A Brief History of Les Cotils
Geographically, Guernsey is much closer to France than to England, lying only 30 miles from the Normandy coast as against 60 miles from Weymouth. However, when islanders talk about "the mainland", they mean the United Kingdom, to which they are bound by centuries-old ties of sentiment, economics and politics.
How has this allegiance to Britain rather than to France, the island's closest powerful neighbour, come about?
To answer that question, we have to go back to 933 AD when the Channel Islands became part of the Norman realms following the treaty of St. Clair-sur-Epte. Later in 1066, William, Duke of Normandy landed his conquering army in Sussex and became William the 1st of England. His Duchy of Normandy included the Channel Islands - Les Normandes - and these became part of the combined realm of England and Normandy. 138 years later, King John lost most of the Duchy of Normandy, but Guernsey and the other Channel Islands remained loyal to the English Crown.
From that time, the Islands became a focal point for the strife that was to exist between England and France. The French made many raids on the Islands and at times established temporary footholds, only to be driven off by the sturdy islanders, supported by the forces of the English monarch.
The frequency of these raids led to the building of fortresses around the coast, the remains of some of which can still be seen as reminders of Guernsey's stormy history. During this time the Island developed its own independent legal system and parliamentary institutions, and today it is to a large extent, a self-governing territory, although all local legislation has to have Royal assent.
The German invasion of the Channel Islands in July 1940 and their occupation for nearly five years by Hitler's forces did more than anything else in Guernsey's history to "anglicise" the island. Up until this time Les Cotils was being run by an order of nuns primarily as a school. In addition to this the nuns ran a farm to supply their needs. As the occupation by German forces began, the school had already scattered leaving only Sister Mary Edith who was forced to make the transition from teacher to Sister in Charge of a hospital home, caring for elderly and infirm patients. It wasn't long before the Authorities decided to use Les Cotils as an annexe to the St. Peter Port, or Town, Hospital.
May 1941 saw the start of a new purpose for Les Cotils, in the care of elderly people, although this too was disrupted by the war, resulting in patients being moved to the convent of Blanchelande. After the war, Sister Mary Edith wrote her own account of what happened In April 1942, giving some insight both of the degree of hardship and the level of dedication the sisters brought to their work.
Immediately after the Liberation in May 1945 the patients moved back to Les Cotils, after the Germans had cleaned up the wards before they left. The house has long since recovered, and the grounds and buildings gradually restored and developed. Only the grounds themselves still provide some clues as to those Occupation years with the remains of the gun emplacements and bunkers that the German forces built as part of their air defence system covering the harbour approaches.
The school never re-opened after the war but Les Cotils continued to be run as a hospital home for a number of years. However, in 1980, because of falling numbers of vocations to the religious life the Sisters of Mary of the Presentation Order announced that they intended to withdraw their nursing service from the hospital within 2 years. On 16th May 1984 the remaining patients left Les Cotils for the King Edward VII Hospital, and on 30th May, nuns from Les Cotils were present at a special ceremony graced by Her Majesty the Queen Mother held at the King Edward VII Hospital, marking the amalgamation of the three hospitals.
It was an end of an era at Les Cotils, although as part of their reorganisation plan the nuns offered to lease the old chapel building to the Board of Health as a day care centre. The Russells Day Centre opened officially on 25th November 1986 and continue through the WRVS to provide a valuable service to this day, giving elderly, housebound and lonely people an enjoyable day of activities and care.
During the period of transition and closure of the hospital home, the nuns gave deep consideration to their future at Les Cotils and after much research a report was produced, highlighting what they felt were the needs of the community. It was this report that led directly to the decision to convert the main house into an ecumenical centre “for retreats, conferences, counselling and hospitality for groups and individuals”.