History of Alderney
There is no doubt that like the other islands, Alderney was occupied by Neolithic man several thousand years
ago. In 1832 a hoard of some 200 Bronze Age artefacts was discovered on Longis Common. This area is said to be the
“Old Town” which was buried under drifting sand. Pots from the Iron Age have also been found. The Romans also
realised the importance of Alderney and built a fort Castrum Longini. A Midden found near Longis Common contained
items of Roman origin and many are now on display in the Alderney museum.
Chateau de Longis otherwise known as “Les Murs de Bas” (Lower Walls) was later built on the Castrum Longini site
and nearby, construction of Les Murs de Haut fort (later to be renamed Essex Castle) commenced in 1547-8 during
Edward VI's reign.
Normans & Elizabethans
Going back in history again, Robert 6th Duke of Normany had given half
of Guernsey to the Abbey of St Michel between 1028 and 1034 but in 1042 William (7th Duke) exchanged part of the
land in return for Alderney and Sark. In 1087, William sequestrated the land from the Abbeys and by 1134 if not
sooner, the Bishop of Coutanches clearly had responsibility for the area.
The unusual status was recorded in an official documents “Status
Insulae de Aurineo” outlining the rights and authority of the English Crown and the Bishop. It described the powers
of the Prevot (a Sheriff) and six Jurats (Judges). This was to become the basis of the island’s government, the
States and the constitution remained unaltered over the centuries until its reform in 1949. The Status Insulae can
be compared to the Doomsday book and was quite detailed, even mentioning a windmill owned by the Monarch and a
watermill owned by the Bishop.
In 1568, Elizabeth I ordered Coutanches to hand over responsibility of
the area to the Bishop of Winchester. in 1560 John Chamberlain bought the Governor of Alderney title by way of
lease of Alderney for £13.6s.8d. However when he got involved in the plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the English
throne, he lost the lease and his brother bought it in 1584 for £20. He later sold the lease which included Les
Murs de Haut, for £1,000t to Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex in 1591. Although Robert never took
up residence, he renamed it Essex Castle. He leased his governorship to William Chamberlain and after several
successions in title, Henry Le Mesurier inherited the Governorship in 1729. He set about building a jetty at
Braye Harbour in 1736 which still remains. Brother John, bought the title in 1744 through an exchange of land in
Guernsey and was issued with a new Patent by the Crown in 1763. He built Government House (now the Island Hall) and
the town school in 1790 using some of the vast fortune made from privateering. His brother Peter succeeded him in
1793, built up the local militia and refurbished Les Murs de Bas in that same year. His son, John was the last
hereditary governor but surrendered the title to the British Government in 1825 for a pension of £700 per
The Victorians, concerned about the threat of invasion from France, set
about building the thirteen forts to protect the harbour , most of which still survive today, either in private of
States ownership. Unfortunately they are not open to the public.
When the French built a breakwater at Cherbourg in 1842, the British
Government decided that a 'Harbour of Refuge' to protect the British fleet was needed. In 1847 work began on the
Alderney breakwater and thousands of tons of granite had to be transported from the east of the island and from
Portland. Irish workers escaping from poverty at home arrived in their hundreds to work on the project.. By 1864 at
the western breakwater at 4,827 feet long was complete, but had cost an astonishing £1.5 million. However
within a year, 1,780 feet was abandoned to the seas following heavy gales and as relations with the French had
improved, the eastern arm was not continued with. By 1871 all maintenance had ceased but as the old harbour was
silting up, (allegedly because of the breakwater), the island appealed to the UK for financial assistance for its
upkeep in 1872 and this was granted in 1874. This arrangement remained in place until the 1980s when Guernsey
agreed to its upkeep in lieu of Defence payments. The debate about how to keep the structure in tact goes on today.
After the Battle of Waterloo, peace prevailed and the British Garrison
was largely withdrawn. The island fell upon hard times.
During World War II, Alderney gained a reputation for being the
location of three German labour camps, Lager Noordeney, Lager Heligolond, Lager Borkum and the notorious SS
Concentration camp Lager Sylt near the airport. With the population evacuated, it is thought that many hundreds of
prisoners from eastern Europe (mainly Russians) died as slave workers, through mal-nutrition and sheer exhaustion.
Even the birds are said to have fled, as occurred in Poland. The liberating British forces in May 1945, found 319
named graves at Longis Common and another 64 in St Anne's churchyard. It is also rumoured that many more workers
died and were buried in trenches or thrown off the cliffs. When the islanders returned, they found the island’s
infrastructure and houses practically destroyed and reluctantly turned to Guernsey for financial help to rebuild
it. As a result in 1949, the island’s constitution was amended to reflect their dependence on Guernsey and so ended
many centuries of independence.
With the island's infastructure devastated from the occupation years, it was clear that the island needed
considerable assistance if it was to be re-built. Guernsey was asked to assist and the constitution was reformed in
1949 with the former providing many of the administrative services and financial support.
Footnote: Well known Historian and author of several books Brian Bonnard has written
a fascinating account of the History of Alderney for islandlife.org. To
read it, click here or on the links on the left.
http://user.itl.net/~glen/alderneyhistoryindex.html - Alex Glendinning's
history of Alderney