Philippe Pinel, 'King' of the Ecrehous
Philip Pinel, King of the Ecrehous, by Philip Ahier (extract from the Evening Post, 27 May 1957)
The name of Philippe Pinel has almost become a legend to the majority of Jerseymen, and yet in Victorian days, he was regarded as a quaint, semi-eremitical character.
He was born near La Hogue Boête, in the Parish of St John, on 4 October 1820, and was baptised Philippe, although some writers rechristened him Jean, confusing him with his brother, better known as La Téte de Veau (calf's head).
Pinel's early days were spent in long sea voyages with his father, but he decided to give up seafaring to devote himself entirely to fishing. Finding the Ecréhous replete with the denizens of the sea, he settled first at La Maîtress Ile in 1848. Then he shifted his abode to La Blanque Ile, an Islet connected at low water with La Marmoutière by a causeway about 300 yards long. During severe storms, Pinel was accustomed to say to any visitors: “The sea has put me here but one day it might engulf me”, so he occasionally found himself compelled to take refuge at La Marmoutière, where, by means of large blocks of stones, he built a huge shelter.
Wife runs away
He married one Jeanne Hamon dit Le Moignan, also from St John, but later she rebelled against his autocratic and despotic rule and returned to Jersey. The loneliness of the rocks did not suit Madame Pinel, who, taking advantage one evening when her husband had become delightfully “three sheets to the wind” as the result of consuming the entire contents of a bottle of gin brought to him by some tourists, slipped away from the islet with these visitors, returned to Jersey, where she found that company so much detested at times by her husband. When morning came and the “King” noticed that his spouse had fled, he first manifested a certain amount of concern, so it was afterwards reported, but he bore neither anger nor regret, remarking that in the future he would have to work only for himself instead of having to do so for two persons. She died in 1884.
Pinel was “crowned” “King of the Ecréhous” in July 1863, in the presence of Mr Philippe Nicolle, Deputy of Trinity (1866-1872), Messrs. Noel and Foot (the latter an Englishman who provided champagne and other alcoholic liquors) and several Jersey fishermen. One of the latter who was present at this “coronation” gave the following account: “ We stayed for three days and were all blotto. I crowned him with an iron crown. His wife, dit Le Moignan, is truly a Jeanne Hamon. We sang many songs and one composed by a Guernsey poet, Denys Corbet, entitled ‘La chanson des Paissouniers'. This poem is too long to give here. The ‘coronation' ceremonies lasted three days and two nights.”
On 2 November 1873, during a terrible storm, the Norwegian vessel, Isabella Northcote, sailing with a cargo of timber from Montreal to London, had the misfortune to strike one of the Ecréhous rocks. There was a crew of 18 aboard who were pitched against the reefs. Six men were rescued by Messrs CBlampied and Charles Whitley, but the remaining 12 remained at the Ecréhous, where they were looked after till morning came by Philippe Pinel and his wife. The attention of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution was drawn to these acts of humanitarianism and the committee of the institution sent £5 to Mr and Mrs Pinel for their help to the shipwrecked sailors of the unfortunate vessel.
Police Court case
The “King of the Ecréhous” figured rather ignominiously in the Police Court at St Helier on 23 July 1881, for having “grossly insulted” Mr H C Bertram, the Impôt Agent, (Customs & Excise), on 23 and 24 June of that year.
On the first of the above days Mr Bertram had occasion to visit the Ecréhous as it was suspected that the rocks were used as a base for smuggling. He saw Maître Philippe spreading some vraic (seaweed) and said “Good Morning. What news from the Ecréhous?” to which Pinel replied that he would get no news from him and that he had better ask someone else. Pinel then poured out a torrent of insulting language accusing Mr Bertram of stealing a cask of wine. The insults were repeated the following day.
Mr Bertram had taken a house at the Ecréhous for the purpose of trying to put a stop to the smuggling which was then prevalent. This had enraged Pinel, who insulted the States of Jersey official. The Magistrate fined the “King” £1 or four days imprisonment.
This Police Court case was one of three which were brought up as evidence of British sovereignty over the Ecréhous when their ownership was being decided at The Hague Tribunal in September 1953, and, as is well known, the tribunal awarded the rocks to Jersey.
But previous to this tribunal award, the British Government in 1883 had informed the French Government that Les Ecréhus belonged to Jersey. The Foreign Minister, Earl Granville, wrote to the French Ambassador in London: “These islets have always been treated as a dependency of Jersey, the soil belongs entirely to Jerseymen, and the islets, for administrative purposes form part of the Parish of St Martin.” (“The Ecréhous”, by P J Ouless, p. 36)
This declaration, coupled with a commemorative stone placed on La Marmoutière with the inscription “Au nom de Dieu et la Religion. Amen. L'an mil huit cent 81 Le 24 Jour de Novembre à l'assemblée du gouverneur, bailli et Jurés, present Lieutenant General Lothian Nicholson,” enhanced Philippe Pinel's position as “King”.
