Bessie Sinel

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Bessie Sinel


Bessie, William Macdonald and three of their children

By Carol Richardson

Early years

Elizabeth Sinel or Bessie as she was known to her family was born in St Helier on 29 July 1833[1]. She was the fifth of the eight children born to George Sinel and his first wife Phoebe Anne Davis. Her mother died on 19 December 1840 when Bessie was seven years old, probably as a result of the birth of her youngest brother Thomas, who was born on 8 December 1840[2].

Life was difficult for George with eight children to care for on his own, and his job as an auctioneer to carry out, but it seems that the family rallied round. By April 1841 he was living in Waterloo Street in St Helier with the two oldest boys, Alfred and Henry, then aged eleven and nine years. Three of the youngest children, Charlotte, Charles and Emma, aged six, five and two, were with his parents, John and Rachel Sinel, who were by then both over seventy years old and living close by in Patriotic Place in St Helier. The oldest daughter, Mary Ann (12), and Bessie were living with their other grandmother Phoebe Davis in St Saviour, but it is not known where the baby Thomas was staying. Perhaps he was just not recorded in the census for that year.

By 1851 George had remarried and he and his second wife Jane Roberts were living in New Street with the oldest daughter from George’s first marriage, another daughter and the youngest son. George and Jane had no children of their own.

Little is known about Bessie’s early life. It seems that she maintained a close relationship with her young brother Thomas, and they are shown together in their step grandfather, Charles Roberts’ house in the 1851 census. Thomas is recorded twice in that census, both as a visitor with Bessie and again as present in his own home. Bessie’s occupation is given as a housekeeper on that occasion. By 1861 Bessie was still living with Thomas and her sister Charlotte. The girls’ occupation is given as that of staymakers and Thomas is a schoolmaster. None of them were married at this time.


In 1865, when she was 32, Bessie married a lawyer’s clerk from Shoreditch in London[3]. The marriage took place in Thetford in Norfolk and it is conjecture as to how Bessie came to be in England or how she met her husband-to-be. However, some clues come from following the fortunes of Thomas, her young brother. He married three times, and at the time of his second marriage in 1870 he is described as a dissenting minister. On other documents, and on the headstone of his grave, he is described as a Plymouth Brethren minister. When he registered Bessie’s death in Paris in 1878 he is recorded as having the profession of an evangelist.

Bessie’s husband, William Macdonald, was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, and it is likely that they met through Thomas. After their marriage they worshipped at a large Brethren meeting hall in Paragon Road, Hackney, London. Their first child, a son called John, was born a year after their marriage and when he was only two months old they set sail for Penang Island in the Straits Settlements (now part of Malaysia) as missionaries. Their passage was paid by George Müller, the prominent Brethren philanthropis [4][5]. There was no prospect of a regular income except money donated by the Brethren and distributed by the society called Echoes of Service. The journey to Penang took six weeks and involved passing through the Bay of Biscay with stops along the way including Egypt and India.

The Georgetown mission house

William Macdonald was a zealous man totally committed to the work to which he believed himself to be called. They lived in a mission house in Farquhar Street, Georgetown, the main city in Penang, which William Macdonald built and which is presently one of the Penang Heritage Society’s preservation projects. It must be remembered that there was not the medical knowledge or assistance of today, nor any air conditioning to alleviate the effects of the heat. This, together with the total lack of any type of birth control resulting in a baby every eighteen months, all took its toll on Bessie’s health.

William wrote lengthy letters home to Echoes of Service[6] which were published in their magazine each quarter, and it is from these that we learn something of their life in the Far East. Bessie took part in the work with the women and children when she was well enough, but it seems that she suffered considerably throughout her pregnancies and following childbirth. William's letters are written with the utmost modesty and he never refers to Bessie’s pregnancies directly.

Visit to England

In June 1872 she, William and their four children journeyed home to England on furlough. Their return to Penang was delayed for financial and ‘health’ reasons, but they eventually set sail on the Honkong with five children on 26 February 1874, and birth records confirm that their daughter Lydia was born on 29 June 1873, not in London where they were staying, but in Cheddar in Somerset, presumably while visiting with Brethren on a preaching excursion from the capital. William reported that the rough weather on the journey back to Penang left Bessie prostrate.

Over the next three years there is increasing mention of Bessies’s poor health. She gave birth to another son and a daughter during that time. Both of these children died of diphtheria in the same month of May 1877. Their youngest son, William, was two years old and the baby, Catherine, about six months. Two of the older girls contracted the disease, and as they were recovering, developed the symptoms of smallpox, but mercifully survived.

By now Bessie’s health and that of the children, together with the education of the older boys, was causing increasing concern about a return to England, but William clearly felt unable to leave the work in Penang. It seems that Bessie and the children set sail alone, but events had overtaken her and she died in Paris on 22 January 1878, before reaching England. Her death certificate shows that her brother Thomas was present. I thought that Thomas must have arranged for her body to be taken back to Jersey, where she was buried in St Helier alongside her father George. And so it seemed that her relatively short life came round in full circle in her death to the place of her birth.

