Royal Reels: Gambling


There are four main islands (Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark) in the English Channel that are called the ‘Channel Islands’. These islands are dependencies of the British crown (although strictly not part of the United Kingdom), having been so attached since the Conquest of 1066 when they formed part of the Duchy of Normandy. The smallest of the four is Sark. The islands were occupied by the Germans in WW II. The total area is only 194 sq km and both English and French are spoken, and Norman-French patois survives (Figure 1).

Victoria’s decision to join the Universal Postal Union in 1891 meant that post cards could be sent at 1½d to any member country of the Union. This card was produced by overprinting “UNIVERSAL POSTAL UNION”, plus surcharging the 2d 1889 postcard with a “1½”, crossing out “For The United Kingdom” and “By the long sea route”, all in red, varying from a deep carmine to a dull red. A third printing was produced in 1897, but the original card was issued on 1 October 1891. This postcard was postmarked MELBOURNE/ 4A/ DE 2/ 97 and was addressed to Wm A. Toplis Esqre , Sark, (Channel Islands), England (Figure 2).

Sark is 12 km east of Guernsey, 32 km west of France and is composed of Big Sark and Little Sark joined by a 91 metre isthmus that is only 2 m wide, and the island consists of a plateau rising 90 m, with a scenic coast encircled by cliffs. It is 4.8 km long and 2.4 km at its widest part. The resident population has been stable for at least the past 30 years at ca. 600 (Figure 3).

The best starting point for learning about Sark and its long history, with its possession both by England and France, is the Governmental site. Sark must be a very uncommon address in England at any time, particularly in 1897. The name of the recipient William A. Toplis is unusual, but the surname is not uncommon. I thought that perhaps he was a summer visitor to the island and to my pleasant surprise, I could not be more wrong.

William Arthur Toplis (1857-1941) has been labeled ‘the English artist who immortalized the glories of Sark’. He was born in Sheffield in the spring of 1857 and he first came enamoured of the island in 1878 whilst honeymooning in Jersey. Within 5 years, he and his wife had taken up permanent residence in Sark, where the community habitually conversed in patois. Despite the linguistic barrier, in time he became a revered and popular figure. They set up home and a studio at ‘La Maison Rouge’, near La Seigneurie, where they raised their family.

He became a familiar sight about the cliffs and bays, and his brush faithfully recorded Sark’s scenic charms, meticulously recording details down to pebbles on the beach. There was a great demand after his death for reproductions and postcards of his paintings, such paintings as the ‘Venus Pool’ and ‘A Monarch of the Shore Sark, at Grand Greve’ (Figure 4).

He remained on the island when it was threatened by the Germans in WW II and he was saved from deportation to Germany when he died in 1941. His body was committed to the soil of his beloved Sark. Toplis flourished as a painter mainly from 1875 until 1922, and he exhibited at the Royal Academy, London from 1875-1902, as well as at the Royal Society of British Artists from 1881-1902.