How to Keep the 20th Century Mostly at Bay
Smithsonian, May 1986

The tiny island of Sark still carries on with low-budget feudalism, dislike of cars and its mixed memories of a Great Dame.

The tide is so huge at Sark (30-40 feet) that, like other little harbors on the North Sea and Channel but more so, when it is out the sheltered sailboats are sitting in a walled fortress with a few feet of water at its bottom.

Map shows why Victor Hugo called the islands "Bits of France fallen into the sea and picked up by England."

APPROACHING IT across the English Channel, voyagers first see black cormorants grouped on outlying reefs and rocks, looking - as a local wit has put it - "like members of the clergy who have agreed, with bad grace, to differ." Then the island itself looms up, jagged cliffs rising 200 feet out of the water.

Sark is tiny - three and a half miles long by one and a half wide. Local tides are huge (up to 40 feet), with murderous currents that curl every which way around the island. Cliffs and headlands have been so cut into that its actual perimeter is 42 miles around. For hundreds of years the only harbor was a minuscule cove called Creux, and even from there the early islanders had to blast a tunnel through solid rock with black powder to get up onto the island from their boats, That was in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. 

Tunnel from Creux Harbor. Cafe in back.  5/27/85

Most visitors now land at nearby Maseline - not a harbor at all, but a long seawall. Because of the tide's height, Maseline is festooned with 40-foot necklaces of rubber tires that hang down to bump and grind between the stone and the steel sides of docking boats. In certain winds it is impossible to land. The same is true of thick weather, which is why islanders have always forbidden the killing of sea gulls. In heavy fog, the birds' cries warn sailors of nearby land.

But once safe ashore and up the curving 300-yard valley that leads to the island's top, a modern visitor finds a whitewashed pub, then a dusty crossroads where carriages wait for hire. From there, the day's boatloads of tourists are turned loose down a short unpaved street, ironically known as "the Avenue," along which Sark's few shops cluster. There are some thunderous slow tractors for "haulage" and farming, but cars and trucks are banned. Portable radios cannot be played outdoors. Sark does not permit planes. It has no smog, no crime worth mentioning, no labor unions, no unemployment and, above all, no income tax. No movie house, either. At first it strikes one as part Walt Disney movie set, part land that time forgot.

Tractors are a sore point.  There are now 60.  Noisy if useful, filling the lanes full when they come, like Tiger tanks - or Hannibal's elephants, one supposes.

Bringing Sark visitors up from the port.

But opinions differ. "If I had to stay here more than a week I'd go crazy," a young English filmmaker tells me. "There's nothing to do but drink." A young woman, also from England, with heavy green eye makeup, disagrees. "When I go to Guernsey [which has cars and big hotels] the noise destroys me. I can't wait to get back." Another visitor tells me she once got romantically involved with an island man. "I finally told him I couldn't ever live here. But with them, you know, it's like 'I've been to London and I didn't like it.' He said, 'Do you know a prettier place?' "

Content in the absence of cars and transistors, you bump along on a rented bike, or sit in an antique carriage behind a clopping horse. The quiet lanes and roads are unpaved, smooth, mostly narrow, some sunk deep in ruts created by centuries of hedging. The low­slung houses are built of ancient gray stone, with kitchen gardens behind, and now and then old enough to have little stone projections from the chimneys - for passing witches to land on. Gentle slopes and elevations provide views stretching away to the rim of the world so that all you see is the green of fields and blue of distant sky.

On blustery days wind-fat shirts will be jigging on clotheslines, and at each big break in the hedges a sudden gust buffets a bike broadside for an unsettling second or two. At such times it is hard not to wonder what Sark must be like in winter. The thought is likely to recur near La Coupée, the spectacular isthmus that links Sark with Little Sark. La Coupée is scarcely more than a buggy's breadth wide. On one side it drops 250 feet straight down. Years ago, before there were railings, children on their way to school from Little Sark in winter sometimes had to crawl across on hands and knees to keep from being blown off into the sea.

