The little barrel-roofed two-celled prison on Sark must be one of the world’s smallest prisons still used today.
The present building is situated next to the Visitor Centre. This was originally built as a Girls School by Seigneur Ernest Le Pelley in 1841, completing the project which had been envisaged by his brother Pierre Le Pelley in consultation with his good friend Rev Cachemaille, which was to use to the best advantage for Sark’s community the surplus of money being generated by the new silver mining venture.
The original prison stood not far from where St Peters Church is today. This was built at the insistence of Sir Thomas Leighton, Governor of Guernsey. Amyce (Amias, Amice or Amys) de Carteret, the second son of Helier de Carteret (the first Seigneur of Sark), was administrating Sark on behalf of his thirteen-year-old nephew, Philippe de Carteret, at that time. At a meeting of the Chief Pleas on 2nd November 1597 he counseled for the building of the prison and donated a piece of Manoir land, on the southern side of the site for the present church.
Although a Jerseyman Amyce became a Jurat of the Royal Court of Guernsey and later became Lieutenant Governor and Bailiff of Guernsey, marking his place in Channel Island history as the only man ever to hold the two offices at the same time.
The decision to build a prison was part of the strategy to strengthen Sark’s defences against the ever-present threat of invasion. This was soon after the defeat of the Spanish Armada and involved building batteries at L’Eperquerie and Creux harbour. It was necessary to have a place to detain the enemy (foreign raiders in an unsettled period), where military prisoners could be secured in “an enclosed place or house sufficiently strong to prevent escape”.
Amyce was empowered by the Royal Court of Guernsey to appoint a Gaoler or Porter whose duties were to guard the prisoners. Since this job was considered more dangerous as Sark did not have a fort the Sark goaler was to receive the same pay as Guernsey’s gaolers.
The most common form of criminal punishment, however, was not a prison sentence but one of humiliation – the Stocks. These were located beside the Manoir and the offender had to suffer the ‘slings and arrows’ of public disapproval from dawn to dusk.
Sinners condemned by the Island Consistory Court (an ecclesiastical council or court made up of elders of the Presbyterian Church) could be sentenced to sit on the Penance Bench, also located outside the Manoir.
By 1832 the undercroft of the Arsenal (now Fleur de Jardin Tea Gardens) was doing duty as an interim prison as the old prison had become too dilapidated to be used. There was a single window, unglazed and unbarred, which would not have prevented anyone from escaping – but, as Revd J Cachemaille pointed out in his book of 1874, “wither would he flee, where could he find a hiding place? It is impossible to quit the island except by boat, and then only if wind and tide are favourable; it is therefore very easy to capture a fugitive”.
In 1832 the Guernsey Courts ordered that a new prison was to be built to replace the old. Seigneur Le Pelley tried to persuade the Chief Pleas to build a new prison but they refused unless he paid. Nothing was done for over 20 years.
Seigneur Revd TW Collings eventually persuaded Chief Pleas to replace the derelict prison next to the new Church and agreed to pay for the construction of the new lock-up. It was finally built in 1856.
The ancient prison was pulled down in 1860 after the new one was built beside the Girls School.
The official term for Sark’s prison is a ‘holding cell’. Judicial powers granted to Sark in 1583 allow a prisoner to be held for a maximum of two days; if the crime is severe enough to warrant further punishment the offender will be sent to Guernsey prison.
The prison has two adjoining cells – one is 6 feet by 6 feet, the other 6 feet by 8 feet. A narrow three-foot wide corridor runs the length of the building in front of the cells. Inside each white-painted cell there is a narrow wood-slatted bed with a thin plastic-coated mattress. The vaulted roof was designed for strength and security.
Sark has two volunteer policemen -the Constable and his Vingtenier or Assistant Constable. The Vingtenier is elected every year and serves as such for one year. Normally he (or she) becomes the following year’s Constable and a new Vingtenier is elected. Originally there was one Vingtenier to look after twenty families, hence two constables to police forty families.
They are helped with today’s paperwork by a permanent Deputy Constable who runs the Constable’s office.
An early ‘crime’ was that of the young girl who was imprisoned for stealing a pocket handkerchief. Again Revd Cachemaille is the source for this story – he records that the young girl was an English servant who had stolen a pocket handkerchief from her mistress and was to be imprisoned for three days. She was so terrified at being shut up alone in the dark that the kindly Sarkese allowed her to put her chair in the open doorway. She was kept company by local ladies who sat with her, knitting and chatting in patois to passers-by on their way to church (being a Sunday). She served her time and promised never to steal again.
The same story is related, with others, in “Two knapsacks in the Channel Islands” by Braithewaite and MacLean (1896).
The prison is still in use – mostly to hold inebriated seasonal workers or, occasionally, to sober up merrymaking visitors.
Sark people are law-abiding in the main – though, as Cachemaille said “The authorities and police officers of Sark are very lenient; offences are few, and never of a very serious character.”
Written by the late Penny Prevel.