The Museum's Builder
Those who read their Chronique de Jersey on 31 January 1835 could have had no doubt that the then recently deceased Jurat Philip Nicolle, who built the Musée as his town house, was held in high esteem by the editor, who devoted nearly a quarter of a page to a somewhat fulsome eulogy in which occur such phrases as "Il semblait que la population de St Helier avait perdu un ami, un protecteur, un pere", "La mort d'un tel homme est une calamité publique".
But as Dr Johnson remarked: "In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath," and it is reassuring to find the editorial verdict supported by the more objective statement that "Une foule immense de citoyens entourait la maison du respectable defunt et vint payer un dernier tribut de respect"
One of his grandsons used to tell of a funeral cortege a mile long following the coffin to St John's churchyard. It would seem that Jersey was bidding farewell to one who had played no inconspicuous part on the little stage of our island's affairs.
At the time of his birth in 1769, Nicolle's family owned the property of Herupe, St. John where they carried on a business of exporting island knitted goods. Unlike many Jersey merchants, they seem to have traded with England rather than with France, a circumstance due perhaps to their kinship with Philip Nicolle's great uncle Joshua Mauger, who had a well-established position in the city of London.
We may pause for a moment at the mention of Joshua Mauger, who must have been one of the most successful Jersey merchants of his times. Elected a Younger Brother of the Trinity House in 1743, he must presumably have started life as a sea-captain; but our earliest records show him as owning a distillery and other property in Nova Scotia, and living at Warbourne near Boldre, Hampshire.
In 1763 we find him buying a house in Grosvenor Street, in the precincts of the City, and doing substantial business with the Victualling Office and with the Navy Board. In 1774 he became an Elder Brother of the Trinity House. He has the unique distinction of being the first Jerseyman to be elected a Member of the House of Commons.
Joshua Mauger died in 1788, making Philip Nicolle's father his chief heir; and the family's business in knitted goods began to take second place to voyaging in their little ships across the Atlantic to Newfoundland, whose cod fisheries brought wealth to so many Channel Islanders.
The Museée, which must have been one of the most pretentious family mansions in St Helier, is evidence of Philip Nicolle's success in business. In its grim, dignified simplicity it seems the embodiment of all that is respectable; and it was a subject of mildly amused comment that the worthy merchant should have chosen to build in Pier Road, where most of the houses were at that time occupied by ladies whose profession made them ill-assorted neighbours for the virtuous.
Enquiries addressed to him on this point elicited no more than the gruff reply that a merchant should live near his ships.
It must have been about 1815 when, with due ceremony, the house-warming was planned on a grand scale; but, alas, when welcoming fires were lit in every grate, the chimneys which hitherto had seemed to give a good draught failed with one accord in their function, and began to fill the house with smoke enough to preserve all the cod in Newfoundland.
Before disaster went too far, the sons of the house were discovered on the roof removing the slates with which they had blocked all the chimneys. A father on whom his sons dared play such a prank in those more formal days must indeed have been an indulgent and well-loved parent.
Philip Nicolle died in 1835 and his widow lived on at Pier Road, till her death in 1849. Whether their son Philip Winter then used the Musée as a dwelling or merely for business is not clear, but he remained its owner until 1863.
By then the American Civil War had brought commercial disasters to Jersey and not to Jersey alone. Details of the events which ruined Philip Winter Nicolle are unknown, and the last echo of his affairs is a description in the local press of the old man explaining in broken accents to a sympathetic Royal Court that he had honourably divested himself of his last farthing for the benefit of his creditors.
Through the mist of time Philip Nicolle looms up as a man most human in his self-contradictions. Nicknamed l'ours in the market-place, he seems to have been pretty much of a lamb in the bosom of his family.
Rising every morning at six o'clock to give an hour's study to his Bible, he pursued wordly affairs with notable success for the remainder of the day. Tough in business, he was open-handed in private.
Deciding to build himself a dignified home he chose for its site a street of ill-fame. Across the gulf of some century and a half we may salute him as no unworthy representative of those Jerseymen who, living among the tremors of the body politic which heralded the days of reform, brought wealth to their island and steered it into the era when men of affairs began to be more important than owners of land.