But when the days are soft, it is easy to find yourself listening to the island's silence. Victorian-looking cows chew solemnly and gaze into the middle distance in fields fairy-book rich with buttercups and corn marigolds. Maybe that's why the island cream is so yellow. All sensible "trippers" stop for what is known as a "Sark Cream Tea." You slather fresh scones with that thick buttercup-colored cream (plus blackberry jam), gulp tea and think yourself transported into some 19th-century country village.

Falling under the spell of Sark today, it is impossible not to wonder what the island's future fate will be. For Sark is clearly a unique and vulnerable relic. Also some kind of test case for all small, beautiful islands (Martha's Vineyard comes to mind) now threatened by tourism and the greed of realtors. Larger Channel Islands like Guernsey and Jersey gave their names to cows and sweaters, and are now pleasantly suburbanized resorts. Sark is famous for holding the 20th century at bay.

The island is the only self-governing, feudal fiefdom in the Western world. It is presided over by a Seigneur, who still has quite a few droits de seigneur. But it is governed locally by a kind of combined Parliament and House of Lords, known as Chief Pleas. (One gets an idea of this body's range of concern by learning that in 1974, when Pleas finally hammered out a Married Women's Rights law, it also rejected, after hot debate, a proposal to raise the bounty paid on rabbits.)

Day to day the island is run by a Sénéschal who acts as a kind of Prime Minister, presiding over the Sénéschal's Court with help from a Prévôt, a Greffier (clerk and treasurer) and a Connétable (who is a bit like a constable and road commissioner combined). It was not until 1922 that nonlandowners won the right to elect 12 deputies to Chief Pleas. Until recently Sark spoke a French patois. Native-born folk still think of "the English" as outsiders. Yet for more than 400 years, the Seigneur of Sark has owed his fealty directly to the English Crown.

Many of Sark's persisting offices, laws and customs came directly from feudal Normandy, only 25 miles away as the cormorant flies (England is 80; see map above). They go back, in fact, to the savage Northmen who took what became Normandy in the 900s, wresting a duchy from a series of weak French kings.

The first Viking lord of Normandy (911-927) was fierce Duke Rollo. In Sark, Rollo is no remote connection. Consider, for instance, something called Le Clameur de Haro, a kind of do-it-yourself injunction that Sarkees have a right to invoke. If you think someone is encroaching on your land you can confront the offender and shout "Haro, Haro, Haro! A l'aide mon Prince, on me fait tort." The fellow who is doing you wrong must then cease and desist and the issue goes into an elaborate litigation. The Clameur de Haro was raised just last year when a landholder stopped a new neighbor from cutting back a hedge on some land they both claimed.

And what has all this to do with Duke Rollo? Haro has been thought to be a contraction of "Ha Rollo!" The aid called for was originally Rollo's aid.

Sarkees today would be reading Descartes, going to a lycée and suffering the supervision of bureaucrats in far-off Paris if Duke Rollo's ambitious scion, William, Duke of Normandy, had not taken England in 1066. Or if William's hapless great-great-grandson, England's King John (Lackland), having lost William's Norman dukedom in 1204, hadn't held on to the islands and established a remarkable administrative precedent. The islands now owed him fealty, not as Duke of Normandy but as King of England. Yet John decreed that whatever Anglo-Norman forms might evolve in England, the islands could stick to feudal Norman ways.

France never did get Sark back - at least for long.  Despite centuries of raids, plagues and skirmishes, the 100 Years War, periods when the island was overrun by pirates or lay abandoned between the two countries, it would become what it is today, a curious mixture - English in loyalties, Norman French in custom.

It was to forestall France, though, that in 1565 Queen Elizabeth I granted the then temporarily desolate island as fief to Helier de Carteret, of St. Quen in nearby Jersey. The whole of Sark, along with a marvelous list of feudal rights (to such things as poulage, paunage, gravage, oblations and eschéats), would be his if he could settle it and muster in its defense a force of 40 men with muskets.

