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A Brief History of Alderney

by Brian Bonnard

Island Life is very grateful to Brian Bonnard for the following most informative and interesting account of the History of Alderney. He has also contributed an article on the Natural History of the island. Brian is a well known historian, resident in Alderney and the author of several books. Over a period of 17 years he has researched all aspects of Alderney's history and published six books on various aspects of the island’s history and 3 on its natural history. He has put onto CR Rom three illustrated book s about the botany of Alderney and the other Channel Islands and a 1,000+ page manuscript with over 450 illustrations summarising the results of his historical researches . These are available for sale . Check out his website at 

Alderney, third largest of the Channel Islands, is roughly 3½ miles long x 1½ at its widest, is about 2,000 acres in extent, and is situated in the mouth of the Channel, 9 miles due West of Cap de la Hague in Normandy. It has high cliffs to the S and W, in the eastern part of which the older harder rocks are overlaid with sandstone, (the only Channel Island to contain this rock), with the main plateau area, about 80m high, containing most of the agricultural land and sloping steeply down to the N and E.

Until the mid 18th century, when the first harbour at Braye was built, in historic times almost the entire population lived in the town area, developed from the original ‘nucleated village’ settlement in a hollow around the Bourgage and the church. There were only the water mill at Platte Saline and few buildings, except for defensive positions, outside this area. The farm buildings were mostly attached to the houses, many of which were built back into the slope of the ground behind them.

Prehistoric times;

The island was cut off from the land mass of Europe on several occasions over the previous million years, as the sea levels rose when the ice caps of the various ice ages melted and was finally permanently separated about 6-7,000BC, some 3,000 years before the gradually forming English Channel cut off the British Isles completely from Europe. Prior to this, the only inhabitants of the mainly deciduous forests covering the area, were wandering hunter-gatherers and stone and flint tools and weapons, going back about 150,000 years, have been found here. There is considerable evidence of continuous occupation for at least the last 5-6,000 years, from the late Stone Age, through the Bronze and Early Iron Ages, in the form of Neolithic Dolmens (burial chambers) and an Iron Age pottery, dated around 490BC, excavated on Longis Common in the 1960s. It is assumed that the earliest settlements were all in this area. Weapons, tools, pottery and other artefacts from many excavations here, over the past 170 years, can be seen in the Alderney and Guernsey museums.

Early history;

The Romans used Alderney as a staging post en route from Brittany to Britain using Longis Bay as their harbour. The old fort, now known as The Nunnery, contains substantial elements of the fort built about 320AD to protect it. Many Roman burials have been excavated in the area, with pottery of Italian origin dating from 130-20BC and coins from as early as 78/79 and 190AD found.

As Christianity spread across Europe in late Roman times, the islands were attached to “Constantia” (the modern Diocese of Coutances) and legend has it that Christianity was first brought to Alderney by St. Vignalis, about 575AD from the monastery already established on Sark.

Three centuries later Viking raids along the Channel coasts (a legacy of which is the Norse origin of the names of many of our coastal and offshore rock features) resulted in the French King, Charles the Simple, ceding the province of Rouen to Rolfe the Ganger (Rollo) as ‘Patrician’ or ‘Count’ in 911, to gain protection against further raids, provided he became a Christian and married his daughter. Some years later this resulted in the creation of the Duchy of Normandy, after the Cotentin peninsula and the Channel Islands had been added to the province by his son William Longsword in 933. His descendant, William the Bastard, became 7th Duke of Normandy in 1035 and subsequently, in 1066, William I of England. William did not then incorporate the Duchy into the realm of England but retained it as a personal possession, a situation which has resulted in today’s independence of the islands from the British Parliament, whilst retaining allegiance to the Crown.

The earliest known charter referring to Alderney, dated between 1028 and 1042, is the gift by William’s father, Robert, 6th Duke, of land in Guernsey to the Abbey of St. Michel. This was modified on the original charter, by William, in 1042, by exchanging this land, for land in Alderney and Sark. One of the witnesses to this document, was Edward I of England. In another charter dated 1057 William transferred this grant of about half of Alderney to the Bishop of Coutances, where it mostly remained until 1568 when the Channel Islands were finally incorporated in the diocese of Winchester on the direct orders of Elizabeth I.

