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Family History in Jersey: the French connection

by James McLaren on July 15th, 2011
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French Archives Site

French Archives Site



Following on from the series earlier in the year on researching family history in Jersey, we turn our attention south to France.


Over the centuries there has been considerable immigration into Jersey from France. The principal waves of immigrants arrived firstly as a result of Huguenots fleeing around the time that the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685; secondly as a result of political uncertainty during the period after 1789; and thirdly as a result of famine and rural poverty in Brittany and western Normandy from about 1850 onwards. The last wave was the largest of the three, with some thousands of people arriving and settling – and consequently there are a substantial number of Jersey families who have a French connection.


Tracing these people demands a slightly different approach from researching family in England, because the French authorities have taken a rather different approach to making data available. The departmental archives have been put online, so all of the source material for état civil – the French term for births, marriages and deaths registration – is available to view. What they do not provide is a single overarching index … so once you are in the right document it’s relatively simple, but getting that far is not!


The first thing you need to establish is where the person originated – and by this I mean which commune and in which département. There are a number of Jersey resources that may help in establishing this:


  • Census records
  • Marriage certificates
  • Aliens’ registration cards (those issued under legislation passed in 1920 are in the Archive catalogue in series D/S/B, and the registers that accompany them are in series D/S/C. Those relating to French nationals present during the Occupation are at reference D/S/A/24)
  • If available, records of public bodies such as the courts, the prison and the hospital (all of whom would want this information for accounting purposes). These could be your best bet if your ancestors arrived in the early part of the third wave

Armed with a place name you can then hunt the information you want. For an example, we’ll look for a family called Le Gentil, who lived in a commune called La Colombe just northeast of Villedieu-les-Poêles. The relevant archive is that for the Manche département, which is online at On the first screen we click the tab marked Rechercher (search) and on the next screen we want the tab marked Etat Civil.


The next screen will have on it the title Rechercher dans les registres paroissiaux et d’état civil. We click the button next to Lieu and see a list of communes – scroll down to La Colombe (actually listed as Colombe (La)) and click to select it. Finally, clicking on the button marked Rechercher will list all of the 17 available registers, covering the period from 1674 up to 1899.


French law set a series of benchmarks in 1803 as to what needed to be recorded to legalise registration of births, marriages and deaths, much as England did in 1837. Part of this was that every commune had to keep a book recording births marriages and deaths. The book would cover ten years: there would be an index to every year and an overall index for the whole ten year book. While the entries are numbered one-up each year and include births, marriages and deaths in a single numbering sequence, the indexes for birth, marriage and death are separate.


We are looking at the book covering 1843 to 1852 so we find it among the 17 books listed and click the image, then we click the image on the right-hand side of the page. This launches the viewer software.


We actually need to start not at the first page but at the last page – the tables decennales covering all ten years’ worth of entries are there. Working backwards we start with the deaths, then come to the marriages, then the births.


In the deaths we spot an entry for one Honoré Le Gentil. This reads


19 Le Gentil, Honoré 9 mai 1852.


This means that the entry for Honoré Le Gentil is the 19th entry in the 1852 listing. It takes a measure of trial and error, but the document can now be found and translated. (It turns out to be quite unusual: this particular death is being re-registered in the commune courtesy of a record sent from Caen)


A more typical entry is that for the marriage of Jean-Pierre Le Gentil in 1844. There is a format to entries: each entry always begins with the date (and indeed the hour of day), and is followed by the name of the official and his credentials (usually the mayor). In the case of a marriage we then have the prospective husband, his date and place of birth, where he is living and the names of his parents. In this case his mother has died and the necessary papers have been presented to prove it. At the end of that you spot the phrase d’une part; this means that what follows is the same details for the prospective wife. The rest of the documentation is the legal wording affirming that the marriage has been notified and legally witnessed, and also gives the names of the witnesses.


Happy hunting!


Guest blog by James McLaren from the Channel Islands Family History Society

One Comment
  1. James Mac permalink

    Just a couple of extra pointers discovered since I wrote this:

    – not all communes put their tables decennales in the same volume as the actual records – some keep them separately.
    – although the records are available, not all of them are free. The archive for the Calvados departement puts its census information and etat civil records behind a pay wall (albeit you can get a 2-day access into them for the princely sum of 2 euros). I hope to do some research into which other archives charge soon.

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