Seigneur de Carteret also had to pay the Queen one­twentieth of a knight's annual service fee, which at the time came to about 50 sols. He recruited venturesome tenants and made homesteads for them by dividing the island's 1,270 most tillable acres into 40 gerry­manderlike tenements so that each would have a bit of coast to defend. In return for land, Sir Hélier's tenants owed him a tenth of what they grew, plus a chicken a year for every chimney on their houses (poulage) and eventually a corvée of annual public work and a thirteenth part (treizième) of the price of any tenement purchased. The Seigneur could not sell his fiefdom without approval from the Queen. Tenants could not sell their holdings without his congé i.e., permission. In 1572 Elizabeth made Sark a Fief Haubert (i.e., owing fealty only to the Crown) and sent six bronze cannon from the Tower of London.

One of them is still there. So are the 40 tenements, some of them still owned by the original families. Each tenement owner still gets one vote in Chief Pleas. You still cannot buy a tenement on Sark without the Seigneur's congé. The Seigneur still pays the Crown part of a knight's yearly fee (now inflated to £1.78).

Change comes slowly for Sark because, even in the late 20th century when Small is beautiful but keeps losing out to Big, Sark's variation of feudalism - a system set up to protect land - has proved effective. One of the differences between being, say, Seigneur of Sark and a peer of the realm in England, is that in England land and the job go with the title, while in Sark, the title and job go with the land. Since 1565, three families (de Carteret, Le Pelley and Collings) have had long Seigneurial runs, more than a century apiece.

The de Carterets lasted into the 18th century. Aside from settling the island initially and establishing the office of Sénéschal (in 1675), the great de Carteret contribution was to see that if such small holdings of farmland kept being subdivided, the resulting parcels would soon be unable to support the owners, let alone a Seigneur. In 1611 Philippe de Carteret got new Letters Patent from King James I, establishing primogeniture. Land would go to the oldest son, or oldest daughter if no son survived. Modern Sark by and large still agrees with de Carteret. The fear of eroding the island's unique land-protection system is strong. That is the main reason why, when the Married Women's Property Law was finally passed, it did not include the right to dispose of "immovable property" on the island (i.e., Sark real estate).

Undone by a vein of silver

Well into the 19th century, Sark belonged to the Le Pelleys, who finally had to sell out because of the island's first brush with the Industrial Revolution. From Helier de Carteret's time the Seigneur has been entitled not only to gravage (value from anything washed ashore) but to anything mined on the island. In 1836, a vein of silver was found on Little Sark. More than 200 Cornish miners were brought in. Some of the shafts went down 600 feet and some ran 300 feet out under the ocean. During storms miners could hear great rocks rolling around on the floor of the sea above them. The silver soon ran thin. Ernest Le Pelley mortgaged his land holdings, but not even the promising shaft dubbed "Sark's Hope" could save him.

By 1853, for only £1,400 in cash, £4,000 in paid-up Le Pelley mortgages plus Queen Victoria's approval, Sark had a new Seigneurial family in the person of the Rev. William Thomas Collings. It was also about to be assaulted as never before by the equivocal forces of progress. From self-sufficiency based on farming, fishing and knitting, the island began to slide, slowly at first, into dependence on the tourist trade and an import economy. Increasingly the land was occupied by summer folk who did not work it.

The Rev. Mr. Collings loved Sark. He improved schooling, got on with the Vicar (a rare thing for a Seigneur), encouraged the building of small hotels and proudly refurbished the island militia-with brilliant red tunics. On his death in 1882, he bequeathed the islanders, through son William Frederick and. granddaughter Sibyl, a century of Seigneurial eccentricity and world-class dynastic soap opera.

William Frederick was over six feet tall, built like a guardsman, with hot blue eyes, a savage sense of humor and a splendid mustache. Islanders held him in awe for he was a great sailor and cliff climber and a crack shot. But he was "a violent terror" when drinking. He regularly had to be called to account before the embarrassed Sénéschal for such things as "brutally" terrorizing the Vicar's wife with his stick, chalking anti­clerical slogans on walls, insulting the constable and "throwing his hat on the ground and calling him coward, damn fool and brute," breaking window panes, riding his horse into private gardens and threatening to shoot a journalist - who may, of course, have deserved it. He once turned up at dawn in Guernsey, drunk and clad only in a woman's petticoat.