But, what William’s letters in Echoes of Service did not reveal was the birth and death of another son William Lockwood Macdonald (1870-1871). On a second visit to Penang in 2007, I spotted an inscription on the side of a large tombstone in the old cemetery in Georgetown. Although worn, it showed that an infant, William Lockwood, son of William Macdonald, had died in 187? but the date was not clear and I assumed that it was the William who had died in 1877. Only much later, when another headstone came to my attention on the site, did I learn more about Bessie’s death and those of her infant children. On that memorial stone it states that her remains are interred in Ivry, Paris, and not in St Helier, as I had previously thought – perhaps it is a memorial on her father’s grave, as the one in Penang. The headstone also revealed the names of her three children who had died in infancy with their birth and death dates showing that William Lockwood had died in 1871, at only one year old, and the two children who died of diphtheria in 1877 were William Davis (named after Bessie’s mother) and Margaret Catherine Annie (aka Catherine).

The headstone for Bessie and her infant children

Bessie’s children

William’s letters ceased between December 1876 and December 1878. When they resumed he made no mention of his wife’s death, or the children. We learn from other sources that William made arrangements to leave his children in England, where they stayed with a spinster Brethren woman called Henrietta Soltau, first in Tottenham, London, and then in Hastings, Sussex. She had been asked to set up a home for the children of missionaries by Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, and the five Macdonald children were among the 32 whom she had under her care at one time or another. The story of Miss Soltau’s life is recorded in a book entitled A Woman Who Laughed[7] by Mildred Cable and Francesca French and it is clear that life was not easy for that household' where there was little money coming in and strict religious and Victorian values were enforced. The children were often unwell and the rather institutional life made for a childhood that was far from the normal family upbringing.

In 1880 the children’s father remarried. His new bride was Mary Piercy' and he met her in Singapore where she was working as a governess to the children of a missionary family. She seems to have been altogether more robust than Bessie and they had four children to add to the five living in England. In 1887, after nine years with Miss Soltau, William Macdonald sent for his children from his first marriage to go to Australia, where they were placed in a house in Park Hill Road, Kew, Victoria close to Melbourne. Here it seems they looked after themselves since now they were old enough to do so. William continued his work in Penang, and travelled extensively visiting the Malay mainland, Burma, Thailand and New Zealand. He stopped off in Australia to see his children on his return from New Zealand, and then he and their step-mother visited them again in 1895 seven years after his last visit.

Four of the five children married and settled in different parts of Australia. Ebenezer, Edith and Lydia remained in Victoria, Alice went to Western Australia, and the eldest son, John, to Queensland. The three eldest, John, Ebenezer, and Alice, had contracted tuberculosis and died young. John married a young woman, Helena Jane Frances Tonkin, from South Wales in the United Kingdom. She came out to join him one month before the wedding in Victoria, and then lived with him in Bundaberg, Queensland, where he worked as an accountant/clerk on a sugar plantation called Fairymead, owned by a prominent Brethren family, the Youngs. John and Helena (Lena as she was known) had two children, but John died in a sanatorium in New South Wales, when only 33 years of age, and his wife returned to South Wales where the children grew up.

This briefly is Bessie’s story but it has come to light as the result of inquiry, travel across the world and a considerable element of chance. I am Bessie’s great-granddaughter and it was my mother who was born in Bundaberg but left when she was two years old.

The inscription to William Lockwood Macdonald

Research and travels

At the beginning of 1998 nothing more was known about Bessie other than her birth and death dates and locations. There was even speculation about how her name was spelled - was it Sinel or Senell? Following early retirement from full-time work I made the decision to go out to Australia, via Penang, to visit the places and people associated with the Macdonald family. Prior to leaving I wrote to Echoes of Service, which still operates from its headquarters in Bath, and they were most helpful in supplying me with photocopies of every letter written by William Macdonald, from back copies of their journal since it commenced in 1872 until his death in 1911. The reading and extracting of family information from those letters shed considerable light on the character of the people and the nature of the life they led.

In Penang I was able to collect William Macdonald’s death certificate, locate his burial place and visit Farquhar Street in Georgetown, where he and Bessie had lived and brought up their children during their early years. In Australia I went to Bundaberg, where my mother was born, and visited the sugar plantation where my grandfather had worked. I realised that he probably came to be in Queensland because he was already suffering with tuberculosis and required a warm dry climate. It is likely that his father met the owners of Fairymead in New Zealand on his visit there in 1887, since that was their country of origin and they were keen Brethren Christians who networked extensively across the world. Perhaps the job was arranged in the hope that the sunnier climate of Queensland would alleviate his symptoms and promote recovery.