King John, 13th and last Duke of Normandy proper, lost the mainland part of his Duchy to the French in 1204, but retained the Channel Islands and kept the title. Our present Queen is still the Duke (not Duchess) of Normandy. All Channel Island men between 16 and 60 were formed into Militias to defend their islands, but were not required to serve the Crown outside their own island, unless the sovereign was captured by an enemy. Small garrisons of English troops were maintained in the islands from then until 1930, with reinforcements sent to help at various times of danger.

The Crown usually appointed someone as Governor or Commander of the islands to represent them. Assizes at which justice was dispensed, complaints heard and tithes and taxes collected, were held in each island every few years by travelling Justices, sometimes accompanied by the sovereign.

From earliest times the agricultural land in Alderney was cultivated communally on an open strip system, which survived the English and other island land enclosures of the 16th and 18th centuries. The individually owned plots were marked by boundary stones and any disputes referred to the Douzaine, the 12 parish officials. Strong measures were taken to ensure that Crown (or Governor) and Church received their proper dues in the form of tithes and customs arose about planting, harvesting, collecting “vraic” or seaweed for manure and communal grazing of the stubble, after harvest and through the winter, which were adhered to, right into the 20th century.

A surviving document signed by Henry III in 1238/9 sets out the rights of Crown and Church in their respective halves of Alderney and notes, in 13 clauses, amongst other things, that the King had a windmill and the Bishop a watermill, each had a court consisting of a Provost and six jurats, to administer their rights. These were in fact the same people and were expected to judge impartially for either King or Bishop at whichever court was sitting. The courts were held in the open air in the churchyard and the priest was to be paid “with a pound of copper”.

An “extente” dated 1274 in the second year of the reign of Edward I, sets out the various rents and tithes paid to the crown which were valued in total at 60 livres tournois 9 sols 2 deniers. (£60.46). With few changes these rents were still payable to the “Farmer” or crown representative in the island in 1666, and many continued until the 19th century.

The Assize held in Alderney in 1309 names the officials and court and five of their surnames could still be found in the 1989 Alderney telephone book.

During the “Hundred Year’s War” Alderney was captured and looted by the French for a short time in 1338 and the island seal, (if there actually was one then), was apparently lost at this time. After 1471 Edward IV appointed separate Governors for the “Bailiwicks” of Jersey and Guernsey, (the latter including Alderney, Sark and Herm), which have remained separate jurisdictions ever since.

16-19th centuries;

Another French raid, by Captain Malesarde of Cherbourg in 1558, shortly after England finally lost Calais to the French, resulted in the island being occupied for a few weeks until he was captured and sent to the Tower of London by a force headed by George Chamberlain, a son of the Governor of Guernsey, a Catholic family. As a reward, Elizabeth I granted him a 1,000 year lease on the island in 1559. Later, in 1584, after George got involved with the faction supporting Mary, Queen of Scots and fled to Europe, this was passed to his brother John, in a new charter, for £20 down and an annual fee of £13.6s.8d. and started the hereditary rule of the Chamberlain family which lasted until 1640, through several vicissitudes, mainly caused by the family’s Catholic faith; disputes with the islanders; and a temporary holding of the lease by Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex from 1591, (when he lent John Chamberlain £1,000, with the island as security), until Essex was beheaded for treason in 1601. They left little permanent mark on the island and nothing still bears their name as a reminder.

During the English Civil War the island was held by the Parliamentarians. Captain Nicholas Ling was appointed Lt.-governor of Alderney in 1657 and continued to hold the post after the Restoration in 1660 under de Carteret, (a Jerseyman, the “Fee-farmer” or Governor appointed by Charles II, before his restoration), until Ling died in 1679 and was buried in the (old) churchyard, near the vicarage wall. Ling built the jetty at Longis on the orders of the King about 1666, the first residence on the site of the present Island Hall, as the official residence; and the Vicarage was rebuilt about this time at the expense of the parishioners who had been without a Minister for some 16 years and had paid to have a young man trained in the Ministry to take up the post. Ling’s second wife was a member of the Andros family from Guernsey. De Carteret died the same year and, in 1680, his widow sold the patent to another Guernsey Andros, Sir Edmund, whom Charles II later appointed Governor of New York. Sir Edmund delegated his authority in Alderney to another Guernseyman, Thomas Le Mesurier, also connected by marriage to the Andros family and, after Andros died, through various changes, the Le Mesuriers continued as hereditary governors until 1824, when John Le Mesurier sold the Patent back to the Crown in return for a pension.