Visits to the reef
Several accounts of visits to the “King” and “Queen” of the Ecréhous have been written. The first was by Commander C V Anson, RN, contributed to the “Jersey Times” in the November of 1882:-
“We called on the ‘King' and ‘Queen'. They have lived on the Ecréhous for 39 years, seldom visiting Jersey more than five or six times in a year, when the ‘King' takes over the seaweed he has burnt and exchanges it for flour and other necessities. This burnt vraic is valued highly by Jersey farmers for manure, and by some of them it is considered extremely good for promoting the growth of Jersey's early potatoes. It must be burnt indoors, or otherwise it would soon be blow away and lose its goodness. A large sack sells for about 4/-.
“The ‘King's Palace' consists of two huts, in one of which he cooks and lives, and in the other he keeps his stores, etc. These huts are built on the ridge of shingle in Le Blancq Ile, but they are well protected by large rocks on either side. Still at very high spring tides, the ‘King' and the ‘Queen' have to seek refuge with their ‘bags and baggage' on La Marmoutière, as the old ‘King' says, ‘The sea has put me here and the sea can take me away'. He is engaged in building with loose stones a kind of citadel of refuge in the rock north of his house, with more faith than we thought probable, he told us it would be ready next year, and he formally invited us to a housewarming on that occasion. The ‘King' told us that he lived on the ‘Main Land' when he first came to the Ecréhous. We were rather surprised when he pointed out the Maître Ile as the ‘Main Land' but then everything is relative. He also told us that he had to leave that Islet because there was no safe accommodation for a boat to be moored there. If kept afloat he had to shift his boat from one side of the islet to the other, according to the direction of the wind, and if hauled up on shore, for days he could not launch her”.
The second account of a visit to the Ecréhous was written in a booklet by Mons Charles Fremine under the title of “Le Roi des Ecréhous”, published in Paris in 1886.
In August 1884, four Frenchmen went to the reef, Leonce Rachine, captain of the vessel who brought the boat to the Islets; M Faubert, its owner; Surgeon-Major Demay and M Fremine, the writer.
Capt Rachine knew Philippe very well and after landing in the early hours of the morning, knocked at the “King's” door “Quéche qu'est là?” (Who's there?), asked the voice inside. “Friends”, the party answered. The hut was illuminated by an oil lamp. The door which had neither hinges nor bolts slid on a groove. “Good Morning, Maître Philippe.” “Pardon, gentlemen. I was asleep and I was dreaming.” M Fremine described the interior of Pinel's habitation in these words:
“The walls are made of rough granite, the roof is the ceiling, the floor is covered with sand. There are no pictures and no ornaments, a chimney-hole, a kitchen range made of cast-iron, two stools, an oaken table on which, near a crust of bread, dangled a piece of smoked fish. On the right of the window on the same side as the door were several liturgies and three Bibles resting on two shelves. One of the Bibles contained commentaries and explanatory notes. Maître Philippe was very proud of this Bible and said ‘Everything is therein'.
“A thrush, with beady throat and sprightly eye, was perched on the beam of a willow cage hanging from the wall. Ten years of age. One wintry day, it fell down, exhausted on La Blanque Ile. ‘Maître Philippe' picked it up and it was now his only companion.
“Bring me a wife”
“'And your wife, how is Madame Pinel?' asked M. Faubert.
“'My wife has gone back to Jersey, she was bored, she was old. When you come back again, please bring me a new one'.
“M Fremine gazed upon the bed where the belated honeymoon might take place. The bedstead consisted of rows of flat stones resting on the floor, on these were layers of dried seaweed while the pillow was the wall of an alcove. Said the ‘King': ‘My mattress and quilt are outside. I put them out last night for an airing and now it is day I am going to bring them in on account of the dew'.”
Philippe is described as a man “well into his sixties, small, nervous, strong, a tanned complexion, shaggy, his head covered with black unkempt locks of hair in which a few white strands were intermingled. He was clad in a shirt of black wool, which descended just a little above his knees, his feet and legs were bronzed.
“He welcomed his visitors with much politeness. He spoke in Jersey-French and was neither curious nor inquisitive. We only had ‘earthly' news to tell him and in these he had long since lost interest. Nevertheless, he always preserved a liking for cognac. Capt Rachine opened his flask and poured some for the ‘King' to drink.
