Joseph Sinel, naturalist

From Jerripedia
Jump to: navigation, search


Joseph Sinel


Joseph Sinel

This article by Rob Shipley about respected scientist Joseph Sinel was first published in the Jersey Evening Post in February 2011

Few people would associate Jersey with cutting-edge scientific theories , but in the 19th century an islander who began his career as a furniture salesman went on to become a respected biologist, geologist and archaeologist, who corresponded with Charles Darwin.

Darwin's Jersey collaborator, a supplier of information about marine zoology, was Joseph Sinel, who was born in 1844, the son of Philip Sinel, a wholesale tobacco merchant, and his wife Charlotte.

Joseph Sinel also communicated with Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist who, independently reached conclusions about the evolution of species which mirrored those of Darwin.

That a self-taught researcher from a small island community exchanged ideas with two of the great men of evolutionary science suggests that he was no mere enthusiastic amateur.

Sketchy education

However, although Sinel was born into a reasonably prosperous household, his education was sketchy and at the age of 15 he began work in Voisin and Company's furniture department.

He clearly had talent, rising to manage his division of a retail firm which trades to this day in St Helier, though furniture was far from his principal interest.

Zoology, a science which made great strides in the late 19th century, was in the forefront of his mind, and he spent his spare time among the rocks and tidal pools in St Clement's Bay, a rich area for research into forms of marine life ranging from the tiniest crustaceans to marine works, molluscs and fish.

He eventually gave up his managerial position and turned his hand to a very Victorian trade - taxidermy. Living at Samares, he worked with John G Romeril to create a large collection of stuffed wild birds which is still in the care of La Société Jersiaise.

He also lectured - in Guernsey as well as Jersey - his subject matter extending beyond marine zoology into the fields of botany and geology. He also attended the summer camps of the Society of Friends - the Quakers - in the UK and contributed to a publication called Science Gossip.

If that publication sounds amateurish, Sinel's articles were sufficiently impressive to encourage UK naturalists to come to Jersey to join him on shoreline hunts for specimens.

Partners in the ill-fated oyster farm project

Biological station

In 1868 he married Elizabeth du Feu and they had two children, Joseph William and Charlotte Elizabeth, whose husband, James Hornell, collaborated with his father-in-law in 1891 to build a marine biological station at Havre des Pas.

It was equipped with seawater tanks holding animals and plants taken from the adjacent shore and was initially a great success, attracting students from the UK and elsewhere. Unfortunately it eventually had to close because similar establishments in Britain and on the continent were managing to secure government subsidies for their work.

Still with an eye on the sea, but with commercial ends in view, Sinel then attempted to revive the island's oyster fishery, which had boomed in the early 19th century and then spectacularly failed. The fishery was based at Gorey, employed thousands in its heyday, but collapsed when the grounds in the shallow waters between the east coast of Jersey and France were over-exploited.

Sinel's venture involved importing juvenile oysters - spat - from Auray in south Brittany and growing them on in cages moored near Green Island. Unfortunately his Jersey Oyster Culture Company did not prosper.

The site chosen was too exposed to westerly swells and damage to the cages and the destruction of the immature shellfish killed the enterprise.

The oyster farm was not alone amoung Sinel's financial failures. He also spent a great deal of time and effort trying to extract osmiridium, a hard and durable alloy from the platinum group of metals, from the island's diorite, a grey rock of volcanic origin.

In spite of successive commercial failures, Sinel was still held in high regard among the island's amateur scientists. In 1906 La Societe Jersiaise asked for his opinion on the reorganisation of the Jersey Museum and, after he had submitted his report, made him curator, a post he held until his death in 1929.

He drew on his experience as a taxidermist to create new zoological exhibits and in 1910 his contribution to island science and heritage was recognised when the Societecommissioned R G Crawford to paint his portrait, a picture now in the Societe collection.

During the final two decades of his life he took an interest in archaeology and was involved in the first excavations at La Cotte, the paleolithic site at Ouaisne.

Sir Arthur Keith, the Scottish anthropologist, wrote of him:'Mr Sinel has read the history of his beloved island as it is written by the sun, the wind, the sea and the frost, and of its ancient inhabitants as it is told by their relics: and he has obviously read aright.'

In the last years of his life Sinel became interested in what we now call parapsychology, the study of subjects such as telepathy and precognition. He published books includingThe Sixth Sense and a Physical Explanation of Clairvoyance, Hypnotism, Dreams and other Phenomena usually considered Occult, but he is perhaps more appropriately remembered for other works, including Fishes of the Channel Islands, An Outline of the Natural History of Our Shores, The Reptilia, Batrachia and Mammalia of the Channel Islands and The Geology of Jersey.

Family tree


Descendants of Jean Sinel

Personal tools
other Channel Islands
contact and contributions

Please support Jerripedia with a donation to our hosting costs