directed towards the pupil selected by the superintendent to perform the lesson. Out of compliment, perhaps, to the visitors, the biggest boy of all, and there was hardly another like him, was selected on the present occasion to take the book in his hand. Nearly eight years of age, and towering above the rest in stature, a leviathan amid little fishes, he held elevated before his eyes, not a book but a board, whereon on one side was pasted a collection of sentences from the New Testament, and on the other a series of proper answers to be given by the respondents. In an audible voice he then read the first sentence, when all, big and little, every child in the schoolroom, responded thereto by acclamation according to the written answer, taking the cue from the superintendent. The least infants of all, even those unable to articulate intelligibly, were not less ready to add their endeavours to swell the volume of sound; and since children delight in noise, so their taste was here gratified and turned to good account, by the privilege at each answer of clapping hands. This ceremony, whether well or ill done, was performed at all events with wonderful glee; and though some little creatures clumsily failed to make their small hands meet, they clapped a pair of fat arms together, which did quite as well, serving to mark the time and arouse the attention. In the mean time, the whole assemblage, with the exception of the reading boy, who stood up, kept their seats on the benches as before.

One other member of the community I have omitted to mention, a small dog—a long-backed, yellow turnspit, out at elbows, with large, round, expressive eyes, that sat on the benches, side by side with the children, joint property apparently of all, had received no doubt an accomplished nursery education, and was perfectly versed in the ways of his young associates. Caressed first by one, then by another, and treated by all just as one of themselves, a mutual understanding was founded on such amicable principles between the parties, that really adult instinct and infantine reason were placed in ludicrous contrast, and brought nearly to a level. Liberties, however, restricted by canine regulations, were allowed just so far and no farther, the dog himself determining the limit, according to circumstances or the caprice of temper; on particular occasions suffering himself to be dragged about by the tail, without making the least remonstrance; sometimes, on far less provocation, by a wrinkle in the upper lip, shewing signs of serious displeasure, but almost always, if disturbed when rolled up round comfortably in a ball, uttering a tremendous growl.

At the sound of clapping of hands, the faithful quadruped reared himself on his tiny haunches, and looked woful and wistfully at the ceiling; for good manners alone restrained a sympathetic effusion: most willingly indeed had he barked, if he dared, preserving silence entirely by aid of the moral sense, or force of discipline, in spite of the vile nature that was evidently struggling within him, to a degree that caused every minute fibre, and responsive muscle in his body, to writhe as if he were galvanized.

It were well to discover, either in the way of knowledge borrowed of the learned, or experience furnished by the owners of children, the exact point when incipient infant reason ought properly, and without undue severity, to be coerced by gentle discipline; and since among other establishments that the age has produced, infant schools offer a clue to this investigation, it really did occur to me, after viewing the spectacle already described, that a modified system of instruction on the same plan might be farther extended. Such, at any rate, is the rapid growth in a child of mental perception, and such the early development of passion, that in a few short days the puling, tremulous cry, becomes a loud angry scream, which the small newborn animal systematically now converts to useful worldly purposes and ends. Not more certainly does the Swiss peasant, when he blows his horn, know his cow will come and be milked, than the froward, querulous baby, merely by using the means within its own power, succeed in obtaining its desire, and learn, before three weeks old, to bend a whole household to its will. Whether or not, according to the present nursery system of education, this humour be not encouraged too far, is a question for those more versed in the subject than myself to consider; and at least whether, as is the case with the children of the poor, who either at infant schools or at their own homes, experience a wholesome degree of restraint by freely associating together, a similar privilege might not be extended with equal advantage to the offspring of the rich, whose doom at present, gregarious creatures though they be, is to pass months in infancy without the companionship of their equals, and subject, under the dominion of an aged nurse perhaps, to almost absolute solitude.

George Head, A Home Tour through various parts of the United Kingdom (London: John Murray, 1837) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2012.

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