During their almost 150 year tenure, there were almost continuous wars between Britain and the French, and/or the Americans and the Spanish. The Le Mesuriers too were frequently in dispute with various of the inhabitants; the English customs officers appointed by the Crown; and the officers of the British garrison; but still left a great legacy of their presence in the island. The island was granted its own seal in 1745, the Militia was put on a proper footing and, for the first time became an effective force to repel the feared French invasions. Many batteries were built, a proper uniform was issued in 1781 and, as a result of the rise in smuggling caused by the wars with France and the issue by the Crown of “Letters of Marque” to privateers, to prey on all enemy shipping, much employment was given to the islanders and much profit, especially to the Le Mesuriers and the other leading families. A new harbour was built at Braye in 1736, with warehouses to store the smuggled goods close by, between then and about 1750, (now mostly hotels). The Casquets lighthouse was built in 1724 as a warning to shipping of the dangerous rocks and reefs round Alderney. (Interestingly the seal of the Alderney court with the crowned Alderney Lion, granted in 1745 had a representation of the three towers of the Casquets lighthouse as it appeared then, with the smoke of the coal fires coming out of their tops on its reverse side). 

Alderney Court Seal 1745

The Le Mesuriers rebuilt Capt. Ling’s house as the Government House in 1763 and, in 1779 a new private mansion, Mouriaux House, just across the road for themselves. They extended the parish church in 1761 and again in 1790; added the tower in 1767; built an almshouse for the poor, the first public school (now the Museum) in 1790; refurbished the Nunnery and built the present entrance in 1793; built a new Vicarage on the old site about 1810 and, as a final gift to the island, Rev. John le Mesurier, son of the last Governor, built the present parish church in 1850, as a memorial to his parents.

After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, smuggling and privateering officially ceased, the garrisons were withdrawn and the island fell on hard times. In 1830, to relieve the poverty a little, the Crown agreed to divide most of the Crown lands amongst the inhabitants, only retaining a strip around the island coast for military purposes. Barely ten years later the French started building large naval harbours at Cherbourg and St. Malo. The English retaliated with new naval bases along the S. coast and planned “Harbours of Refuge” in Alderney Jersey and Guernsey. Alderney’s was, after several changes of plan, to be big enough to shelter the entire Channel fleet. Much of the land so recently given to the inhabitants was purchased by the Government, to provide sites for the Breakwaters to enclose the harbour; the necessary defences; quarries for the stone; and land for a railway to transport it where needed. Hundreds of stonemasons, engineers, various craftsmen and labourers and troops for a garrison were brought in from about 1846. The island buzzed with activity, prosperity returned, the population rose from about 1,200 to almost 8,000 by 1861 and a huge building spree lasting until 1870 commenced. Queen Victoria made two visits to observe the progress and a tourist industry started as a result.

The first breakwater proved far more difficult to build than had been anticipated, costs greatly exceeded estimates and winter storms destroyed at least part of most year’s work. It eventually got to almost a mile in length by 1864, but, after large sections of the outer length were damaged over the next year or two, was shortened to the present 2,850 feet and all work ceased in 1870. The second arm from Château à L’Etoc, to protect the harbour entrance from the NE had barely been started and was abandoned. Meanwhile 12 forts and batteries had been built all round the island to defend the harbour and the island against attack. The full complement of muzzle loaded cannon was about 140, needing a large garrison to service both them and the artillerymen who manned them. Naval exercises were held on a couple of occasions but were abandoned as a result of two new ships, including the fastest Torpedo-boat destroyer in the Navy at the time, being sunk on the reefs round the island. Well before the time the construction work finished, the “Entente Cordiale” was established with France, naval vessels were equipped with rifled guns and armour plating, against which cannon balls would be of little use and the whole project was rendered redundant.

Schools, Catholic, Wesleyan and Presbyterian churches, a new Court house and small prison had been built and houses to accommodate the married soldiers and NCOs, the workers and their families. Many of them and the soldiers, married island girls and stayed after their service was finished. The island at one stage had a total of over 30 public houses and on several occasions the civilians were terrorised by drunken undisciplined troops and disputes between civilian and military officials were frequent. The garrison was eventually withdrawn in 1930.

