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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Jersey

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Cod house banister with inlaid button

© Geraint Jennings
Cod and the coast

The banisters in an old Jersey house reveal much about how the money was earned to build it. According to folk-tradition, if the newel-post at the bottom of the banister of the main staircase has an inlaid button of ivory or mother-of-pearl on top, it is said that the house was paid for with no mortgage. A close look at the rafters and the roof construction may also reveal offcuts of wood from the shipbuilding industry that offer further clues to the origin of these houses.

Cod houses

The wealth for the construction of these 18th and 19th Century houses in Jersey’s town and countryside most probably originated in the fortunes made through the North Atlantic cod trade. These showpiece houses have therefore earned the nickname of "cod houses".

Merchant's house
Merchant's house, La Rocque in St. Aubin
© Geraint Jennings
In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV confirmed in a Papal Bull (an letter, originally sealed with lead, issued by the Pope) that Channel Island ships were neutral during wars between England and France, and could therefore trade with both sides and be free from attack. King William III formally annulled this neutrality in 1689, but by this time Jersey had acquired a network of maritime trade - and more importantly, manpower in surplus.

Until the late 20th Century, feudal inheritance laws required property to be passed in the first instance to the eldest son. This avoided splitting farms of an average five to 20 acres into unviable inheritances. However, younger sons excluded from the property chain needed a career. Smuggling, privateering and the rich fishing grounds of the colonial territories of the New World offered opportunities.

Words: Geraint Jennings

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