Finally I went to Melbourne to stay with Bessie’s granddaughter, who at over 90 years of age was fit and robust in body and mind. First her mother and then she had kept contact by letter with my mother, and then with me, and she had visited England on two occasions, so we were not strangers. During those two weeks I met and talked with many relatives, most of whom I had not met before, and read and extracted information from family bibles and birthday books. I collected birth certificates in Bundaberg and death certificates in Sydney and Melbourne for my immediate family. The wealth of information was considerable, and included several old photographs of William Macdonald and Bessie as well as their children.

Still relatively little was known about Bessie, and on my return to England I wrote to Jersey to inquire about obtaining her birth certificate. A letter from a researcher at La Société Jersiaise revealed her parents and two brothers, and the name of someone in Auckland, New Zealand who was researching one of the brothers.

From this has stemmed revelation upon revelation as another chance contact in New Zealand uncovered considerable prior research, and the known Sinel family now stretches right across the world. I am or have been in contact with many new cousins, some of whom are enthusiastic genealogists, and who have contributed to the present knowledge. These are Michael Wilson (now deceased) and Christine Liava’a in Auckland, New Zealand and John Sinel in Fareham, Hampshire, England. John was born and brought up in Jersey and still has close cousins living there. His was the original work on this family that spread to New Zealand. Michael and I are descended from George Sinel, Christine from his brother Philippe and John from another brother, Jean. Paul Cornelius from Kent, England and Michael Sinel from Jersey but living in France are later ‘finds’. Paul is descended from George Sinel and Michael from Philippe Sinel’s marriage to Charlotte Babot. In Australia I met Barbara Thomassen (now deceased), her sister Carol Wilkes and lastly Sally Anderson; all Sinel descendants. Sally has contributed to the latest research though her amazing skill at unearthing fascinating stories - for another article! All of us have common ancestors in Jean Sinel and Rachel Gaudin. A further contact in the United States has revealed an enormous amount of information about the Gaudin family which can be traced back in Jersey to 1550 but that too is a story for another time.

In the summer of 1998 I went to Jersey to see if it was possible to push back Bessie Sinel’s ancestry line. It was there that I learned of the events described in the earlier part of this article, but I was also able to trace her origins to the first immigrants to Jersey from France.

Bessie’s Ancestors - Huguenot Refugees?

It is highly likely, though not at the present time proven, that those first ancestors to arrive in Jersey from France were Huguenot refugees. The earliest names are those of Gaspard Le Sage and his wife Francoise Jeanne de la Coudre. Nothing is known about these except that Francoise was buried in St Helier on 2 March 1709. However, it would appear that Gaspard had a brother Nicollas Le Sage, who married Anne de la Coudre, probably Francoise’s sister. Their marriage date is recorded in the St Helier records as 10 July 1688 and describes them as ‘TD refugiés’. Anne de la Coudre is given as from Noyet in France. These dates tie in with the events in France when, on October 18 1685, Louis XIV pronounced a revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had afforded some protection to the persecuted Huguenot protestants since its signing in April 1598. As a result, over the next several years over 400,000 French protestants emigrated to become useful citizens in their adopted countries. Perhaps the Le Sage and de la Coudre families were among these emigrants.

Gaspard and Francoise Le Sage had four children - James Louis, Nicollas, Jeanne Magdeleine and Abraham. James Louis married Marie Anne Fornet and their daughter Marie Anne married Jean Sinel on 26 September 1767. Jean Sinel is described in the St Helier records as étranger. It is likely that he, too, is a Huguenot who was fleeing from the revived persecution that took place in France between 1745 and 1754. Jean Sinel and Marie Anne Fornet were Bessie’s great grandparents.

It is thus that a single piece of information about one person has led to the unfolding of a story that spans eleven generations and more than two hundred and fifty people. Living relatives have been connected across the world and the generations have touched several countries. During her relatively short life Bessie was an ‘ordinary’ individual and yet her story lives on. It is sad that she is given no recognition in the Brethren missionary centenary publication for the eleven and a half years she spent in Penang. It is assumed that William Macdonald had only one wife and that she served with him for the full forty four years he was there. Bessie seems to have lived a life of uncomplaining duty and perhaps serves as an example to those who come after her.

Family tree



  1. Family documents
  2. Parish records for St Helier (Lord Coutanche Library, Société Jersiaise)
  3. St Catherine’s House Index and marriage certificate
  4. William M’Donald of Penang by F S pp 119 and 120 (A Brethren publication of unknown origin. Only these two pages exist)
  5. Turning the World Upside Down, A Century of Missionary Endeavour (1972) Stunt, W T, et al, pub: Echoes of Service, Bath
  6. Missionary Echoes and Echoes of Service (1872 to 1911), pub: Echoes of Service, Bath
  7. A Woman Who Laughed (1934), Cable, M, and French, F pub: The China Inland Mission
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