He taught his daughter Sibyl to shoot and sail and climb cliffs like a boy. But when she dared to argue with him he threw a book at her and called her "a damned Virago." Sibyl had one leg a trifle shorter than the other, but William Frederick would brook no complaints of pain or unhappiness, telling his children that "they would be a lot worse off" before they were dead. "Only the smug and self-centered," he said, "could imagine that other people are interested in their troubles." Later in life Sibyl was grateful to him "for being able to live a life free of the inconvenience of self-pity."

Barefoot and in her nightgown

At 15, Sibyl fell in love with Dudley Beaumont, a young English painter who did her portrait. Her father was enraged; young Beaumont was a "weakling," he said, who did not shoot or climb cliffs. When Sibyl disobeyed him, seeing Beaumont again, William Frederick came to her bedroom at midnight, dragged her downstairs and put her out of the Seigneurie barefoot and in her nightgown. She crouched in a hedge till predawn, was hidden by the captain of the morning boat for Guernsey (her father stormed aboard in search of her as it was about to sail) and made it safely to a relative's house in London. There, in 1901, she married Beaumont and proceeded to have seven children. Her father did not contact her until the birth of her first (a girl). Then he composed what he thought was a conciliatory telegram: "Sorry it was a vixen."

None of this seemed to cramp Sibyl's already seigneurial style. She found children boring, she said, but was brilliant at amateur theatricals. When she lost her husband - and with him most of her income - at the end of World War 1, she learned German (as a Sark heiress she already knew proper French and the patois as well) and got a job working with the British Army of the Rhine. Later she raised prize cattle.

By 1927, when she became Dame, postwar democratic reform had given nonlandowners a voice in the government (the 12 elected representatives) and granted all males of 20 (and females of 30) the right to vote. But Dame Sibyl was hard to contain. For nearly 50 years she relentlessly made headlines all over the world (DAME OF SARK BANS AUTOMOBILES), publicizing the island and dramatizing herself in a role that seemed to combine Lady Bountiful with the Queen of Sark. "The people refer almost every possible problem or perplexity to me for a solution," she told an American reporter in 1929. "I love it." Sarkees ground their teeth when they read about it back home, but it helped her sell an autobiography (Dame of Sark) and drew the tourists. On the island she was a stickler for her feudal rights. She wrangled and harangued and penny­pinched and indefatigably exhorted her fellow islanders, sometimes for sensible reasons, sometimes for shortsighted ones. But she saw that the island's feudal past was a crucial weapon in coping with survival in the crush of the modern world.

Toward the end of his life her father had been lax.  But now islanders who had stopped paying their tithes or wheat or their poulage learned they would have to do so again. She was not backward about noting that when it came to the chickens, "they always give me the skinniest and oldest." Opponents raged about "feudal bondage in an age of advancing democracy," but she retorted that island agriculture needed to be encouraged so Sark would be more self-sufficient.

She was biting about any behavior that might trouble Sark's peacefulness, ruining it for the islanders and discouraging decent tourists: "Holiday camps and eyesores would destroy Sark's beauty," she wrote, "and all the nice tourists would stay away." Twice she pushed for an ordinance to blacklist in pubs anyone known to get ugly drunk, but it failed in Chief Pleas. She was witty and outrageous. She was fiercely against smelly, "hooting" powered vehicles. But she was also fascinated by filmmaking. During negotiations about shooting Appointment with Venus on the island in 1951, the Sénéschal learned that Dame Sibyl had agreed to let a Land Rover ashore. The Pleas challenged the decision. "Oh," said the Dame, "I thought a Land Rover was some sort of senior Boy Scout."

With so many children, some usually in financial scrapes, she was ferociously eager to turn a penny. For a time Sark's constable was Henry Head, one of her greatest critics and the leader of the island faction that wanted to scrap Sark's feudal traditions. Knowing the Dame was familiar with gravage, he called her and mentioned that something important had washed ashore on the island. "It's mine," she snapped. Of course, he answered, and then told her it was a 25-foot dead whale - which she had to pay to get rid of. But it was characteristic of her that she refused her congé to a huge offer for the nearby small island of Brechou because the bidder was a real estate developer.