20th century;

The building of the breakwater and forts gave rise, after the government work was finished, to an expanding quarrying industry and the present commercial jetty was opened in 1897 to facilitate the export of cut blocks and crushed roadstone, as well as the increasing numbers of tourists. A new stone crusher was built in the harbour area in 1905. Most of the Militia volunteered for the Great War in March 1916 and 44 men lost their lives in the fighting.

Tourism flourished, the first official, land based, airport in the Channel Islands was opened in February 1936, with flights to Southampton, London and the unofficial aerodromes in the other islands and there were frequent boat services to Guernsey, Jersey, Cherbourg and England, many of them provided by SS Courier. Two ships of that name, specially built for the service, served the island from 1876 to 1947. Both were in service at the same time from 1883-1913, earning themselves the names of ‘Little’ and ‘Big’ Courier respectively and played a large part in the island’s history for 80 years. Excursion boats came from England and France. “Boat days” became important social occasions and anyone who had nothing better to do went down to the harbour to see SS Courier, the “Mailboat”, come in. Taxi and bus services were started to transport the passengers to town.

The stone trade provided work for a quarter of the male population when the island was evacuated in 1940, but was not restarted after the war and the later, pre-war, crusher was finally demolished in the 1960s.

When war was declared in 1939, Alderney was enjoying fine weather and a good tourist season. Most people went home immediately and a Machine Gun training unit was sent to garrison the island. In a short time, after Dunkirk, it became obvious that the islands could not be defended against the German armies sweeping rapidly across Europe. In June 1940 all the troops were withdrawn and the civilian populations given an opportunity to evacuate to England. About 20% of the population of Jersey, 50% of that of Guernsey and virtually the whole 1,450 population of Alderney left the islands. Most of the Sarkees decided to remain. Six small cargo ships arrived in Braye Harbour around 4am on Sunday 23rd June. The inhabitants turned their animals loose, packed just what they could carry with them and buried or hid the valuables they could not take. By midday the island was left with a few officials destroying fuel stocks, disabling vehicles, etc., a couple of farmers who would not leave their stock and a dozen or so old people who simply refused to leave their homes. The evacuees arrived safely at Weymouth and about 2 weeks later the first batch of German troops arrived in the almost deserted island.

The Occupation;

Over the next 5 years Alderney was gradually turned into a vast concrete fortress, part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. At first volunteer civilian labour was brought in from northern Europe by the Organisation Todt, but these workers were soon replaced by forced labour, mainly young men from eastern Europe dragged from their homes and turned into slaves and four camps, each holding about 1,500 were built to house them.

There was no deliberate extermination of the prisoners here but, inadequate food, excessive labour, frequent beatings, poor living conditions, with no medical help and insufficient clothing, meant that considerable numbers died from malnutrition, dysentery, septicaemia and pneumonia. A few were shot “trying to escape”. The exact number who died will never be known. At the peak of the work there were about 5-6,000 slave workers and 3,500 German troops and technicians in the island. When the island was eventually freed by a small British force and the German garrison surrendered on 16th May 1945, more than a week after Jersey and Guernsey were freed on the day after VE Day, the German records and the marked graves found showed 437 deaths amongst the workers, but many of the survivors claimed that hundreds more were buried in the trenches where they fell, or, if they died in their barracks, their bodies were piled into lorries and tipped into the sea off the Breakwater. Many more slaves were taken back to France after D-Day and some died en route for Germany, or trying to escape from the trains.

Some 1,100 Germans were kept on the island to help the British troops clear up the 37,000 mines laid; the miles of barbed wire; the various booby traps; and the rubble from buildings they had destroyed; and to repair as many as possible of the houses. It was December 1945 before any islanders were allowed to return. By this time about 300 houses had been made habitable. The first small groups consisted of members of the pre-war Alderney administration and islanders with useful skills and just before Christmas about 100 more returned.


It had been decided in England that the island would, for the first two years, be run as a Communal Farm. Shopkeepers were provided with shop fittings and an initial stock and then had to get on as best they could, replacing the stock from their profits. Craftsmen would be paid by those they worked for, whilst the rest of the male workers would be paid £3 a week and the women 1/- (5p) an hour, by the States, out of the sales of the farm produce. Any remaining profits would be put aside to repay the British Government for their expenses on repairing and rebuilding the houses, a total in the end of £174,000, which was repaid by 1952.

