GEM FROM THE ARCHIVE
Michèle Leerson of the Jersey Archive tells Liz Palmer about a fascinating early 20th century photograph album of offenders.
Jersey Police photo album, 1901-1920
At the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century, it was a common practice for local police forces to keep a photographic record of offenders. If you have any criminal ancestors, it is always worth checking your local record office to see if it holds such a record. These albums may provide the only photographic image of an individual that was ever taken, and offer much interesting detail about their offences and personal circumstances.
Archivist Michèle Leerson tells us all about one such album in the Jersey Archive and highlights the role of the ‘centenier’, which is unique to the Jersey police system.
Which document have you chosen?
Our gem is a Jersey Police photograph album of criminals dated 1909 to 1920. The images alone are of great interest, but it also gives very useful details of the offender’s name, place of birth, age, crime, sentence and previous convictions. It’s one of only two police photograph albums in Jersey and was officially transferred to the Jersey Archive by the States of Jersey Police back in 2009.
What does it reveal about the lives of our ancestors?
The information on each record can help us to understand the circumstances in which these people were living – and what happened to them following their conviction. The four offenders in this particular photograph have all been arrested for intemperance and disturbing the peace, which were common offences at this time, particularly in the poorer areas of St Helier. Taverners’ License records show that there was an abundance of licensed houses in the town selling alcohol, as well as many unlicensed premises and therefore cider, wine and spirits were readily available and – with no import tax – also very cheap. All four offenders received sentences of hard labour, which would have been served in the island’s prison on Newgate Street.
The majority of criminals in the album have been convicted for robbery; however other offences include forgery, assault, bigamy, prostitution and the keeping of ‘ disorderly houses’. The sentences received were mostly days, months and even years of hard labour and a few of the younger offenders aged between 13 and 16 are recorded as being sent to reform schools. Some of the people are listed with various aliases, which would seem to indicate they have been in trouble with the law before, often in other cities or countries.
Many of the criminals in this volume were born in Jersey, but there are also a large number whose place of birth was northern France, particularly Brittany. From the mid-19th century a growing agricultural labour force made the regular journey across the English Channel from France to work on island farms during the potato harvest. Some stayed for the season and later returned to France, but many stayed and made Jersey their permanent home. These workers were generally very poor and often partially paid in cider, which meant that drunkenness was extremely common and was often the catalyst for them being
These albums may provide the only photographic image of an individual that was ever taken
arrested for misdemeanors. Like the other criminals, they received sentences of hard labour, but they were given an additional punishment of being banished from the island, usually for a period of five years. This was to ensure that the island was not responsible for their welfare or that of their families and their passage back home to France was often paid for by the Jersey authorities.
Why did you choose this document?
This album is special because it contains photographs of people who would not normally have been photographed – had they not been arrested for a crime and
taken to the Jersey Police Station. During this period, it was generally only the wealthy who could afford to pay to have photographs taken and the poorer section of society, such as the majority of the individuals in the album, would not have such a record.
The other thing that makes this volume unique to Jersey is that all the arrests recorded in the volume were made by ‘centeniers’, who are volunteers in the island’s honorary police system, which dates back over 500 years. The centeniers serve as unpaid officers for each of the island’s 12 parishes and maintain law and order with the powers of a police officer. A centenier can still arrest and charge an individual, who is then brought before the island’s Magistrates’ Court to have their case heard.
In the case of this record (pictured above), Arthur Luxon is recorded as one of the centeniers for the parish of St Helier, which is where the offence took place.
Tell uss more about your collec ctions…
Jersey ArchiveA is the island’s nationalal repository holding archival materialterial from public institutions as well as private businesses and individuals. Since its establishment in 1993, Jersey Archive has collected over 350,000 records from the States of Jersey, States Committees and Departments, the Royal Court, HE Lieutenant-Governor, parishes, churches, businesses, societies and individuals relating to the island.
Many of the most popular records held at Jersey Archive have now been digitised and are available to download online at catalogue.jerseyheritage.org. Collections av available for download include transcriptionsi tions of early church registers, wills and testaments from circa 1660 to 1948 and the unique collection of Occupation Registration Cards which give details and photographs of all individuals living on the island during the German Occupation, 1940 to 1945.
MICHÈLE LEERSON is an archivist based in Jersey