Dame Sibyl now appears on a series of Channel Island stamps, in one as a young girl whose portrait was painted by her future husband; in another, seated sternly beside her American second husband, Yaleman (1913) and World War I flyer Robert Hathaway, as the two of them confront two German officers just landed on Sark. World War II was a turning point in Sark's history and the Dame's finest hour. Almost all the "outsiders" (i.e., English) were evacuated. But Dame Sibyl swore she would never leave and encouraged Sark-born people to stay too. And they did, sharing and rationing their food and working at Spartan self-sufficiency, and so preserved their island through four years of occupation. (Alderney, by contrast, chose evacuation; it has never recovered its prewar character.)

Even so there were vast changes after the war. In 1951, for instance, the Seigneur's veto power was cut to a mere 21-day delay. Today, the island's future seems to depend on whether it can keep financially independent without commercializing its way of life. Some 70,000 tourists a year visit Sark, most of them just for the day, but even so, island facilities are strained. There is less farming. Everyone fishes, but there are now only 20 commercial fishermen, including four lobstermen. More and more "outsiders" own the original tenements, which control a vote in Pleas. The French patois has almost died out - only one child of the 37 now in the island schools has both parents born on Sark. In 1968, in a closely fought battle, the Pleas rejected a long-range plan to control building and land use. But some measures have been taken. You can't build on agricultural land and you can't build at all unless you've lived on the island for ten years. "Otherwise," explains Michael Beaumont, who took over as Seigneur when his grandmother died in 1974, "Sark would be a sea of bungalows."

The Seigneur can still deport you

Beaumont is a soft-spoken aeronautical engineer and rocket designer. He let go all the Dame's servants when he became Seigneur, redid the wiring of La Seigneurie himself and charges 25 pence for a tour of its famous gardens. In marked contrast, too, he tends to downplay the importance of being Seigneur. On the books, he can still deport an undesirable from the island and is the only householder on Sark who can keep doves or a female dog - though visitors can now bring bitches ashore for up to 28 days. He serves on Chief Pleas and appoints the Sénéschal, the Greffier, the Prévôt and the Vicar. The Seigneur's great power for good lies in withholding his congé from potentially unreliable buyers. "We're worried," an islander said to me, "that Michael may not be strong enough."

Others worry that the island, which has and seems to want no part of the British welfare state, will simply go broke. It is like a family or a small business, barely able to keep its head above water. As American parents worry about future college tuition, some islanders are haunted by how they will find the huge chunk of money that may be needed for an all-weather harbor or an island sewage system. Currently, except for hotels, drainage is left to the individual, an arrangement the Seigneur, as an engineer, regards as "pretty poor." But the banks, he wryly observes, "will never lend you anything until you can prove you don't need it."

Funds for those too sick or old to work are raised through a small visible-assets tax, and a capital tax which is assessed on a by-guess-and-by-God basis. "People pay because it's for the poor," says Sénéschal Lawrence de Carteret, a collateral descendant of Helier. "Besides, the total asked for is laughable." Otherwise the island is run on £120,000 a year, most of it from the 45-pence landing tax paid by tourists.

Telling me this, the island's Greffier, John Philip Hamon, who is the Clerk of the Court in charge of records that run back unbroken to 1675, shudders at what would happen if bad weather or drain problems or connections with erratic off-island sea transport should cut back the tourist trade, even for a couple of years. At the same time the island can't handle any more tourists than it now has without messing things up. Hamon admits he and other "chaps" discuss this dilemma in hopes "somebody can think of something."

The virtual ban on building, intended to prevent clutter and keep the island green, plus the press of rich English who buy on Sark to avoid British income taxes, has created a housing shortage plus inflated real estate values. Sarkees, especially the younger generation, have trouble finding a place to live and just at a time, with the average age more than 50, when islanders are facing the fact that Sark will not long flourish unless the young continue to make a life there.

