PETER CRILL was 15 when the Germans occupied Jersey in 1940. As a gesture of defiance he began taking photographs of German planes and developing them at home. When Normandy was liberated in 1944 he hoped, like many others, that the Germans would withdraw but Hitler had no intention of relinquishing the Channel Islands, the only British soil he had taken.
The memory of young François Scornet, who was shot for trying to sail to England in 1940, was still fresh in islanders minds but Crill determined to try to reach Normandy. The details are provided in his memoirs, A Little Brief Authority, published just 14 days after his death.
With two friends he retrieved the families 12ft dinghy from store, hiding it while it was made seaworthy. They set out at 8.15pm at the end of the first week in November choosing a place where they knew the nearest German guard was at least 100 yards away (there were some 13,000 German troops garrisoning 26,000 islanders). The danger was that if they failed to get far enough out to sea they would simply be carried round the island by the tide and spotted at daylight.
Rowing out through a heavy swell till they could safely start the engine, they soon had to stop, to go to the aid of a second boat behind them. When the engine would not restart they put up a small sail but lost the compass in a squall an hour later. With the sea too rough to sail they allowed the boat to drift, feeling thoroughly seasick after years ashore. Soon after dawn the tide began to carry them away from land. Finally they restarted the motor and landed at Agon-Coutainville near Coutances.
Crill had hoped to enlist but on arrival in England was dissuaded by his elder brother, who was a commander in the Royal Navy, as their eldest brother had been killed in France.
Instead Crill enrolled at Exeter College, Oxford, where he was King Charles I Scholar in modern history. Called to the Jersey Bar in 1949, he was elected two years later, aged 26, to the States Assembly as a Deputy for St Clement, becoming a Senator in 1960. Two years later he was appointed the island’s Solicitor-General, continuing up through all the offices of state, Attorney-General, Deputy Bailiff and finally Bailiff. In Jersey the Bailiff is the titular head of the island, presiding over the States Assembly and acting as chief judge.
Crill, who had a decided sartorial sense in matters of robing (and the sense of humour to mock it), caused horror among more puritan members when he was sworn in as Bailiff in a splendid red robe (commissioned from Ede and Ravenscroft of Chancery Lane, London) with an ermine collar rather broader than he expected. When later The Times, reporting a royal visit, impishly likened his robe to the costume of the Mikado he swiftly wrote to the Editor saying that he was not, as had been suggested, “Lord High Executioner” but “Lord High Everything Else”. This was a matter on which he could speak with authority as he had a good baritone voice and was an accomplished singer of Gilbert and Sullivan.
In the Jersey Royal Court he had the difficult task of leading the prosecution of Edward Paisnel, the Beast of Jersey, who had terrorised the island by abducting and abusing young children after immersing himself in the activities of the monstrous 15th-century Breton, Gilles de Rais. Though Paisnel’s secret satanic chamber was discovered, the prosecution remained difficult as much of the evidence would have to be taken from children. As Attorney-General Crill convinced the court that evidence of similar facts could be submitted, successfully establishing the pattern of attacks. Crill also presided in the trial of the Newall brothers, convicted of murdering their parents.
Crill’s most difficult test came when he had to recommend the dismissal of his former legal partner Vernon Tomes as Deputy Bailiff. Tomes was a popular man of the people and a gifted after-dinner speaker, but he had fallen seriously behind with his written judgments — some being outstanding for two years. Crill took him off court work, but little progress was made and he finally dismissed him, amid uproar but with the full support of the island’s Governor, Sir John Sutton, to preserve the good name of the island’s legal system.
Crill was knighted in 1987, two years after he was appointed Bailiff, and appointed KBE in 1995. Crill belonged to a generation that held fiercely to high standards in public life and successfully maintained the prosperity and independence of the island. He looked with concern at current changes in Jersey from a committee system of government (like an English county council) to a ministerial and cabinet system, expressing worries at the cloud of secrecy over evidence given to the committee which proposed the changes. While he left an exceptionally strong legal succession behind him, the bigger question is whether the spirit of public service and open debate will wither or flourish in the States chamber.
Crill was a keen supporter of Jersey’s drag hunt. His family came from Germany. The marriage of a George Crill, “natif de Hanovre”, is ded in the marriage register of St Saviour’s parish in 1785. Crill’s father was a leading authority on Jersey’s Norman law and Constable (mayor) of St Clement.
In 1953 Crill married Gail Dodd, a doctor. hey had three daughters, one of whom predeceased him.
Sir Peter Crill, KBE, Bailiff of Jersey, 1986-95, was born on February 1, 1925. He died on October 7, 2005, aged 80.