The remaining Germans and the British troops were withdrawn in June 1946 and by July about 685 people had returned. The islanders became very unhappy about the way they had no control over their own land and a committee of enquiry was set up by the Home Office in 1947. The end result of this was the “Government of Alderney Law 1948”, which came into force on 1st January 1949, setting up a written constitution, with universal franchise for persons over 21 who had been resident for more than a year, the make up and election of the States and the justice system and the imposition of income and some other taxes (for the first time ever in Alderney). It was thought that the small population of Alderney could not be self-sufficient in running the airport and harbour and in providing the services and benefits most people had come to expect in UK. These taxes would be collected into the general Bailiwick revenue funds, at the same rate as in Guernsey, and administered by them. Guernsey would be responsible in future for providing many governmental functions, education, social services and pensions, health, police, roads, water supplies, sewage, running the airport, etc. Local rates would be levied in Alderney to pay for refuse disposal, street cleaning and lighting, official building maintenance, States housing and employees, etc.

Before the war Alderney only had a small electricity generating station, started in 1936, serving just a small area of the town with direct current and another at the harbour, producing AC to operate the stone crusher and related buildings. Lighting in the town was either by gas, generated at the Gas Works in Newtown, or by oil lamps. The school was run by two teachers, there were no State Pensions and no public piped water supply. Some seven public pumps around the town, the principal ones being in Marais Square and Sauchet Lane, had served for generations. Many houses and all the forts had substantial underground tanks built to collect roof water, used for most domestic purposes except drinking. The Germans had installed a piped supply to many of the houses they occupied and set up a number of AC generating stations around the island to light houses and fortifications and operate their radio transmitters, guns and other equipment.  From about 1947, these facilities were extended and consolidated and soon all but the most outlying properties had the benefit of piped water and mains electricity.

The Germans had removed most of the boundary marker stones and the British Government appointed a land surveyor to try and re-establish the ownership of land and create an official land registry. Before the war any property boundary disputes were settled by the island Douzaine, 12 elected, unpaid officials, whose responsibility was to see that people obeyed the few simple property and agricultural laws and who appointed some of their number to serve on the States. This work proceeded very slowly and, between 1947 and its completion in 1964, three surveyors were involved, two of whom died in office. By then the population had risen to about 1,650, many of whom were wealthy, not locally born and, as the British Empire broke up, included a considerable number of ex-colonial administrators and officials.

In the 1950s and early 60s, a considerable horticultural business developed, exporting flowers and produce to UK markets. Increasing transport costs, a reduction in the boat services and competition from subsidised production in UK and Europe gradually killed this. Several attempts were made to start light industrial businesses, but the same factors and the double transport cost, through having to import most of the raw materials, affected these and the only one to survive and prosper has been the Channel Jumper Ltd’s factory, producing knitwear.

Despite the 1947 predictions, sufficient tax revenue was generated over most of the next 50 years, for Alderney to be economically self sufficient, cover all Guernsey’s administrative costs and charges and to resume responsibility for providing and administering some of the public services. Rising administrative costs, particularly in running education, health and social benefits, the airport and harbour and falling tax revenues from about 1994-7, when interest rates dropped rapidly, caused the island to need support from the Bailiwick general taxation pool, to cover the theoretical deficit between the amount it paid into the general revenue and the costs of the services provided.

The electricity supply services are well run, appear to suffer few breakdowns and are more than adequate to meet peak demands in the worst weather. Water supplies are generally adequate, despite huge increases in the daily demand per head in recent years, through the use of automatic washing machines and dishwashers and occasional droughts.

21st century;

Today, education, health, unemployment benefits, pensions, and most governmental services are on a par with, or in some cases such as pensions, better than those in Britain. Individual basic tax rates are slightly lower, there is no higher rate income tax and no inheritance or capital gains taxes. Domestic rates and water charges and petrol taxes are considerably lower than in UK.

These benefits more than make up for a cost of living generally much higher than in UK, through the need to import most of the necessities of life and exceptionally high air and sea transport costs (on a per mile travelled basis), with the resulting high fuel costs for bottled gas, heating oil, coal and electricity.

Much of the island’s employment and income over the last 30-40 years has come from tourist related businesses and the service industries providing building and maintenance work for both locals and recent immigrants. In the last few years the small finance industry has made considerable contributions and most recently, electronic betting and e-commerce, have begun to supply increasing employment and revenues and, by March 2001, the two active betting companies had become the biggest employers on the island.

Brian Bonnard  - March 2001

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