“Philippe Pinel, wearing his shirt and barefooted, took his lamp and led his visitors to the outside of the hut. He made us examine his ‘palace', entirely made by himself. It consisted of two stone erections, flanked to the right and to the left of his dwelling. In one was the cistern into which rainwater was collected for there are no wells on at The Ecréhous. The other shack contained his oven and his fowl house where a dozen hens and some elegant cockerels were sleeping on their perches. The oven was his own contraption, a cubical box made of sheet iron. He filled it with dough and enclosed this box in seaweed, his only fuel. The bread was made by what was known as ‘estoufade' (a means of stewing meat in a well-closed vessel from the French ‘étouffer', to stifle). Pinel, “showing us some of his ‘home-made', said, ‘this is bread, gentlemen, such as you do not eat on land.' ”
“I will never go back”
“ 'And you'll never go back to Jersey, Maître Philippe?'
“ 'Never, what would I do there?' I have lived here for 40 years, I shall die here.'
“ 'You're strong, but old age creeps upon us, and now that you are all alone – suppose you fell ill?' ”
“ 'When I am ill, I shall do as the beasts of the field do, I shall lie down and wait. Their parents and their friends can do nothing at all to them when they are ill. One dies alone'
“This was Blaise Pascal's famous epigram! All the while talking, Philippe took us as far as the seagulls, which formed the boundary of his ‘kingdom'. There we shook hands with him. ‘Fare–thee well. Au revoir, Maître Philippe.' “
“For several minutes he stood erect near his old overturned fishing boat. He watched us till we were out of his gaze, then laying his mattress and quilt on his shoulder, the ‘King' of the Ecréhos went back to his cubbyhole alone.”
A present for Queen Victoria
In 1890, the King of the Ecréhous sent Queen Victoria a three-tiered basket that he had woven out of dried seaweed and filled it with different kinds of fish. On 22 July 1890, the following letter was sent and ultimately presented to him by General C B Ewart, the Lieut-Governor, when he visited the Ecréhous in an official capacity.
“Osborne House, General Sir Henry Ponsonby is directed by Her Majesty to tender her thanks to Mr Pinel for the kindly gift he has sent.” It was framed and put in its position in the “King's” “Palace” by Miss Ewart. The late R R Lemprière, Seigneur of Rosel, acted as an intermediary in these ‘negotiations'.
A return gift
In return, Queen Victoria sent him through the same via media, a blue coat, “similar to the Sunday suit of a wealthy seaman,” which was presented to him on the same day as the letter by Miss Ewart, Her Majesty knowing that her ‘humble cousin' was fond of tobacco, also presented him with a handsome briar pipe. The coat can be seen in the Museum of the Sociétè Jèrsiaise.
Mr Nicolle's account
The late Mr E T Nicolle also visited Philippe Pinel in August 1893. The excursion steamer Commerce ran a trip to the Ecréhous and Mr Nicolle, with many other visitors, took advantage and paid a visit to the “King”. His account, at risk of some repetition of what previously has been written, is worth reproducing.
“The Palace of the ‘King' stood alone at La Blanche Ile. Built entirely by the ‘King' with huge stones and pebbles there is scarcely a patch of cement or mortar to be seen anywhere. It almost makes one shudder to contemplate the life of a man during the rough cold wintry weather. Of furniture, there is practically none to be seen worthy of a name. A small table, a plank to sit upon and a few kitchen utensils are the extent of the “Kings” luxuries in this respect. His bed resembles a sailor's bunk more than anything else. The fireplace is such as is still to be seen in old country houses and the fuel used is dried seaweed. ‘None of your stinking coal for me,' said Maître Philippe.
“To be admitted into the presence of this august old fisherman should be esteemed a great privilege and arriving at the door, I peeped in with a certain amount of awe. He welcomed me in with extended hands and kindly begged me to take a seat.
“During the years Maître Philippe has been engaged in burning vraic for manure and in making crab and lobster pots. At one time the trade in vraic was very brisk, but this form of manure has been ousted by the use of guano.
“In the winter of 1892, Philippe was unable to follow the vocation of basket-making through attacks of rheumatism, and though naturally better, he fears he will not be able to remain another winter on that small spot of earth which to him is very dear and on which he has spent the greater part of his life.
“Two and a half years have elapsed since Maître Philippe had visited Jersey, yet he hoped to be able to do so shortly. ‘It's time to see my sweetheart,' said he.”
Mr Nicolle describe how, when the Commerce left the Ecréhous with its excursionists, Maître Philippe was to be seen frantically waving his hat on the cone of La Marmoutière.
“His light was extinguished”
In early December 1896, some fishermen found Philippe Pinel very ill indeed and reported the fact to the Connétable of St Martin. The latter removed the “King”, very much against his will, to the General Hospital in Gloucester Street, where, on 17 December, “his light was slowly extinguished through lack of oil if not of whisky,” as M Le Baron Marc de Villiers de Terrage in his work “Rois sous Couronnes” somewhat cynically described his end. He was buried a few days later in the cemetery of his native parish, a large number of persons, including R R Lemprière, Seigneur de Rosel, and his lady followed his cortège to its last resting place. “Requiescat in pace” .