Helen Gibson, a devoted teacher from the North of England, who has run Sark's schools since 1975, says "I've only lost five," meaning that only five of her students haven't settled in Sark sooner or later. She is tough on them, lecturing them on the need to avoid "doing a Sark," which means not turning up for work or an appointment, and encouraging them to see something of the world. There was a time when that would have been a tactical mistake, when the question, even on rustic and isolated Sark was, figuratively speaking, "How yuh gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" Now, says the Sénéschal, Sark residents "can see the upheaval in the outside world" and a lot of what they see makes Sark look good. It certainly doesn't encourage the notion that the island should become more like other places.

Nearly everybody has several jobs

To make it on Sark nearly everybody has to have several jobs; families sometimes have whole clutches of them. De Carteret now runs the island's diesel-driven electric plant, but he repairs tractors and once farmed. When he's not in the Greffe office, John Hamon, like his grandfather before him, is the island blacksmith. (Anyone of the 60 to 70 horses on the island can be shod for about £16.) His wife and son Trevor run the pub at the BelAir Hotel, though Trevor eventually will take over the blacksmithing and is Assistant Greffier as well. Even for those who cannot step into a father's trade, there is a variety of work. Islanders are not rich, but with no taxes and almost no bureaucracy to support, the pence can add up. Life isn't boring if you mix things up, summer and winter - fishing, carpentering, painting, carriage driving, road building, tending bar.

If there's a wedding among Sarkees, the bride and the groom still carry cake and wine to all islanders who were too sick or too old to come. And if there's a big party, I was told, "everybody on the island is invited," though my informant quickly added, "the English won't come." Yet the sense of the English as standoffish "outsiders" has declined somewhat partly from inter­marriage. "You can't put on airs here," says Michael Beaumont. And because everyone does so many different jobs, he points out, "you're not judged by your employment at all," as you would be in England.

It is a closed world, especially in winter. Bitter feuds can break out over anything from a fancied slight to real adultery. "One difference between Sark and a small English village," says the Vicar, the Rev. Robert Harris, "in a village you can always hop a bus and get right away." Still, the island exerts its close-knit magic. "People may be savagely competitive about jobs and possessions," explains hotel owner Philip Perree, "but they know if their carriage gets smashed or a horse bolts, they can count on a neighbor's help." To say nothing of care for ailing, noisy tractors, though many islanders feel that permitting them originally was the worst decision since Troy took in that wooden horse.

If Sark has a chance of making it to the end of the century still without a casino or a resort hotel, still free of motorcars and taxes, still green and underpopulated and still in possession of its past, it will be partly because island interdependence is not just a brotherly concept but a literal fact. On larger resort islands with similar problems in America, it is usually the rich summer folk who, having bought in, want to keep everybody else away, and the natives, driven by greed or sheer necessity, who sell out to builders with visions of Boatels and casinos dancing in their heads. But Sark is tiny. Almost any concession to raw commerce or the internal combustion engine would shatter its precarious, peaceful balance overnight, destroying what the islanders love, what the summer people sought, and what now draws the special breed of hardy tourists whose landing tax and spending keep the island afloat.

Unlike other islands, too, the relics of feudalism have given Sarkees political and legal machinery to help protect them while they find a way to keep the island going. One of the young people drawn to the island is Jeremy La Trobe-Bateman, 30. His father was a Shell executive who lived all over the world. Jeremy went to Harrow and hated it, finally settling on Sark for good. He builds boats, drives a tractor, paints, carpenters and this year is serving as Connétable. "There are 500 people here," he says. "Everybody knows everybody. It's the perfect place to sort out a system of government. If we can't get it together, nobody can."


Additional reading:

  • The Fief of Sark by A.H. Ewen and Allan R. deCarteret, Guernsey Press (Guernsey, United Kingdom), 1969
  • History of the Channel Islands by Raoul Lempriere,  [ 2nd e grave] Robert Hale (London), 1974
  • Sybil, Dame of Sark by Barbara Stoney, Hodder and Stoughton (London), 1978
  • Mr . Pye by Mervyn Peake, Overlook Press (Woodstock, New York), 1984