8th February 1900

The States Assembly opts for English

French has long been considered the official language of the Channel Islands. However, in 1900 the States of Jersey voted to allow the use of English in its chamber, should deputies choose, although nobody would be forced to make the switch.

As reported by The Times the following day, the States of Jersey, “by 26 votes to 15, adopted a standing order to allow the optional use of the English language in that Assembly, where French was hitherto the official language. The Bill had been bitterly opposed by many older members of the house. The Mayor of St Heliers [sic] voted against it, contrary to the unanimous wish of his constituents, urging that Jersey was convenient for French refugees.”

It was pointed out that many of these refugees had become some of the most upstanding citizens of the island, while “another invasion, and one more dire, was being brought about by the passing of many of the finest local properties into the hands of the English who some day might dominate the island and be harder to dislodge than were the Boers”.

A cost-cutting proposal

The mayor’s primary argument in favour of keeping French as the only official language was that since it was no longer so widely spoken throughout the island, the States was having to spend a lot of money teaching it to English-speaking school pupils. Perhaps if the States still used French, and only translated into English those documents that needed to be submitted to the Queen, this could be remedied. It was pointed out, although not by the mayor, that those proposing and seconding the adoption of English were childless, and that this lack of any real desire to pass down French (described as “moribund” by one) had a bearing on their views.

A demonstration of loyalty

Others argued that allowing English would demonstrate to the mainland that Jersey remained loyal to it, but the rector of St Martin, who had by then sat in the States for 37 years, asked why should “England need such a proof? Their ancestors did not trumpet their loyalty – they came to the Square and shed their blood for their country.”

Jurat Le Gros reassured other members that just because they would be able to speak English in the chamber it wouldn’t affect the language in which proceedings were recorded. Thus, when put to the vote, the jurats, constables, rectors and deputies voted in favour of allowing English and, according to the Jersey Weekly Press and Independent, “there was applause in the public gallery, which was at once suppressed”.

St James’s Gazette reported that, as a result, “bunting is now being flown by English residents throughout the island”.


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