Rural – Jersey Country Life Magazine



AS we come out of ‘lockdown’ there is a plethora of comment on ‘the way ahead’, some of it desperately looking for the bright side of life in the future. It can be summed up as: Is Coronavirus a turning point in our economy and our way of life? Will things ever be the same? Should things ever be the same?

As one Talking Head remarked recently: ‘British history since the War will in the future be divided into ‘Before Coronavirus’ and ‘After Coronavirus’.  A whole raft of other things have now been connected with our experience of the pandemic, be it  climate change, Black Lives Matter, air travel, or the popularity of ‘Zoom’ meetings.    

I have little doubt that some things will change and that there will be aspects of the New Normal that will supersede our previous experience of daily life. But will it be a great turning point?

It is of interest, I think, to take a long view of previous epidemics in Jersey and see how these might have changed life for the Islanders of the time.

We can start with the Black Death – it certainly changed life, but what came afterwards was not necessarily any better than what had happened before.

There was a recurrence of the plague in 1518: the Royal Court held their sittings in Grouville – the house still exists. In 1536 the plague struck yet again: the Island was in ‘lockdown’. It all seems very contemporary.

Ninety years later (it is curious how it seems to take approximately a century for each new epidemic to strike us), the markets in both Guernsey and Normandy were closed due to an epidemic. In St Brelade, there were 130 deaths in seven months; people were being buried in their gardens.

Another century more or less: we are all familiar with Janvrin’s Tomb – L’Ile au Guerdain – in Portelet Bay. The unfortunate mariner, Philippe Janvrin, contracted an illness which was then raging in France and fell ill on the return trip to Jersey. On arrival, his ship and the crew members were in ‘self-isolation’; Philippe died on the second day and for fear of infection his body was not taken ashore but buried on this islet off Portelet.

In the 19th Century, there were two outbreaks of cholera, in 1832 and 1848. It affected especially the urban poor, who lived in slum and insanitary conditions. Many of them were forcibly removed to tented accommodation at what was then Overdale Farm, where Overdale Hospital now stands.  

Another century brings us to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1919-1920. Schools were closed, places of entertainment ordered shut and gatherings for whatever reason banned. Alongside, many businesses and retailers were also closed had reduced opening hours as staff either become sick or decided to remain at home.

In the Occupation, as if things weren’t bad enough, there were serious epidemics of diphtheria, whooping cough and typhus….

In short, we have been here before – often. Covid 19 is merely the latest in a long list of epidemics and pandemics that have afflicted the Island in the past – and by no means one of the most serious, however tragic it might be for those directly or nearly affected by it.

There were certainly changes after these infections came and went: an improved water supply after the 19th Century cholera outbreaks, for example, but long before the ensuing plague came along, daily life had returned much to normal and the ‘new normal’ was not markedly different from the ‘old normal’.

Perhaps the aftermath of our current plague will indeed see immense changes in our daily life. I suspect not: people are usually too fond of their ‘old normal’ to jettison it in the long-term for a ‘new normal’ – and they find the old normal way of working and of living their daily lives quite convenient, really.

Yes, changes will come, as they always have, but the pace of change will be more gradual, I suspect, than some of the recently expressed hopes and fears might suggest.      



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